Brains vs. Brawn: The Return of American Muscle

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In the US, muscle cars are back, in a big way.

Sales of the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler 300 have been strong, and retro styling themes have been cropping up in numerous production cars as well as show cars, reflecting on past glories of American V8’s and fins. (And this is leaving out other brawny retro creations such as the Ford GT40, which looks almost identical to the original on the exterior.)

At the Detroit Auto Show last week there were a couple of big concept car announcements along these lines, the Chevrolet Camaro and the Dodge Challenger. The Camaro of course is a revival of a nameplate that’s been absent for a few years, while the Challenger hasn’t been seen for a lot longer. Of the two new concepts, the Camaro is by far the more interesting and successful design, clearly harking back to the very first model from 1967-9, regarded by many (including myself) as the best looking of all. The proportions, surfacing and detailing are all more modern, however.

The Challenger is, well, Peter Lorenzo at Auto Extremist sums it up nicely:

First of all, the Challenger, though obviously calculated to be an improvement on the original in every respect, was far too literal in the flesh. Yes, it was cool and everything, but Chip Foose could have easily created something just like it in his shop. And the fact that Chrysler designers went around “fixing” all of the things that were wrong on the original and stopped there, left them no room to take the car further or “reach” with it in the future. The Challenger garnered lots of attention for Chrysler in the weeks leading up to the show, but by the time the actual media days arrived, it came off as a one-off custom hot rod designed to add a little eye candy to the Dodge display - and nothing more.

Why are American cars getting so muscle-bound? Perhaps it’s an after effect of 9/11, a “fuck you, get outta my way” statement. These cars are retro-actively bringing back idyllic times of 30 years ago where cars were about emotion and soul and Saturday nights. (A time that a lot of the young designers working on these cars will have no first hand memory of, if they had even been born by then.)

Ah yes, the heady days of the early 70’s. 

But the world is more complicated now, and getting caught up in chest-thumping and nostalgic recollections of simplistic Americana is counter-productive.

The other thing people were doing a lot of in the early 1970’s was waiting in line at fuel pumps. Japanese companies with odd sounding names like Toyota introduced cars that looked kinda funny and weren’t that good, but they were inexpensive, reliable and got great economy. They learned fast, and have continued to do so.

Now Toyota is introducing hybrids that are (more) expensive (than equivalent non-hybrids), but are (just as) reliable and sip (even less) gas. To date they have looked kinda funny, which has made them stand out and made them iconic in Leonardo-drives-one kind of way. But in certain sectors of the country they have six month waiting lists. At the Berkeley, California Toyota dealership, near where I live, over 50% of their sales are Prius hybrids. These are considered fringe whacko people by magazines like Car and Driver, but that’s about to change, and change in a big way.

camry_hybrid.jpgAt the same show as the Camaro concept, Toyota also introduced its most mainstream hybrid yet, a new Camry, which will be available with its Hybrid-Synergy Drive. The hybrid engines require very sophisticated technology and Toyota and Honda have a multi-year jump on the American companies, and the gap is only getting bigger (so much so that Ford is licensing the hybrid technology for its SUVs from Toyota). One can imagine a world of “Toyota Inside” where engines are sold like CPU’s because they are too complex for most companies to bother developing internally. (And Toyota collects revenue from all its competitors.) These are brainier engines, not just brawnier ones, developed by companies that embrace braininess, not just brawniness.

Cars like the Camry will take the technology mainstream, since it is about the best selling car in the US of A. The Camry is the epitome of the anti-muscle car: family, boring, predictable. Or is it? Past versions have certainly been so, but with the new model Toyota has significantly boosted the testosterone level on the styling in order to appeal more to male buyers. It doesn’t get your heart pumping the way the Camaro does, but…

Brains vs. Brawn. Today American companies (and probably most consumers) see these as self-excluding opposites. I’m willing to bet that in five years, if not less, Toyota or Honda will prove them wrong and we’ll see true sports cars getting 50mpg.