When the days lengthen and the mercury rises around metro Detroit, Woodward Avenue comes alive with the scent of unburnt premium, the burble of uneven firing orders, and the squeal of tires against asphalt. Here, as in many other parts of the country, lazy summer nights mean cruising around in musclecars, street rods, and tuner cars of every permutation. Sure, the horsepower-crazy fans who cruise streets like these take an interest in everything from slammed Subarus and factory-fresh Ferraris to growling GTOs and classy Cadillacs. But there are three very special machines that steal the heart of nearly every American car enthusiast: Camaro. Challenger. Mustang.
Immortalized in film, in song, and on countless $9.99 t-shirts, the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang are America’s cars. They’re our ponycars, our cruisers, our drag racers. As July 4 weekend approached, our office was abuzz with negotiations and trade offers worthy of the United Nations as we each tried to wangle time in one of the cars for the three-day weekend. What’s more satisfying than the rumble of a V-8 on the way to your Independence Day barbecue?
As we blast from one stoplight to the next in a 2015 Ford Mustang, a 2015 Chevrolet Camaro SS, and a 2015 Dodge Challenger, we can’t help but think about all the other cars that have haunted these roads over the years. The decades of big-blocks and small-blocks, of musclecars of all varieties cruising, ripping burnouts, and racing on another. Cars like these have been part of the American psyche for more than half a century, and we bet nearly everyone you know can wax nostalgic about one of these rides.
David Zenlea, Senior Editor
I come from a Jewish, East Coast family. We’re pretty stereotypical for that demographic — white collar, argumentative, bad at digesting lactose. But there is a regard in which we deviate: we love us some pony cars. The Zenlea Men have owned 13 of them in the 30 years I’ve been alive. Seven Camaros, four Mustangs, a Challenger, and a Firebird. A lot of cars and a lot of memories. A few stand out.
Grandpa, probably in the midst of a mid-life crisis at the time, pulls up to my parents’ small starter house in a Fox Body Mustang convertible and gives four-year-old me a ride. In the front seat! What a treat. The Mustang only lasts a few weeks because Grandma hates it, but I’m hooked on cars for life.
Dad comes home one spring evening with a brand-new, 1999 Camaro Z-28 with T-tops. Mom, sister, and I all pile in for a ride. It had been a tough year for us, as Mom was waging a fierce battle with cancer (she won, thankfully). For a kid trapped in seventh grade, life’s problems can really seem interminable. Riding in that Camaro, the LS1 V-8 burbling its happy tune, I sensed for the first time that things were actually going to get better.
My parents paid for me to go to an out-of-state college and didn’t protest when I opted to apply that degree toward writing about cars, a profession that neither pays nor lends itself to bragging like law or medicine. On a visit home a few years ago (which are few and far between, my parents would interject) I show my dad how to perform heel-and-toe downshifts in his Mustang GT. He’s thrilled, makes Uncle Steven crawl in the backseat so I can show him. “Wonderful things you’re learning on the job,” Uncle Steven says, as I rev-match into second and then slide around a U-turn. Dad is beaming. My son, the automotive journalist!
Kara Snow, Copy Editor
When I was 10, my mother celebrated passing the California State Bar by piling her five young children into a bright-orange 1969 Dodge Charger — think General Lee without the racing number or Confederate flag — and taking us on a summer-long road trip to Nebraska.
Somewhere in the middle of Wyoming, we ran out of gas for the hundredth time. My mother was not the type to pay attention to gas gauges. My siblings and I spent what felt like years of our childhood on the side of some road, waiting for either a Good Samaritan or an emergency assistance vehicle. This time, we hadn’t seen another car for miles. Far off in a field, a cloud of dust trailed a man riding a tractor. Figuring he was our best hope for petrol, my mom told us to sit tight, and she set off walking along the highway.
As soon as Mom was out of sight, my 4-year-old brother Robert went nuts. He jumped from back seat to front and back again, screaming like a banshee, scrambling to open either driver or passenger door. He even put his legs through the steering wheel, riding it like a circular swing. It was his way of trying to get the car moving.
This went on for an hour until the rest of us kids could take it no longer. “You want out, Robert? Get out!” And we shoved him out the door onto the side of the road. The way we saw it, there were plenty of kids still in the family and mom probably wouldn’t notice one fewer. Robert smiled at us and took off in mom’s direction.
We watched him toddle off into the horizon, leaving us to relax in relative peace, which in turn left us imagining what our mother might think of our decision to let him flee. We briefly discussed sending out a search party, but there were no volunteers. Did I mention Robert was a wild, holy terror?
My mother finally made it to a gas station several miles up the road. She was procuring fuel in our well-worn gas can when she was approached by a big group of leather-clad, bearded Harley-Davidson riders. Just like in the movies, they rode in a circle around her and the gas pump. And that’s when she saw Robert, seated on a big, dirty chopper behind its rider, smiling and waving and having a great time. Seems the bikers saw the small child walking alone down a dusty forgotten highway and thought he needed assistance. Luckily for us kids, they didn’t sell him to a farmer as cheap help.
