Watching Ford bathe in the glory of its resurgent, retro-style Mustang has surely been agonizing for General Motors -- as well as deja vu all over again.
Back in 1964, when the first Mustang appeared, GM also had to stand there empty handed, with nothing to offer customers but fumbling excuses -- and promises that something was in the works. Three years later, in 1967, the first Camaro finally appeared. It was a good-looking car and did well. But the Mustang had a critical three-year head start. Camaro was caught playing catch-up. It had some good years -- especially in the mid-late 1970s and through the 1980s, when Tuned Port Injection IROC-Zs were as common as Ocean Pacific shorts and boom boxes as street performers -- but faltered badly in the 1990s after a not-so-hot restyle.
Sales drooped to unsustainable levels within a few years and GM eventually cancelled the Camaro (and its sheetmetal sister, the Pontiac Firebird) after the 2002 model year.
Now GM is frantically rushing an all-new Camaro to market, perhaps as soon as 2007. The news has been accompanied by great fanfare and hagiographical commentary in the motor press -- the same way news that Pontiac would be bringing back the GTO ginned up much tub-thumping and happy scribbling back in 2003. (Much of this rah-rahing issued from the pens and laptops of over-40 guys who could remember the good old days when obstreperous V-8 muscle cars prowled the streets -- and pined for their youthful days-gone-by returning.)
But the revived GTO died quickly and quietly -- despite heroic horsepower numbers and better performance than any classic-era GTO ever delivered. Some of us saw it coming from the get-go.
The new Camaro will probably die on the vine for the same reasons -- and a couple of new ones, too.
And again, it's not all that hard to understand why. Or to see the iceberg dead ahead.
Unlike the Mustang -- which has always managed to appeal to a broad base of buyers ranging from young women to old men and everyone in between -- the Camaro is and always has been a strutting muscle machine. A car for drive-throughs, Friday night cruising, and teenage boys.
That works fine when it's 1969 -- and young, single guys can still afford to buy (and insure) such a car. It doesn't work so well in today's hamstrung, hyper-regulated and cost-inflated world. Part of what killed the latter-day GTO was its $30k price point. The young (under 30) guys who might want such a car couldn't afford it -- and the older guys who could had grown up. They wanted something less goofy. So did their wives. The same problem will surely beset the coming Camaro -- unless GM, by some miracle of Enron-esque accounting, figures out a way to sell the thing for less than $25,000.
And that still leaves the insurance issue. (Will GM offer to cover the nut?) And the reality that the market slice for cars of this type has become narrower than Paris Hilton's waistline. Ford has already vacuumed up a goodly chunk of the prospective buyers. Import sport compacts will prove stiff competition for the remainder. How many new Camaros must GM sell to make the project economically viable? And how hard will that be given the late start, limited buyer pool -- and the very real danger of $3 per gallon (or more) fuel? A 15 mpg V-8 muscle car in a world of $70 fill-ups is apt to be about as popular as Hummers and Navigators and Excursions -- sheetmetal Brontosauri that face extinction (or at least, massive discounting just to get them off dealers' lots).
These are daunting challenges.
But the thing that will drive a stake through the new Camaro's hood, deep into its small-block heart, is the polarizing, hyper-macho cod piece styling. If the production car ends up looking like the show car that's been in every buff magazine and all over the news, it will be the belly flop heard 'round the world.
The enduring genius of Ford's Mustang is that it transcends testosterone -- and the muscle car era. Fitted with a hi-po engine and stripes, it's a car that guys absolutely love. But it doesn't alienate women -- and women are half the market, don't forget (and most guys have a woman in their lives who they'd prefer not to annoy with their choice of car). The previous generation (1994-2002) Camaro was an "in your face" kind of car -- and so is this new one. You either love it -- or you hate it. And the question is, can GM afford such a confrontational machine with inherently limited appeal -- one that's already hobbled by being late to the game, fighting for a relatively small subset of prospective buyers and which will likely arrive just in time for the next ugly uptick in gas prices?
The smart money (or mine, at least) says don't bet the farm on it.
It's 2007 -- not 1967.
Like a botox'd, aerobicized, fish-netted Cher crooning on the mothballed battleship Iowa, you can sing longingly about turning back time all you like. Actually doing it, of course, is a tougher thing to engineer.
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