Are we living in the performance car pinnacle?

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Drive it. Rev it loud. Embrace it. Sure, automotive trends continue to veer sharply toward electrification and autonomous driving. But in metro Detroit, in the week leading up to the Woodward Dream Cruise, the bigger debate is whether we are living in the greatest age of the performance car now or if this horsepower renaissance pales in comparison to the muscle car era of the 1960s.

Saturday was the official cruise when more than 1 million people were on Woodward Avenue from Ferndale to Pontiac, either in a car or lining the four lanes on each side of the boulevard, making it the largest single-day car celebration in the world.

The cars have already been out every day this week: a parade of everything from Model A Fords to the preponderance of Chevelles, Malibus, Impalas, Cougars, Mustangs, woody wagons and more as well as new cars that will be the classics of tomorrow.

At an annual Woodward Dream Cruise business breakfast hosted by WWJ Newsradio, a panel debated the oft-repeated message from Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands at FCA, who likes to say “if you missed the last muscle car era, don’t miss this one.”


“People say the glory time was the ‘60s,” said Jim Owens, the Ford Performance Marketing Manager who drove a Ford GT to the event on the Woodward strip. “I used to drag race in a [AMC] Javelin.” Owens said today’s vehicles are safer, more efficient, stable and not just about straight line performance anymore. They can inch along Woodward, when sheer volume reduces movement to a crawl, without overheating.

“Don’t miss this muscle car binge,” said Ken Lingenfelter, owner of Lingenfelter Performance Engineering, which takes GM performance vehicles and makes them even more powerful.

“Never enough horsepower,” said Lingenfelter, who has been modifying cars for 45 years and says the company will do another 500 performance cars this year. “Today’s cars are amazing but there is a group that will always want more.”

About those who come out for the Dream Cruise, Lingenfelter said, “These are the people I feel most comfortable with.” Comfortable enough to tell the crowd that yes, Bugatti offered to put snow tires on his Veyron but he did not take them up on it; he has enough fun cars to drive in the winter with his collection of about 250 cars.

Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser, who tinkered with go-karts as a kid and dreamed of being the Corvette or Camaro chief, marvels at the industry advances that the Cruise celebrates. A 1970 396 Chevelle had a 0-60 mph (0-96 kph) time of 5.7 seconds. Today, a Camaro with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder can do it in 5.4 seconds “and you don’t have to sweat when it overheats.”

Mustang vs Camaro
Both Owens and Oppenheiser agree: the Mustang-Camaro rivalry is one of the greatest and longest-running in the US and the enthusiast benefits from the unbridled need to continually one-up the other because none of the engineers at either company want to come second in this horse race.

Oppenheiser said the Camaro grew out of a group at GM that wanted to eradicate the Mustang and it remains a critical rivalry today. Oppenheiser likes to sit in his lawn chair along Woodward and count the number of Camaros and Mustangs that cruise by. He vowed Camaro will keep pushing the envelope harder and harder, even though the competition is already over-the-top in what the respective vehicles have been able to achieve. “Sure we have to consider EVs someday,” he said, but remains amazed that the industry is producing cars with 600, 700 and 800 horsepower and are barely over the gas guzzler tax limit.

“I have a hard time seeing the day when, to hear the smooth firing of a V-8, you have to hit an app,” said Oppenheiser who sees longevity for the combustion engine and the need to drive yourself, despite the trends toward electric and autonomous vehicles. Even if EVs become 40 percent of the market, that still leaves the majority with gas engines and steering wheels. And self-driving and electric tech can be mined to improve the efficiency of conventional vehicles.

The technology, from safety advances to powertrain efficiency and lightweighting, as well as the passion, developed for performance cars make their way to mainstream vehicles, said Owens. They do not have to be at odds. The 2018 Ford Mustang has a new “noisy neighbor mode” to allow Ford to keep developing vehicles with righteous exhaust that can be driven home without waking the neighbors – Owens has received anonymous notes from neighbors about his loud arrivals and departures.

Conversely, people in Oppenheiser’s neighborhood know he leaves for work at 5:40 a.m.. Added Lingenfelter: “All my neighbors know when I go to work in the morning.”

That was the week that automotive sound and fury were celebrated in Detroit. “The Woodward Dream Cruise wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people behind the wheel of their cars,” said Oppenheiser, who is more worried about instilling a passion for cars and driving in young people who now wait until age 18, on average, to get their driver’s license.

The beauty of Woodward is people get to see their favorite cars being driven and young people can develop a passion for them. “People look at the cars with patina and love them more than the trailer queens,” said Oppenheiser.

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