Detroit Muscles Up

GM chief designer Ed Welburn sweeps into his Chevrolet design studio and it's as if he were stepping back in time. On one side of the cavernous white room, designers huddle over a silver retro remake of the Chevy Camaro. A few steps away, stylists scurry around a future Chevy family car that ripples with sinewy muscles from a bygone era. Papering the walls of the studio are photos of classic iron from Detroit's halcyon postwar years--the chiseled '65 Chevy Impala, the jet-age '65 Ford Galaxie, the long-nosed '65 Plymouth Fury. Welburn slowly walks around the work-in-progress family car, inspecting the latest nips and tucks. Suddenly, he notices an 18-inch clay model on a table nearby that offers an alternative take on the car with a gull-winged rear end. "Oh, my God," the normally soft-spoken designer shouts. "That rear is unbelievable! It links all the way back to the late '50s."

Detroit, desperate for a few hits, is driving in a new direction: back to its glory days, when its swaggering sedans and pumped-up muscle cars were the monsters of the motorway. Motown's hottest sellers--the hip-hop Chrysler 300C, the in-your-face Ford Fusion, the vintage Chevy HHR--all share an open-throttle American esthetic. Sales of a half-dozen new American-roots models are up 21 percent so far this year over the final two months of last year, and they're selling without the typical big Detroit discount. The stars of this year's auto-show circuit are remakes of classic American muscle: the Camaro and Dodge Challenger, which, just like back in the day, are gunning for the hot new (or is it old?) Mustang. "There's enormous good will for the glory days of American cars, when they really were American and didn't try to be Japanese or German," says GM car czar Bob Lutz. "We all recently discovered that was a gold mine we had left fallow for a couple decades."

Detroit could sure use some gold. Years of chasing the Japanese have left Motown facing its own mortality. GM could be surpassed by Toyota this year as the world's No. 1 automaker. Ford, which once posted beat camry signs in its design studios, has shrunk from 25.5 percent of the American car market in 1998 to just 18.2 percent today. For two decades, the Big Three spent billions copying Toyota's factories in hopes of matching its topnotch quality. Yet for all the gains Detroit has made, it still can't catch up. Last week, Consumer Reports named all Japanese cars as its top picks for 2006. But Detroit's back catalog of hot cars is emerging as the one clear advantage it has over its foreign rivals. And it's not just sports cars. The Dodge Charger steroidal family sedan could sell more than 120,000 copies this year. "The Japanese can't manufacture this kind of heritage," says Peter DeLorenzo, editor of autoextremist.com. "But if you have it and can bring it forward, it can be a game changer."

Cultural experts say this just might be the best time for Detroit to play the American card. In light of the world's hostility toward the United States, we're banding together and embracing things that remind us of a time when American power was celebrated. "In our primal brain, we're scared right now," says marketing consultant John Grace of Brand-Taxi. "And when we're threatened, we tend to reach back to --the design ideas that defined us in the past." That definition was found in the soaring optimism of the tailfins on the '59 Caddy or the brute strength of a '69 GTO. "Look at the American cars from the '50s and '60s and you see that swagger, an unabashed, almost naive confidence," says auto consultant John Wolkonowicz of Global Insight. "That's the way the country was back then."

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That sense of longing for simpler times is finding its way into Detroit's ads. Ford brought Steve McQueen back to life last year to reprise his role in the car-chase classic "Bullitt" and pitch the new Mustang. A popular new ad from GM draws on the days when Detroit ruled the road with chest-out styling and outrageous power. The 60-second spot, titled "Then and Now," flashes between GM's campy commercials of yesteryear (complete with female models draping the automotive models) and hot shots of its modern iron like the Saturn Sky roadster and Cadillac Escalade. CNW Marketing Research says the ad, which debuted during the Olympics, generated a positive response from 83 percent of the under-35 crowd and 76 percent of those over 50. Old-school style, it seems, has crossover appeal. "When American cars started to look back at the old style, that caught my attention," says Allen Arnold, 24, who just traded a Honda Accord for a Dodge Charger with a Hemi engine. "You get in this car after work and you feel the power. It's manly."

Testosterone is now the fuel driving Detroit's designers. Inside their studios, classic American muscle cars are treated as cultural touchstones. Welburn parked his own 1970 Camaro inside his Chevy studio to inspire stylists working on the modern version. Chrysler has a special studio, called Area 51, filled with classic automotive imagery. The new-old look is captured in Chrysler's 300C and Ford's new Mustang: defiant stance, low roof, slab-side doors, snarling snout and rubber-burning rear-wheel drive. But it's not about stamping out exact replicas. Rather, Detroit is trying to re-create the cars we remember in our rose-colored rearview mirrors. "Our job is to make the dream come true and give them back the reality they remember," says Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed. "I don't think they want cars with no power steering and panels that don't fit up."

More sequels will soon be spinning out of Detroit. GM is said to be working on a faithful re-creation of the '67 Chevy Impala and an edgy Stingray convertible based on the Pontiac Solstice. Ford, dinged in recent years for its blandmobiles, is getting its mojo back with an audacious rear-wheel-drive family car based on the Mustang that's coming at the end of the decade, knowledgeable industry sources say. Ford also is believed to have greenlighted the Fairlane van, a modern interpretation of the '50s-era wood-paneled wagon. And Chrysler is sprinkling the bling from the 300C all over its next-generation minivan, insiders say. Motown execs promise the bad old days of Camry clones and Audi imitators are gone. "For a while, we were doing pretty bad cars," admits Lutz. "I suppose we had to give the public a chance to forget those so that we can go back to the '60s, when everybody loved us." If Detroit can rekindle that love affair, it just might have found its salvation.

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