Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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Ready to rumble

With retro styling and honking engines, a new generation of muscle cars are back with a vengeance

Sifting through the new car brochures from Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge, I’m left wondering: is this 2009... or 1969? My confusion stems from the influx of neo-muscle cars now appearing in showrooms. We’re talking sport coupes with big V8 motors, old-school rear-wheel drivetrains and throwback styles and colours.

That said, these vehicles come with all the mod cons: offering satellite radio, heated seats, GPS systems and a host of other creature comforts that were unthinkable back when the Beatles were still recording.

Admittedly, this retro trend seems downright inexplicable. In this day of environmental awareness and gasoline north of $1/litre, aren’t we all supposed to be going gaga over hybrids and micro-cars? A cynic might suggest that the Detroit Three are, at best, hopelessly out of touch. Or, at worst, they’ve just decided to go out with a bang.

But, even when gas prices are high, the fact is, for most people, cars are far more than mere conveyances from Point A to Point B. They’re also about sex appeal and fun and making a statement.

Dodge Challenger

The Dodge Challenger (and its Plymouth twin, the Barracuda) debuted as 1970 models, latecomers to the pony car wars. The timing wasn’t good, given that emissions restrictions and the oil embargo loomed. By 1974, the Challenger was axed; only about 165,000 units were sold during the course of its lifespan.

From 1978 to 1983, the Challenger name was revived — sort of. The Challenger of this time period was really a rebadged Mitsubishi Galant, complete with a four-cylinder engine. Indeed, for Chrysler fans, this Challenger generation remains just a very bad dream.

But last year, the “real” Challenger returned. Built in Brampton, ON, on the same line that produces the Dodge Charger and the Chrysler 300, it is available with three different powerplants: a 3.5-litre V6 generating 250 horsepower, a 5.7-litre V8 (375 horsepower) or a 6.1-litre V8 (425 horsepower).

It’s a bigger and heavier car than the new Camaro and Mustang. The Challenger is a big, dangerous-looking coupe that makes a ferocious statement — even when it is merely occupying a parking spot. And its base price starts at $25,995.

Ford Mustang

First introduced in 1964, the Ford Mustang’s roots can be traced to 1960 when Ford was reeling from the financial disaster of the Edsel brand (1958 to ‘60). The company was looking to rebound in a big way. Instead of espousing a bigger-is-better mindset, Ford executive (and future Chrysler CEO) Lee Iacocca pushed his colleagues to go in the opposite direction: namely, develop a car that was relatively small, sporty and affordable.

The company’s market research team was ahead of the curve in recognizing that a demographic tsunami was about to hit North America: the first wave of baby boomers was getting set to exert its influence as a legion of young consumers.

In his self-titled autobiography, Iacocca notes that many challenges were encountered by his team. The Mustang had to be small but not as small as European sports cars. It couldn’t be a two-seater, either, given that such cars have limited appeal. And the sticker price could not exceed $2,500.

It was a tall order, but Ford was able to pull it off by piggy-backing the development of the Mustang on the Ford Falcon. The Mustang was able to share the engines, transmissions and axles that had already been developed. Ford created the Mustang for only $75 million, whereas a new car from the ground up would’ve cost $300 to $400 million.

The Mustang was an enormous hit from day one, making the covers of both Time and Newsweek when it debuted. And it would soon emerge as a pop culture hit, too. According to Mustangsource.com, these pony cars have been featured in more movies than any other car model. The ultimate star turn was Bullitt, wherein a 1968 Mustang GT 390 Fastback goes up against a Dodge Charger R/T on the hair-raising streets of San Francisco.

Alas, the Mustang saga has not been without its pitfalls. As it evolved in subsequent model years, the Mustang began to lose its focus. By the early ’70s, it was 20 centimetres longer, 15 centimetres wider and 270 kilograms heavier than the original. The marketplace did not respond favourably: in 1966, Ford had sold 550,000 Mustangs; in 1970, sales nosedived to 150,000 units.

The car was eventually slimmed down again for the 1974 to ’78 run and was known as the Mustang II. While sales rebounded, this Mustang — based on the Pinto platform — clearly lacked the magic of the original.

In subsequent decades, the Mustang went through numerous incarnations, some good, some ghastly, but mostly lame. Indeed, Ford almost completely lost its way with the Mustang by the late ’80s when it was a heartbeat away from introducing a front-wheel-drive model. Mustang fans were so outraged that Ford decided its new front-wheel-drive coupe would be called the Probe.

Ford didn’t truly recapture Mustang lightning in a bottle again until 2004, when the superbly-redesigned and re-engineered ’05 Mustang was introduced.

