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Retro Cool

Muscle makes a comeback Add to ...

If any one man was responsible for the demise of the first muscle car era, it was Saudi Arabia's King Faisal, Time magazine's Man of the Year for 1974 and the first godfather of what has become known as "the oil crisis."

King Faisal, of course, led the first Arab oil embargo of petroleum-producing countries. He also orchestrated a cut in oil production during the Yom Kippur War in the fall of 1973.

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As a result, the price of crude doubled, pump prices skyrocketed, massive lineups at fuel stations materialized and high-horsepower street rods like the Chevrolet Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang instantly became passé, if not utterly obsolete - pushed out of the market by events and economics.

It's been 3½ decades since then, yet even in the face of today's eerily similar social and economic circumstances - conditions like that in 1973-74 are completely unfavourable to muscle cars - well, they're back.

The 2010 Ford Mustang GT, 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 and the 2010 Chevy Camaro SS are tire-smoking heroes of North American car culture. That's because, to put it in the bluntest possible way, pony cars are all about kicking ass with tire-smoking horsepower in a brawny coupe with a middle class-friendly price tag.

You know that. I know that. We all know that.

But you won't hear any car company executives talking that way, at least not for the record. Not now, not today in an age of painful political correctness.

It's a bit too risky for car companies to brazenly revisit the tire-burning muscle cars beloved by so many baby boomers. What was openly celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s is a little less obviously delicious in 2009.

But I'd personally wager that the majority of the public still gets a kick out of muscle cars. They resonate in the gut and send pulses racing. The bulk of the public at large gets an adrenalin rush from the sound and feel of muscle car fury. No sensible person argues that point.

Consider: Before a single 2010 Chevrolet Camaro had been sold, General Motors had a list of 500,000 so-called "hand-raisers" - people who said they're interested in buying the Camaro. This spring, 14,000 people had laid down a deposit to buy the Camaro before a single one had rolled down the assembly line in Oshawa, Ont.

Ditto for the Challenger, assembled in Brampton, Ont. Chrysler got 4,300 orders on the very first day it said it would make the Challenger SRT8 - years before a single car was seen in a single showroom. Ford has been selling 150,000 or so Mustangs every year for decades, as well.

Still, the powers that be are just not officially calling muscle cars "muscle cars" any longer. The car business today would rather call them "high-performance vehicles" or "sleek, aerodynamic, futuristic sports cars" - ones that just happen to burn rubber like a half-million-dollar supercar, yet sell for a tenth of that, at most.

Make no mistake, the new muscle cars are real pony cars straight out of the original mould. Take the Challenger. It has the long hood, wide stance and racing stripes of the original. That car was introduced in the fall of 1969 as a 1970 model and phased out five model years later. Even the same orange paint is available in the new Challenger.

Except this time around, the Challenger that went on sale late last year is also available with a navigation system, keyless entry and hands-free communication.

Moreover, unlike the original, which had nine powertrain options, the 2009 Dodge Challenger has three, the most powerful and desirable of which is a 6.1-litre, Hemi V-8 with 425 horsepower.

Chrysler says the new Challenger can go from zero to 100 km/h in about five seconds. Whew! The best, original Hemi-powered Challenger, and its Plymouth cousin, the Barracuda, couldn't do that.

The Challenger, along with the Camaro and Mustang, stand out even today as the baby boomer's dream machine. Yet if online chattering is any indication, muscle cars have their appeal among younger buyers, too. An Edmunds.com poll found that high-school students consistently pick muscle cars as the kind of car they want to drive.

So there is new competition in the muscle-car world. The Challenger was revived last year, the reinvented, reborn Camaro is just going on sale, and while Ford has never stopped making the Mustang - some nine million sold and counting - the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker has updated the 2010 'Stang to compete with the latest entries.

Ah, the Mustang. Let's give Ford some credit here before we move on to the new Camaro. Indeed, the current pony-car craze was literally raised from the dead when Ford rolled out the fifth-generation Mustang in 2005.

Now here we are in 2010 and Ford has a better, though not totally reinvented, Mustang. For this year, the sheet metal has been given a solid tweaking, the cabin has been given a makeover and the V-8 powertrain is improved.

Ah, yes, the tried-and-true, 4.6-litre V-8, the standard engine on GT models. It gets a cold air-induction system to boost horsepower to 315. (Gearhead alert: Colder air can hold more fuel, so if you push colder air into an engine, it should burn fuel more efficiently and therefore deliver more power.)

Then we have the new Camaro. GM has produced nearly five million Camaros over the years, but this latest 2010 version is the best by far. And it remains true to its roots as a working-class hero of the 1967-2002 model years - especially the era just before the '73 oil embargo.

Now GM has no illusions that the new Camaro will ever be as popular as, say, the 1979 version. GM sold nearly 300,000 Camaros that year.

On the other hand, GM's Chevy brand has a legitimate halo car here, one that casts a positive light over the engineering, design and manufacturing capabilities of the beleaguered auto maker. The new Camaro has plenty of attitude, but there has been no knuckle-dragging in the making of this Camaro. This car represents 21st century engineering and design work.

The '10 Camaro is built on a modern sport sedan platform, a modified offshoot of the Holden Commodore from GM's Australian subsidiary.

As with Mustang and Challenger, Chevy makes a V-6 version and it's good. But it's the Camaro SS that truly stimulates your senses with its glorious 6.2-litre V-8 borrowed from the Corvette. One number: 426 horsepower when paired with a six-speed manual transmission.

The Camaro's look is a success, too. Ford and especially Dodge photocopied their old models for their latest pony cars, but the Camaro addresses the past in a less obvious way.

This Camaro is unmistakably a Camaro, yet it's also a clean, 21st-century design despite the non-functioning hood scoop on the V-8 model and fake brake vents along the side. Despite its flaws, the Camaro has killer looks and easy-to-extract performance.

And that's a formula some Asian imports have noticed. There is opportunity out there in muscle cars and manufacturers such as Hyundai and Nissan have jumped into the game, introducing their own take on the muscle car.

Hyundai, for one, has just begun selling its Genesis Coupe, promoting it with images and sounds right out of the muscle-car playbook. Nissan, for another, has updated its 370Z, too.

The new Z is far less a 21st century take on the original early-1970s 240Z sports car than it is Nissan's own muscle car. It is fast, furious, reasonably affordable (base price $39,998) and even the car's designer is from California.

These five give real choice to buyers who want to go back to the future in this, the new muscle-car era. It's possible that we're now living in the last great era of factory-built muscle cars, that events, regulations and finances will make it impossible for these types of cars to thrive in the next decade.

Perhaps. But for right now these cars resonate perhaps more broadly than many would like to admit - even with buyers who can't or won't spend the cash to own one.

Regardless, we know one thing for certain: the late King Faisal won't figure into the muscle-car equation this time around.



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