We’re here to help if you’ve ever felt out of your depth when someone mentioned a supercar, a pony car, or even just a sports car.
Words change their meaning with time, and the same is true of the definitions of high-performance specialized cars, whose names are evolving and whose upper limit continues to rise thanks to technological advancements. Furthermore, as mainstream models morph into crossover SUV versions, the lines between the definitions of the surviving cars for enthusiasts are blurring.
It’s helpful to think about where these distinct automotive terminologies came from and where they’ve ended up now to comprehend them. Here’s what you need to know about sports cars, muscle cars, pony cars, supercars, and hypercars.
What is the definition of a sports car?
There was the sports vehicle at the beginning. Or, as some motorcycle aficionados refer to some models as “sportbikes,” there was a period when race-inspired four-wheelers were referred to as “sports cars” by persons like Carroll Shelby.
Sports cars were a post-World War II evolution of minimalist automobiles meant for slicing corners on Europe’s and Britain’s tiny, twisting roadways. The MG TC, a front-engine, rear-drive roadster with only two seats and no amenities, was the best example of them.
The TC looks more like farm equipment today than a car designed for speedy transportation, yet it was nearly a stand-up Jet Ski in comparison to the lumbering everyday cars of the 1940s. These amusing toys were discovered and sent home by American soldiers serving in Europe during WWII and the Cold War.
The Sports Car Club of America was created in 1944, and the group’s logo is still based on the image of a wire-spoked wheel like the one featured on the MG TC. Manufacturers created closed-roof versions of their two-seat roadsters that nevertheless seemed to qualify as “sports cars” over the decades, putting strain on the definition of “sports car.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Chevrolet Corvette, dubbed “America’s sports car,” was only available with a closed roof. Because there was an unwritten corollary to the definition of a sports car that the name suggested a small-displacement engine whose modest weight would contribute to the car’s agility, the Corvette was always an exception. Sports car enthusiasts became increasingly wary of the Corvette as its optional engines expanded to include big-block V8s and hard-top variants outsold drop-top ‘Vettes.
What are your thoughts on the Porsche 911? Porsche began with two-seaters, but with the 1964 Porsche 911, the company launched a range of fun-to-drive coupes with a back seat. Is it a sports car or not? This was the topic of much debate. After all, it’s a Porsche, so it must be a sports vehicle. But it didn’t even have a convertible top (which came in the 1980s), and it had a back seat! What should I do? As wire-wheel roadster purists faded into the background, the 911 was eventually admitted to the exclusive sports car club.
These are the forces that have pushed the definition of “sports car” beyond its specific definition of the two-seat roadster to embrace a broader range of cars that are fun to drive. Automobiles such as the BMW Z4, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Porsche 718 Boxster are examples of these today.
What is the definition of a muscle car?
Muscle cars may be traced back to a precise point in time: the fall of 1963 when the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO was introduced. The car was designed by John Z. DeLorean, a Pontiac chief engineer whose eponymous car would later add to further muddying the definition of the phrase “sports car” before appearing in Back to the Future.
The Pontiac Tempest was a mid-size automobile, and DeLorean designed it to receive Pontiac’s large-displacement big block 383 cubic-inch V8 from the company’s full-size cars, giving it the maximum power feasible in a smaller vehicle. The GTO, which would go on to become its model, shamelessly ripped off the name of a well-known sports car, the Ferrari 250 GTO. The initials stood for “Grand Tourismo Omologato,” a reference to the model’s creation to allow a higher-performance version of the 250 to compete in sports car races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Pontiac GTO’s drivers were mainly interested in brief bursts of acceleration through the quarter-mile, which was the car’s strength. In the 1960s, putting a massive V8 into a typical American sedan was not a prescription for handling response. The popularity of the Pontiac GTO prompted other American automakers to reply with their muscle cars. The 1969 Dodge Charger is a well-known example of a vintage muscle car, best known for its TV star turn as the orange-painted General Lee retired stock car of The Dukes of Hazzard.
Its descendants, the Dodge Charger and Challenger, are the only remaining true muscle cars, yet because lines are blurring, pony cars like the Mustang and Camaro are increasingly being placed into the muscle car category.
What is a pony vehicle, exactly?
Pony cars were born from a single model, and the category’s name is a clear reference to it. On April 17, 1964, the 1964 Ford Mustang made its premiere at the New York World’s Fair, and its phenomenal success ushered in an entirely new category of pony cars. On the same day, Ford dealers around the country took the covers off the cars and sold 22,000 Mustangs. The first year of manufacturing saw over 400,000 vehicles produced.
