The Mustang ain’t no muscle car, and your truck is not a coupe

“RES IPSA.” When Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court in 1991, the media used a variety of colorful phrases to describe him. “Corvette ZR-1 owner” was not one of those phrases, but it did apply.

Justice Thomas drove a black 1990 ZR1 with the license plate RES IPSA, short for res ipsa loquitur. That phrase, which is Latin for “The thing speaks for itself,” is used in case law to simplify certain matters of liability or negligence. An Illinois Law Review article of 1928 explains a typical, and mildly hilarious, case: The plaintiff was walking down the street when a barrel of flour fell on him from a second-story window. Neither he nor the witnesses to the event saw how the barrel of flour ended up coming out of the window and falling on the gentleman, so they could not allege any particular act of negligence. The lawsuit was thrown out for that reason—but an appeals court said, basically, “Hey, entire barrels of flour aren’t meant to fall out of windows in the normal course of events. That, in and of itself, implies negligence on someone’s part.” In other words, the thing speaks for itself.

The C4-based Corvette ZR-1 was one of the fastest cars money could buy in 1990. It definitely spoke for itself, through its hyperspace performance capability and the fascinating story of its quad-cam, Lotus-designed, Mercury-Marine-built LT5 engine. US News and other media sources have referred to the ZR-1 and its successors as “muscle cars,” which makes me cringe. The Corvette is obviously a sports car, regardless of engine—or is it? The 1953 original certainly deserved the appellation. At the time, the term was fairly specific, referring to compact-sized soft-top two-seaters with a least a shadow of competitive intent.

The handsome and civilized 1963 Stingray coupe, on the other hand, was probably more of a “grand tourer,” but Chevrolet has always advertised the Corvette as “America’s sports car,” and until the end of convertible C7 production there was still at least some truth to the phrase. The new car is being described as a “supercar” in many publications, although an emotionless detailing of its qualities—American-made, commodity GM engine in mid-mounted configuration, automatic transmission, composite panels, sophisticated rear suspension—would also perfectly describe the 1988 Fiero GT. When the higher-power versions arrive, you can rest assured that some writers will draw a line between the base Corvette, which will not be called a supercar, and the Z06/ZR1/whatever, which will. Some people called the 1990 ZR-1 a supercar, which was ridiculous because up to that point all “supercars” had either been mid-engined exotics (to the European press) or stuff like the Pontiac GTO (to the American press, in the ’60s).

This unfortunate slipperiness of nomenclature gets worse when we talk about the Mustang, which is ironic because it has a specific term coined for it (and its competitors)—“pony car.” All Mustangs are pony cars, as are all Camaros and Firebirds, some Cougars, various Mopar products, and the Javelin. Yet the temptation to call a Mustang a “muscle car” is apparently too strong for some of us to resist, particularly when referring to the V-8 models. Ford’s own website commits an even more egregious sin: Buried in the Google-optimized “meta text” you’ll find the phrase “America #1 Sports Car 50 Years.” It seems obvious to me that the Mustang cannot be a pony car, a muscle car, and a sports car, all at once.

To make matters worse, the “GT” in Mustang GT stands for “Grand Tourer,” so now we are up to four different terms. The Detroit News recently wrote, “The GT500 is more supercar than muscle car,” which at first hopeful glance reads like an arch commentary on misnaming vehicles but in fact is just a restatement of Wards Auto’s description of the GT500 as a “near-supercar.” Ponycar, GT car, sports car, muscle car, supercar. At this point we’ve used up every possible term for the Mustang except, possibly, “Super Duty,” which is the name Ford gives to light-duty trucks that aren’t quite medium-duty trucks.  

Who cares? What does it matter if the Mustang is a sports car, supercar, whatever? Let me give you two reasons. The first is bigger than our automotive hobby and it is this: The English language has a wonderful and admirable depth of precision that is unmatched in human history. Like many of you, I took Latin in high school, and I was shocked at just how few words there were to describe things. This is true for other modern languages as well; Spanish is approximately half as complex as English, which is why the average sentence is about 20-percent longer. When your words are vague, you need more of them to describe something. 

