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Race Wars

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On: Mon, May 24, 2010 at 9:18AM | By: Lou Ruggieri

Race Wars


In April of 1964 the country was in the midst of turmoil. African Americans were fighting for their right to live like everyone else and Lyndon B. Johnson's administration was trying to cope with increased economic pressure. Americans lived in a country divided. Riots, fights, hate crimes, and a nation at war with itself.  

That same month Ford made it easier than it had been for a long time to get away from the fighting with exactly what the country needed: A two-doored escape pod called the Mustang. Built from inauspicious Fairlane and Falcon DNA, Ford projected sales to be about 100,000 units in its first year. Whether it was due to a simple need for something new, or just the right cure for just the right itch, Mustang sales topped Ford's projection in less than four months. The Pony Car was born. Despite arguments that cars like the Chevy Corvair, Monza, the Ford Thunderbird, or the Dodge Dart were the beginning of this segment, it was the Mustang that caught America’s attention.

After almost three years of watching Ford rake in the dough, The General decided to launch an ‘inadvertent’ counterattack. GM had said that the Camaro was in the works before they even knew about the Mustang. But the timing of it was all too coincidental to not have been seen as a direct shot aimed squared at Dearborn. In September of 1966 the Camaro roared onto the scene with a bigger engine, stronger suspension, and more muscle. All at once GM made the country just a little more divisive, just as the riots were calming down and it seemed peace and love were all you needed. The Pony Car war had begun.  

Since that declaration of war by The General, the country has at least improved itself in terms of granting all of its citizens their unalienable rights. However, the war over boulevard supremacy would rage on for the next five decades. People have been squaring off on the streets, at the tracks, at car shows, in parking lots, on internet forums, and at bars everywhere across the country. Although many would argue the scoreboard is drastically in favor of one side or the other, if one were to tally up the victories in terms of new models, it might be closer than either side would think. The following is a brief historical rundown of where these two foes stand, and just how they got there, point by point:

The 1964.5 Mustang scored the very first point for more or less introducing the breed. Although there were other cars in the mix, the Mustang was the blockbuster that really got America to notice this very new, very exciting segment. It was sporty, and appealed to both sexes. It had a low introductory cost of about $2,400 that made it affordable to the masses, young and old alike. The earliest cars used a powerful enough 260 cubic inch 164hp engine, and then bumped up the engine to a much more capable 289 cubic inch engine, and that was offered in various forms ranging from 200-306 horsepower powered by either a 3-speed auto or 3- or 4-speed manual transmission.

Mustang 1 Camaro 0

The 1967-69 Camaro scores a point for creating a bigger, stronger, faster pony. It differentiated itself enough to be its own car, but at the same time made no mistake that its sights were set squarely at Ford. The execution of the first Camaro was much more aggressive than the Mustang, and with a 327, 350, or eventually a 396 cubic inch engine with horsepower ratings from 200-375 for the V8s, the Camaro had plenty of bite to go along with its nasty bark.

Mustang 1 Camaro 1

The 1970-81 model Camaro scores another point for creating a lighter, sleeker machine than the one it replaced. Although the seventies, as a whole, were no good for horsepower, the early Camaros helped the nameplate keep its rep as an ‘almost Vette’. With V8 engine choices ranging from a 307-396 cubic inches and advertised gross horsepower ratings of 245-330, the Camaro was still a force to be reckoned with at the drag strip, even during the dark days of the automotive world.

Mustang 1 Camaro 2

Although the Mustang did change models in the 1974-78 model years, it gains no points for it. The sales were enormous at about 386,000, but it seemed like the biggest sale was that of the Mustang selling out. In 1974 the Mustang was not available with a V8 engine. It gave up the fight for drag strip dominance and tried to be something it was not. The Mustang II, as it was now called, tried to compete with smaller imports, yet it weighed more than the original 1964 car due to new safety regulations. Though there was a Cobra II in 1976, and then a King Cobra model in 1978, performance was all but pathetic. When the V8 made its return in 1975, it produced only 140hp out of 302 cubic inches.

Mustang 1 Camaro 2

The Mustang scores a big point for the creation of the 1979-1993 Fox body that would become the first cult car to hit the streets in almost a decade. The '5.0' was reborn during this iteration and everyone that was seriously into racing either had, or knew someone that had, a Mustang with Trick Flow heads, an E303 cam or, at least, a sweet sounding set of Flowmasters. The new design was more aggressive, lighter, and better balanced than the imposter posing as a Mustang in the late 70s. 1982 was the first year for the 5-speed transmission. 1986 brought fuel injection to the Pony for the first time and horsepower climbed up to a peak of 225 in 1992.

