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So long to two dated and dangerous cars

By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2001


So General Motors finally put the kibosh on the Camaro and Firebird sports cars.

So General Motors finally put the kibosh on the Camaro and Firebird sports cars.

What took GM so long?

The Chevrolet Camaro, politely called the poor man's Corvette, was a Neanderthal muscle car in an era of yuppie sport utility vehicles.

Its close cousin, the Pontiac Firebird, had its big moment back in the 1977 movie "Smokey and the Bandit" when Burt Reynolds was pursued, but never caught, by Jackie Gleason's Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Ever since, it's pretty much been a slow downhill run for two very dated, gas-guzzling sports cars.

So pardon me if I shed no tears over this week's news that GM will drop the Camaro and Firebird models after the 2002 model year ends next September.

Early fans of the sports cars are now too old (with a few inevitable exceptions) for hot-rodding and more likely to be found behind the wheels of Explorers, Jeeps -- and yes -- Chrysler minivans. Young drivers -- if they've heard of Camaro and Firebird at all -- are too busy shopping for trendy Volkswagen Passats or Honda Civics with decent gas mileage to worry about how much rubber they can burn getting from zero to 60 on I-275.

Of course, there are always a few loyal holdouts. But GM's tendency to nurse along yesteryear's models is one big reason it's losing market share so steadily.

Camaro sales fell a stunning 26 percent this year through August to 22,339, while Firebird sales were down 28 percent to 16,225.

Had GM only hired Dr. Kevorkian to assist in putting more aging car lines out of their misery, the Detroit manufacturer now would be in far better shape.

GM will close its St. Therese plant near Montreal, where Camaros and Firebirds are made. GM says the two car models are on "hiatus," suggesting the nameplates could return on cars with different engineering at some time in the future.

Mercifully, there are no such plans for now.

Still, after a 35-year run, the two car icons can't disappear without some salute.

Neither car would have been born if Lee Iacocca's wildly popular Ford Mustang had not taken GM by surprise in 1964.

The Camaro and Firebird were introduced for the 1967 model year to help GM combat the Mustang mystique.

For years, the Camaro and Firebird helped GM stay a contender in the V-8 engine sports car business -- even if the enduring Mustang will outlive its GM counterparts.

Camaro was originally supposed to be named "Panther" but Chevrolet executives preferred some name that started with a "C." The word "Camaro" supposedly means "friend" or "companion" in an old French dictionary.

The more modern reputation of the Camaro and Firebird is far less nostalgic. For years, they have had the highest death rates of all sports cars in single-vehicle crashes.

The Camaro's driver death rate during calendar years 1992-96 was almost three times as high as the average.

The single-vehicle death rates, including high rollover rates despite low centers of gravity, reflect both the performance capabilities of the sports cars and the risk-taking characteristics of many of their drivers, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That's more than enough reason to bid the Camaro and Firebird so long and good riddance.

Short takes

COULD DISNEY BE BOUGHT? Shares of Walt Disney -- down 40 percent on the year -- are plummeting faster than riders on the Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain ride. The freefall's raising the unheard-of idea that Disney could become a takeover target. More than half the company's revenue depends on travel and tourism, retail and advertising -- all hurting after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Thursday, Moody's cut Disney's credit and debt ratings, while Prudential Securities cut Disney's 2002 earnings estimate to 59 cents from 83 cents . . .

FEDS TO RUN TOURIST BIZ? Say it ain't so. Nervous Nellie tourism officials over in Orlando are pushing for a "national tourism office" to help organize (and spend federal tax dollars promoting) what is now a fragmented, locally-driven industry. The topic was aired this week when Mel Martinez, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, stopped by to encourage air travel in the wake of Sept. 11 attacks. Hey, if airlines get a huge bailout, why not tourism . . . and travel agents . . . and hotels . . . and restaurants . . . and . . .

ANOTHER DARN MARGIN CALL: Just as Disney's stock was hurt when one of its major investors had to sell off a big stake to meet a margin call, Uniroyal Technology Corp. has acknowledged it has suffered a similar blow. Shares of the Sarasota company, whose Tampa facility makes high-tech light-emitting diodes, have dropped by more than a third in the past week. The company did not identify which shareholder sold shares to meet a margin call . . .

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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