Detroit, Tap Your Inner Classics


I've lost count of the letters received over the years from armchair CEOs who have ideas about how General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) can reignite the passions of American consumers. I frequently get submissions along the lines of "Why doesn't GM just copy a '57 Chevy and sell it?" Or, "How come Ford doesn't just stamp out the body of, say, James Dean's '49 Mercury coupe and slap it on a modern chassis?"

The answer is obvious. While there are some people who would jump at a knock-off of an old design, most consumers want the newest looks and the next big thing.

From a practical standpoint, many of the cool classic cars were designed in an era when fuel economy and safety regulations didn't exist, not to mention before accountants seized the reins. Back then, stylists were free to push the limits of their imaginations.

PRACTICAL HOT ROD. Still, within that amateurish prescription is a pearl of wisdom. These companies have a heritage of cool cars that their foreign rivals can't touch. And Americans have an appetite for classic hot rods.

Witness the success of ASC, which stands for American Specialty Car. The Detroit company has reengineered Ford's 1932 roadster. ASC's version, named the Dearborn Deuce, has an all-new steel body, rides on a 355-horsepower Chevy small-block V-8 engine, and goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under 5 seconds.

ASC took the Deuce's design and made it practical. Mark Trostle, president of creative services at ASC, has an original '32 Ford hot rod. He says his wife hates the car because its small doors make the car tough to get in and out of. And the tiny cabin is cramped. So when Trostle started designing the new Deuce for ASC, he pushed the cabin back to give the driver more leg room. He also made it wider.

FLYING BODIES. Even though the car looks just like the original '32 coupe, none of the body panels are interchangeable between today's version and the '32 model. The Dearborn Deuce also has a retractable soft top. The original had a hard top that had to be stored, making the convertible problematic on a rainy day.

Since unveiling the Deuce a year ago, ASC has sold 50 for around $100,000 each. It has sold another 200 bodies at $20,000 apiece to hot rodders who want to use their own engines and craft the rest to their tastes.

Trostle says ASC drafted a business model based on selling 100 bodies, so the Deuce is a money maker. Plus, ASC, which has grown nicely doing design and engineering work for big auto makers, has tapped into a market normally held by small, independent specialty shops.

AUTHENTIC RIDE. Trostle likens the scene to baby boomers' discovery of Harleys (HDI). About 40% of the buyers are women. And most Deuce owners are affluent boomers who like the bad-boy image of the American hot-rod scene. But the Deuce eliminates the worry of having to dig up old parts, or the expense of getting professional custom work done when something goes wrong.

I test-drove a Deuce just last week. Even though the car is all new, the engine growled the guttural roar of a powerful V-8 from yesteryear. The suspension bounced on parking lot speed bumps like a stage coach.

The Deuce's bone-shaker nature isn't for everyone, but it makes the car feel more authentic. Along those lines, the Deuce doesn't have a radio, air conditioning, or a seat belt, but all of those features can be installed.

"AWESOME, DUDE." The car attracted plenty of attention. Driving down Woodward Avenue -- a main drag through suburban Detroit where classic-car owners from around the country congregate for a week every August -- the pearlescent orange convertible got all kinds of looks.

And that was in a week when Woodward was bumper-to-bumper with classics from every era. One 60-something guy in a restored Plymouth from the late '60s asked me what was under the hood. Teenage girls crammed into a minivan yelled, "Cool car." A Hispanic teen in a pickup truck said, "That is awesome, dude," as he drove past.

As I drove among the vintage American muscle cars and classic luxury cruisers, it hit me. The Deuce is an extreme example of an advantage Detroit has over its surging Asian rivals. They may have the best reputation for building reliable, quiet rides. But the domestic companies have cool in their corner.

PONY CAR RETURNS. Brands like Ford, Cadillac, and Chevrolet have not just a history of design and engineering, but a mystique that their younger, foreign competitors don't. Quick. Think of a classic Japanese car. The only thing that comes close is the original Datsun 240Z from the late 1970s.

The companies formerly known as Detroit's Big Three have done well when they've taken a few cues from past classics and made them new again. Chrysler's (DCX) hot 300 sedan has drawn comparisons to Bentley's ultralux Arnage, but its real inspiration was the 300 car of the '50s.

Chrysler's PT Cruiser, inspired by a '30s-era Ford, was a winner when it launched in 2000. And Ford's new Mustang -- styled after the pony cars of the late '60s -- is selling really well.

I'm not saying modern copies of classics is the way to go. That's a job for smaller companies that can make money selling a few hundred cars, like ASC. But Detroit could get a lot more people back to its showrooms if it can rekindle the passion its cars once inspired. And the Big Three can do that only by unleashing design the way they once did.

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