Car Corner
The Demise of the Pony Cars

April 1, 1999
By Scott Lewis

Note: Last month I talked about how cheap gas was. It seems that was a bit premature. The gas station closest to my house has raised its prices somewhere between 15 and 20 cents a gallon since I wrote last months column. Oh well, I guess it couldn’t last forever. Though I was hoping it would last until after I supercharged my Camaro.

On to this month’s topic, the demise of the pony cars. With the recent release of the new Mustang Cobra with its independent rear suspension (IRS), I have to wonder if this isn’t a case of too little, too late. Ford has not yet committed to building the next "generation" Mustang. Neither has General Motors announced what its plans are for the Camaro & Firebird.

If you consider the lead-time necessary to build a car (usually 3 years or so, give or take a year) then the Camaro & Firebird have already been written off. The Mustang is close behind. GM has stated that the current f-bodies will be made through the 2001 model year, and Ford has said the Mustang will continue in its current form through 2002.

That’s two years for the Camaro/Firebird. You do the math. If they don’t have the plans for the next generation f-bodies now, they will not have the cars in 2002. Ford would need to have its plan ready about now, yet they haven’t announced anything.

GM is in the worst shape here. Not only do they lack a plan for the Camaro/Firebird twins, but they are selling so poorly that the Mustang is outselling both of them combined. If you were running GM would you spend the development time on a car that was selling fewer and fewer each year?

I find it amazing that the Mustang is outselling the Camaro. I have driven a 1994 Mustang GT. Although it is a good pony car, it loses to the Camaro/Firebird twins hands down in performance. With the increase to 260 horsepower for the 99 model year Ford is playing catch up. The GM boys have 305 hp. (This does not include the Camaro SS, the Firebird with Ram Air, and the Cobra Mustang all with 320 hp. These are limited editions that won’t effect total sales enough to determine the life of the entire model line.)

The numbers imply that performance is not the main buying point to these cars. Although I am starting to believe that, I don’t know why. Classically, the Mustang, Camaro and Firebird have been duking it out in the performance arena since the first f-bodies came off the assembly lines late in 1966 (1967 models). Through the 1970 model, they were neck and neck for the performance title. In 71 the Mustang got way overweight, though I really think the Boss 351 was a great car. Too bad they didn’t start using that engine sooner.

With the resurgence of performance in the early eighties, the Mustang kicked ass over the [then] sleek new f-bodies. And Ford kept the pressure on throughout the eighties and early nineties. Then the current f-bodies were released with the LT1 engine, and the tables were turned. The GM boys have held the title in the pony car performance wars ever since. But that is when the sales started declining.

Why? One reason I think is the "bad boy" image f-bodies have had over the years. A friend of mine’s father owns a Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealership. My friend was totally surprised that my Camaro did squeak and rattle when I took him for a ride (I picked him up the day I bought it). He told me that all Camaros has squeaks and rattles in the past, right on the showroom floor.

The f-bodies have a reputation that says performance is more important than quality. Now they are the performance champs. The Mustang has been praised for being better in its tight structure than any pony car in the past. And it is selling reasonably well. But still, Mustang sales are down quite a bit over the 1994 model year, when they came out with the current generation. What gives?

I think the dealers need to step up and take a lot of this blame. When I priced a 1998 Camaro, they were not willing to deal on the price because it was "new." New was the new headlight/grill arrangement and the awesome LS1, 305 hp motor. "They can just sell it to the next guy at full (or higher) price. Why discount it? After all, it will sell itself." No, it won’t. Dealers have this attitude, yet they don’t look at the numbers. In 1998 GM sold less than half the f-bodies it did 10 years before, and at least a 1/3 less than the 1993 model year when they really were new.

Only some of this can be blamed on the big GM strike. Numbers were down before the strike started, and weren’t going to go up with dealers asking more for these cars.

Ford is in the same boat. Their dealers go "ooh aha" over the "new" models, and stop discounting it. I remember when I bought my Explorer, there was a Mustang Cobra in the showroom. It was the first year for the double overhead cam, 305 horsepower engine. The car had that way cool "Mystic Metallic" paint job. It would change color while you looked at it.

The dealer had it marked up $7,000 over sticker price. Who is dumb enough to pay $32K for a $25K Mustang? The dealer tried to justify that markup partly because the paint supposedly cost $1,000 a gallon. So! Isn’t that already in the sticker price? Hello, McFly! This is a very big reason why pony car sales are down.

In case you want to know… I did not buy my Explorer from this dealer. Even though they were glad to deal on the price of the Explorer, I won’t do business with a dealership that would rip off, quite blatantly, some poor (rich?) sap for $7,000.

I regret that the pony car market is in the state it is. I bought a Camaro when they made them significantly better, and faster. I was looking forward to trading up at a later time for the latest, greatest. But my growing family will cause us to trade in the Explorer on a larger sport-ute, before I can trade in my Camaro. (Actually, I won’t trade in the Camaro since it is paid for. It is my first Camaro and I love it too much to ever part with it.)

I figure with the new house we are planning on building next year, we will trade the Explorer in the year after that. It would probably be 3 or 4 years before I will be ready to have two car payments again. By then I think the Camaro will be dead, and the Mustang will be fighting against being turned into a front wheel drive car again (fortunately it won that battle last time and the Probe was not a Mustang).

Here’s the deal. I like the new IRS Mustang Cobra. So… someone go out and buy one. It must have the manual transmission, and be a convertible. Color choices are bright yellow (if Ford offers that), otherwise bright red or mystic metallic. Pamper the car for 3 to 4 years, putting only 5000 (or less) miles per year on it. Then call me, and I will buy it from you at a fair price, definitely more than a dealer would give you on a trade.