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Muscle Rebound

America's Love affair with performance machine Cruises back onto the new-car market
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

What's left of his hair is a lot grayer now, and creases line his forehead. But when Bob Norton slips behind the wheel of his lovingly restored '57 Chevy, he's 17 all over again. So it's probably not surprising that come mid-August, you're likely to find him in Detroit cruising Woodward Avenue most evenings, the same eight-lane boulevard where he spent hot summer nights as a teenager.

Norton's not alone. Every August, when you'd expect to find folks sitting down for supper, Woodward is transformed into Muscle Car Memory Lane, a sort of roadside revival session. The numbers grow by the day -- until that climactic Saturday known as Dream Cruise. Even the blackout that shut down most of the Northeast couldn't dampen the enthusiasm this past August. With a helping hand from the governor, who ordered tanker-loads of gasoline trucked in, more than a million people lined the length of Woodward Avenue, some to drive their hot rods, muscle cars and sports cars, sports cars, others to simply lay back in lawn chairs and watch the slowly moving paean to classic American muscle.

Don't think that the auto industry didn't notice. Carmakers are mounting a comeback of the sort of performance cars that paraded daily (and nightly) in their own backyard before the oil pinch.

Forget Los Angeles and American Graffiti. In those balmy years bookmarked by the Korean and Vietnam wars, the real action was on Woodward Avenue. Late at night, you'd find the youth of Detroit cruising the strip that served as a demarcation line between the Motor City's east and west sides. "You'd get your wheels and your girlfriend and go out there, sometimes driving, sometimes racing, and always showing your car off," recalls Jim Wangers. He should know. As General Motors' resident marketing genius in the 1960s, Wangers helped launch the muscle car phenomenon and market and create that ultimate of cruisers, the Pontiac GTO.

The action would start each night at the Totem Pole diner near Ten Mile Road. The kids would wolf down Big Chief burgers before beginning the nightly ritual, heading north to Pontiac -- then cruising back again. "You told your old man you were going to the library when you were really going cruising," recalls Cheryl Reno. (You're likely to spot her at the Dream Cruise each summer in her original pink poodle skirt, lamenting the day she finally got grounded for good -- by a new job.)

More than occasionally, the Woodward regulars would spot a ringer. Some of Detroit's top engineers, even some ranking executives, like GM's John Z. DeLorean, would show up in prototype Mustangs, Barracudas, Firebirds or Javelins. They'd make a few high-speed runs down Woodward hoping to gauge the reaction and build word of mouth. You could build a legend by outrunning an underpowered police cruiser, though one night Wangers got caught in his ticket-me-red '64 "Goat." "The cop was angry," he recalls, "but also loved cars. He said to me, 'I'm going to be nice to you this time, but only if you promise to sell the car to me when you get tired of it.'" A few months later, Wangers wisely sold it to him for $1,200 -- something he still regrets. Of course, Detroit wasn't the only place where muscle cars ruled the road. Across America, from Ocean Avenue in Asbury Park to Van Nuys Boulevard in L.A., you'd hear tires squealing late into the night.

Those seemingly endless summer evenings started to grow chilly during the turbulent late '60s, as the suburbs started to sprawl and youngsters took to the street to protest, rather than play. The cops started cracking down with big fines and confiscating cars. Then the twin oil shocks of the 1970s drained the classic American muscle cars dry. Suddenly, a generation of socially conscious youth traded in their gas-guzzling, V-8-powered Detroit iron for fuel-sipping imports that could take them to antiwar rallies on a pint of gas.

CRUISING REBORN

That might have been the end of it, had it not been for the need to fix up a run-down soccer field. An old cruiser named Nelson House came up with a novel way to raise some money by staging a classic car show in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale. Now, there'd been plenty of muscle- car and hot-rod rallies over the years. But what House had in mind wasn't the usual car show. He wasn't interested in simply parking his car to watch other people admire it. What he had in mind was more like a cruise-in.

That first year, 1995, things were more than a bit anarchic. No one quite knew when or where things were supposed to happen. People just showed up in their old hot rods and muscle cars and started driving, just like they did when those cars were new. True, most folks were a little older and a good bit thicker 'round the middle. The Totem Pole was gone, replaced by the service drive of a new interstate. They didn't wear roller skates at the Big Boy anymore, and you had to go inside for a Coke. Yet the idea struck a responsive chord, and as word got around, more and more folks started to join in.

Suddenly, they started using the word "annual" to describe what was happening. The crowds got bigger and bigger, and by the late 1990s, Dream Cruise Saturday started attracting more than 35,000 vintage muscle cars and hot rods -- including some shipped in from as far away as Australia. At least a million more folks could be expected to simply park along the boulevard and watch the cruisers go by. These days, the event has become a weeklong rally, folks showing up every evening, like they did in the old days, just before the sun goes down, for the long run up to Pontiac and back.

The story's repeating itself all across the country, in places like Reno, Nevada, where the annual Hot Summer Nights rally has become a magnet, drawing cruisers from all over the West.

"You wonder where all these people hoarded all these cars all these years. I just can't believe they're still around," says Dick Barron, watching this year's Cruise on Woodward. His own '68 Chevy C-10 pickup was featured in last year's more or less official Dream Cruise calendar. Like many old cruisers, Barron lamented muscle's demise. But before the afternoon was over, he'd get a look at a new generation of machines likely to keep him -- and his kids -- cruising for years.

