I got to talking about cars with my brother a few weeks ago. He’s an old-school car guy. In high school he bought and built-up a series of rear-wheel drive, V-8 powered cars that he remembers fondly to this day. His assertion was that those cars and those times in automotive history were the waning years of the muscle car. The fading sunset of the glory days of horsepower and hot rods.
While I have a lot of affection and respect for my brother, and the cars that we pined for in our youth, I don’t quite agree that we’re doomed to long for the Good Old Days. In fact, I would submit that if you are looking for a go-faster car that you can live with (or an extreme beast that wants to eat you alive), it may be your finest hour. Granted, the 60s and 70s were a great time to be a gear-head. The problem was, I wasn’t old enough drive until the 1980s. By then, even the ‘fast’ cars had been neutuered by emissions regulations and fuel economy standards. And the technology to make it fun hadn’t caught up yet.
Yenko Super Camaro circa 1968 — Photo by Dana Hurt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46095044
But times have changed. The Camaro IROC-Z from 1987 (a car I lusted after, mightily, but could not afford), made 220 HP. Granted it made 330 Ft-Lb of torque, and it would burn it’s rear tires with enthusiasm, but that performance is underwhelming at best, in the face of today’s automotive technology. Going 0-60MPH in 6.8 seconds, the IROC was a bit faster than the 1967 Camaro SS at 8.0. But that’s still practically anchored to the road compared to a current generation Camaro V6 2LT that makes 335HP and does 0-60 in around 5.3 seconds. And that’s not the fastest modern Camaro, by an stretch. My brother would remind me that there were horsepower monsters in the days of yore (like the Yenko Super Camaro), but today we have our own dragons, and they breath fire, straight from the factory.
Dodge Challenger Hellcat SRT – Photo from Dodge ‘Build Your Own’ page, http://www.dodge.com.
The acceleration and horsepower figures in this comparison also belie the massive improvements made in handling, braking, ride comfort, safety, and drivability. Advanced ECUs, independent suspension, stability control and ABS all add up to a far more enjoyable and survivable high-performance driving experience. Granted, we don’t get the white-knuckled terror we once experienced, or the visceral feel of the some of the old gearboxes and steering, but my heart still speeds up when I throw a Subaru WRX into a corner, or pull hard away from a stop light. If I get a bit too enthusiastic and the car breaks loose, the stability control nanny will invariably step in and help me get it back in line. It’s not an excuse for poor driving skill or a license to throw good judgement out the window, but it’s nice to have a margin of error so a little mischief behind the wheel doesn’t automatically lead to a horrible accident.
We get all these benefits in addition to better fuel economy and lower emissions than ever. I know my brother would say that all of the sensors and computers that make new cars so good also make them harder to work on, since everything is buried under a layer of software and wiring. But even that appeals to the nerd in me. If something burps, I can plug in the scanner and make the car tell me what it thinks is wrong. Armed with that information I can take my car (still under warranty) to the dealer or shop and they can’t tell me a story about something that doesn’t make any sense. The tech isn’t a panacea, but it’s a tool we simply didn’t have before.
Is today a golden age for those who want to go fast or at least have a little fun? Maybe. While the genuinely superlative super car is out of reach for most of us, every car brand has a performance-oriented model within the reach of those who still have to put food on the table, pay a mortgage and balance a checkbook. There are performance driving schools popping up everywhere (please get training). And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that even a run-of-the-mill car today can outperform some of the beloved performance models of days gone by. After all you can buy a Chevy Malibu or Toyota Camry right now that makes more than 250HP and will run 0-60 in six seconds.