Modern Muscle

Dec 1, 2009

The only way Ford is going to come out of their current situation is to build must-have, to-die-for cars. Drive around and look at the Dodge Chargers available on dealer lots. The Hemi derivatives are gone-sold. The leftover 2007 vehicles have the small motors. Ford needs a car like this for more than the muscle car buyer.

Peter Basica, Pedders USA
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The halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center were crammed to the rails during the recent SEMA [Specialty Equipment Manufacturer’s Association] show with one vehicle type everyone has their eyes on lately, the late model muscle car. These late-model street performance cars hearken back to a simpler time of pure power and bear names familiar to us all: Camaro, Corvette, Charger, Challenger and Mustang.

But the underlying question everyone in the automotive aftermarket has is will a customer who buys one of these hot out of the box muscle machines still be looking for upgrades, and if so, how hard will it be to realize horsepower gains (and profits) in increasingly complex vehicles governed by stringent governmental regulations?

Always More Potential

Peter Basica of the Down Under suspension giant Pedders, is far from worried.

“Is this a good thing for the aftermarket? Is this a trick question? Building vehicles that are must-haves-cars that people are passionate about-is the best thing that can happen to our industry. Sex and speed sell. They sold in the Golden Age of Greece, sell now and will sell in the future. Bigger, better faster-bring it on. The only way Ford is going to come out of their current situation is to build must-have, to-die-for cars. Drive around and look at the Dodge Chargers available on dealer lots. The Hemi derivatives are gone-sold. The leftover 2007 vehicles have the small motors. Ford needs a car like this for more than the muscle car buyer.”

That buyer is coming from an increasingly large demographic, the mythical baby boomers, who are now retiring and ready to turn back to the automotive hobbies they “neglected” for careers and families.

“The muscle car buyer is becoming active, because GM and Chrysler are building must-have vehicles,” Basica says. “I owned a Hemi Dodge Charger back in the day. The new Hemi doesn’t have the raw power of the 426, but it stops and drives so much better it is amazing. Even more amazing, the cars are reliable and offer luxury we only dreamed about in the original muscle car era.”

Happily Received

Carl Busch of Wilwood, the well-known performance brake manufacturer, is also a big fan of the late model street performance vehicles coming from the OEs.

“Take a look at the Corvette C6 Z06 with 500 horsepower off the showroom floor. Other than a six-point harness and a roll cage, it’s ready to race,” Busch notes.

The aftermarket challenge remains getting performance upgrades for these savvy customers driving sophisticated vehicles. And make no mistake, these vehicles will be driven on the street.

Wilwood is at an aftermarket advantage in that department, Busch says. A brake upgrade doesn’t require getting into the motor or computer system, and even in the late model muscle cars, there is room for improvement over stock.

“A guy with a C6 who takes it to the track on the weekend is going to notice brake fade right off the bat. The stock brakes are meant to perform smoothly and quietly for the street,” Busch says. “Even something as simple as dusting that messes up the look of the wheels can be taken care of with aftermarket brake products.”

With that and the trend toward bigger and bigger rim sizes, Busch sees a robust future for Wilwood.

“I’m just glad we are not in the business of engine performance upgrades on these vehicles. That’s a tough market to be in given how complex the late models are.”

Engine Performance Upgrades

One such aftermarket company that is in that business is SLP Performance. SLP’s moniker is something the New Jersey performance parts manufacturer is long on-¦Street Legal Performance.

“Not on every platform offered today will we get the kind of results we used to see before the OEs got into the business of optimizing performance, but there is still a lot of room for the aftermarket to improve an enthusiast’s vehicle,” said Ed Hamburger of SLP. “The approach we’ve taken today is looking at a late model performance car and figuring out a complete performance package for your customer.”

Today, SLP is delivering those packages on increasing numbers of Corvettes, GTOs and Chargers, as the muscle car market eclipses the truck/SUV performance market. That’s not saying that more muscle cars are being sold as compared to trucks and SUVs, but that the customers who are buying the cars are going with more aftermarket performance upgrades than the truck guys lately, Hamburger says.

“You can’t ignore trucks and SUVs, in many ways they are still a large part of our business mix. What is happening is the customer who is buying a late model muscle car today happens to be the baby boomer who couldn’t afford to spend the time or money on a Mustang, Camaro or GTO when they were younger, but now they have both the cash and the time to sink into their cars.”

