Mustang vs. Camaro

We have lots of classic cars here at Simple Pleasures.  These often serve as backdrops (or sometimes as moving props) for our special events.  But they sometimes serve as an instigator of passionate “discussions” between car lovers.  We don’t think we will settle the Mustang vs. Camaro debate today, but we thought we would acquaint those of you less familiar with the battle some basic background.

What could be more American than the half-century old battle between two Detroit legends, the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro?  The Mustang debuted in 1964, rocking the sports car world with its ravishing new sex appeal and V-8 performance…and record-breaking sales numbers.  Chevy responded in 1967 with the Camaro, a blue collar, no-nonsense back alley bruiser.  Both were intended to be racing cars built for speed, but still production cars living life on Main Street, USA.  Both succeeded.

For the July 1968 issue of Car and Driver magazine, both cars were pitted head to head in a series of tests:

“It’s a damn shame to have to put either the Mustang or the Camaro in second, which is to say last, place. Both are easily the most exciting machines we’ve ever driven with price tags less than $10,000 and by far the best performing street cars ever. But there is a certain inevitability about the results of a comparison test so the Camaro gets the nod. …

In defense of the Mustang, … we were allowed to keep [it] for several days after the test. It went rumbling and grunting by a Little League baseball game—and broke the whole thing up in the top of the third. The kids had to see what that fire-breathing monster was about. And when we passed a house with a GT350 in the driveway along about 7 p.m. the dining room erupted and people poured out windows, doors and chimneys. That’s the effect it had. The Mustang even behaved impeccably in one of New York’s patented traffic jams. Every kid on the block had to have a ride in it and wives stood around kind of hoping to fill their prom cards.”

Both had their appeal and their place, and the fierce competition between the two launched what many consider to be the golden age of American muscle cars.  For several years, both cars were upgraded and tweaked in an effort to squeak out more power and better performance.  Both were hardcore racing cars hiding under the guise of a street machine that any family could — and would, happily — purchase.  They were the subject of many late night bar brawls, and no small number of street races for bragging rights.  Unfortunately, the government intervened in the early 1970s, slapping regulations onto the automobile industry that throttled much of their power and allure.

The early- to mid-80s saw a slight resurgence in both brands, though neither was able to recapture the mystique (or relative performance) of the golden age.  Both limped along for years, striving for but never quite attaining their previous lofty status.  The Camaro was retired in 2002.

But sometimes lightning can strike twice.  Ford revamped the Mustang in 2005, deliberately designing it to recapture the look of the original pony car, but with some modern refinements, and it worked.  So well, in fact, that Chevy brought out a retro/modern Camaro in 2010.  Perhaps most importantly, both cars had the performance to back up the looks, and that re-ignited both sales and the imagination of a new generation of American car lovers.  Both cars now sport a 420+ horsepower V-8 engine, but there are other versions, as well.  Both cars have lower price point models with V-6 engines that still have enough power to make them feel like a real sports car, as well as tricked-out 600hp beasts built for speed, speed, and more speed, with a dash of powerful speed on the side.  Ironically, Car and Driver recently said this about the newest iteration of the venerable pair:

In late-night barroom discussions, the [Chevy Camaro ZL1] will forever lose to the [Ford Mustang Shelby] GT500. An 82-hp deficit will do that, even for a car with more output than a Nissan GT-R. That the Camaro comes track-ready, with all fluid coolers included for $56,295, makes little difference. It’s a testament to the Shelby’s power that it makes the Camaro feel slow, and in a side-by-side race the ZL1 is slow. By 150 mph, the GT500 opens up a 4.1-second gap.

But if it were only about straight-line acceleration, we would take our fallout-shelter time machine back to the ’60s and stay there. And it’s nearly a dead heat in other performance metrics …

…the ZL1 delivers a more involving driving experience than the Shelby. That this is an about-face from previous Camaro SS–versus–Mustang GT tests is not lost on us. … The steering responds to corners with properly modulated, steadily mounting weight, and the front end is more responsive than the Shelby’s. In the ZL1, all the controls are fine-tuned and well matched. … In contrast to the Shelby, the Camaro does almost everything with more refinement and with more empathy for its driver. One’s a gorilla, the other’s a racehorse. Which one would you rather ride? …

Admittedly, creature comforts are not the primary aim of these cars, but the ZL1’s unstressed vibe enhances the driving experience. It’s more relaxed and approachable, and ultimately more fun to drive.

At the end of the day, it is highly unlikely there will be any Mustang lover who falls for the new Camaro or vice versa.  When it comes to cars — especially American muscle cars — preference seems to be more in a person’s DNA than anything else, and no amount of argument or debate is going to persuade anyone of anything.  That’s okay.  The bottom line is that these legendary icons are alive and well, and that the argument and debate continue.

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