Friday, May 23, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 2...

The Ford Mustang was one of the most reputable performance cars but had begun to stagnate in the ‘90s. Once the envy of adolescent boys the cars had begun to look dated against the crop of imports that were tearing up the streets. The 1965 Mustang that my father grew up admiring was much more impressive looking than the ones I saw in 1985. All of the attitude seemed to disappear in the generic shapes that seemed very popular in the '80s automotive designs. Thankfully the “Pony” was given a new lease on life at the turn of the century. The fifth generation Mustang made its debut in 2004. It brought back the styling cues of pre ‘80s Mustangs, the aggressive stance and horsepower as well. Like the Nissan IDx I had mentioned in the previous blog there were enough cues to harken back to a racing legacy while still keeping everything street legal. Sales picked up and became a steady source of revenue for Ford. By 2014 a sixth generation would be introduced, again preserving many classic elements while updating the technology behind the ride. Ford was not the only US auto maker that went back to a legacy.

Dodge actually resurrected a car that it killed off in 1974. The Dodge Challenger was synonymous with the muscle car era of the late ‘60s early ‘70s. It was big, fast and brutal. It took a few years before Dodge tried to bring back the name. Between 1978 and 1983 Dodge sold the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda under the Challenger label. The four cylinder engine and boxy shape were nothing like the muscle car of old. It faded away, especially once Mitsubishi gained a foothold in the US and could sell and distribute its own cars. Dodge was adrift for years and only recently had found its stride once more. It began by bringing back the Charger, the sister car to the Challenger in 2006. Dodge made it clear that they were going back to their roots when they announced that the Charger would not be the last muscle car to be resurrected. The third generation Challenger debuted in 2006 as a concept car but went into production in 2008. The Dodge Dart which last saw action in 1975 would also be brought back. In 2013 the Dart would replace the sporty Neon and Caliber passenger cars. The Challenger was a flagship muscle car and seemed to get the strongest push. It was modeled on the classic 1970 R/T Challenger. When it was previewed it received a strong reaction from the public and press, as much so if not more than when the IDx was unveiled in 2013.

The designers at Dodge had managed done a good job bringing back the classic styling of the Challenger. The devil was in the details; the lines of the body, headlights, hood scoops and stance were very familiar. This was nothing at all like the Mitsubishi Galant that Dodge had tried to pass off as a Challenger two decades earlier. This was an honest to goodness remake of an icon. Fans that missed out, or were not even born during the first wave of muscle cars were experiencing a renaissance.

The Muscle Car became a part of the American identity in the mid to late '60s. The powerful production car appealed to many baby boomers as they were entering adulthood. An entire cult of speed and power seemed to rise up overnight. The cars from that era pulled the fledgling NASCAR out of the golden era of pre-WWII rounded bodies with white wall tires and into more streamlined and more powerful performance vehicles. The Daytona, named after the famous racetrack in Florida, the Superbird (a modified Road Runner), the Challenger, Barracuda and Charger became synonymous with speed. Each manufacturer offered its own special performance packages to take already powerful car to absurd heights. Dodge for example had its in-house MOPAR brand, the MOtor PARts for performance. MOPAR was to Dodge what NISMO was to Nissan. These cars became branded with bright colorful decals to let everyone on the street know what they were up against.

The Super Bee for example was a limited production car based on the Coronet. It was meant to rival Plymouth's Road Runner line. Dodge and Plymouth were sister companies and their respective performance groups MOPAR and SRT (Street and Racing Technology) were constantly trying to come up with better performance packages. Dodge had a "Scat Pack" which appealed to drag racers. It included changes to the engine, exhaust, frame and suspension which made the brutal muscle cars even more menacing. The Super Bee logo was derived from the Scat Pack Bee logo. The iconography of the cars of that era, from cartoon Road Runners, to Cobras, racing bees and even the word HEMI became ingrained in US culture. A few decades later there was a new beast on the block. Dodge created a Ram Truck with a powerful HEMI motor and decorated it in the livery of the classic muscle cars. The result was the Rumble Bee, a perfect marriage of the new and old. There were two "Swarms" of the truck released, the 2004 and 2005 models, and then quietly discontinued. By the time the driving community was catching on it was too late. The limited production muscle cars had returned in a way and those that got on board were rewarded by the exclusivity. Dodge used the positive reaction to the Rumble Bee to build a case with the parent company, then Daimler Chrysler, to pursue a return to the Charger, Challenger and Dart as well as the performance packages. It was a long time coming and would have arrived sooner if not for the sluggish reaction that the US auto industry had during the '80s. When it came to the evolution of the automobile the rest of the world was not asleep. Japan, Germany and Italy had adapted to change quickly. Those nations had to especially as they were rebuilding from the ravages of World War II. How those nations forever changed the landscape of car culture will be explored in the next blog.

1 comment:

  1. Have you seen the new Dodge Challenger? It's a refreshed model with 1971 styling cues, a new interior, and 8-speed automatics available on the V6 and V8 models. Then there's the SRT Hellcat model with a supercharged 6.2 liter Hemi V8 making at least 600 horsepower, a great middle finger to the incoming CAFE standards.