During the 1960s, economy, muscle and pony cars marked an important time in automobile history. General Motors, FordChrysler, and American Motors were the Big Three in the American automobile industry. These companies dominated the domestic market with the 1960s cars and the global market—American companies-built 93 percent of the cars sold in the United States and 48 percent worldwide in 1960. However, imports began to nibble into the rich American market, led by Volkswagen and followed by Fiat, Renault, Datsun (Nissan), and Hillman. With imports becoming more prevalent, Detroit’s Big Three created their small cars. The Big Three and AMC began producing American “compact” cars that saved gas. Corvair was GM’s six-cylinder rear engine vehicle. Chrysler developed the Valiant, while Ford developed the Falcon. In the 1950s, AMC’s Rambler was the first economy car. The car was the first to offer seat belts as an option. By 1962, the Big Three’s economy models dominated AMC’s customer base, eventually resulting in Rambler’s demise.
American consumers began to demand faster cars during the 1960s. This demand led to the development of the muscle car. A muscle car is usually a mid-sized car with a powerful V-8 engine. A Pontiac GTO sparked the muscle car craze in 1964. Manufacturers began producing their muscle cars after that. Among others, Ford introduced the Mustang, General Motors introduced the Camaro, and Dodge introduced the Charger.
These cars provided performance and speed at a reasonable price. Late in the 1970s, rising gas prices and stricter emissions regulations contributed to the decline of the Muscle Car Era. The 1958 Ford Thunderbird (second generation) was arguably the first luxury car with four seats that became a large part of the market. The Ford Mustang was the first pony car introduced in 1964. Despite its sporty looks, it had a small rear deck, a short hood, and a small rear seat. Several imitators of the Mustang, including the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Plymouth Barracuda (introduced two weeks before the Mustang), AMC Javelin, and the two-seat AMX, as well as the “luxury” version of the Mustang, the Mercury Cougar. Full-sized cars, helped by low oil prices, dominated auto sales in the 1960s, ahead of luxury, pony, and muscle cars. There was no emphasis on the styling excesses and technological gimmicks of the 1950s (such as the retractable hardtop and pushbutton automatic transmission). By the mid-1960s, the rear fins and excessive chrome were downsized and mostly gone.
The Vehicle Air Pollution and Control Act of 1965 and the Clean Air Act (United States) of 1963 made emission controls possible. During the early 1970s, leaded gasoline was banned, causing lower-compression engines to be used, which resulted in a reduction in horsepower and performance. By the mid-1970s, catalytic converters had become widely used. The 1970 Clean Air Act was designed to reduce automobile emissions by 90%, following senators’ frustration at the industry’s failure to comply with previous, weaker air laws during William Ruckelshaus’ first term as EPA administrator. 1972 marked the beginning of bumper reinforcement standards of 5 mph, which were revised in 1982.