Speed at a Price : ‘80s Muscle Cars: Power Grows Up

Times Staff Writer

It’s a brutally effective ad about automotive speed and power.

It is a television spot that seems perfect for the times, but one that makes highway safety advocates blanch.

“For lunch, the Porsche 944 Turbo generally prefers Ferraris . . . " the unseen announcer gravely intones as a red Porsche drifts through a corner in slow motion on the screen, " . . .although it has been known, occasionally, to snack on Corvettes.”

As the missile-shaped sports car fades from view, a stark graphic that says it all appears: “0 to 60 5.7 seconds.”


At the end--but in type so tiny it is almost imperceptible to viewers--comes the lawyerly qualifier: “Porsche does not recommend exceeding any speed limits.”

“Sure,” says a BMW executive.

Renewed Power Contest

Today, on a scale not seen since the muscle-car era of the 1960s, Porsche and the rest of the world’s auto makers are building and selling speed machines.


With gasoline prices low and the Iranian oil embargo now ancient history, the big car makers are scrambling to outdo each other in a renewal of the oldest contest in the industry--seeing who can make the fastest machine.

Critics warn that the return to power has a costly price tag: Americans will drive faster and kill more people on the highways. Still, the industry seems determined to return to the days when horsepower ratings sold more cars than EPA gas mileage ratings.

“I’d say the return to high performance is unquestionable,” A. B. Shuman, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz, said. “The offerings available . . . I mean, if you look at all the supercharged and turbocharged cars, in just about every line now there is some hotdog car.”

With no legal limits in the United States on the size or power of automotive engines, cars today, like athletes on steroids, are juiced to the max.

Breakthroughs in Speed

Engineers around the globe are using every technical trick in the book--turbochargers, superchargers, multivalve engines, electronic fuel injectors, additional cylinders--to jack up speed to 150 m.p.h. and faster. Even the 4-cylinder engine, once considered the 90-pound weakling of the road, with the improved technology is being transformed into a performance machine.

The imports are joining Detroit in reliving the 1960s. BMW, for instance, now offers a huge V-12 engine, and Mercedes-Benz is about to catch up, with a V-12 of its own; both have potential top speeds of more than 180 m.p.h.

Not to be outdone by the Germans, Detroit is countering with monster machines of its own. Next spring, Chevrolet will introduce the most powerful production car built in America, the Corvette ZR1, with an awesome 375-plus horsepower, 32-valve, V-8 engine that has the Germans and Japanese gaping.


“That Corvette is very, very impressive, no question about it,” one German executive conceded.

Fred Schaafsma, Chevy’s chief engineer, told Auto Week magazine last summer that he had given his designers one goal: “When I stepped down on the throttle, I wanted to be scared.” Schaafsma now says he was quoted out of context. Still, he added in an interview: “Nobody wants to drive a slug.”

In December, meanwhile, Ford will bring out its Thunderbird “super-coupe,” equipped with a supercharged engine with a top speed of more than 140 m.p.h. It will be the first U.S.-built car with a supercharged engine in more than 30 years.

Ford, which already has juiced up the Mustang, also just introduced a speed version of its popular Taurus mid-sized sedan, the Taurus SHO (for Super High Output). With a 24-valve, 6-cylinder engine designed by Yamaha, the Japanese motorcycle maker, it stretches the speed capability of front-wheel-drive cars, which at high speeds have been unable to match the handling characteristics of rear-drive cars.

‘Supercar’ in Wings

Topping them all, however, could be Audi, which is reportedly planning to come out with a twin turbocharged, 500-h.p. V-8 on a model that Car and Driver magazine called, simply, a “supercar.”

To expand even further into the performance market, Ford plans to reopen an idle Michigan plant in 1990 to produce a new line of big V-8 engines.

Most of the current crop of upscale road warriors are not as brawny as the old muscle cars, and they do not pack quite as much raw horsepower, engineers say. Yet they offer performance nearly as good by packing new-design engines, powerful yet compact, into lightweight cars.


In fact, measured by the ratio between horsepower and total weight--the best way to compare the two eras, engineers say--many of the new cars are approaching the power potential of the 1960s monsters.