The customers are there for high performance parts, but then again, there are much more stringent regulatory requirements, Hamburger notes.

“We at SLP are committed to just that: street legal performance. What that means is that we have to work harder today to make sure the engine packages we are putting together meet today’s federal emission guidelines.”

Hamburger suggests an independent speed shop should focus on offering their customers a complete performance package that can be put together over time instead of all in one shot.

“Many of us live from paycheck to paycheck, and a performance customer is no different. First suggest an exhaust system that gives them the look, feel, sound and performance boost they want. Then, tie that into a whole schedule of upgrades the customer wants and can add when the time is right. Go from exhaust to cold air intakes, then a custom tune and you have a repeat customer who just may go for a complete engine package in the future.”

Performance Favorites

Getting back out from under the hood, Corsa exhaust systems is designing and selling a lot of product for these late model muscle cars. The Shelby Mustang GT 500 is one of Corsa owner Jim Browning’s favorites.

“The Shelby comes off the floor with 500 horsepower, but we are seeing customers tune it up to 700 horsepower and drive it out on the street,” Browning says. “I would never have thought customers would have been looking for this level of performance who were not interested in racing their vehicle.”

That’s the beauty of the new power trend from the OEs: these vehicles can fit four people, women can drive them, they are quiet in town and are good for getting groceries. Then when the weekend hits, they can be brought to a car club event and really shine, Browning said.

“It’s not only in the U.S. that we are seeing these type of vehicles,” Browning points out. “Now from Europe we are getting BMWs, Audi and Mercedes with V8 engines. We are entering a golden age of muscle cars, much like in 1968 and 1970 here in the U.S.”

The big difference is these late models handle well, are quiet, get good gas mileage and are reliable, Browning notes. To capitalize on this trend, Corsa has released a specific exhaust package for the Shelby Mustang GT 500 and a new DB line of exhaust for owners of classic muscle cars that eliminates the “drone” common of the era while preserving performance.

Resurgence

David South of Squires Turbo Systems agrees with many of the points raised by Hamburger and Browning, but is also seeing a byproduct of Detroit’s recent muscle power binge: a resurgence in the true muscle cars of yore, the 60s and 70s street beasts known for going really, really fast in a (sort of) straight line. Squires Turbo Systems stands ready to serve with bolt-on turbo kits that do not require extensive engine rebuilds.

“The new Camaro has been great for us,” South said. “Now it seems everyone is looking for the original, and then looking to the aftermarket to boost the power through the roof.”

And, that power boosting is a truism that carries through the muscle line, whether original or late model.

“The guy who goes out and buys a 2006 Mustang is getting a car that is hot out of the box, but that still isn’t going to prevent him from turning to the aftermarket,” South said. “Automotive enthusiasts have one thing in common, the desire to make improvements to whatever car they are driving.”

An example of that is the new Corvette, C6 Z06, a ground-pounder that should be powerful enough to satisfy even the most power-thirsty person who comes up with a spare 60-large to drive away with one. Just guess though, what the hottest product for Squires Turbo Systems is these days: the C6 Z06 Twin Turbo Kit.

“The C6 is the epitome of a car anyone should be happy with, but when it comes to power, there never seems to be enough.”

Green Muscle?

When South looks to the future, he predicts the next “muscle car” might just be powered by a hybrid engine, or running E85.

“The biggest challenge we see at Squires Turbo Systems is to continue to be innovative enough to work with the next generation of vehicles customers will bring to us,” South said. “It’s going to happen that performance vehicles will be running hybrid engines. I mean, look at the SUV market, no one ever thought an SUV buyer would be interested in hybrid technology, but the Ford Escape has taken off, and GM is offering it across their SUV line in 2008. Why? Because customers are asking for it, and we in the aftermarket had better be ready to work with these leaner and cleaner engines.”

But Pedders’ Basica doesn’t foresee this greening of the performance aftermarket happening anytime soon.

“A well-equipped Hemi Charger retails for about $40,000. The buyer is paying a premium for performance. They pay a premium for tires. They pay a premium for synthetic oil changes. The cars are so efficient that fuel economy is pretty good. Every market has limits, and $5-a-gallon is our guesstimate of a real break point for the muscle car buyer. The other is insurance. We don’t expect either to put a wet blanket on sales in 2008.”