Sibling rivalry: Three second-fiddles that exceeded their corporate counterparts
In all forms of pop culture, for every main act, there’s a second fiddle that may be just as talented as the star attraction, but gets much less of the attention. For every Batman, you get your Red Bee. When the movie Armageddon hit theaters, so did the less memorable Deep Impact. When it comes to Baldwins, Alec trumps the entire lot combined.
Things are no different in the automotive world. The Cavalier was significantly more popular than the equally poor Sunfire, and the entire Saturn lineup was an earnest attempt at fighting off Japanese sub compacts of comparatively middling design integrity.
When it comes to the greatest muscle cars of all time, it’s hardly an insult to be called second fiddle to the main attraction. In fact, many of these less popular alternatives have characteristics that put their more popular siblings to shame.
Three names that survived the Muscle Car-era (is this caps and not pony car-era) to be resurrected for the roads of today are the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang. Despite being three of the signature sports cars of the ’60s and ’70s, these cars were once part of a market crowded with competition from other automakers, even fielding friendly fire from brands under the same corporate umbrella.
Listed below are three models that each shared a platform with one of these racing giants, though they never got the popularity or the lifespan that they may have deserved.
When the pony car-era was rung in with the introduction of the Mustang in 1964, it wasn’t long before corporate sibling Mercury wanted a shot at making their own version of what is considered by many to be the greatest hot rod ever. Instead of mimicking the Mustang and being an all-out sports car, when the Cougar hit the streets in 1967, it was marketed as the Mustang’s tamer, more responsible little sister.
Well, this little sister rebelled in 1969 when Mercury decided to let the Cougar roar. The Camaro and Firebird had been introduced a couple of years earlier, crowding a marketplace that was once dominated singularly by the Mustang. If GM could have to all-sport coupes, so could Ford, so Mercury dropped the 428 Cobra Jet engine in this beast, turning Mercury’s image from Euro-inspired luxury to all-out Detroit muscle.
Because the Mercury was slightly longer than the Mustang, it handled this massive engine with more grace and refinement, making it the truly premium pony-car option. The quarter-miles on this beast were just as good as its sibling’s, and the Eliminator actually had better grip. Along with it’s luxurious cabin, the Eliminator was the adult muscle car of its time.
During Plymouth’s dying days, it’s entire lineup featured practically no original models with the exception of the strange, nostalgia driven Prowler and the short-lived Spyder. Void of having any originality, Plymouth in essence became a painfully dumbed-down style package of standard Dodge offerings. They didn’t even bother renaming the Neon when Plymouth was given a uselessly rebadged version so it’s dealers might actually move some units.
Back in the muscle car era, Plymouth wasn’t so timid, and suffered a major inferiority complex when it came to one-upping Dodge. Sibling rivalry was never more apparent when Plymouth introduced the Cuda 440 in 1969, a needlessly fast version of the Dodge Challenger that featured, by far, the largest engine of any car it competed with.
It’s hard to imagine how Plymouth, with the help or Herst/Campbell in the transmission department, was able to squeeze the 375-bhp 440-cid four-barrel V-8 under the hood. Without this mega-block, the Cuda was one of the lightest sports coupes on the market but with a motor this size, the ride was dangerously fast.
When it comes to GMs storied F-Bodies, there is arguably as much love for Pontiac’s Firebird as there is for the still-kicking Chevy Camaro. However, the Camaro has almost always been the winner in terms of sales, and with Pontiac now defunct, there is little chance that we’ll see another Firebird hit the streets.
In my opinion, the first generation F-Bodies were by and far the best looking of the bunch, and though I have a soft spot for the Camaro, the Firebirds always got the better make-up. In 1968, there was probably no slicker looking ride than this Pontiac, and that’s not just in the sports coupe segment. For 1968, the looks remained almost completely the same, but performance was refined to match the superior styling.
Car and Driver Magazine tested the Firebird 400 against 390ci Javelin, a 390 Mustang and 390 Cougar, a Camaro SS 396, and a 340 Barracuda calling it not only the fast of the bunch, but the easiest beast to handle.
“For sheer enjoyment and confidence behind the wheel,” said Car and Driver, “the Firebird was almost in a class by itself.”
Any of the six sports coupes easily has their crowning achievements that make them the best in some segment, but not all of them get the same amount of love. Can you think of any unsung heroes overshadowed by a corporate sibling?