TOMORROW THE LAST Chevrolet Camaro will roll off the assembly line in Quebec, news that has saddened and shocked old muscle car aficionados here.
The fans don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with the Camaro, they say. It’s better looking than its lifelong competition, the Ford Mustang, and the Z-28–the performance model–packs a tire-smoking 325 horsepower engine.
Its sister model, the Pontiac Firebird, is going too, which is even harder to fathom. Over the past few years Pontiac has fashioned some awesome-looking bodies for its sports coupe, real scooped and swooped head-turners–dream cars that boys might draw in the margins of their school notebooks.
While the newer Camaros and Firebirds are more sculpted than the road-hugging, angular 1970s and ’80s models, they still offer an affordable alternative to the high-priced Corvette. Designed in the mid-’60s to counter Ford’s massively popular pony car, the Mustang, for years both the Camaro and the Firebird were favorites with teenage gearheads–cheap enough to buy used, easy to work on, and powerful enough to race on the streets. And unlike the Mustang, it didn’t change into a weak compact during the energy crisis. The engines may have been smaller, but the sporty styling stayed the same. The Camaro was never wimpy.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, the Camaro’s low-slung look also appealed to young women. It’s a cliche now, a trope overused in the movies. A few nights ago I was watching Uma Thurman pretending to be a working-class Jersey girl in the late ’80s; of course she drove a Camaro, and bragged about it to a guy she met in a bar. In that era, the single guy with the mustache would have driven a Camaro too.
It was a cool car, a car you’d smoke dope in and blast heavy metal from the stereo as you tore down the New Jersey Turnpike after a concert at the Meadowlands. It was a car you waxed so it shone and then took it out to the parking lot downtown on a Friday night and leaned against it, the cops eyeing you as they cruised by. It was a car that had rally stripes on the hood, or, in the case of the Firebird, a huge gold decal of a phoenix. Air scoops, V-8 engine, dual exhausts and deep tone mufflers. It was a loud car that people looked at, a car to be seen in on the street. It was tough.
It’s still a hot car–the cops use hopped-up versions to run down people on the interstates–and it handles better than it did in earlier incarnations, but compared to most cars nowadays, it’s limited. One of the last rear-wheel drive cars in production, the Camaro is practically useless in wet or winter weather; just a touch of the gas pedal and the back end slips. Worse, the hood and windshield are so sloped in the new models that an average-sized person has to awkwardly hunch down in the driver’s seat just to see.
And while the new Firebirds look cool, it’s a mass-manufactured cool, a cool you have to pay for right there at the dealership. Teenage gearheads are deeper into performance cars than ever, but not big Detroit metal, and definitely nothing stock. The new street racing culture, as exploited and celebrated in “The Fast and the Furious,” centers around Hondas and Acuras, Toyotas and Nissans and Mitsubishis–cars picked up used and then reworked into cool-looking performance cars using aftermarket modifications. The fun isn’t buying a cool car but creating one–just like it was back in the hot rod ’50s or the low-rider ’70s. America is a do-it-yourself nation, and on the streets, as in any pop culture, the kids will have their say.