Back to the Future: The New Muscle Car Era

by bradiger   August 06, 2008 at 10:00AM  |  Views: 1,151

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In 1963, Pontiac’s chief engineer John De Lorean took the newly redesigned, budget-oriented Tempest coupe and fitted it with a 389 cubic inch V8 from the larger Bonneville model to create the first Pontiac GTO. This, in turn, created the muscle car era, as the 1964 Pontiac GTO proved far more successful than the GM brass had anticipated. Soon after, nearly every American nameplate had a flagship coupe fitted with big Detroit iron to compete in the burgeoning market.

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Ford’s Lee Iococca responded back shortly after the GTO’s introduction with the 1965 Mustang, a new model which utilized much of the driveline of the Ford Falcon, but with a new European-inspired body style which would later spawn the Pony Car subgenre of the muscle car era. The introduction of the Mustang became the most successful car launch in the automotive history, and Ford sold over 1 million Mustangs in its first 18 months on the market.

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Chevrolet got in the game in 1967 with a pony car of its own, the Camaro. Ready to accept various powerplants and performance configurations right out of the box, the Camaro was one of the most versatile cars of the muscle car era. Between 1967 and 1969, the Camaro underwent subtle yet significant aesthetic changes, culminating in the iconic 1969 model, which stands to this day as a milestone in automotive design.

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Meanwhile, the folks at Chrysler were late to the competitive pony car market, but that was understandable – by 1969, they already had their hands full with the Plymouth Roadrunner, the first-gen Barracuda, the Dodge Charger, the Dodge Coronet, the Dart and the Superbee, among others. For 1970, Chrysler decided to put some proper effort into designing a pony car, and wiped the slate clean of the somewhat homely first generation Plymouth Barracuda for its all new redesign, and simultaneously introduced its new sister model, the Dodge Challenger. Employing a sportier “Coke-bottle” shape, both cars became instant hits, also in no small part due to the fact that each could be had with the legendary 426 Hemi big-block motor, the undisputed king of street engines. While the pony car market was waning, and change was in the air for the muscle car era in general, the 1970 Challenger and Barracuda models also became hallmarks of the time as well.

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In an era where cheap gas was readily available, smog laws didn’t exist, and insurance companies were still scrambling to sort out this new trend in automobiles, the muscle car became the de facto ride for teenagers and grown men alike who sought some adrenaline in their motoring. The era spawned timeless designs and brought the sinister growl of American V8 brute force to any driveway that wanted one. Rivalry between the auto makers both at the track and on the street became fierce as the “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday” motto became an industry reality, and each iteration of these cars had to top whatever the competition was currently offering (usually in terms of horsepower). This competitive era in street performance became known as the Muscle Car Wars.

However, by the time the manufactures had truly sorted out their designs to maximum potential, the trend started to change due to outside influence. The hammer finally came down in form of government smog and safety regulations that negatively altered automotive design as well as events in the early 70s that changed gas prices drastically – most notable of which was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. After that, Detroit quickly phased out all but a handful of these cheap performance machines, and the ones that did stay around suffered the wrath of massive downgrades in terms of both quality and performance, a fate exemplified by cars like the “L body” Dodge Charger and the Pinto-based Mustang II. The general consensus was that the golden era in street performance had come and gone, and if you wanted “that old feeling” it was going to require some deep pockets, a full time mechanic, and a vintage muscle car. And for decades, the general consensus was pretty accurate.  To put things in perspective, by 1976 a Corvette made 165hp. Ouch.

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Toward the middle of the 1990s, however, American car companies started to get their act together. Ford’s boxy “fox-body” Mustang received a much-needed face lift as well as the introduction of the modular 4.6 liter V8 engine design (which is still utilized today), and by the late 90s, Chevy’s Camaro and Pontiac’s Firebird both could be had with 320hp LS1 motors, and optional Ram Air kits. Things were looking up. As we headed into the 2000s, gas remained relatively cheap and the public started demanding serious street performance again.

By around 2004, each of the Big 3 had some serious firepower sitting in their engine design labs due to truck and SUV development, but nothing interesting to put them in. Both the Firebird and Camaro had ceased production in 2003 - essentially a concession to Ford’s domination of the market by the ubiquitous Mustang (which was outselling them both combined, largely due to V6 model sales), and while Chrysler had reintroduced the legendary Hemi moniker for a pair of V8 motors it had recently started offering in Ram pickups, they still lacked a coupe model which could support the additional power and weight of such beefy motors. However, by 2005, it all really started to come together.