Mustang 2 Camaro 2

Chevy was not to be outdone, however, when it launched one of its most famous (or infamous) models, the 1982-92. Most would remember it by the 'IROC' designation to some of its models. Many fun options like fuel injection and the B4C or 'police' package helped the Camaro score big points with the Chevy faithful. Horsepower rose steadily from 145 in 1982 up to 245 for the L98 V8 in 1992. Ironically enough, the Camaro’s main engine also displaced the same five liters as the Mustang, but the infatuation never stuck with the GM version. Although not nearly as lusted after as the Ford 5.0, the Camaro did sell very well and kept Chevy owners racing with pride.

Mustang 2 Camaro 3

Then Chevy changed the game with its fourth generation 1993-2002 Camaro. These were the most powerful, fastest Camaros to date. With the advent of first the 275hp LT1, then the 285hp LT4 in 1996, and, finally, the world-class aluminum block 28mpg (highway) 305-325hp LS1 for its final four years, the Camaro outmatched its rival in almost every stock versus stock race. But despite its overwhelming brute force on the track, Camaro sales dropped to the point of no longer being a viable commodity in the eyes of The General. Oversized doors, an aging solid axle, and the steepest racked windshield on a production car all made the Camaro a lot less livable as a daily driver. So GM made the unthinkable decision that hurt the hearts and souls of so many loyal followers: It seemed that in 2002 the war had ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Mustang 2 Camaro 4

Ford was not content to sit on its haunches however. In 1994 it changed models to its 'SN-95' designation. The car was more muscular than the boxy look it replaced. 1996 brought the replacement of the 5.0 in the form of a new modular 4.6 liter single overhead cam motor that was met with less than exuberant responses due to its less torque-laden 215 initial horsepower. The model then changed slightly in 1999 with a much more angular restyle and a beefier motor that started at 260hp for the GT.

The big news was that after thirty-five model years the Chevy had hung up the gloves and threw in the towel just as Ford came out with their biggest, meanest stock mass production Mustang: The 2003-04 supercharged 390hp Cobra.

Mustang 3 Camaro 4

In 2005 the Mustang changed again, harking back to the late 60s. The base GT was upped to 300hp with a similar modular motor as the previous model years, but now used variable camshaft timing. It also offered a glass roof as an option and an optional five-speed 5R55S automatic transmission. All was quiet on the battlefield though, as the only true pony car still standing was the Mustang. Camaro faithful could race only what they had bought years before. In some cases the aging LS1 still held its ground and proved itself a powerful adversary, but the arguments grew more and more one-sided in favor of the more and more modern Ford. Camaro owners were racking up the miles on aging platforms, while new Mustangs were showing up at every track and parking lot across the country.

Mustang 4 Camaro 4

In 2009, seven years after its apparent demise, the Camaro rose from the grave and roared back on the scene as a 2010 model with a 426hp LS3, six gears (auto or manual), xenon headlights and 20 inch wheels. The design of the new car went straight at the Mustang, harking back to the early days of battle, with an incredibly aggressive stance and exhaust note to match. The war was on once again and every horsepower junky in America rejoiced.

Mustang 4 Camaro 5

Ford’s newest pony isn’t exactly a horse of a different color. But given the fact that 2010 brought a substantial facelift and now 2011 will bring a complete drivetrain overhaul, Ford scores a big point for effort. It seems Ford doesn’t want to let its champion steed forever stay in the shadow of the General’s thoroughbred. The 5.0 makes a triumphant return to battle, this time as a more sophisticated weapon than its previous iteration (think Stealth Bomber versus WWII tank) with 32 overhead valves, 26 highway mpg and 412 angry horsepower. All of this mated to the first 6-speed transmission for the GT.

Mustang 5 Camaro 5

It has been four-and-a-half decades of fighting between the Mustang and the Camaro. Seven new faces have appeared in the White House, each striving to leave the country a more peaceful place than when they took it over. The most powerful man in America today would have been fighting for his right to vote when the Mustang and Camaro first squared off in the showrooms and on the tracks.

Yet the Pony Car War rages on. Each side has amassed a loyal and very faithful following that would almost never cross over to the other side. And, although every time a Mustang races a Camaro there will be a loser in that battle, everyone wins in terms of the war. Having a nemesis not only keeps the breed strong, it helps the owners of those cars define who they are as people. War and fighting may be the answer when it comes to national civil rights, but when it comes to a street light fight, there’s nothing better.

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