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Performance pony cars for 1971

1971 'Cuda 440 in GY3 Curious Yellow
1971 'Cuda 440 in GY3 Curious Yellow

The 1971-73 Mustang has never had much appeal to me (especially the 1973s), partly because their nose lacks the style that the earlier ones’. I can imagine that stylists were influenced by the nose of the 1969-70 Shelby, but the ’71 fastback is a bulkier, overstyled pony car that reflected the new values of the 1970s.

This Grabber Blue Boss 351 is like the car that I briefly saw at the intersection.

Nineteen seventy-one was a good year to be a pony car fan. That was the year the whole market was fresh with debuts or pony cars that were introduced the year before. It was an ironic time because manufacturers were producing modern performance vehicles that clearly were not stuck in the 1960s yet the specialty car market was shrinking rapidly – GM almost discontinued its F-bodies, and Chrysler decided to stretch its E-bodies through 1974 despite poor sales.

So, in a fresh market, which one would you have bought?

I got to thinking this while out on a jaunt to the movie theater late in the evening a few days ago. I approached an intersection and saw the unmistakable nose of a 1971 Mustang sticking out. My headlights reflected on the silver stripes, making them look black upon the Grabber Blue paint. Wow, a Boss 351 in what may be the coolest color combo for these cars! The movie was starting soon so I had no time to linger and see if he’d catch up to me. These cars have never interested me, instead looking like a second-rate 1969-70 Shelby, but if I try to reconfigure my brain to the zeitgeist of the time, it can be quite a racing-looking car. That Grabber Blue car made an imprint on my brain to the point that if I was a kid, I’d dream of that car, even though the 1971-73 Mustang has never had much appeal to me (especially the 1973s).

But there were so many other choices in 1971 – here’s the run-down for the pony car fans:


After three years of Javelins and AMXs, AMC came back with a redesigned Javelin that in reality was a heavily facelifted version of the previous-generation car. The two-seater AMX was now gone, replaced by a performance package for the Javelin. Like the new Mustang, the Javelin seems to have been influenced by contemporary race cars of the time, with exaggerated front wheel arches and rear haunches that gave the Javelin a broad-shouldered look. An integrated roof spoiler was an evolution from an accessory from 1969.

Mark Donohue, AMC’s Trans-Am driver, assisted with some styling features, especially the Javelin AMX’s flat grille cover for the Javelin’s fancy inset grille. The Javelin AMX also came with a cowl induction hood that was functional with the Go Package.

Things got interesting under the hood with the 360, which was a carry-over from 1970. The 390 from 1968-70 was put to pasture, replaced by a 330-horse 401. This would be the biggest motor ever installed in an AMC pony car.


The redesigned Camaro debuted mid-year in 1970, but there were a few detail changes for 1971. As the most European of the redesigned pony cars, it fuselage-like body (with apologies to Chrysler) looked lower and leaner despite having the same wheelbase and length as the previous generation’s. Even with the abbreviated 1970 model year, there were enough changes for 1971 to give the Camaro its own unique flavor, such as high-back bucket seats, the three-piece D80 spoiler (previously a COPO item), new mag wheels, and new colors. As before, there were two flavors of Camaro, with the base receiving a conventional front bumper while the Rally Sport had minimalist front bumperettes and a grille surrounded by the Endura material made famous by Pontiac. The performance Super Sport continued but by now the Z/28 was starting to take over in popularity.

Compression was lowered across the board at GM for 1971, so the base SS 350 put out 270 horsepower, down from 300; the SS 396 was only available as a 300-horse 402, down from 350 and 375 horses. The Z/28 with its LT1 350 was down from 360 to 330 horsepower.

The Camaro may have been the most revolutionary of the new-gen pony cars in its time, but its popularity follows the first-gen Camaro. It’s the second-gen’s duration – 1970 through 1982 – that has maintained its popularity but, aside of the Z/28, the 1971 Camaro doesn’t seem to arouse the interest of Chevy folks.


With the introduction of the Challenger in 1970, Dodge finally had a serious pony car contender, and if sales are a reflection, the Challenger did pretty well. However, it was a case of too little, too late as performance and specialty cars were headed downward in sales. You wouldn’t have known that when looking at the 1971 Challenger as there were so many options available that you could tailor-make your Chally to be truly unique. New for 1971 was a twin-scoop grille that replaced 1970’s wide-mouth grille; the design was mimicked out back with the taillights. Stripes for the R/T and optional for the base Challenger ran above the character line from under the C-pillar and down to the nose; black and white were popular color choices, but fluorescent lime and orange were also available. Unlike all the other pony cars, the Challenger was stubby like a ’69 Camaro than lean like a ’70 Camaro, but didn’t suffer in spite of it all.

