Slow fade of American muscle cars poses challenge for automakers

The Dallas Morning News - Terry Box

TULSA, Okla. — Rushing through torrential rain on Interstate 44, the Shelby Mustang GT 500 splashes smoothly through road pools at speed.
This extreme 500-horsepower muscle car — the newest factory hot rod from Detroit — weathered that storm with ease and grace. But the GT 500 and other domestic muscle cars may face tougher tests ahead.

Although demand for the GT 500 is so high that it has pushed the car's $42,000 base price to $50,000 or more at many dealerships, some industry observers think it could be the last 500-horsepower muscle car to come out of Detroit.
With gas prices high and baby-boomer buyers nearing retirement, the sun may be setting on traditional American muscle cars.
The genre was born more than 40 years ago and revived in the early '90s with the Dodge Viper, whose V-10 engine now pumps out 520 horsepower.
Moreover, as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. struggle financially, the money to develop these cars may be limited — particularly if the number of potential buyers is dwindling.

Moreover, as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. struggle financially, the money to develop these cars may be limited — particularly if the number of potential buyers is dwindling.

"I think there is a built-in demographic for these cars now," said Michael Jordan, chief of Automobile magazine's Los Angeles bureau, who wrote a story on muscle cars for the July issue.

"But it's totally correct to say this is not a big boom market. I just don't see more of the ... (500-horsepower cars) coming from Detroit."

Though no one is predicting the imminent demise of all muscle cars, their slow fade could pose a significant challenge for Detroit.

Although the cars primarily appeal to over-50 buyers, they are the Big Three's main "halo" vehicles — attention-grabbers for the entire brand.
Without high-profile cars like the GT 500 — which should arrive at dealerships within 60 days — and the Z06 Corvette, the Dodge Viper and Charger SRT-8, "the domestics are left with nothing in the way of halo vehicles," said Wes Brown, an analyst at industry consultant Iceology in Los Angeles.
"I don't know if we are at the peak or not," he said. "I guess it will be determined by how well these cars are executed."

"I don't see the Europeans backing away from selling luxury cars with these massive V-8s and huge horsepower," Brown said. "But that's low volume.
"If you want to keep your (sales) volumes high, there could be some resistance to bigger V-8s with high horsepower, particularly if gas stays high."

Muscle cars may evolve into smaller, lighter, more economical vehicles that appeal to younger buyers, but they won't fade away altogether, predicted Jim Sanfillippo, executive vice president of industry consultant AMCI Inc. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
"Do these cars have a bright future?" Sanfillippo said. "No. But they were always a niche. What you will see in the future is smaller-displacement V-8s, direct injection for power and efficiency, lighter materials. They may be different from today's muscle cars, but they will still be muscle cars."

With the arrival of the GT 500, four domestic vehicles now have at least 500 horsepower — including the Corvette Z06, Dodge Viper, and Dodge Ram SRT-10.
Sales of those low-volume, ultra-high-performance vehicles are likely to slow first, industry officials say.

"I don't know whether we'll see more of these (500-horsepower) cars or not," said legendary Texas racer Carroll Shelby, who built the original GT 350 and GT 500 Mustangs for Ford in the 1960s and worked with the company on the current car.
"Five hundred is about as much horsepower as you can put on the ground and use. This horsepower race is kind of stupid."

Nonetheless, Shelby, 83, who is one of the oldest living transplant-organ recipients (heart and kidney), expects to work with Ford on another specialty Mustang.
"I'm happy with the GT 500," he said from his ranch in East Texas. "It's a really well-thought-out, balanced car."

All told, ultra-high-performance cars account for less than 100,000 sales — a tiny portion of the overall new-vehicle market of about 17 million annually.
But muscle cars are enormously influential.
The GT 500, for example, is on the July cover of Car and Driver, Automobile and Motor Trend magazines.

Angus MacKenzie, editor in chief of Motor Trend, believes that high gas prices will affect every segment of the auto industry.
But MacKenzie, who completed a 3,500-mile coast-to-coast trip in a GT 500 for a cover story on the car, doesn't think they will kill muscle cars — just reshape them.

He and others in the industry expect Chevrolet to build a new Camaro and Dodge to build a new Challenger, providing more opportunities for future muscle cars.
In fact, Chrysler Group officials announced Saturday at a NASCAR race in Daytona that the company will build the Challenger. It's expected to arrive at dealerships in about a year.

"Americans don't want small cars," MacKenzie said. "They want cars that deliver good mileage."

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