In 1970, for instance, the peak of the muscle-car years, the average car packed a whopping 4.42 h.p. per 100 pounds of total weight. By 1975, the fuel crunch had forced a sharp decline to 3.50 h.p., according to federal statistics. By 1987, that ratio was back up to 3.98 h.p., even with all the new high-mileage mini-car imports from the Third World. The figure just for domestic cars reached 4.03 h.p.

Moving Toward ‘Muscle’

“We’re not quite back up to the muscle car performance, but it’s clearly moving in that direction,” Floyd Allen, Chrysler’s chief engineer for power train systems, said.

This new power surge has come in the face of rising public outcry over the mounting toll in human lives from high-speed accidents. Consumer groups, increasingly concerned at the overt marketing of speed in many commercials for high-performance cars, have begun to demand that the industry, especially the European auto makers, show some restraint.

Just last month, the National Safety Council’s board of directors passed a resolution ordering its staff to meet with auto makers and complain about the high-performance advertising.

“We view the whole performance trend with great concern, and we think much of the advertising is irresponsible,” said Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Washington-based research group sponsored by the insurance industry. “The overall message is that speed is fun. The reality is that speed and high performance kills.”

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, added: “I don’t think there is any doubt about it, this means more fatalities.”

GM Rule on Speed

At Porsche and other auto makers, marketers defend their advertising. They say they are trying to depict advanced performance and handling characteristics rather than sheer speed. At GM, for instance, a companywide advertising standard prohibits any ad or promotional brochure from stating a top speed for any GM car.

“That 944 turbo ad is shot in slow motion,” Martha McKinley, a spokeswoman for Porsche, noted. “We are trying to convey excitement in a responsible way.”

Yet even some Reagan Administration officials, who generally see nothing wrong with the revival of high-performance cars, are concerned about some advertising that strongly suggests the new cars are designed to break the speed limit.

“I have seen some ads that go a little too far,” said Diane Steed, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The renewed interest in horsepower also comes just as the industry has successfully lobbied the Reagan Administration to ease federal laws designed to force the building of more fuel-efficient cars.

Many auto executives, especially at General Motors and Ford, argued that the rollback in mileage standards was needed to preserve the jobs of thousands of workers building family sedans. Now, critics charge that some auto makers are using that new leeway to redouble their expansion into the performance market with bigger and more powerful engines--such as the Corvette ZR1.

Bigger Becomes Faster

“We supported the easing of the rules because we think big cars are generally safer,” O’Neill of the insurance institute said, “but now, they are just using it to go fast.”

Even with the rollback, most of the European performance-car makers--including Porsche, Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes-Benz--are equipping their cars with such big engines that they still cannot meet U.S. gas-mileage standards, according to the highway safety agency.

As a result, Jaguar has been forced to pay federal civil fines totaling nearly $15 million for its failure to comply with the fuel economy standards. Porsche paid $1.25 million in fines last year, and Mercedes is challenging a federal ruling ordering it to pay $5.5 million in fines.

Also, in increasing numbers, these cars are going so fast and consuming so much fuel that they are being labeled “gas guzzlers” by the federal government. Cars in this category are slapped with thousands of dollars in extra taxes as a result. In the just-completed 1988 model year, 42 cars, mostly European models, were officially called gas guzzlers--up from just 28 models in 1985, according to the EPA.

But demand is high and the auto makers, especially the Europeans, just add the gas-guzzler tax to the sticker price, and customers readily pay it.

“The Europeans are basically saying that is just a price of doing business for the kinds of cars they put out there,” Henry Fradkin, Ford marketing plans manager, said. “They have almost a shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude about it.”

Indeed, industry officials say they are just meeting consumer demand. Even though there is no legal way for drivers to take advantage of such power on highways in the United States, auto executives argue that they should not be stopped from meeting the demand with any limit on the power they put under the hood.

“We could speed-limit the vehicle,” said Bruce Kopf, business planning manager for Ford’s supercharger-equipped Thunderbird, “but if we did that on a car with a big engine, the public would say ‘why have you done that’?