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For the 2005 model year, Ford finally decided it was time to really give the Mustang some attention. The coupe had been riding on basically the same frame and chassis since 1979, and it had been showing its age for quite some time. So they re-designed the new Mustang from the ground up starting with an entirely new frame and going from there. For the body style, the Mustang’s designers made a risky move (at the time) and looked to the past for design inspiration, borrowing heavily from the shape and stance of the late 60s muscle-car era Mustangs. Engineers also chipped in with the most powerful V8 ever offered in a base GT model: the 3-valve, 300hp, 320ft-lbs 4.6 liter V8. The redesign was an instant success with both the public and the automotive press, and other manufactures scrambled to design their own retro-inspired models to compete with the Mustang, who by 2005 had the cheap, rear-drive American coupe market basically to itself.

A large portion of the Mustang’s appeal has relied on the car’s image rather than its performance numbers. When the designers set out to make the Mustang in 1964, it was assumed that it would be a “secretary’s car” – not really designed to compete with cars like the GTO and the Chevelle on the street, but rather to evoke the image of a European sports car without the price tag. And despite the fact that the Mustang would eventually morph into tarmac-eating variants like the Boss 429, the Shelby GT500 and the 428 Super Cobra Jet, most of the Mustang’s sales were actually base model V6 versions, and the same has always held true even to this day.

This brings a lot of give and take with it. For the casual enthusiast, a new base Mustang GT can be had for just over $25k and comes with enough grunt to smoke the tires into oblivion and post sub-14 second quarter mile times, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, in order to keep the price tag for these cars down, concessions had to be made in the design that often work against the hardcore performance contingent, such as the use of the archaic live-axle rear suspension design – a design that was considered dated more than two decades ago. Many were surprised when the brutal 2007 GT500 variant debuted, which despite boasting over 500hp from a supercharged 5.4 liter motor, still utilized the live axle suspension design, giving it a significant handling disadvantage amongst other cars in its $45,000 price range.

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Despite shortcomings like this, the Mustang is still the car to beat (sales-wise), and many in the industry feel that Ford has struck a great balance between design aesthetic, functionality and accessibility. The Mustang is due to receive another face-lift for the 2010 model year and, as a reaction to the recent spike in gas prices, there are rumors of optional turbocharged V6 models in development, as well as weight-saving measures to help fuel economy.

When the new Mustang concept debuted in 2004, all eyes in the American automotive industry watched attentively to see how the public would receive such a radical design change. When the executives at Chrysler saw the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the retro-styled Mustang, they went to work reviving their muscle car heritage as well. In 2006, they revived the Charger nameplate on a 4-door sedan which offered both Hemi motors in the higher trim levels, which proved successful, but they still lacked a proper budget performance coupe.

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Taking a shortened-wheelbase version of the LX-platform the Charger and Chrysler 300 are built on (which is actually a Mercedes Benz E-class borrowed from Daimler), Chrysler engineers developed the LC platform, which would become the foundation of the new Dodge Challenger. The LC platform utilizes fully independent suspension at all four corners and was designed from the ground up to accept both the 375hp 5.7 liter Hemi as well as the larger 425hp, 6.1 liter Hemi engines. Taking strong influence from the 1970 model, the new Challenger concept debuted at the 2006 Detroit auto show to overwhelming enthusiasm, and the project to develop a production version began shortly thereafter.

This year, we finally got our first new Challenger in over 34 years. For the 2008 model year only the highest trim model, the SRT-8, was offered. Although this model does employ the beastly 425hp 6.1 liter motor, many were disappointed when they learned that the 2008 models would only be available with an automatic transmission. However, for the 2009 model year, Dodge has announced that both the SRT-8 and the new R/T trim level (which uses the 5.7 liter Hemi motor) will now be available with a 6 speed manual transmission – the same Tremec gearbox used in the Viper. Also, to compete with the bulk of Mustang sales, Dodge will be offering the SE trim level, a stripped-down version of the car which uses Dodge’s 250hp V6 – 40 more ponies than the Mustang V6, while maintaining competitive fuel economy. 

