Saturday, September 2, 2017

Muscle Cars and Manual Transmissions

What will kill the muscle car this time around?

Two readers ask car-related questions. First, do I think the horsepower wars will keep going on, or crash down as they did in the late 1960's? Second, it is cheaper to buy a manual transmission car in terms of resale value, depreciation and operating costs? Both are interesting questions.

In 1979, when I was at General Motors Institute, we were still grieving over the death of the muscle car era. As one of my professors noted, back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, even "little old ladies" would leave a patch of rubber at a stop light, as even the most plebeian car had a monster V-8 under the hood. All that came crashing to the ground with the one-two-three punch of insurance rates, gasoline shortages, and emissions controls.

My professors told me at the time that we would never see cars with more than 200 HP again, and that the world would run out of oil by 2010 at the latest. Turns out they were wrong on both counts - very, very, wrong. Which is one reason why I am skeptical of prognosticators. Trends continue until they don't - things change over time and predicting the future based on past trends is to commit an error of Disco Stu proportions.
 Projecting future performance based on past data is a fundamentally flawed concept.

Many people think it was the oil embargo of 1973 that killed off the muscle car. But before that, muscle cars were becoming unpopular as insurance rates were being jacked through the roof for anything with serious horsepower.

The Vega and the Pinto were planned long before the oil embargo and before gas prices skyrocketed. It was insurance, not gas, that killed the horsepower wars of the 1960's. The emissions controls laws of the 1970's was merely the coupe de grace. Although you could still buy a 400 cubic inch Trans Am in 1979, it put out a lot less horsepower and had far lower compression than its forebears.

The insurance problem for the muscle cars of the 1960's isn't likely to be repeated today. Back then, manufacturers took the cheapest intermediate car and stuffed a big-block truck engine under the hood. Cars like the Roadrunner were a paean to this formula - a stripped intermediate, with a bench seat and rubber floor mats, drum brakes, and no trim, with the biggest engine that would fit. They came from the factory with steel wheels and "dog dish" hubcaps, as they realized most buyers would change out the wheels right away and weren't interested in factory mags or wheel covers.

Unfortunately, this formula was deadly. The cars couldn't handle the horsepower. The suspensions were primitive, cornering was non-existent, and safety features amounted to lap belts that most people stuffed under the seats or cut off with a razor blade. The cars could go fast, but couldn't stop or turn. They were poorly made, rusty, death-traps. And pretty soon, the young men who bought these cars (which were priced so as to be "affordable" to the average consumer) would crash them, often into other cars, and the mayhem caused insurance rates to skyrocket.

The "affordable" muscle car was no longer affordable, when insurance payments exceeded car payments. Insurance rates killed the muscle car in the late 1960's.

Of course, my professors at GMI were wrong about the permanent death of the muscle car, as it turned out that the internal combustion engine had a lot of headroom left in it. Cars of the 1960's ran rich to avoid detonation, and thus wasted a lot of gas and energy. Fuel injection and digital controls - no matter how much Clem and his ilk hate them - are the reason why we can get 300 HP out of a 3-liter six today, and still get 30 mpg and meet emissions standards. And they are the reason why car makers can get 400, 500, 600, 700 or even 800 horsepower out of a V-8.

But some things have changed since the 1960's. Cars are safer today. These monster horsepower cars have antilock four-wheel disc brakes, wide radial tires, independent suspensions, six or more airbags, and a body designed to absorb impacts and protect passengers. In other words, they are not just "go" but also "stop" and "handle" as well.

And one more thing - they are as expensive as hell. While the list price on a Hellcat may seem "reasonable" to some, each dealer is given only a couple of samples to sell, and they quickly sell for more than list price. The zit-faced teen down the block isn't buying a 707-HP car anytime soon, unless his Dad dies and leaves him an inheritance.

But these high-horsepower "halo" cars do sell the more plebeian lower-horsepower V-8's and V-6's and in the Mustang, even a four-banger (which is more popular overseas). The kids want the halo car, but settle for the "almost as good" lesser version with a decal package. It is a formula the car makers have been using for decades. You get 'em in the showroom with the fancy car and then sell them some piece of shit off the lot.

So I don't think we will see a repeat of the insurance fiasco of the 1960's as these mega-horsepower cars are not "everyman's hot rod" but rather just halo cars sold in limited quantities in order to boost the image of the company. The few who can afford to buy them can afford the insurance, and are old enough to have low insurance rates. Like I said, I was paying $30 a month to insure the M Roadster - because I'm an old fuck and hardly drive anymore. Some kid in high school would pay hundreds - and likely wreck it the first weekend.

A lot of these hot rods end up as old man's cars. Go to a car show sometime and see how many grey-haired people are there. The kids hop up Mom's old Honda, because that's affordable to them, and resonates with their generation. They don't want Dad's fat old muscle car - or his Harley, either, which is a demographics problem for the marketers.