“Like it or not, there are people who drive over the speed limit,” Kopf added. “And there are people who drive the cars for prestige and image. And even if they never go fast, it’s the image of driving a car that is capable of going fast that they like.

Aiming to Meet Demand

“If we are going to sell this car, and sell an assembly plant’s worth, then if that’s what they want that’s what we will give them.”

BMW officials said they feel the same way. “We’ve considered why we have so much power available in this (U.S.) market,” where speed limits are much lower than in Germany, James Hamilton, product strategy manager at BMW’s U.S. sales arm, said. “We could give a smoother ride if we limited the speed to 110 or 120 m.p.h.

” . . . but then, it wouldn’t be a BMW.”

At least for now, the federal government sides with the industry. The Reagan Administration, in its waning days, has no plan to try to restrict automobile power. In fact, the Administration has cleared the way for a return to high performance. The government not only backed restoring the speed limit on rural interstates to 65 m.p.h., it also killed a regulation setting 85 m.p.h. as the top number that could be shown on a speedometer.

Despite Steed’s concern over some high-performance advertising, she said the federal government should not regulate the top speed cars are capable of attaining. “I don’t think it’s any of the government’s business to set limits on horsepower,” she said. Nevertheless, the West German government, concerned about speeding on the Autobahn, has just pressured BMW and Mercedes to keep their cars from exceeding 155 m.p.h. by placing governors on new V-12 engines.

Steed said there is no proof that the performance trend has had any impact on highway deaths. To be sure, there are no statistics available on the subject. Ditlow said it is too soon to tell.

But the fact that deaths on rural interstate highways rose 22% last year, after the rural speed limit was lifted to 65 m.p.h., offers a glimpse of how high-speed driving may affect accident rates. Chuck Hurley, vice president for public affairs of the National Safety Council, said: “We are increasingly concerned that these high-performance cars will be overrepresented in fatal crashes in the immediate future.”

The car companies stress, however, that people are much safer in today’s performance cars than in the old muscle cars. More precise technology has produced far better steering, handling and braking capabilities to complement improved engine performance, engineers say. “The cars being built and designed now are far safer than the cars in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Fradkin of Ford said.

In addition, performance customers today are not like the teen-agers who cruised the streets in the 1960s. The auto marketers say the buyer typically is approaching middle age, a relatively cautious driver who is wealthy enough to afford an extremely high sticker price. They buy the cars for status and overall performance rather than for speed alone.

Performance Not Enough

In fact, that is today’s twist to the old horsepower game. Now, straight-line performance is not enough.

To appeal to the more subtle sensibilities--and larger wallets--of graying baby-boomers, fast engines are being integrated into more complete high-performance handling and driving packages. The archetype performance car of the late 1980s is no GTO road hog that eats gas, but a Euro-style sedan designed to deliver comfort and upscale status just as quickly as r.p.m.s.

“The customer isn’t really using all that performance as much as he is looking for status when he drives up to the country club,” Chrysler’s Allen said.

BMW’s Hamilton added: “It’s not just the horsepower race we had back in the ‘60s.” American performance drivers have matured, he said, and have “become aware that there is more to performance than straight-line speed and acceleration. You can be exhilarated by simply how the car responds. The whole idea of subjective performance, or feel, is a lot of what the high end of the market is about. Now there is a satisfaction factor.”

As a result, there is a new class of car: the speed sedan.

Japanese Versions Out

It is a class the Japanese now seem to be invading en masse. Honda’s pricey Acura Legend is setting the pace, but Toyota and Nissan are about to introduce their own luxury performance models as well. Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infinity are due out next year.

Yet in the midst of this performance mania, at least some experts are concerned that the industry is leaving itself too vulnerable to the outside forces that plagued it during the 1970s.

If oil prices rise again, some warn, the auto makers could once again face widespread criticism for failing to meet federal mileage standards. At the same time, high insurance rates and insurance surcharges, which helped kill the muscle cars in the early 1970s, could become widespread again if injury, repair and theft claims rise rapidly.

“There could be a backlash,” Shuman of Mercedes-Benz warned. “That’s one of the things that has to go along with the resurgence in performance.”