How I Helped Kill the F-body

OK, so maybe I'm giving myself too much credit for the death of GM's pony cars. I mean, the decision to kill the Camaro and Firebird after the 2002 model year has been rumored for years and was probably finalized long ago. But the fact remains that when it came time to spend my own money on a new performance vehicle, I didn't choose one of the General's max "bang for the buck" offerings, but instead purchased the vehicle for which the term "pony car" was originally coined.

This is important, and I'm burning an entire Carmudgeon column on it, for a couple of reasons (Ha! You thought it was just an excuse to show off my new toy!). First, it's not easy to get an automotive journalist to spend his own money on a car. We are world-class cheapskates when it comes to new-vehicle purchases for the simple reason that we get to drive dozens of brand-new cars every year without spending a dime. For us, buying a new car is akin to the President's buying himself a gun for self defense when he has dozens of guns (and people) who exist solely to protect him — all of them supplied at no cost.

My decision to go Blue Oval rather than Bow Tie is important for another reason, one that relates to my background. I grew up driving muscle cars. I have a full appreciation for powerful front-engine, rear-drive unsophisticated conveyances. To put it bluntly, I love classic American Iron and the type of low-buck, high-performance machinery that this country used to produce. What this also means is that I am exactly who GM and Ford have in mind when they try to sell their latest versions of the American Muscle Car.

Finally, I am, by nature, a Chrysler man. Almost every vehicle I've owned over the past 16 years has been a Pentastar product. Yet something has kept me from buying Dodge's modern entry into the rear-drive performance coupe market, the Viper; I believe it has something to do with that vehicle's $70,000 sticker price (Chrysler obviously isn't concerned about the "low buck" component of the classic American performance car). With Chrysler out of the picture, my options for a modern interpretation of the classic American coupe were down to GM and Ford. Having no previous ties to either company, I could have decided to go either way.

As my friends and colleagues can affirm, I've long respected the amount of horsepower GM offers in its modern muscle cars. At just over $20,000 for a 310-horsepower Z28 Camaro, this car is simply a screaming performance bargain. It can peel off 5.5-second 0-to-60 times all day while its rumbling exhaust note leaves you as giddy as a front-row Britney Spears fan. Muscle car maniacs, young and old, will tell you that when it comes to creating the ultimate thrill ride, horsepower is king!

Over in the Ford camp, the Mustang has struggled to keep up with the F-bodies ever since the Camaro and Firebird were redesigned in 1993. GM's 275 horsepower and six-speed manual transmission effectively trumped the venerable pony back then, and Ford has yet to catch up in either area, except for the limited production (and pricey) Cobra models.

But a funny thing happened after the F-bodies' last major redesign: They stopped selling. Well, not completely; in fact, last year GM sold more than 70,000 Camaros and Firebirds combined. However, that same year saw 173,000 Mustangs leave showrooms, even though the comparable Fords are more expensive.

"How is that possible?" you ask yourself. "How does a less expensive car, with more horsepower, a six-speed transmission and superior overall performance sell worse than a slower muscle car that costs more?"

I've been asking myself (yeah, me, the guy who just bought a Mustang) the same question for at least five years. But now that I've spent my own money, I believe I have the answer.

Issue #1: Image
Ask anyone who was around during the last muscle car era, and they'll tell you that while horsepower was king, image was God. In 1966, Chrysler unleashed a slew of models that came with either a 440 cubic inch or a 426 Hemi engine, creating some of the most powerful street-legal cars ever sold. And sell they did, but not as well as the slower Pontiac GTOs or Chevy Chevelles. Why? Because GM had a marketing department that consistently left Chrysler's in the dust, regardless of actual vehicle performance.

Today the same thing is occurring between the Mustang and GM's F-bodies — only this time GM is on the losing side. While a quick glance at any performance spec sheet shows the Camaro and Firebird with a clear advantage, the Mustang has something infinitely more powerful: a long-term love affair with the American driver that Ford has carefully nurtured over the past 37 years. Only the Corvette comes close to the Mustang in terms of history and heritage. And in the Mustang Bullitt's case, the car has a genetic link to one of the coolest car chase sequences ever put on film, with arguably one of the coolest actors in history (Steve McQueen) behind the wheel. Just the fact that Ford is willing to build something like the Mustang Bullitt is a sign that the company truly values the Mustang nameplate. Throw in the advertising and promotion Ford spends on the Mustang on a regular basis, and it's clear that this company is committed to keeping its pony car around for the duration.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet and Pontiac dealers will readily admit that the General has allocated few, if any, resources for promoting the Camaro and Firebird in recent years. As a result, plenty of potential buyers aren't even aware of the pricing and performance advantages the F-bodies have over the Mustang.

