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Muscled Out

Let’s get it straight. The retro high-performance cars seeping out of Detroit are not muscle cars. Muscle cars were built from the mid 1960s into the early ‘70s. Period. The current renditions are modern muscle replicas, suggesting the good old days but schizoid endowed with more technology than you can shake two sticks at.

So the buzz of late is that the “muscle car” is making a righteous and triumphant return. Or so it would appear. Chrysler gave it up a long time ago and GM inevitably followed. Ford Motor stood fast, made the Mustang a staple and never wavered (okay, the Mustang II really sucked) and has been welding that thought into the minds of the faithful and the curious for more than four decades. It always managed to produce a fast, clean, good-looking, desirable, and, most importantly, affordable automobile. By affordable, we’re talking a $26-$27K price schedule for a full-zoot car that makes no excuses. The 3-valve versions run, handle like crazy, and prove that modern muscle can still be built and sold at a profit.

Sure, the Corvette has endured and it always will. The Viper is a niche-maven’s godsend, but how many of us could afford a new one? Though not the only antagonist to appear in the last few years, the Pontiac (nee Holden) GTO could have kept a tenuous grip on the intermediate-car-with-big-engine history and cost the same as a Mustang GT, but it didn’t. It was still six grand away from the Ford. Was? Yeah. It’s gone again. Cars built on another continent and ferried here seem to have a notoriously short-lived existence. Did Pontiac do it just for the burn, knowing that they’d lose money on every GTO they schlepped a half a world away?

In 2008, GM (possibly GM/Toyota, GM/Renault, etc.) is to bolster its non-existent rear-drive arsenal with the new, booty-licious Camaro. The high-end version is supposed to retain all the cues and trappings of the concept (400hp aluminum V8, 6-speed manual, independent rear suspension, although the big wheels and brakes won’t make it), and still come in at the price of a Mustang GT. We’ll not be holding our breath on this one, either.

But the ground is swelling around Auburn Hills. DaimlerChrysler is building a modern muscle army. To wit: 300C/SRT8, Charger Hemi/SRT8, Magnum Hemi/STR8, Caliber SRT4 (300hp and all-wheel drive), and the honkin’ Ram SRT10. The ground under the new Challenger will soon shake from retro styling forged onto the same LX-Hemi platform. Save for the steroid truck, all these Hemi squizzies fit between the Mustang and the GTO in terms of price. But maybe price isn’t the object. Maybe that the option to have one exists at all is the object.

I’m looking at a drag test from the brown-edged pages a popular car enthusiast magazine, circa 1970. The feature car is a Dodge Charger R/T humping a 440 Six Pack and a four-speed. Even for a press car, it was loaded to the gunwales (there were no press fleet strippers): Super Track-Pack (9.5-inch Dana, viscous-drive fan, heavy-duty radiator, and power front disc brakes), R/T handling package (heavy duty springs and anti-sway bars, and F60x15 Polyglas tires). The Charger’s base price (I don’t think there was an MSRP then) was a hefty $3,711, but all this other stuff added more than a grand to the bottom line. With T&L, call it an even $5K. What’s that mean in today’s dollars?

This Charger R/T was an expensive car for the times. I could probably count on one hand the number of buyers who embraced the frippery of a six-way power driver’s seat. The R/T was clearly an upscale move (like the current Magnum to Charger SRT8 leap). And it was old time Detroit religion: Load ‘em up, move ‘em out. Give the guy who’d driven a Roadrunner two years earlier an enviable option and send him on his way to maturity.

What some people fail to grasp is that the new crop of hi-po cars is aimed not at the entry level enthusiast but at cash-rich ex-Yuppie scum, who are now Baby Boomers, late 50-, early 60-year-olds who either had a muscle car in the day or wished they had. They’re the ones with enough disposable income to have one in their garage, quite possibly right next to its vintage namesake. The modern muscle resurgence is nothing short of a small miracle. Anyone who survived the garbage that Detroit foisted on us in the ‘70s should be grateful and give thanks that these cars exist at all.  

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