Rolling down Woodward was one of the hottest cruisers since the Beach Boys wailed out "Little Deuce Coupe." Think of the 400-horsepower, retro-styled Chevrolet SSR as "the Corvette pickup," explains General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner, who claimed rank to drive the prototype during this year's Cruise. The SSR is just one of many new muscle cars the Motor City's ready to roll out.

REDEFINING THE MUSCLE CAR

"Performance is back," declares Mark Reuss, the man in charge of putting performance back in the General Motors lineup. The son of a former GM president, Reuss was too young to experience the cruising phenomenon for himself, unless you count the Matchbox muscle cars he played with as a kid. But he's making up for lost time. His team got the SSR show truck ready for production. Short for Super Sport Roadster, it's a cross between a retro-styled hot rod, a pickup and a convertible. All powered by a short-block 5.3-liter V-8.

Over the next couple years, GM intends to introduce high-performance versions of many of its more mundane models, including Saturn's new Red Line Series. The automaker's taking aim at European-style roadsters, with its new Cadillac XLR. And, of course, there's the Corvette, that classic American two-seater. An all-new version, known to aficionados as the C6, will debut in mid-2004.

This particular afternoon, Reuss has his mind on a very different sort of muscle car. Strapping on a helmet, he slips behind the wheel of a prototype Cadillac CTS-V, shifts into first -- and leaves a long patch of rubber down pit lane at the Road America raceway near Milwaukee.

Caddy's jet-black sedan is a modified version of the compact CTS-V, which the automaker introduced two years ago. You might not notice much of a difference at first, though the bright chrome mesh grille is the giveaway. Under the hood, the base car's modest V-6 has been replaced by GM's LS6 V-8, the same 5.7-liter engine found in the Corvette. It boosts the base car's pony count by a tire-spinning 85 percent and lets the CTS-V turn 0-60 times of barely 4.6 seconds -- more than a match for your classic muscle car.

In the old days, says Reuss, "anybody could stick a big engine in a car." And that was all you needed -- if you were only trying to get a fast launch when the light turned green. Cars like the original GTO were little more than "fire breathers," he points out, capable of incredible burnouts. You just didn't want to have to turn -- or stop -- in a hurry. These days, his team is trying to redefine the muscle car, turning it into a "total vehicle experience."

To understand what that means, take a closer look at the CTS-V. For one thing, it's equipped with four-piston, 355-mm front Brembo brakes and 365-mm rears. In plain English, the car stops as fast as it starts. The base car's suspension has been retuned. There are stiffer springs, a crossbeam connecting the front shock towers, and specially designed tires. Tellingly, engineers didn't spend much of their time on Woodward. They did their development work on Germany's Nürburgring racetrack, the world's most challenging road course.

BATTLE OF THE TITANS

You hear a lot of English over at the 'Ring these days. Ford engineers also headed for Germany to test their jaw-dropping GT. Designed to celebrate the automaker's centennial, the two-seat supercar is a modern incarnation of the GT40, the Ford race car that swept to victory at Le Mans in the late 1960s.

"We've always wanted to build a version for the streets," says Chris Theodore, who heads advanced product development for Ford, and the man overseeing the program -- which, incidentally, was given the code name Petunia to keep things secret as long as possible. "Maybe we had too much wine," Theodore says with a wide grin.

"The old GT40 wasn't worth a hoot to drive on the street," recalls the inimitable Carroll Shelby, who worked on the original race car and came back as a consultant on the new GT program. Though some cars eventually were driven on the street, the GT40 was designed with one purpose in mind: racing. The 40 referred to the car's height in inches, and indeed, it was so low-slung that Ford had to install the famous "Gurney bubble" on some cars, so the lanky race driver, Dan Gurney, could fit inside.

Gurney himself took a turn driving the new car around the Monterey Peninsula's unforgiving Laguna Seca racetrack recently. He admits he was "skeptical" when he heard about the GT project, but he came away from the drive "hopeful." The new car's aluminum space frame is wrapped in a mostly aluminum, largely hand-assembled body. Though the car looks uncannily like the original, supercomputer simulations helped Ford engineers to overcome one of the problems that plagued Gurney and the other members of the GT40's Le Mans team: the car's tendency to develop lift above 140 mph.

The new GT may be track ready, but it's also street legal -- as long as you can control your right foot. There'll be plenty of temptation to mash the throttle and experience the 500 horsepower and 500 foot-pounds of torque roaring out of its massive V-8.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Of course, with a price tag of nearly $150,000 and plans to build no more than 1,500 cars a year, not many folks will get to experience the GT. Even at a much more modest $50,000, the CTS-V isn't exactly a mass-market muscle car. The good news is that there'll be plenty of more affordable offerings coming from Detroit soon.

The list starts with an all-new version of the American archetype, the Pontiac GTO. "We have to earn our credibility back. If you don't deliver, you're not playing," explains Lynn Meyers, the general manager of GM's Pontiac division, which is struggling to rebuild its reputation for delivering affordable performance cars.

Perhaps no muscle car nameplate has such a loyal following, which may explain the mix of excitement and disappointment that greeted its resurrection. For one thing, this "classic American muscle car" isn't one. It's actually a tricked-out version of the Monaro, built by GM's Australian division, Holden. Those who lovingly embraced the original GTO's angular edges and upright, in-your-face grille let out a howl of protest over the new car's jelly-bean shape. GM car czar Bob Lutz insists that's how the GTO would have "evolved" over the years, though insiders admit the new car's design is more a case of expediency.


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