Practicing For A Midlife Crisis
How the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am established a bizarre market niche
Everyone is familiar with the cliché of the overweight balding man in his mid-fifties who one weekend morning leaves the family home in a sensible commuter mobile and returns a few hours later in some fire-breathing crotch-rocket. In the USA, these midlife-crisis-mobiles can be expensive German imports or, for more blue-collar types, a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. In Europe where there’s less money to indulge in automotive compensation strategies, men with flagging libidos may have to content themselves with exchanging the sensible family people-carrier in for a racy two-seater with a folding roof. Only the very wealthy will be able to splash out on a Lamborghini or an Aston-Martin.
For the most part, crisis-mobiles were lots of show but very little go. Especially after the introduction of emissions regulations in the late 1970s, the ancient cast iron V8s that sat in the engine bay of nearly every US car were neutered to the point of flaccidity. Moreover, this was a very good thing because US cars had handling so bad that the phrase “land yacht” actually over-stated how well they handled on the road. In 1981 I happened to test-drive a bright pink convertible Chevrolet with white faux-fur seat trim. Acceleration was leisurely, the thing lurched and rolled through even the most gentle corner, and if one wished to slow down sufficiently to permit halting at a traffic light one needed to begin to apply the drum brakes approximately fifteen minutes in advance. In short, US cars provided as dynamically satisfying a driving experience as a pat of melting butter.
Very recently, however, the USA has actually produced a sporty-looking car that has real capability.
The latest generation of Stingray is no longer all show and straight-line bluster that falls apart the moment even the most gentle corner appears. It’s a real competitor to cars four or five times its price. So at last the middle-executive middle-class middle-aged male doesn’t have to crawl toward each corner in fear of having a brown-trouser moment but can…