Other manufacturers took notice and replied with their Mustangs, resulting in the pony car category. (A mustang is a breed of horse.) (Did you get it?) In the fall of 1966, Ford’s Mercury subsidiary introduced the Cougar, while the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird also debuted as 1967 models.
Ford’s pattern was simple to follow: the Mustang was constructed on the Falcon’s small platform. The underpinnings remained the same, but the body was restyled into a rakish coupe with a tall hood implying huge power and a tight, athletic trunk hinting agility.
At first, the Mustang, like the Falcon, was not a road-burner. However, pony cars ultimately began to cash the cheques that their styling was writing, gaining both power and handling.
Pony cars were so popular that, unlike muscle vehicles, they expanded to other companies as well, with the production of the Ford Capri in Europe, which was imported to America as a Mercury model, the Toyota Celica, and the Opel Manta, among others.
The Mustang and Camaro remain, but the category, like the coupe segment in general, has dwindled. While foreign pony cars have all but vanished, several of their newer models are strikingly similar. The BMW M4 and Lexus RC may both be considered honorary members, even if their owners would never contemplate buying a Mustang or believe their cars to be similar.
So, how can you tell a sports vehicle apart from a muscle car or a pony car? Because the definitions are not as strict as they formerly were, a car can fall into more than one category. The Mustang Shelby GT500, for example, features sports car agility, pony car styling, and a double-date back seat, and muscle car power beneath the hood. However, to determine its major category, consider the car’s origins and ask yourself which group it most closely resembles.
If it’s a two-seater, you’re in the realm of sports cars. The more practical the back seat is, and the more powerful the engine is, the closer you are to muscle car territory. In the case of pony cars, consider this: Was the nameplate created in the 1960s to fill a void? Then there’s the pony automobile.
What is a supercar, exactly?
The 1966 Frankfurt Motor Show saw the launch of a sultry new mid-engine V12 sports automobile from Italian tractor-maker Lamborghini. The beautiful Miura was the world’s fastest automobile at the time, according to the company, with a top speed of 175 mph and a 0-62 mph acceleration time of 6.7 seconds.
It was a two-seater, similar to a sports car, and it cornered as if on rails. It did, however, have a V12 engine that delivered muscle car-like performance. As a result, a new category, the supercar, was born. Lamborghini followed up the Miura with the even more outlandish Countach, a car that graced the walls of adolescent bedrooms for more than a decade before being replaced by the 1992 McLaren F1. That car had a max speed of 240 mph, which was a world record.
Supercars are now built by well-known manufacturers like Ferrari, McLaren, and Lamborghini, as well as newcomers like Pagani and Koenigsegg, as well as popular challengers like the Ford GT and Chevrolet Corvette. Although the engine cylinder count is reduced, these automobiles use the same mid-engine design as cars from long-standing brands in this category.
Supercars typically cost over a quarter of a million dollars and have 500 horsepower or more, but the Corvette defies expectations with its $60,000 starting price. Because of its 495 horsepower, it gets an asterisk.
What is a hypercar, exactly?
In response to the profusion of mere supercars, hypercars have emerged. Even exotic vehicle manufacturers wanted halo models to elevate their names beyond their competitors’, resulting in a category of automobiles that now cost a million dollars or more and have 1,000 horsepower or more.
In 2005, the million-dollar, thousand-horsepower, 253-mph, quad-turbocharged W16-powered Bugatti Veyron set the norm for hypercars, and its successor, the $3 million, 1,500-horsepower, 304-mph Chiron, continues to set the standard today. Another was the limited-edition, electric-boost McLaren P1, as well as the hybrid-electric V12 Ferrari LaFerrari.
The simultaneous collapse of the market for coupes and convertibles, as well as the increased performance and handling capability of models of all shapes and sizes, has confused the waters.
The Mustang is Ford’s claim to fame as the world’s best-selling sports car, with sales comparable to the Porsche 911. The BMW Z4, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Porsche 718 Boxster are probably the best examples of pure sports cars left, with plenty of power and back seats.
And, in Shelby GT500 form, the Mustang produces an incredible 760 horsepower, firmly establishing it as a muscle car in comparison to the Dodge Challenger Hellcat, which is also classified as a muscle car.
It’s unclear where these definitions will go from here, but with the shift to electric power and crossover SUV body shapes, they may all wind up in the same graveyard of defunct automotive phrases as “shooting brake” and “dual-cowl phaeton.”