The English-language writer or speaker enjoys an embarrassment of specificity. We may say that an automobile is beautiful, or that it is gorgeous; those do not mean the same thing to the educated mind. We may call something amazing, or stupendous; again, there is a difference. When writing about a car, I can say that it is fast, which implies speed, or quick, which implies acceleration, or rapid, which suggests that it conveys its passengers between two points with alacrity (which, by the way, means “brisk and cheerful readiness”). I might describe something as terrible and horrible, trusting that a certain percentage of the readers will know that the words are not synonyms.

Our language has been dumbed down quite a bit in recent years; we use “amazing” to describe food trucks and “incredible” to describe a new television show. Most words have now been systematically stripped of meaning over time to the point where they mean merely “good” or “bad” to the man or woman in the street. This process is how we end up with Newspeak, because “bad” will eventually be replaced with “ungood” to save time, and it should be resisted using any means at our disposal, however unsavory. For that reason alone it rankles to read someone call a Corvette a “muscle car” or call a Mustang a “sports car.” We have the proper words available. Let’s use them.

My second reason for being specific when describing cars: This is how we keep the automakers honest, more or less. The EPA famously described the Rolls-Royce Corniche as a “subcompact.” This seemed ridiculous to those of us who knew what a Corniche symbolized—and what it cost—but it was also an absolutely accurate reflection of the Mulliner Park Ward Shadow two-door’s interior space. (Call me crazy, but I liked the straight-shouldered James Young Shadow Coupe more than MPW’s Shadow, which was eventually renamed. That’s a subject for another time.) The Corniche was also, in fact, a “coupe”—a sedan with wheelbase removed and roofline altered. The sales brochures of the ’70s spoke of two-door sedans, two-door coupes, four-door sedans, hardtop four-doors, and so on. Each of those terms were quite specific, but it also meant that the stamping presses were kept busy making a lot of different shapes. So eventually the meaning of “coupe” was degraded to the point where it simply meant “two doors.” Then it was degraded even further to the current day, where it means precisely nothing except a potential increase in cost over the non-coupe version. 

This gradual draining of meaning allows the manufacturers to silently thin the ranks of genuine enthusiast cars, replacing them with hypothyroid interpretations of the Toyota RAV4, which cost six figures and post 11-second quarter-mile times but which offer the skilled driver the same amount of dynamic satisfaction as riding from Cleveland to Indianapolis in a regional jet. The motoring press is paid to call these bilious blobs “sports cars on stilts,” which is like calling dairy cows “greyhounds with extra milk.” To the club racer or lifelong sports car owner who can discern the effects of a passenger or a 50-pound ballast weight, this is bad comedy verging on tragedy. 

The eventual goal is to make the phrase “sports car” mean nothing at all, so it can be applied to a unibody truck with a spoiler. At that point, anyone who wants a “sports car” will have to buy a unibody truck with a spoiler, the same way that the number of pillbug-shaped four-door truck “coupes” on the market now significantly exceeds the number of short-wheelbase two-door automobiles. The same will be true of “muscle car,” which will mean a pillbug truck with more kilowatts. “Supercar” will be a pillbug truck with quilted leather. “Pony car” will mean pillbug truck with a Ford badge—er, a “Mustang-inspired SUV.”

Once the whole world has been bullied and cajoled into the purchase of pillbug trucks, auto enthusiasm as we know it now will be limited to the people willing to fix old cars, the same way that literacy was mostly limited to the clergy during certain periods of European history. Which suggests that there will eventually be a sports car Renaissance. As with all “reboots” from the Christain Bale Batman movies to the reign of Queen Victoria, the early interpretations will be quite unforgiving. Expect lightweight bodies, no weather protection, a thorough disregard for personal comfort. 

An entire generation will have grown up at that point thinking “sports car” means a pillbug truck with a novella’s worth of plastichrome script letters on the hatch, so these new vehicles won’t be “sports cars” to them. Or supercars. Or pony cars. A new word will be needed to describe a two-seat vehicle with limited luxury and clear antisocial intent—or perhaps they will be content to merely share the image of such a vehicle, confident that the very purpose of the thing is visible from its appearance. Just look at it! Res ipsa loquitur! The thing speaks for itself!

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