I'm looking through the current issue (January 2006) of Hemmings Motor News and it hits me like a ton of bricks — I will never buy another classic American muscle car.
For most people such an epiphany would be no big deal. After all, muscle cars are like teeth whitening services — nobody needs them and the cost-benefit ratio is spurious at best. But if you know my history you know that a decision to never buy another vintage V8 performance car is akin to Oprah saying, "I'm never going to cry on my show again."
It was the American muscle car that ignited my initial passion for automobiles before I was old enough to drive. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the road from high school automotive enthusiast to adult automotive professional, currently serving as editor in chief of Edmunds.com, was largely traveled behind the wheel of a 1970 Plymouth GTX. I've owned this same car since 1986, and in the past 19 years I've put 50,000 miles on it. I've also owned several other muscle cars in the past 20 years, including a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T, a 1969 Plymouth GTX and a 1973 Dodge Challenger Rallye. Additionally, I've been very close to buying everything from a 1973 Pontiac Super Duty to a 1969 Boss 302 Mustang. Put simply, I'm a certified muscle car fanatic.
So what gives? What could make a vintage American iron addict like me go cold turkey? I touched on the answer a couple years ago when I talked about my experience at the 2004 Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. While Barrett-Jackson has long been known for getting above-market prices for classic and special interest cars, the climb in muscle car values over the past five years — clearly reflected at this auction — has made Google stock look like a bad investment. In that March 2004 column I noted that while it was fun to watch the value of my GTX skyrocket it was far more disconcerting to see the overall price of these cars exit the land of "fun hobby" and enter the land of "wealthy investors."
In other words, it's tough to go out and just "have fun" with an American muscle car anymore. Now you've got everything from the initial cost to the restoration cost to the insurance cost making muscle car ownership a serious financial commitment. And we're not just talking Hemi Cudas and Shelby Mustangs. The issue of Hemmings I'm looking through has a 1974 318 Dodge Dart sedan priced at $10,900! Yes, a Dodge Dart sedan! There are brand-new cars available for less money! Similarly, a 1973 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 is in here for $39,000. For those not in the know, 1973 and 1974 were not the best years in the muscle car movement (Pontiac Super Duty notwithstanding). Most of the "muscle" from the muscle car era was long gone by the mid-'70s, and neither of the examples I just mentioned have any sort of remarkable features or historic significance. But had I the space, and you the patience, I could list off hundreds of similar vehicles from the same Hemmings issue that are neither unique in terms of production numbers nor compelling in terms of performance. All of them are cars I would generously describe as fringe players in the muscle car era. Actually, the Dart sedan is just an old car, plain and simple.
And don't assume I'm some kind of muscle car elitist who demands a numbers-matching, one-owner, limited-run model to be impressed. I fully understand and appreciate the idea that to some people a 1973 Z28 (and maybe even a 1974 Dart sedan?) could be considered a very "cool" car; something they would very much enjoy buying and owning. On the contrary, that really gets to the core point I'm making, which is that no one should have to spend between $11,000 and $40,000 "just to have some fun" with a fringe American muscle car. In 1997 those same cars would have sold for one-tenth their current amounts, and at those prices the idea of a weekend toy to enjoy makes perfect sense.
But in a few months Ford will unleash a brand-new 2007 Mustang GT500 with at least 450 horsepower and a chassis tuned to rival Corvettes and Porsches. The cost of this high-performance Mustang will be around $40,000, or essentially the same as the current asking price of a not-so-special 1973 Camaro Z28. And if you want to talk Hemi car or Shelby Mustang you can likely get a brand-new AMG Mercedes or Ford GT for the same or less money. Needless to say, these modern-day muscle cars can absolutely decimate the classic versions, not only in performance but in drivability, reliability, comfort, build quality, material quality and audio quality.
Of course, I can already hear the response from many a muscle car fan: "But Karl, that's not what those older cars are about. They have a special 'something' that makes them cool in a way the new cars just can't attain."
Hey, I've been into these cars for more than two decades. I get the whole "real American soul" bit, believe me. But let's be honest, today's $10,000-$40,000 muscle cars, like the ones listed above, are pretty thin on "soul;" they're just old cars that aren't particularly fast, nimble, comfortable or attractive. And most of the muscle cars that do have real "soul" now start at $50,000 — and go up from there.
I also understand that for many buyers these cars represent some special moment in time. Often a time when they were younger and life was simpler, blah-blah-blah. It sounds reasonable enough until I remember that they only made about 100 Hemi Cudas in 1971, so how many people really "grew up driving" one of those? Apparently enough to force the price into the millions.
Maybe I'm just too analytical, but for me it all comes down to value for the money. The way I see it, when these so-called "real" muscle cars are priced at or above brand-new BMW M3s, Porsche Boxsters, Corvette Z06s and Mustang GT500s (not to mention the upcoming Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro), neither "soul" nor rose-colored memories can justify the cost. Truly ironic when you consider that I didn't just "dream about owning one of these cars" when I was young but I actually did own one — and I still do. Maybe that's why the whole muscle car mystique isn't driving me to refinance the house for a 1968 GT500KR. I've met my heroes, and I know they have plasticky interiors, terrible gap tolerances, scary brakes and lifeless steering.
Regardless of the motivating factors, the bottom line remains — I will never buy another classic American muscle car. For a guy who's perpetually stuck in the '80s when it comes to musical tastes you'd think I'd have some feelings of remorse or nostalgia. But all I keep thinking about is when the first Shelby Mustangs will hit showrooms this spring.
Well, that and canceling my subscription to Hemmings.