Amid the crash and burn of General Motors ( GMGMQ), the Detroit carmaker said goodbye to its Pontiac brand. Any tears shed had less to do with cars for sale today. They were a reaction to the history behind the makes and models. The 1964 Pontiac GTO kick-started the era of the muscle car, setting the stage for full-throated, supercharged monsters of steel and chrome. In its oil-slicked wake came the Ford ( F) Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Trans Am, Ford Torino and Hemi-powered Plymouth Barracuda. Those leviathans feasted on asphalt for about a decade. Then they either disappeared or were redesigned beyond recognition.
But now, one by one, muscle cars are coming back. One should wonder why. There is a new Camaro on the streets and new Mustang models on lots. The Charger has also been resurrected, courtesy of Chrysler. It's true, of course, that these are classic cars and true pieces of Americana. After all, no one is demanding the return of the AMC Gremlin. And, yes, sales thus far are pretty good. In May, the month it was released, the Camaro outsold Honda's ( HMC) Insight, a hybrid, by nearly two to one. The trend continued last month, with Camaros selling 9,320 units. Ford sold 7,632 Mustangs. That may have more to do with the initial "cool" factor than any long-term trend. For younger drivers, smaller cars -- with greater maneuverability in urban environments -- are more desirable. They want technology and gizmos. They want an engine that is state-of-the art and an interior to match. They want TomToms ( TMOAF.PK) and Garmins ( GRMN). They want Bose ( BOSE) speaker systems, built-in MP3s and Apple ( AAPL) iPods and Sony ( SNE) DVD players, for when they have to keep the kids occupied. They care more about the environment than blowing away the guy next to them when the light turns green.
These are also not the true powerhouses of days gone by. Many of the new models have V-6 engines, and future makes may even comply with increasingly strict government fuel standards by attempting to maximize a 4-cylinder setup. It may tell you all you need to know when you consider the fact that Ford is said to be fine-tuning a tube that, from beneath the hood, will amplify the engine sound to make drivers feel like there's more vroom to their vroom-vroom. Eric Peters is an automotive columnist, author of "Automotive Atrocities" and car blogger. Even as a fan of old-school muscle cars -- and the proud owner of a "Smokey and the Bandit" era Trans Am -- he is skeptical the marketplace push will yield long-lasting benefits. "The original muscle cars existed when there was no equivalent in performance sedans and hatchbacks -- like the current Mitsubishi EVO and Subaru ( FUJHY) WRX -- which meant they had a much stronger market position and fewer competitors," he says. "Today, buyers have the option of choosing a sedan or hatchback that can match the acceleration and handling of a muscle coupe, but that also work as a family car or daily driver." Also, the nostalgia factor is wearing off, as few men under 40 years old have an emotional bond or direct experience with big V-8s. Meanwhile, the over-40s with some money want a BMW or Lexus, Peters says. Government regulation may be a speed bump for new muscle cars.
"The recently passed 35 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy edict is a virtual death knell for these kinds of cars, which average in the low- to mid-20s," he says. "Add to this the prospect of $4, or even $5, per gallon gas -- a not unlikely thing that many buyers are scared to death thinking about -- and you can see the floor falling out from under these cars." Until the hype fades away, let's hope that new muscle-car owners can resist the urge to paint a screaming eagle on the hood.