The ability to get massive horsepower from engines these days illustrates how much headroom is left for the Internal Combustion engine. The Mustang four-banger cranks out over 300 HP which is astounding. With gas at about $2 a gallon in the USA, no one cares right now about gas mileage. But gas shortages and price hikes have been a periodic part of the landscape since 1973, and one will come again, to be sure.

When that happens, it will be interesting to see how this technology is applied to economy engines. If you can get 300 HP our of a four-banger, then a three or even two-cylinder engine of less than 1000 cc would produce more than enough horsepower for the average econobox to get around. But by then, perhaps this electric car thing would have taken off. And electric cars are fast, but if you burn rubber in "ludicrous mode" on your Tesla at every stop light, you might not get very far. Range anxiety might trump the desire to go fast. We'll just have to wait and see. Predicting trends is a messy business.

But obviously there has to be some sort of end to this. 1,000 HP cars are already available. At some point, the entire thing becomes obscene. And if self-driving cars become a thing, well, excess horsepower won't be a thing, as the self-driving car isn't going to lay rubber at a stoplight.

By the way, there was an interesting article online about collector cars recently. The author pointed out that a Ford Focus, ordered with the sporty package, could out-accelerate, out-brake, and out-handle some of the "classic" Ferraris of the 1950's and even 1960's. We have indeed come a long way in automotive design. He also points out that collector cars are a shitty investment most of the time, and people buy into them based on reported auction sales of truly unique cars, whose pricing really doesn't apply to your '66 Chevelle 307 two-speed. Just enjoy the car and stop thinking it is Fort Knox.

Actually, Bloomberg has had some good articles lately, including a long-form article detailing the problems the Kushner Cos. are having with 666 Fifth Avenue. Fascinating reading!

With regard to manual transmissions, that is an interesting question. It depends on what country you're talking about. In the United States it is very hard to find a car anymore with a manual transmission.

The only cars available in the United States with manual transmissions are either sporty type cars or the very stripped basic versions of economy cars.

Fewer and fewer Americans even know how to drive a manual transmission. And it has become something of a joke here as many people have reported thieves trying to steal their car and then unable to drive it because they can't figure out how to work the clutch.

For sports cars, it probably doesn't make much difference in terms of either initial purchase price depreciation or operating costs. Although with BMWs, I noticed that the automatic transmissions tend to fail quite regularly, as they used a General Motors transmission made in France. BMW now uses a dry-clutch transmission, which is more reliable, but has had problems of its own. The more complicated the technology, the more likely it is to break.

Their five and six speed transmissions were pretty bulletproof, usually made by ZF or some other European company. American cars used to go through clutches every 30 to 50 thousand miles, but today it seems that clutches can last life of the car - 150,000 miles or more.

So in terms of reliability, the manual transmission probably has an edge. In terms of fuel economy, some automatics are beating manuals as they shift more efficiently than a human can, manually.

For basic economy cars in the United States, the manual transmission model is offered as what we used to call a "Sally Stripper" model. It was a stripped bare bones model offered only to keep the base price as low as possible . Few people are actually expected to buy them.

Thus, while such cars are cheap to buy, they probably are harder to sell down the road, as fewer and fewer Americans know how to drive a stick. And that's pretty pathetic. In Europe and other overseas countries, I suspect the situation is different, is manual transmissions are more popular, and depreciation may be a wash.

At one time we owned six cars, five of which had manual transmissions. Today we have only two, both of which are automatics. As America ages, it wants to shift less and less. I suspect we may see manual transmissions disappear entirely from economy cars in the near-future as the cost of certifying them for emissions standards would exceed the profits from the sales of the few sold. And as fewer and fewer people know how to use a clutch (or indeed, even how to drive at all) they will be harder to sell.

Even sporty cars are dropping manuals, in favor of dry-clutch paddle-shifted automatics. So even the "stick" may disappear from them in short order. Again, predicting the future is an uncertain science, so I won't commit one way or another. But electric cars and self-driving cars (and self-driving electric cars) would seem to point to the demise of both the horsepower wars and manual transmissions.

And while the car nuts may decry this as heresy, the vast majority of Americans or indeed people worldwide, view cars as transportation appliances and could care less about what is under the hood, other than to want a V-8 or V-6 for status purposes. But as Tesla has demonstrated, status can take the form of an electric car as well.

We do live in a brave new world of automotive technology. The doom-and-gloom predictions of my professors at GMI did not come true. Today we have massive horsepower cars, economy cars that out-perform the exotics of days gone by, electric cars that are actually practical, and of course, the prospect of self-driving cars - all things we thought would never happen, or not happen for decades to come. To me, it is truly and amazing world today, and those who pine for "the good old days" of the 1970's never lived through that nightmare.

And those who wish for the return of trolleys and zeppelins truly have their head up their ass. Look around you, we are living in paradise. Pining for the old days never solved anything.