The Last Muscle Car

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The San Francisco Chronicle

The Last Muscle Car

Sexy as a swollen porn star on meth, twice as useless

Have you seen this thing? This sexy macho bloated Hot Wheels fantasia dreamgasm of a car-like drunken child's funbot crayon sketch?

No? Because it appears to be a vehicle that at least some across the Big Autosphere are still secretly praying, despite the sudden overthrow of -- despite the deadly ultimatum for -- General Motors, might yet prove to be a savior.

Indeed, it's a car some hope will maybe, just maybe sell like crazy and restore a tiny bit of faith in big, thick, meaty, rather inane American cars that have no real place in the new millennium, but which for some reason they keep building anyway, presumably because aging frat boys you should never, ever date think they're totally wickedcool and will therefore be willing to shell out 35 grand to own, unless they won't.

Am I talking about the ugly-as-a-giant-vacuum-cleaner Chevy Volt? Am I aiming this admittedly overheated verbiage at the ruddy, useless Impala? No, I am not.

I am talking about the brand new, leering, pseudo-masculine 2010 Chevrolet Camaro.

What's that you say? You had no idea that Chevy was resurrecting this rolling mullet from the mausoleum of the '70s because, even after sucking up billions in bailout money, GM still doesn't really have a single fresh and forward-thinking idea, and hence the best they can do is scrape the barrel of macho nostalgia in a desperate attempt to cater to male Boomers who drink too much light beer and think Maxim is the height of masculinity and are still debating which Van Halen vocalist totally ruled?

Well, they did. And it's here. And they don't. And it's David Lee Roth (of course). And it's worth noting because, well, this wild new Camaro will very likely be the last you will ever hear of U.S. automakers vying to be a kickass, world-dominating force in automotive inspiration. It is most certainly the last gasp of that overblown, yet much-beloved myth, affectionately known as the American muscle car.

Is it time? Can we finally just say it outright, even as we risk invoking the wrath of every true-blooded American gearhead from here to 1965? Oh hell, let's just do it: Good riddance.

Yes, this is just a little bit sad. This is a moment to pause in fond remembrance. You could say it's the end of an era, but of course it's an era that should've ended about 25 years ago. Oh well.

Do not misunderstand. Muscle cars and their pony car brethren -- all those Challengers, Road Runners, Mustangs, Novas, Trans Ams, Chevelles, GTOs et al -- have a hallowed and well-deserved place in American automotive lore. Nothing, not even the full-sized SUV, exemplified the lopsided American posture better. Power over finesse, weight over grace, peel-out ability over handling, go hard over stop quick, sword over pen, meat over vegetable, trade school over college, violent death over aging gracefully.

Forget for a moment that they were, by and large, dangerous, horribly built vehicles with dreadful chassis and zero engineering integrity. Doesn't matter. They were fast. They were wide. They had huge back seats perfect for impregnating various small-town teen cheerleaders. They got eight miles to the gallon and about nine to the quart of oil. They were cool. Sort of.

Not anymore.

Behold this weird new Camaro. It is, in sum, exactly the wrong car at exactly the wrong time with exactly the wrong attitude attached to exactly the wrong hopeless hope for a return to a rather crude automotive golden era that never really existed in the first place.

Why does this car exist at all? No one seems quite sure. But it is, if you spend a moment in the various car blogs, all flavors of a dumb, guilty pleasure, hotly discussed and awaited like a giant extra-large triple-cheese quadruple-meat pizza, ever since GM introduced it as a crazy concept car back in one of those years Before All Hope Died.

Early reviews? Somewhere between lukewarm and "Holy crap, this thing sucks far, far more than it should, especially the cramped, stifling interior. And the handling. And the brakes. And the build quality." Which is, as far as America cars go, about par for the course.

But what about that mean-ass exterior? All the retro car dudes just love the new Camaro's snarling looks, which lie somewhere between a cool flaming dragon your high school stoner friend used to sketch on his Pee-Chee folders, and what a Vegas stripper plays whilst dancing around a pole. Upshot: It's just like the Corvette; another car for 10-year-old boys trapped in 45-year-old bodies.

What, too harsh? Too negative? Not really. It's mostly a criticism borne of frustration. I truly am (or rather, was) hoping for something brilliant and inspiring to come from all that American talent. I was honestly hoping one of these companies would come up with a new idea to save all those jobs (Ford is close), to resurrect the industry and prove we can be nimble and viable and revolutionary.

(Does it sound like I could be talking about my very own media/newspaper biz? The coincidence is not accidental. Similar infuriating problems plague both worlds, with solutions equally elusive).

So maybe what the 2010 Camaro really is, is a fitting death knell, a kitschy cool car that takes American automobile full circle even as it circles the drain. It's the final sign that it's time to look beyond Big Auto for any sort of true revolution or evolution, toward individuals, entrepreneurs, startups, inventors and aging hippie rock stars to solve it all for us.

Wait, what? Why sure. Have a glance, if you will, over at crusty ol' Neil Young, who loves his cars big and his grunge anthems bigger. Neil has already successfully converted his massive, two-ton '59 Lincoln Continental into a biodiesel/electric hybrid hellbeast of the future. His company is called LincVolt, and it's aiming for nothing less than the automotive X-Prize. Who says the future has to be all tiny and wimpy and Prius-y?

Or you could check in with someone like Shai Agassi, the 40-year-old Israeli entrepreneur and CEO of Better Place, a very, very well-funded startup that aims to create a definitive, international "smart" network of electric car charging/battery swapping stations, an elegant meta-grid based around some hugely forward-thinking, Earth-friendly principles. Could it work? Damn right it could. It's already underway.

Of course, if hot, futuristic car design is all you seek, if you really want inspiration and new ideas in automotive design, you skip right past American cars and look to the same place we've always looked: Europe.

Here, for but one small example, is some odd French industrial/energy conglomerate called Bolloré, who hooked in with Italian design gods Pininfarina to leapfrog right over the traditional car manufacturers and, well, create the damn revolution themselves.

Their invention: the B0, AKA the Bluecar, a tiny, gorgeous, all-electric thing that looks like a Ferrari smashed into a Smart car at the Apple Store.

The Bluecar was originally designed as a concept car, to showcase Bolloré's fuel-cell technology. But the thing came out so well, they decided to manufacture it themselves. And so they are. You can pre-order one right now.

Oh, not in the U.S., of course. We almost never get cars like this. Or more accurately, we almost never get ideas like this. What do we get? We get the Volt. We get the Camaro. We get buried.

But hey, at least we look sort of cool doing it, right?

Mark Morford

Mark Morford's new book, 'The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism,' is now available at daringspectacle.com, Amazon, BN.com, and beyond. Join Mark on Facebook and Twitter, or email him. His website is markmorford.com. Mark's column appears every Wednesday on SFGate.

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