The new Mustang was a success because it returned to its roots. Featuring retro lines inspired by the ’60s models and with power to spare (the Shelby Cobra KR edition generates more than 500 horsepower), the car has proven enormously successful for Ford. This is likely due to the fact that the current Mustang appeals so much to ageing boomers.

The 2010 Mustang is a slight redesign that builds upon Mustangs of yesteryear, being primarily inspired by the 1970 model. The base model retails for a reasonable $24,499. Chiselled forms and higher arches break the sweeping beltline for a more sculpted look. A power dome hood and bigger rims complete the aggressive, masculine image. Meanwhile, inside the cabin, the 2010 model features restyled seats and trim. And unlike its competitors from Chevrolet and Dodge, the Mustang is also available as a convertible. Finally, Mustang Mania has been reborn.

Chevrolet Camaro

The Chevrolet Camaro first rolled off an assembly line in 1966, was axed in 2002 and is just now experiencing a phoenix-like resurrection. Will the Camaro emerge as GM’s comeback kid of the decade, or will this coupe become yet another expensive flash-in-the-pan?

Time will tell. But my heart skips a beat whenever I hear someone say Camaro.

Full disclosure: upon snagging my driver’s licence in 1980, I fell under the spell of this sassy Chevy. I was, after all, a teenaged male — two key attributes for desiring a V8-festooned sport coupe. Back in the days of leg warmers, the Betamax and the Village People, the Camaro was indeed a “boss” car.

The sheer folly of my “investment” (I sold my cherished comic book collection to get the cash) truly hit home when my ride failed to attract feminine attention. My friends and I would spend many a Friday and Saturday evening fruitlessly driving up and down Toronto’s main drag, Yonge Street, “cruising for chicks.” I’d rev the Camaro’s V8 engine, do a tire burnout and rev the tunes. My car morphed from wannabe babe magnet to a males-only cab.

The end of the road for my Camaro came on a fall afternoon in 1982. My alleged muscle car slammed into the rear of a Brady Bunch-esque station wagon. Camaros, I learned, have glass jaws, while wagons have buns of steel. The station wagon was barely dented; my Camaro’s front end was a write-off.

Fast-forward to the present, and the Camaro is back. Recently, I made a pilgrimage to Oshawa, ON, where the new Camaro is being built. Like other Big Three towns, Oshawa has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Yet, there’s a sense of optimism now that more than 400 Camaros are rolling off the line on a daily basis. And what an assembly line: GM claims the plant uses one of the most technologically-advanced production systems in the world. 

The really good news: the all-new 2010 version of the Camaro is indeed a much-needed bases-loaded home run. A neo-muscle car, its basic 6-cylinder, 3.6-litre engine churns out 304-horsepower — more than many of the V8-festooned Camaros of decades past. The optional V8 6.2-litre engine, meanwhile, generates a gulp-inducing 426 horsepower.

Stylistically, the new Camaro is a retro-themed masterpiece and aggressive lines abound. And like the good ol’ days, the Camaro is available in a range of outrageous colours, from Rally Yellow and Victory Red to the aptly-named Inferno Orange.

Certainly, the price is right, with the base model Camaro listing for about $27,000. Fuel economy for the 6-cylinder model is estimated at 8 litres per 100 kilometres (30 mpg). A decade or so ago, such a rating would’ve qualified the Camaro as a bona fide “economy car.”

There are a few sour notes, though. The Camaro’s dashboard is lacklustre and the interior is cramped. Meanwhile, the backseat is sufficient only for passengers who haven’t graduated from kindergarten.

But the 2010 Camaro isn’t intended to be a minivan or SUV. Rather, it delivers stellar performance, handling and charm.

That said, when the honeymoon phase ends, will consumers continue to embrace the Camaro — especially if oil prices spike? After all, as iconic as the Camaro was in its initial 35-year run, there was a perfectly valid reason why GM killed the car seven years ago: the best-ever sales year for the Camaro was 1978 when more than 270,000 were sold. By 2001, Camaro sales had plunged to just 42,000 units.

Bottom line: for those craving old-fashioned American muscle-car performance couched within qualitative vehicles with all the modern conveniences, 2009 is truly a time to celebrate. Although, given the ongoing struggle of the Detroit Three to survive, it’s anyone’s guess how long this celebration of yester-decade will last.

While things never panned out for me with my ’74 Camaro, I find myself drawn to these three new/old sport coupes like a moth to a neon light. After all, the reborn Mustang, Challenger and Camaro all boast great looks, great performance, even a great sound thanks to their ferocious V8 motors. Times may be tough, but for pony car fans young and old, this is a period in automotive history to cherish. And it is a period we may never see the likes of again.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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