It's the year 1968 and the second-generation Ford Mustang takes on the recently released Pontiac Firebird.
Comparing two sports cars is always a challenge. But when it comes to two iconic American muscle cars like the 1968 Ford Mustang and the 1968 Pontiac Firebird it goes from a comparison to a heated debate. With that said, don't expect an "unbiased comparison" between the two cars. In a subject like this, objectivity is an illusion.
Many believe that the legendary 1964 Pontiac GTO was the first muscle car in production. However, the credit for making popular a new class known as "pony cars" belongs to Ford, who that same year launched a vehicle that would change the US market forever. The 1964 Mustang.
So we begin this comparison with a truth that might be uncomfortable for some. The Ford Mustang, since its inception in 1964, has always been the opponent to beat. In fact, it was the staggering commercial success of the Mustang that prompted GM to ramp up the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. That is how in 1967 the first Pontiac Firebird made its entry into the American pony car market along with other competitors such as the AMC Javelin, and the second-generation Plymouth Barracuda.
This marks an important starting point for our comparison. It's the year 1968 and the second-generation Ford Mustang takes on the recently released Pontiac Firebird.
When it comes to pony cars, power is a top priority. In this sense, Pontiac did not hesitate to use its entire arsenal to dethrone the Ford Mustang. The standard 175-hp six-cylinder engine, as well as its 215-hp "Sprint" version, were aimed at people concerned about the fuel consumption (something like 10% of potential buyers back then). The rest of the options were obviously V8 engines.
Pontiac offered the venerable 350 cu in and 265 hp L30 engine as the first V8 variant. This "entry-level" V8 literally destroyed almost all the options offered by Ford. Let's be honest. Back then, GM's small blocks dominated almost all Ford-produced engines, including some big-blocks.
Still, Pontiac wasn't going to give Ford a chance.
It is for this reason that it also offered an "improved" version of the L30 for that year, the L76 included in the Pontiac H.O. that produced 320 hp. Just for reference, the 1968 Ford Mustang needed a big-block engine (the 390 CID) to achieve that kind of power. Sadly for Ford, that was only half of the options available for the 68' Firebird.
In addition to the L76, Pontiac offered other variations of its successful small block engines. A total of four engines with 400 cu in displacement were available. The 330-hp W66, the 335-hp L67 (Ram Air option), the L74 H.O. 335 hp, and the 340 hp L67 (Ram Air II). For its part, the most powerful Ford engine that could be installed in production Mustangs was the aforementioned 390 CID FE big block that produced "only" 325 hp.
Summing up, Pontiac hit the Ford Mustang where it hurt the most. In his dignity. The question is, was that enough to end the Mustang's reign as America's favorite pony car?
No, it was not. Ford had learned a thing or two since the Mustang was launched four years earlier. And it had cleverly implemented enhancements that would make the second-generation Mustang the benchmark for all other manufacturers.
While it is true that the 1968 Ford Mustang was no match for the Pontiac Firebird in terms of power, it certainly surpassed it in other areas. Two of the most notable were handling and style. From the beginning, the Mustang was designed as a unique car. Compact but competent. Sporty but comfortable and stylish. A perfect combination of attributes that made it a fun car to drive both in the city and on the highway.
It was its personality and not its power output, that kept the Mustang ahead of its competition.
As GM, AMC, and Chrysler focused on creating performance-oriented cars Ford understood that what the public really wanted was a sports car that they could use on a daily basis. It is for this reason that from its inception the Mustang was offered in coupe, convertible, and fastback versions. It wasn't all about horsepower. The ride quality, the stylish cabin options, and the sheer number of exterior options made the Mustang a mix of a sedan, station wagon, and sports car. That said, Ford was very smart in its marketing strategy. Ford knew it couldn't make the Mustang look bad in terms of performance. That is why it associated itself with a legend like Carroll Shelby.
The "Ford" Mustang was a product aimed at the general public. Now if what you really wanted was an extremely powerful Mustang you could go further and order a special edition. Yes, a special edition, something like the 1968 Shelby GT500 "King of the Road" Cobra Jet producing 435 hp and over 440 lb-ft of torque.
It was in this way that Ford managed to get the best of both worlds, a high-performance version of the Mustang that the Firebird could not beat and at the same time the versions of the Mustang intended for the general public.
As is often the case with comparisons, it all comes down to the subjective perspective of each individual.
Here at Mechanic Superstore, we are divided. Some of us are drawn to the unmistakable styling of the Ford Mustang, while others find the brutal power of the Pontiac Firebird a deciding factor.
What's your take on it? Mustang or Firebird?
Regardless of your answer, we sincerely hope that you enjoyed this short tour through the history of these two American legends. And in case you are the lucky owner of any of these iconic cars, know that you will always be welcome at Mechanic Superstore to discuss this and other heated arguments of the automotive industry. Leave your opinion below!