The Ford versus Chevy rivalry is the automotive equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox, but as with Major League Baseball, the players change from season to season. As technology and designs rapidly change, today’s Fusions and Malibus have little to do with their predecessors.
That is, except for two very special cars: The Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro. These rear-wheel drive, four-seat muscle cars have been battling it out almost continuously since 1967, keeping American performance alive and igniting scores of street races, family feuds and bar fights.
Here’s a blow-by-blow look at the historic and modern Mustang vs. Camaro rivalry.
In the early ‘60s, Ford decided to build a cheap, sporty car to attract younger buyers. Ford product czar Lee Iacocca decided to re-skin the dowdy Falcon and give it an equine name shared with a famous World War II fighter plane. The Mustang debuted at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964 as a “1964 1/2″ model.
The car was an unqualified success, becoming the fastest selling vehicle in history. It even created it own niche: the small four-seat American performance coupe soon became known as the “pony car.”
Seeing the blazing success of the Mustang, competitor General Motors wasn’t about to let Ford have the segment all to itself. In 1967, it launched a pony car of its own: the Camaro, and its Pontiac Firebird twin.
The two cars were perfect rivals. While quite roomy by modern standards, they both passed for compact cars at the time. They both also relied on sporty styling and optional V8 engines to excite buyers. It was a winning formula.
The Mustang and Camaro arrived on the scene during the golden age of American muscle cars. With so many cheap cars sporting powerful V8 engines, the mid-to-late 1960s was a great time to have a driver’s license.
Cobra creator Carroll Shelby thought the Mustang was a “secretary’s car,” but Ford was still able to convince him to work his magic on one, creating the GT350 and, later, the more powerful GT500. The Shelby name still graces today’s GT500 Mustang.
Chevy came out of the gate with the 350-cubic-inch Camaro SS (Super Sport) in 1967, but unlike Ford it mostly relied on its own dealers to build high performance Camaros. Thanks to a policy loophole known as the Central Office Production Order (COPO), dealers could custom order purpose-built performance cars.
Yenko Chevrolet of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania put L72 427-cubic-inch V8s in its cars, creating the legendary Yenko Camaros. A few Camaro ZL-1s with all-aluminum racing 427 V8s also left the factory under the COPO scheme.
Ford stuck a racing engine of its own into the 1969 Boss 429. To qualify for NASCAR, Ford needed to put a few of its massive 429-cubic-inch engines in production cars. The Mustang got the nod – even though it never raced in NASCAR.
Capping off a decade of performance was the SCCA Trans Am road racing series, where Mustang Boss 302s and Camaro Z/28s competed head-to-head on the track, while slightly civilized street versions competed in showrooms. As the old saying goes, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
But the good times did not last. In the early 1970s, a confluence of safety regulations, buzz-killing insurance companies and an Arab Oil Embargo made sure than “fun” was the last thing on the minds of America’s car designers.
That was as true for the Mustang and Camaro as it was for any other cars. In 1974, Ford moved the once-proud Mustang to the lowly Pinto’s platform, renaming the homely result the “Mustang II.” There were even tasteless Cobra II and King Cobra models that hoped to recapture the magic of the ‘60s with stickers and chrome wheels. Nobody was fooled.
Chevy did a little better, launching a redesigned Camaro on a dedicated platform in 1970. However, this second generation Camaro stuck around until 1981, becoming quite long in the tooth.
The ‘70s were such a dark time that it took over two decades to restore the Mustang’s and Camaro’s reputations.
The slow ascent began when Ford debuted the “Fox body” Mustang in 1979. This blocky stallion turned the Mustang back into a performance car and is still a popular choice with hot rodders thanks to its “5.0 High Output” (actually 4.9-liter) V8.
Chevy finally redesigned the Camaro for the 1982 model year and added a popular performance model of its own: the IROC-Z (above). Introduced in 1985, it was named after the International Race of Champions, a sort of all-star racing series that pitted famous drivers from different disciplines against each other in identical cars.
Neither of the ‘80s pony cars had the performance to match their ‘60s forebears, but things were definitely looking up. Despite an attempt to move the Mustang to a front-wheel drive platform (which became the Ford Probe), performance steadily improved throughout the 1990s.
After restoring the Mustang’s credibility with models like the 5.0-powered GT and the fire-breathing SVT Cobra, Ford realized the car was still missing something: classic styling.
In 2005, the Mustang was redesigned to look like something straight out of 1965 but with some modern updates.
History then seemed to repeat itself: Chevy had retired the Camaro in 2002, but then brought out a similarly retro-looking car for the 2010 model year.
Today’s interpretations of the Mustang and Camaro also have the performance to back up their looks. Naturally, both cars offer V8s: Ford has the 5.0-liter Mustang GT with 420 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, Chevy has the 6.2-liter Camaro SS with 426 hp and 420 lb-ft.
Even the base V6 models, traditionally the purview of rental fleets and retirees, can set the heart aflutter. The Mustang has a 3.7-liter engine with 305 hp and 280 lb-ft, while the Camaro has a 3.6-liter mill with 323 hp and 278 lb-ft.
There are also some headline acts with familiar names. The 21st century Ford Shelby GT500 has a 5.8-liter supercharged V8 with 662 hp, 631 lb-ft, and a claimed top speed of 202 mph. Ford also revived the Boss 302 for the 2011 model year as a stripped-down, track focused performance car.
In the Chevy camp is the Camaro ZL1, sporting a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 (based on the engine from the Corvette ZR1) with 580 hp and 556 lb-ft. It also has GM’s trick magnetorheological shock absorbers for adjustable ride options.
For 2014, Chevy is also bringing back the Camaro Z/28. This new iteration of the classic Trans Am racer has a 7.0-liter V8 with 500 hp and 470 lb-ft. It’s also stripped of amenities (and weight) like air conditioning, sound deadening, and an audio system. Talk about hardcore.
With a full lineup of sporty models on both sides, the Mustang-Camaro rivalry is as intense as ever. Hopefully it will stay that way.
Upping the game
Of course, in the 21st century the Mustang and Camaro have to do more than compete against each other. With carmakers and car buyers looking at things from an increasingly globalized perspective, Ford decided to give the Mustang a more relevant redesign for its 50th anniversary.
The 2015 Ford Mustang was unveiled in late 2013, and features radically new styling that ditches most of the retro cues, but is still recognizable to Mustang fans. Ford is taking a risk by making a car that isn’t an obvious homage to the classic ’60s ponies, but nothing stays the same forever.
Underneath the skin, the changes are equally substantial.
For the first time, all Mustang models feature independent rear suspension, ensuring that the 2015 version will be able to do more than drive in a straight line. It will also be offered with a new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine, the first four-banger in a Mustang since 1993. Naturally, the 5.0-liter V8 is still available, while the 3.7-liter V6 returns as the base engine.
Just as it did with the original 1964-1/2 and retro-reinvigorated 2005 models, Ford is redefining the rules of engagement when it comes to performance cars. Now it’s time for Chevy to fire back. Will the next Camaro be up to the task?
Ford vs. Chevy: which side are you on? Tell us your pony car love story in the comments.
UPDATE: We added information and a few photos of the all-new 2015 Ford Mustang, which was unveiled after the original version of this article was published.