My mom filled the gas can, hopped on the back of one of the Harleys, and the hairy gentlemen safely transported my mother and brother back to the General Lee. At 10 years old, I was an expert at priming the carburetor with a little gas when the fuel system was bone dry, so while the bikers watched, I popped the hood, removed the top of the air cleaner, pushed open the choke valve with my screwdriver, dripped a little fuel into the carb throat, and told my mom to start the car. I think it scared the bikers a little when a big lick of fire jumped out of the venturi, but I think it scared them even more that a small, freckle-face girl didn’t flinch. The bikers were quick to get back on their hogs and put some distance between themselves and the strange family of wild children in their musclecar.
Chris Nelson, Senior Editor
I spent most of high school in the auto lab with my friend Gene, rebuilding a 1965 Ford Mustang. The gorgeous fastback we’d started working on freshman year had to be traded for a same-year notchback after we couldn’t repair the fastback’s rusty floor pans. We did a ground-up build — encapsulated the whole underbody, cleaned up every suspension component, rebuilt the drum brakes, installed a new wiring harness, so on and so forth. We stripped the 289-cubic-inch V-8 engine down to the block. We sprayed layers and layers of Old Ford Blue paint on the block, oil pan, and valve covers, wet-sanding between each coat. We pushed in a camshaft with bigger lobes, bolted up 4-2-1 headers, and dropped a four-barrel carburetor onto a high-rise intake manifold. I’ll never forget how I felt when we fired up the engine for the first time. I had given life to something left for dead, and that felt fantastic. Unfortunately, that feeling was short-lived. The ignition failed and the transmission stopped engaging, and then Gene and I graduated. I couldn’t tell you where that Mustang is or what condition it’s in, but I miss it and the schooldays spent working on it.
It’s not surprising that my favorite Chevrolet Camaro memory revolves around staff ‘marophile, David Zenlea. On a bi-weekly basis, Zenlea considers buying a Camaro, which is much better than when he used to consider buying a Camaro every other day. About three years ago, Zenlea asked if I wanted to spend my night at a Volkswagen dealership in the heartland of Ohio looking at a fourth-generation Camaro SS taken in on trade. I can’t remember why I said “yes” but I’m glad I did. Had I not, Zenlea would’ve no doubt bought the heap. Blinded by the prospect of becoming part of the Camaro clan, he did not properly inspect the blue-over-gray F-body. It’s not what I found that worried me — it’s what I didn’t find. I’m still not exactly sure which suspension component had rattled off the car, but two, clean-metal rings on the rusty arms said that a couple of bolts had recently been ejected and lost. After I let him know that the car would no doubt fall apart before year’s end, he haggled with the salesman for well over an hour before wisely moving on. Zenlea’s unfaltering love for Camaros is as reckless as it is remarkable.
I expected a lot from the Dodge Challenger after seeing the “440 6-pack” in Vanishing Point and then again in Death Proof. When I first drove a current-generation Challenger, I did a slalom course. Doing slalom in a fat, floaty Dodge Challenger R/T and expecting success is as foolish as a sumo wrestler competing in a synchronized-swimming contest. That made me hate the Challenger. Then I got the chance to do a 20-second-long burnout in a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, and now I just really dislike the Challenger. Hey, progress is progress.
Jake Holmes, Daily News Editor
A few years ago I had to pick up a Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 from a fancy hotel in metro Detroit. Only a few miles away, I was waiting at a red light when a young lady in the next lane lowered her car window and yelled, “Wow, that is a sexy car!” Suddenly I understood why people buy cars like the Challenger. Later that night, I turned onto a deserted side street, turned off the car’s traction control, revved up the 6.4-liter engine, and dumped the clutch. Much tire smoke and squealing and grinning were produced. Yeah, musclecars are cool.
My friend Alan had always wanted a Ford Mustang, but ended up driving a Honda Civic and then a Mercury Cougar. But one summer night, he managed to borrow an acquaintance’s red Ford Mustang convertible. I squeezed in the back seat while another friend took shotgun, and we cruised around Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a few hours in the twilight. Ann Arbor is a town that is more interested in bike lanes and community gardens than red Mustangs, but we still felt pretty cool as we drove around that evening.
The first Camaro I ever drove had a V-6 engine and an automatic transmission. It was the first year of the fifth-gen car and nobody had seen them on the streets yet, so strangers at the gas station asked me about it and wanted to take pictures. But it was slow and ponderous to drive, and it really turned me off the Camaro. A few months later I got to drive a Camaro SS convertible with a manual transmission. That car was a blast to drive, with huge power and a glorious engine note that was all the easier to enjoy with the top lowered. I liked the Camaro again.
