Monday, September 15, 2008

Pony Car Depression Coming to a Dealer Near You

I remember the 70's muscle/pony car depression with a clarity that most teenagers of this era cannot fathom. We're, like it or not, entering a similar age at this time, brought on, strangely enough, by almost similar pressures. To understand, one must go back -- way back -- to the year 1971. In that time, gasoline prices were going up, and cars were getting bigger and smaller at the same time. Ford had just introduced the Pinto (ugh) and, like a lot of Detroit auto makers, they were extending the sheet metal on their larger lines all the while adding things at the bottom that were whiny boxes of crap (this is the abridged version of what I have to say -- I'm deliberately leaving out a lot, thankfully).

Bear in mind that I'm viewing a lot of this through Mustang-colored-glasses. The deal is that a lot of this extends to cover all of the pony car space. Everyone was worried about the rising cost of insurance prices and the increasing demands that pollution control systems were placing on the industry in general. Between these two forces, anything of joy from a pure muscle perspective was somehow losing its soul. The Corvette became a shell of its prior self -- but it was at least somewhat true to the original formula.

In 1974, Ford made the Mustang into a Pinto derivative. In general, all of the auto makers added so much in the way of wheezing pollution controls and de-tuned a lot of the engines (lowering compression, for example) to the point where nothing seemed all that exciting. The R&D dollars were being spent on priories (lobbying, for example, was a priority).

And then the gas crunch hit (1975 or 1976 -- it's a blur to me, I was younger then). Things began to look really bad for someone who remembered the Muscle cars of the 60's. My dad and I are very much car guys, and we talked a lot about it at the time. As Detroit entered the Boxy era (Citation, Fairmont, K-cars -- remember these "appliance on wheels" products?), I lamented that the good old days were mostly behind us.

And my Dad assured me that one day they would get back to doing things with style, that had power and so on. And he was (as usual) right.

The Mustang returned with a vengeance. The Chevy Camaro, though lacking a usable back seat (key to being a good pony car, I'd argue), was a rockin' ride. Chrysler produced a bunch of things that were weird, fast and sporty (but no pony cars).

And then everyone but Ford quit. The Mustang remained the lone pony car competitor. You can argue that Ford has a heck of a product with the current gen Mustang -- I honestly think that they're not facing enough competition these days. There are some cool products -- the GT500, Shelby GT, California, Bullit -- but without some good competition, they are mainly competing with themselves. When you look at the line-up of product this year, it's not really all that changed from the stuff they were producing in 05.

So, I'm actually contemplating something that will surprise quite a few people. I'm going to seriously consider buying a new Camaro. The damn thing is gorgeous. It will all depend upon price and usable back-seat space, though. Quality is in there somewhere too.

What about the Challenger? The new Challenger is beautiful. It looks like a modernized version of true muscle -- until you get up on the thing and realize that it's *huge*. And no Automatic transmission. And 8k of dealer markup (where I was looking in PA). And that brings me to my final point.

Chevy gets it. The recipe for a Pony car includes just a few simple rules:

  • Front Engine -- 6 banger or a V8 -- both options -- in that order.
  • Seating for 4.
  • Rear-wheel-drive.
  • Two, and only two, doors.
  • A long hood, and a short trunk.
  • Some noise would help... [note: the car doesn't have to be all that sophisticated]
The Challenger fails because there's not going to be a low-buck version. Say what you want, but one of the reasons that the Mustang is so popular is because a lot of people can afford the 6 banger. They may want a GT or a Cobra, but sensibility creeps in or their budget (and possibly their insurance costs if they're young). This is important -- every one of these cars is a rolling advertisement for the automaker and the product. People see them and want them for that reason, I'd argue.

I'll wager that you're probably going to see a few new Challengers -- they'll be on dealer lots or at auto shows (likely trailered in, in that case). You're rarely going to spot someone driving it down the street to work, because they're so expensive and there are so few of them. They will become the auto equivalent to rare collector coins. Pulled out in shiny cases, shown off for a few minutes of glory, and put away for next time.

My Mustangs are not these objects -- I drive them to work. I enjoy them (both are V8's, a Mach 1 and a GT). I smile every time -- they're practical fun. They are just barely practical in many respects, but surprisingly, the Mach 1 gets better than 25 miles to the gallon during the summer.

All of this is being written, though, like we're seeing a new era emerge (new Camaro, for example, new Challenger). What we're seeing is the death of the latest generation of the Pony car wars. There will be few, if any, hybrid versions of these babies (it would disqualify them anyway). R&D costs are not going the way of the Mustang or Camaro like they are the hybrid competitor space. There will be a ton of innovations in that realm and in the alternative fuel space in general. What we're likely witnessing is a time very similar to my retrospective of 1971.

Chevy and Chrysler are arriving pretty late to the party, in other words. The Pony car era -- the latest round -- is about to morph. We're going to see a lot of change, and some of it won't be quite as pretty and elegant as this past round (that's my fear, anyway).

Here's to hoping that I'm really wrong...

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