Flameout!

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When the Oscars are announced, the camera cuts away from the happy, shining face of the winner to the stunned reactions of the also-rans. An analogy could be made to the 2002 Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds still sitting on dealers’ lots next to the company’s better performers.

General Motors has already pulled the plug, leaving these poor orphans with an additional handicap in their search for host families.

The Camaro and Firebird are leaving us in early middle age, with their appeal still fairly high in certain circles. In the 1980s, the macho status symbols became almost synonymous with young South Philly males and the chicks who dug them (the cars, that is). The bottom line is these cars have a rep, and they will be mourned.

Listen to this pre-ax commentary from the shell-shocked folks at CamaroZ28.com: "We as Camaro and Firebird owners take [this] as a threat to our hobby and our lifestyle. While a current market analysis may show that performance car interest is less than perfect, it would not be in GM’s best interest to even consider such changes to America’s best sports coupe. There is still a large amount of profit to be made from this vehicle line."

Two things killed the ponycar pair: The continued strength of Ford’s Mustang, and sales lost to sport-utility vehicles. One macho obsession has been traded for another, as four-wheel-drive passion left the rear-wheel-drive dinosaurs in the dust. In 1978, GM sold 448,413 Camaros and Firebirds; in 2001, it sold just 61,196.

The Camaro made its debut in 1966, a rush job intended as a response to the huge success of the 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang. The Firebird followed in 1967. The early models had a grand swagger that proved irresistible to muscle-car-crazed youth. They cast a spell with huge mag wheels and deeply throbbing V-8s under their hoods.

There’s one aspect of the Camaro/Firebird tag team I definitely will not miss: the cars’ tendency to experience death at an early age. "The Camaro, Corvette, Firebird and Mustang all have large engines, appeal to a young demographic, and are relatively cheap for the performance you get," points out David Champion, director of the Automotive Testing Division for Consumers Union.

So mix the bravado of youth, inexperience behind the wheel and a whompin’ engine and what do you get? Accidents. As CNBC reports, "That combination of power, price and appeal when mixed with a healthy dose of testosterone has racked up horrifying death rates." The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says that sports cars have nearly twice the average of occupant death rates.

But some sports cars are safer than others. BMW’s 3-Series experienced a national average of two deaths per 10,000 registered passenger cars in 1989. Meanwhile, Corvette drivers died at two-and-a-half times that average, with Camaro and Mustang pilots close behind. In a 1991 follow-up to the study, IIHS found the Corvette to have the country’s highest death rate, followed by a tie between the Mustang and Camaro, and then the Firebird in fourth place. The safest car then was the Volvo 240 station wagon. By the time of the most recent 1995 to 1998 survey, the Camaro and Firebird had taken the dubious distinction of replacing the Corvette as most frequently involved in fatal crashes.

Of course, young hotheads are considerably more likely to drive a Camaro or Firebird than they are an ultra-square Volvo, so the nut behind the wheel has to be given his due. Most sports-car drivers are young men: For the Camaro and Firebird, 70 percent of crashes involved under-30 drivers, 70 percent of them male.

The Camaro and Firebird will fade gradually from the scene, slowly slipping from their natural habitat, the all-American strip. Last I looked there were still some there, resplendent in primer paint, circling the Dunkin’ Donuts and filling the air with their pumpin’ stereos. Soon, the sound of these cars peeling out on wet pavement will be a retreating echo.