Even worse are the styling blunders committed by GM in recent years. Most fans agree that the original 1993 cars from the last redesign looked pretty good. The Camaro had a slick, yet purposeful, look, while the Firebird continued to get smoother and sleeker. By 1998, however, the Camaro had grown bulbous "eyes" where the ominous headlight openings used to be, and the Firebird had grown bulbous everywhere. The 1999 styling updates to the Mustang were controversial in their own right, with many critics (myself included) dubbing the car too angular and disjointed.

Truth be told, if someone had forced me to choose a muscle car to purchase in 1999, I'd have probably gone with the 30th Anniversary Firebird Trans Am. While a bit ... um ... overdone for some people's tastes, this limited-edition model combined a compelling mix of heritage styling cues and outright performance, successfully capturing the magic of the original model on which it was based. Additional features, like a Monsoon sound system and T-top roof, further added to the car's boisterous nature.

Sure, the Firebird's styling isn't exactly subdued, but compared to the "jelly bean curves meets New Edge clutter" of the current Mustang, the Pontiac at least appears cohesive. Enter J Mays, the golden boy designer Ford scooped up from Volkswagen after he penned the New Beetle. He took one look at the current Mustang and addressed the exact styling issue I had with the car. Specifically, he toned down the excessive lines, yanked the rear spoiler, and painted the car a dark green color, further softening the Mustang's look. Now, instead of hitting you over the head, the Mustang Bullitt just sort of slinks by. If they'd eighty-sixed the car's non-functional hood scoop and added slats to the C-pillar (similar to the ones on the original 1968 car), the Mustang Bullitt would have been damn near perfect — visually speaking. Subtlety can be a powerful styling tool and a tremendous image builder. By comparison, the latest Firebird Trans Am is about as subtle as a train wreck. And with barely 31,000 Firebirds leaving showrooms in 2000, it appears I'm not alone in thinking the Firebird's styling is a bit too dramatic.

Issue #2: Refinement
OK, so a lot of people might not even know how much performance GM offers in the Camaro and Firebird and at such a low price. And some buyers might prefer the Mustang's looks to the F-bodies', giving those individuals reason enough to choose Ford over GM. But what about those buyers who do know about the LS1's 310 horsepower (320 in SLP trim)? Why would someone like ... uh ... me, for instance, buy a Mustang, knowing full well that a comparable Camaro Z28 is faster and cheaper?

This is where the evolution of the muscle car gets tricky. In the "good old days," muscle cars weren't supposed to be refined. The fact that they rattled like a coffee can full of bolts and shook like a paint mixer set to "puree" was part of their charm. It made the concept of racing them on public streets all the more ... challenging (or risky or stupid, depending on your point of view). But in the last 30 years, car buyers have grown up, becoming more sophisticated and demanding in areas like refinement and build quality. Ford responded to this evolution in 1994 with the updated SN-95 Mustang platform, and again in 1996 with the 4.6-liter modular V8. While never a powerhouse in terms of pure horsepower, the engine is far more advanced than the comparable V8s found in the Camaro and Firebird (or Corvette, for that matter). Don't get me wrong, the LS1 is an amazing powerplant, but its basic design, utilizing such quaint components as pushrods, is a throwback to the 1950s.

Now, honestly, I doubt many potential buyers either know or care about the various engine architectures utilized in these cars. But I do know that GM's lack of refinement under the hood is reflected in other areas, as well, such as interior design and platform engineering. Specifically, the "F" in F-bodies might as well stand for "flex" — in terms of chassis rigidity. Whether driving over broken public roads or hammering the car on a closed course, both the Camaro and Firebird respond with the same sophistication as Howard Stern during a Playboy Playmate interview. With rattles and clunks emanating from every interior panel, the experience is right out of the 1960s. This Bowflex-like behavior is still tolerated, and even appreciated, by a dwindling number of performance car buyers; the rest of us find it unacceptable in a modern vehicle.

Steering feel is another F-body weakness, with Camaro and Firebird systems tending to be overboosted and light. This makes for easy parking lot maneuvers — but disconnected and sterile twisty road experiences. Again, not an issue for die-hard old-world muscle car fans, but those buyers are no longer the standard for modern car-builders.

And if the chassis design is sub par, the interior design of the current F-bodies is subterranean. Blocky shapes, cheap plastics and inconsistent gap tolerances are clearly a throwback to the muscle car days. Too bad these are the things we don't want to remember.