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It’s pretty clear that the R/T trim level of the Challenger is aimed squarely at the Mustang GT’s market. Though the MSRP for the new R/T Challenger is about $4k more, the differences in the design standards of each car bring the cost/value equation between these two into a very narrow margin. Beyond the Challenger’s modern chassis, independent suspension, and 6 speed manual gearbox (whereas the Mustang GT uses a 5 speed), the 5.7 liter Hemi still boasts over 70hp more than the 4.6 liter Mustang GT engine, while maintaining similar fuel economy. However, due to inevitable dealer markups on the Challenger, those inflated prices may still keep these cars out of reach of potential buyers until the initial rush is exhausted (or gas reaches $5 a gallon.).

It’s hard to predict the future of a car like the Challenger, but if Dodge keeps putting out carrots like the Classic Edition, people like me will keep lusting after them. And I can tell you right now that, while I did lust after the current-gen Mustang upon its arrival, it was nothing like this. I could stare at a 2009 Challenger R/T for an hour. The last car that made me do that was the ’68 big block Charger I had in college. I miss that car. But the good news is that this one is faster, can turn and stop, gets more than twice the gas mileage, has air conditioning, and will start without forcing me to sell my soul to the devil. And when was the last time you saw a car for under $30k that did all that?

GM, who likes to be fashionably late to the party, finally caught wind that this whole retro-muscle car thing was going on, and in late 2006 they finally announced that the design-model Camaro concept which also debuted at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show along with the Challenger concept, would in fact be coming to showrooms in 2010. While the retro theme had lost a bit of its novel luster by then, there was no doubt that people got excited about the Camaro concept every bit as much as they had about the Challenger, as the new Camaro also borrowed very heavily from its muscle car heyday 1969 model.

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Just a few weeks ago, GM quietly showed the production version to the automotive press, just in time to squeeze between headlines about the energy crisis and the floundering economy. While much of the Camaro’s hardware is transplanted from other models (the SS model’s 422hp V8 is the same LS3 block used in the Corvette and the upcoming Pontiac G8 GXP), what really raised some eyebrows was GM’s announcement that the base Camaro would come equipped with a GM LLT V6 engine providing 300hp – 50 more than the base Challenger and almost 100hp over the base Mustang (and putting it squarely in Mustang GT territory), while still providing 26mpg on the highway. It’s hard to say whether this was great foresight on GM’s part (a trait they aren’t really known for, given the state their truck division is in now) or just a bit of luck, but a 300hp V6 provides the Camaro a notable advantage over the thirstier V8 engines offered by Ford and Chrysler in the wake of the “fuel crisis”, while still giving enthusiasts something to write home about.

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Personally, the thought of a muscle car emitting a high pitched V6 whine as opposed to the low V8 growl that’s become synonymous with American performance seems odd. But I have to admit, the idea is strangely alluring at the same time. GM hasn’t announced pricing for the new Camaro yet, so it’s hard to estimate where it will land in the market. GM cars typically come in slightly pricier than their Ford counterparts, so I’d say it’s safe to expect that we’ll see pricing somewhere around the Challenger’s price points, depending on trim level.

Any way you look at it though, this is the golden era of muscle cars. It’s the golden era of cars in general, really. A 3-series BMW comes with a 300hp motor now! A 425hp station wagon! A 400hp Lexus! Technology has finally caught up with regulations and manufactures have found ways to make cars both safe and beautiful. But much like the first time around, the dark cloud of fuel prices and government regulations looms large. Nobody predicted what happened this summer, and the automotive industry in general is in a state of shock, scrambling to get a handle on the situation and react to the market accordingly.

All of this is not unlike what happened in the early 1970s. Sadly, that crisis resulted in the end of the muscle car for more than 3 decades. However, this time around, we’re not caught totally off guard, and we have the means to work around some of these problems. The biggest obstacle now is really public perception.  Sensationalism about gas prices has brought the public into an uproar over something most other people around the world have simply dealt with for generations. Gas prices go up, it’s inevitable. As alternative fuels and more economically sound vehicles hit the road, supply and demand will again level out and prices will stabilize. OPEC nations are a greedy bunch, however, and they use the guise of “summer driving” habits as an excuse to enact massively inflated gas prices during the summer months. Then toward the fall, the prices will recede again (to a level still significantly higher than they were in spring) and public will start to feel “relief” that prices are “back down” and the “crisis” will be over. As long as people are aware of this practice, the American automotive industry will spend a lot less time caught with its pants down, and we all spend more time driving great cars instead of cheap junk.

THE DAILY FOUR