Jim Hopkins, a Ford Motor Co. dealer from Stilwell, Okla., calls them the "days of the sick cars."
That was back in the early 1970s, when oil embargoes were pushing up gasoline prices and when the federal government was pushing fuel conservation and clean air, all at the expense of something called "performance."
"All people cared about then was miles per gallon," Hopkins said, "And they would buy all of these sick little cars that gave them good mileage, but couldn't get them up a hill."
Then, performance usually meant brute acceleration, jumping from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than, say, 8 seconds.
There were still cars around in the sick-car days that could do that sort of thing. But they carried names like Corvette and Porsche, and they were expensive to buy and costly to keep.
But all of that is changing today, much to the happiness of many dealers here who are attending the 69th annual meeting of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Auto makers and specialty conversion shops are coming up with new lines of "affordable-performance" cars and trucks that can be bought for less than $15,000 and get at least 20 miles to the gallon.
Affordable-performance vehicles include "pocket rockets," such as the 1.8-liter Volkswagen GTI and the new 2.2-liter Dodge Shelby Charger GLHS, the latter of which was announced here this week.
The objective is to provide a performance car "for the little guy who loves cars" but who can't afford or doesn't want something like a Porsche or Ferrari, said Carroll Shelby, a former race-car driver who has been an auto designer for Chrysler Corp. since 1982.
Shelby's new company in Whittier, Calif., Shelby Automobiles Inc., this year will begin producing up to 2,000 GLHS models annually. If those models take off, Chrysler will add them to its regular lineup in larger volume.
The GLHS cars will be priced below $11,000, will get approximately 27 miles to the gallon, "and will blow away" some Porsches on the road, Shelby said.
Base-model Dodge Omni subcompact cars, on which the Shelby GLHS will be based, cost under $6,000.
Dealers like Hopkins believe Shelby and Chrysler will have no problems selling the GLHS. Buyers already "are coming into the showroom looking for cars that run," and they're paying thousands of dollars above base-model prices to get them, Hopkins said.
"It's not that everybody's a hot-rodder. It's just that we got a lot of products right now that can really run and still give you pretty good fuel economy," said Hopkins, touting his Ford lineup.
Nonetheless, affordable-performance cars make up less than 15 percent of the total U.S. auto market.
"This is not a craze. A certain segment of the car-buying population has always wanted performance cars. But, for a period of time in the 1970s, there weren't many manufacturers around who could meet that demand and provide fuel-efficient, nonpolluting cars at the same time," said Pat Logue, spokesman for ASC Incorp., a specialty car conversion company in Southgate, Mich.
New developments in automotive technology, particularly computerized engine controls, are making it possible to produce cars and trucks that perform well without burdening the owner with high initial purchase and operating costs, Logue said.
"We're back to a point where we can eat our cake and have it too," said Logue, who defines "performance" as "total vehicle dynamics" -- say, a car's ability to accelerate, brake and handle well.
Shelby and Logue both said affordable-performance cars also meet consumer demand for safety.
"There's only so much performance you can put into a car" and remain socially responsible as a manufacturer, Shelby said.
"In the old days, we would stick 600 horsepower into a car and shove it out the door, and the only warranty we would give the buyer is the key to the ignition. Those days are gone," largely because of increased government policing of and growing public demand for auto safety, Shelby said.