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Full stable fiftieth: Motor Muster celebrates semi-centennial of Camaro, Cougar, Firebird

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Photo by Matt Litwin.

Nobody couldn’t have predicted that the stratospheric success of the 1965 Mustang would lead to direct competition: Everybody suddenly wanted a part of the youth market that Lee Iaccoca, Chase Morsey, and others at Ford had pinpointed. But, aside from the Barracuda, that competition wouldn’t arrive in earnest until the introduction of the Camaro, Firebird, and Cougar in September 1966, a date that The Henry Ford’s Motor Muster intends to commemorate with this year’s Motor Muster.

To be sure, the Mustang didn’t have the domestic sporting compact sedan market all to itself for those two and a half years. There’s the aforementioned Barracuda, which beat the Mustang to market by a couple weeks; AMC’s V-8-powered Rogue, which debuted as a mid-1966 model year car; and even Chevrolet’s Nova SS and the Corvair, the latter of which took a slightly more European approach to the segment. But the Mustang handily outsold them all combined; it outsold the Corvair by a margin of six to one and the entire Chevy II lineup by nearly that much.

“Let’s face it,” a Chevrolet spokesman told Sports Illustrated in the fall of 1966, “the other fellow showed everybody that the market exists for this type of car.”

The staff at General Motors didn’t merely sit on their thumbs, though. They conceived a two-prong approach that would at the same time expand the market for sporting compact cars and help ameliorate development costs. First, just as Ford based the Mustang off the compact Falcon, GM designers and engineers stripped the body off the updated Chevy II chassis they planned to introduce for 1968 and crafted a new long-hood-short-deck two-door body minus about three inches of wheelbase, about four and a half inches of overall length, and more than two inches of height.


Photo by Terry McGean.

Next came the marketing. Both Chevrolet and Pontiac would get versions of the car: Chevrolet’s would compete head-on with the Mustang in terms of price, equipment, and options; Pontiac’s would offer a little more prestige and a little more length at a higher price point. The latter took its Firebird name from a series of GM turbine-powered concept cars from the Fifties; the former initially took the name of Panther but switched to Camaro (a word loosely taken from the French word for comrade) on the car’s press introduction in June 1967.

Press introductions and on-sale dates came in September, but a challenger to the challengers also arose that month. Just as the Firebird represented a slightly more upscale Camaro, the Mercury Cougar represented a slightly more upscale Mustang. Longer and wider than its stablemate, the Cougar dispensed with the base six-cylinder engine for an all-V-8 lineup and added enough equipment to justify a price tag a couple hundred dollars more than the Firebird’s.


Photo by the author.

While the FoMoCo products came out ahead at the end of the year (Mustang over Camaro, 472,000 to 221,000; Cougar over Firebird, 151,000 to 83,000), the Mustang no longer enjoyed the same crushing dominance over its competition. Nor would the cars rival each other solely in the showroom over the next several years, with competition on SCCA’s Trans-Am circuit, on dragstrips across the country, and for honors such as Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year (which the Cougar took in 1967) and official pace car for the Indianapolis 500 (which the Camaro became in 1967).

Presumably most 50th anniversary celebrations for the Camaro, Cougar, and Firebird are set for next year, but The Henry Ford’s annual Motor Muster car show at Greenfield Village aims to celebrate the three next month, June 18-19. For more information about this year’s Motor Muster, visit