Finally, while the Mustang's rear seat is cramped, the Camaro's is absolutely useless. The fact that I can carry my family of four in a Mustang (even if mounting the baby seats in the back is somewhat of a pain) was another consideration when choosing my modern muscle car.

F-body proponents will claim that none of these issues should really matter to true muscle car fans, and they're right. But with over twice as many Mustang buyers out there voting with their wallets, the argument doesn't hold up too well — and it's why the F-bodies won't be around come 2003.

Issue #3: Build Quality
Ah yes, the bane of General Motors' existence — and the reason, I'm convinced, for the company's continued market share slide. Seat time in a Z28 or Firebird Trans Am never fails to put a smile on my face, beckoning me to pick one up for myself. But as soon as I exit the cars' cockpit, the logical side of my brain takes over. I find myself thinking back to our experiences with our long-term Oldsmobile Intrigue, Cadillac Seville and GMC Sierra. Each of these vehicles offered a stunning drivetrain, acceptable — if not attractive — styling and reasonable value ... just like the F-bodies. And each of them proved an ordeal in terms of unscheduled and annoying dealer visits. At 20,000 miles on the odometer, they had all suffered mechanical malfunctions ranging from defective power steering to massive electrical gremlins to broken seat adjustments. By contrast, our long-term Ford Ranger suffered fairly innocuous problems during its two-year stint in our fleet, and the Focus we've had for almost a year has been nearly flawless in terms of mechanical problems. No matter how much fun I have behind the wheel of an F-body, I can't get over my fear of what the car will be like as the years, and miles, add up.

In the end, the Mustang Bullitt simply brought together several key elements I've always loved in a muscle car, while shedding those traits I no longer have the patience to put up with. First, it was relatively cheap, with an MSRP of just over $27,000 (I paid less due to a Ford rebate on the car at time of delivery). Second, it is a limited production vehicle; Ford expects to build fewer than 6,000 units, meaning it should hold its value better than the average Mustang. Third, it has both visual and mechanical cues that set it apart from the other 50 Mustangs I see during my six-mile commute to work, yet none of these unique features are glaring or obnoxious. And finally, it pays homage to a movie, and a time period, when American muscle cars were the best-performing vehicles on the road. Not even the most expensive European exotics of the late 1960s could stick with a big-block Road Runner, Chevelle or Mustang in 1969 — at least not in a straight line.

But as much as I like the Bullitt, Ford has some issues of its own to address. First, what is with the company's inability to generate serious horsepower from the 4.6-liter engine? Ford has an F-150 Lightning and a Mustang Cobra R both making 380-plus horsepower from the 5.4-liter Triton engine, but it took over a year to solve the 1999 SVT Cobra debacle with the 4.6 engine. And the Bullitt, which was originally advertised with 275 horsepower and 315 foot-pounds of torque, ended up with a mere 265 horsepower and 305 foot-pounds of twist (five more ponies and three more foot-pounds of twist than a standard GT). Even the Mazda (a division of Ford) Miata came up with only 142 horsepower after originally being touted at 155 horsepower for the current model year. For a company that claims to have racing in its blood, Ford needs to figure out how to get its horsepower from the test bed to the showroom.

Still, horsepower problems are easy to fix. Throw one of several aftermarket superchargers on the 4.6-liter engine, and you're making at least 350-plus horsepower, eclipsing the F-bodies' only performance advantage while retaining the Mustang's superior interior design, steering feel, build quality and, in the case of the Bullitt, image and heritage.

Of course, GM could accomplish the same thing with its pony cars. Plenty of F-bodies have seen action on Hollywood sets (though I'd hope for a tastefully recreated Rockford Files Firebird long before a Knight Rider edition). And even if GM doesn't draw from a specific past model when creating the next Camaro, it still needs to figure out how to create a modern interpretation of its classic nameplate. It's the successful blending of F-body heritage with modern design and build-quality standards that will bring these cars back to their former glory. If GM's smart, it'll use Ford's treatment of the Mustang — and specifically, its willingness to build the Bullitt — as a guidepost.

For F-body fans out there who hate to see these cars die, don't worry, they'll be back, and hopefully better than ever. Sort of a re-enactment of the Classic Coke or Ford Thunderbird syndrome. And if GM can get the styling and refinement issues ironed out while maintaining the car's horsepower advantage, I may be writing a similar article in a few years, only next time I'll be standing next to a Camaro or Firebird in the pictures.