To our great delight, Detroit is back in the muscle car business. General Motors is readying its Camaro. Across town, Chrysler is busy prepping the Challenger. Unlike its rivals, Ford never stopped producing the Mustang, although some would argue the Mustang II wasn't a real muscle car -- but the Interceptor concept certainly is.

Detroit's muscle car homecoming has been huge news because these cars, more than any other type of vehicle, evoke vast quantities of emotion. People who never knew the originals get just as excited as those who did.

But what triggers this universal visceral reaction to muscle cars? Some would argue the muscle. But the electricity grows in crowds ogling stationary muscle cars at an auto show. At auto shows, one can observe grandmothers and children reacting to cool designs without any notion of what 400+ horsepower will do to a fresh pair of radials. It ain't the power that excites them.

So what gives muscle cars this special power over people? Their design: At the recent Detroit auto show, we talked to the gurus responsible for modern-day muscle from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors to find out which cues make muscle cars so unique and exciting.

Intercepting muscle

We caught up with Ford North American Design Director Peter Horbury at the corporation's stand in Detroit at the annual auto show. With the introduction of the Interceptor concept and the continued success of the Mustang, Horbury has something current to reference.

When it comes to translating muscle car cues, one needs to be careful -- tapping into the past must be done in the right way without going into it too much," he says. "Our goal is to design something that references the past with certain cues but still looks right to somebody who wasn't around when the original inspiration was."

Pointing to the current Mustang, Horbury notes that Ford's design team got it right because old-timers recognize elements from past Mustangs, while kids just like Ford's new pony car it for what it is.

Pointing directly at the just introduced rear-wheel-drive Interceptor, Horbury continues, "It's really a classic muscle car layout with a large dash-to-axle ratio, a squashed greenhouse, and tall doors. Beyond that, we gave it broad shoulders over the rear fenders, and there's a beautiful unbroken character line sailing fore to aft holding the design together."

To his eyes, the Interceptor looks tough, but not cartoonish. The Interceptor brings the muscle car look to a sedan, Horbury adds. It's a design that looks forward because of the modern design touches, contemporary lighting elements, and 21st-century wheel and tire combination.

A challenge to tradition

Tom Tremont, vice president of Advance Product Design Strategy, used Chrysler's Nassau (View the Nassau Concept at TheCarConnection.com) concept as a talking point for his interpretation of muscle. As Tremont's eyes traced the profile of the Nassau's part sedan/part station wagon body, he said, "Today, there's another iconology that has come along with the new crop of performance cars. For these cars, making a car feel like it has power is done by putting the wheels way out at the corners of the car, and the way the sheet metal seems to be drawn tightly around the wheels." (Think of a thick slice of cheese melting over a burger on the grill.) The Nassau was certainly endowed with those characteristics.

Tremont continued, "A wide stance also signals power, as does the width of the tire and wheel combination -- these are cues used on so many of today's performance cars, especially from the tuner community."

Referencing his company's ready-in-2008 Dodge Challenger (View the Dodge Challenger Concept at TheCarConnection.com), Tremont says, "The proportions are different on the Challenger. The front wheels are thrust forward and the cab sits rearward on the body. This is really traditional iconography, and it's become a historic, almost animated proportion. It kind of looks like the car has accelerated so quickly that the cabin has slid back in the body. And then there are those chopped tops -- the upper portion of the body is kind of sneaky looking, because you're sitting so low in the body."

For the 2008 Challenger, these traditional muscle-car cues were executed in a modern manner, updated by pressing the wheels more out to the corners, and the outside of the fenders -- a significant design spin on the original. When pressed about whether the 2008 Challenger's design is too literal an interpretation of the original, Tremont smiles and retorts, "You look at those two cars side by side and see how completely different they are. Those who think they're clones will quickly see that their minds have fooled them."

Camaro cameo -- without its roof

While slightly upstaged by the plug-in Volt hybrid concept, the Camaro Convertible drew plenty of attention in Detroit. Exterior Design Manager Brian Smith says this year's car was all about the hue. "Last year we wanted to make a serious design statement about the new Camaro, so we did that car in silver -- that's a great color to show off a shape. But this year because people now know the shape, we could have some fun. It's the same Hugger Orange that we introduced back in 1969."

For those who keep track of such things, the 2009 Camaro traces many of its design details back to the '69 model year, making the color that much more appropriate. A nice touch using the orange was the thin stripe along the outer lip of each wheel -- it's meant to recall the performance redline tires used in the 1960s.

When asked about muscle car design, Smith quickly fired off the cues referenced by his compatriots at Ford and Chrysler; long hood, short deck, and wide track. "Traditional muscle cars tend to have a shorter front overhang compared to what's at the rear," he added While noticeable on the Camaro, this is even more obvious on Ford's Interceptor.

"Muscle cars also have more surfacing in the body, like the Coke bottle shape on the Camaro," he said. "From a plan view, the fenders flare out to cover the wheels, and the body pinches in at the doors." To illustrate his point, his hands swish the shape of a Coke bottle in the air. Raymond Loewy would be proud.

"These are the basics," Smith said. "From here, you then need to refine your design to make sure it doesn't end up looking like somebody else's. When we were doing the Camaro, we had to be really careful, because slight changes made the car look like a Javelin or Mustang or 'Cuda. In the '60s, all of those cars were chasing each other so there were a lot of similarities. As a matter of fact, the three gills leading the rear wheel were really tricky -- if we had gone with one gill, that detail would have screamed Mustang. In the end, we succeeded in making this car something you could recognize and name without any badges."

Other muscles flexed

People who create cars speak of a design vocabulary, and for muscle cars, this vocabulary is well defined. But other types of design drip with overt and covert themes of performance. Take Toyota's FT-HS Hybrid Sports Concept -- the design likely points toward the next generation Toyota Supra. While its proportions and stance are completely different from a born-in-Detroit muscle car, it's clear this car means high-speed business. Perhaps a more realistic version of Toyota's performance-oriented design can be seen in their Lexus LF-A. While certainly individual designs, the Acura Advanced Coupe Concept shares the basic design parameters.

Mitsubishi's Prototype X, a thinly veiled iteration of what we expect to be the 2008 Lancer Evo, provides a typical example of how high-volume sedans get a performance makeover. The formula includes adding big diameter wheels, wide tires, aggressive front and rear fascias, bodyside moldings, and a flamboyant spoiler.

The sheer variety of vehicles shown at Detroit tells us that automotive design continues to evolve -- and muscle is a major movement now, not only in Detroit but around the auto world. When 2008 rolls around, we'll see for sure how concepts evolve into reality, when we're confronted with the reality of Mustangs facing off against Camaros and Challengers at stoplights across this great land again -- with some interesting Japanese flavor added to stoplight drag races.

Makes you grin just to picture it, eh?

See Also: 2007 Detroit Auto Show Coverage


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