Eric Weiner, Daily News Editor
My first experience in a Camaro of any kind was, oddly enough, in the wild Camaro Z/28, at our 2015 All-Stars testing. The Z/28 is such a stupendous and glorious machine that I instantly think the world of Camaros. Things got a little hairier when senior editor Chris Nelson tricked me into driving the car through a rainstorm for a photo shoot, and I thought I was going to spin off of the road as those insane Trofeo R tires slithered and skated on the wet pavement. A pretty unnerving first muscle car experience, but oddly appropriate.
Our All-Stars contest was also the first time I ever drove a Ford Mustang, a blue 5.0-liter GT with the Track Package. Having grown up around Japanese and British cars, I never quite understood the sheer thrill of American muscle. It seemed like the kind of thing that was more for the kind of car fan who doesn’t appreciate nuance and precision as much as outright horsepower. It didn’t take long behind the wheel of that blue Mustang before I gave into the temptation to do a scorching burnout. Outright horsepower is quite fantastic after all.
And after driving those musclecars at All-Stars, I got into the Challenger Hellcat and peeled out of GingerMan Raceway with the exhausts making all kinds of demonic noises. Then, I see a Caprice cop car behind me. Fortunately I never got above 42 mph despite the racket I was making, so the Caprice didn’t flash its lights or pull me over. He just followed me for about 10 miles, while I oh-so-delicately applied the 707-hp engine’s throttle, cautious of any sudden movements. Once the cop got bored, I drove out of the way about 7 miles, and just sat in the middle of the road. Seeing nobody coming, I looked around again. Knowing it probably wasn’t a great idea, I still stomped on the throttle and performed a vicious burnout, after which I smiled for about 20 minutes.
Michael Jordan, West Coast Editor
Back when Cannery Row was just rusty instead of charming, Skip and I drove his father’s 1967 Pontiac Firebird 400 down to Monterey for the Can-Am race at Laguna Seca Raceway. It was our last year of high school, and he brought along Mary and I went down with Ann, and we took turns at the wheel as we drove down over CA Highway 17 and then on the long stretch of CA Highway 1 along the shore of Monterey Bay. The big old V-8 from Pontiac station wagons of the time was lazy, but speed came with no shifting, and the Firebird cut through the traffic on the curves in the Santa Cruz mountains like a sports car.
Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2G with its high-mount flipper wing didn’t run up front at Laguna Seca, unfortunately. From where we had parked inside old, high-speed Turn 2, you could practically smell the oil leaking out of the car’s experimental, all-aluminum, big-block Chevy V-8. It was a long drive home, but when you’re with a blonde girl both beautiful and cheerful, a bright future is just over the horizon, and you’re in a Firebird 400, things are pretty darn good.
Conner Golden, Daily News Editor
As an lowly intern at Motor Trend last summer, the last thing I expected was to score the keys to a performance car, let alone a 426-hp, rear-wheel-drive one. Initially, it was thrilling just to have the chance to deliver the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE to our testing grounds the next day. It was absolutely a dream come true to be thrown the keys a second time for the rest of the day after testing. I hightailed it to the nearest mountain pass, and cruised breathtaking roads for the remainder of the daylight. Stopping at the very top of the mountain, leaning on the hood of the loudly idling brute, and taking in the scenery was one of the most vivid memories I have from that summer.
Todd Lassa, Detroit Bureau Chief
My exposure to pony cars began with a 1/24-scale plastic “dealer’s” model of a maroon ’65 Mustang. I liked the car a lot, though I also had a dealer’s 1/24 model of a ’65 Chevy Corvair convertible – I always preferred the Mark II Corvair to the pony car competition.
I remember a ride home from school in a friend’s parent’s ’65 or ’66 Mustang convertible. I thought it was cool, but I was probably 7 or 8, and can’t say much more about it. My friend’s mom didn’t drive it very fast. I think it had the Pony package.
My second ride in a pony car came in the early ‘70s. An older (female) friend of my second cousin, who grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin, bought, I think, a 1971 or ’72 Chevrolet Camaro, new. I was about 12 or 13 when I rode in it. Base car, I couldn’t say what engine it had, but I think it had a manual transmission, and I remember being impressed, from the tight back seat, how stiff the suspension was and how tightly it cornered, especially compared with the Olds 88s my parents owned in those days.
I turned 18 in September 1976, and by then, the Plymouth Barracuda was gone, the Dodge Challenger was a Mitsubishi, the Chevy Camaro/Pontiac Firebird made 180 hp at best, and the Mustang was a II. A friend from high school got a Trans Am in ’78, sans screaming chicken, but he went to Marquette and I went to UW-Milwaukee, and I didn’t see him much in those days. I don’t think I ever rode in his Pontiac.
And by then, I had become intrigued with silly British sports cars. If you can’t get horsepower, why not get handling? I thought, and I lusted after the Triumph TR-7. Not sure which is more embarrassing today, a Triumph TR-7 or a 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.