The standard motor for the R/T was a 383, now rated at 300 horsepower. The 340 was a new option (and continued to be available on the base Challenger), and then the next step was the 440 Six Pack and 426 Hemi (the 440-4 was now gone). Despite the new features, Challenger sales were down drastically.


As mentioned above, the Mustang was all-new for 1971. There were two performance models: Mach I and Boss 351, both only available as a fastback, but the coupe and convertible continued to be available. The Mustang grew in wheelbase, length, and weight, but its design and styling seemed to be shaped by Ford’s experience in racing. For the performance models, NACA scoops replaced the non-functional fixed and Shaker scoop (optional for the 302 Mach I, standard for others), and stripes were available in black or silver.

The Mach I came standard with a 302-2, but things started to get interesting with the M-code 351 Cleveland, which at 285 horsepower was down 15 from 1970. Offered mid-year (and very rare) was the 351 Cobra Jet, a low-compression version of the Cleveland motor that would eventually become the top motor for 1972-73. The next step up was the new-for-Mustang 429 Cobra Jet, available with and without air induction. Want digger gears? Add the Drag Pack, which made a CJ a Super CJ, which gave you a tougher bottom end, solid-lifter bumpstick, Holley carb, and 4.11 or 4.30 gears.

But perhaps the best of the performance Mustangs was the Boss 351. Looking like the Mach I in most respects, it was powered by a 330-horse 351 and is often considered the fastest small-block of the era. Some even think it’s faster than the 429 CJ.


Like the Mustang, the Cougar was all-new for 1971. However, the Cougar made a move into the personal luxury segment, losing any semblance of sportiness that it had before. Gone was the performance-oriented Eliminator package, but a new GT package added a hood scoop (which was functional only with the 429 CJ with air induction), tach, and competition handling suspension. As before, there were base Cougars and high-line XR-7s.

Motors were similar to the Mustang’s, but the Cougar’s standard engine was a 351-2. The 351-4 and both 429 Cobra Jets were available, although the Drag Pack was not. When equipped with air induction, 429-equipped cars received the same hood scoop as the GT’s.


Like the Challenger, the Barracuda was all-new for 1970, but it received a facelift with quad headlights that gave it a completely different look. At the time, the buff books hated it, but in today’s collector’s world, it’s one of the premiere muscle cars. Like the Challenger, the Barracuda had proportions similar to the first-gen Camaro’s, but the Barracuda was possibly the wildest pony car of them all. Order a ‘Cuda in one of the colors that came with the color-keyed grille (EV2 Tor Red, FC7 In Violet, GB5 Blue Fire, FE5 Rallye Red, GY3 Curious Yellow, FJ6 Sassy Grass Green, GW3 Sno White, GK6 Autumn Bronze, or GF7 Sherwood Green), front and rear spoilers, rear window louvers, Elastomeric rubber bumpers, and the mighty “Billboard” stripes, and you’d have a car that was about as wild as they come.

Engine choices were like the Challenger’s, but the outrageousness of the ‘Cuda (especially with the Billboards) combined with the Hemi plus a top that goes down makes it the penultimate car in the muscle car hobby.


Like the Camaro, the Firebird was introduced mid-year in 1970, with minimal changes for 1971 such as fake vents on the front fenders for the base Firebird, Esprit, and Formula, high-back seats, new colors, and shuffled trim like wheels. The big news was under the hood, as Pontiac had to make do with low-compression motors.

The Formula was the model that would capture the performance fan’s interest. For 1970, only a 400 was available, but for 1971 the base engine was a tepid 350. Move up to the 400 and you’d get 300 horsepower, but 325 was available with the 455, which was new for the Firebird. Still not enough? For 10 horsepower more, the 455 HO was available, which combined the round-port heads from the previous year’s Ram Air IV with the big-bore 455. Despite the reduction in compression compared with 1970’s motors, it was quite a strong performer.

And if this was the motor you desired, perhaps you’d consider the Trans Am, which came with the 455 HO standard. The spoilered and dammed race car for the street was back for ’71 in blue or white, and looked superb with Pontiac’s new polycast Honeycomb wheels.

So which one would I pick? It’s a hard choice. I think the Grabber Blue Mustang looks racy but its styling seems unfinished. The Firebird is a great car with the 455 HO but it’s still low compression. The ‘Cuda seems less modern than the others but it has the most horsepower, and while the same could be said for the Challenger, I lust for one in Gunmetal with the orange stripes. Was one ever built like that? It could have been but I have never seen one.

Cars are my life. Are they yours? Then check out my index for more of my automotive musings. And if you have an idea for a story, email me and tell me about it!

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