May 1, 2003
By Scott Lewis
I have written briefly about retro cars before. I mentioned in a past article that designers don't like retro. After all, they would prefer you liked their new designs rather than trying to come up with a way to make an old car look new. There is also the difficulty of trying to evoke people's memories, yet not really doing so since your building a modern car.
This month I want to take another look at the retro theme as it applies to cars. There is another issue at work here I did not mention before. Updating a retro design. Lets look at the four most retro cars I can think of. The New Mustang (due out sometime next year), the New Beetle, the PT Cruiser and the Thunderbird.
The New Beetle has been around the longest of these. Has it changed any since its 1998 introduction? Nope. They may have added a Turbo and Turbo S model, but it is still the same looking car. Now they are adding a convertible, which surely should let it run for a few more years as is. But what next? Can you make a new New Beetle? Look for this car to disappear with the next redesign of the Golf, which the Beetle is based on.
The PT Cruiser has been around since 1999. Has it changed? Nope. They are finally thinking about a convertible for production, even though they have been teasing us with one in car shows for years. Have they come out with a panel truck version? Nope. A real woody version? Nope. They just introduced a turbocharged GT edition. They also offer varying special editions that are basically paint and trim offerings. Expect this car to fade away when they can't maintain interest with new variations. Don't expect it to actually go through a typical new car redesign.
The Thunderbird has only been out since 2001. It is still new and low enough in production numbers that it doesn't need updating... yet! But what about when it does. Will the next Thunderbird go to a four passenger car like the 58 Thunderbird? Will they re-invent the swing-a-way steering wheel, fiber optic display and sequential tail lights of the mid sixties? Will they turn it into a four door (yuck!)? I doubt it. This car will run its course, and like the Plymouth Prowler it will just become a distant memory. (Note: after writing this article, but before posting it, Ford announced the Thunderbird will indeed be given the axe after a run of just a few short years.)
Now, what about the New Mustang. It is strongly reminiscent of the 67-68 Mustang. Will they mimic the 69-70 look next. Will they ever mimic the bloated 71-73 Mustangs? How about the dreaded "Charlie's Angels" Mustang IIs of the mid seventies? Or will the New Mustang last for 7 - 10 years with rotating trim changes to copy the Mach 1, Cobra, Shelby, Bullit, etc? Do we want retro in a "mainstream" vehicle. After all, the Mustang has been around for a long time. And there in lies the Mustang's one advantage over the other cars mentioned here... it has been in production all along. However, it will be interesting to see what Ford will do if the New Mustang is very popular. How will they maintain that and still be able to update it?
Other Retro Cars
I briefly mentioned the Prowler, a hot rod inspired car that didn't even have a V-8. It died with Plymouth. You have to wonder why they put that car in a Plymouth dealership in the first place. It was expensive, even before the dealer gouging, and Plymouth was the lowest priced tier in the Chrysler family. No wonder Plymouth & Prowler are no more.
Audi's TT is not doing too well in the market. This is probably due as much to its front wheel drive heritage as anything else. It has a retro look that also seems futuristic. I expect it will be impossible to redesign it. Since more and more "sporty" cars are going rear wheel drive I expect the TT to vanish in a few years. After all, in the mid-thirties a 350Z convertible will kick this car's but with 287 horsepower and rear wheel drive.
Ford built the Mercury Marauder. This is supposed to be a car that harks back to the good old days of old fashioned Muscle Cars with BIG V-8 engines. People in the sixties would have loved a car that had over 300 net horsepower. (Remember, cars in the sixties were rated in gross horsepower which provided higher horsepower number. 300 NET hp today should be more than 350 gross hp from the sixties.) But the Marauder is slow. Yes, with 302 hp it is slow. The best 0-60 time I could find for it was 7.5 seconds. Wow, I have seen road tests of the PT Cruiser Turbo doing 0-6 in 7.2 seconds with a 4 cylinder engine. Oops! In fact, road tests of the Impala SS (the car the Marauder is most closely compared to) from 94-96 were doing 0-60 in the low six second range with only 260 hp. Again, Oops! I expect the Marauder to die off very soon because of poor sales. Those poor sales will be a result of poor execution. If you built a car to evoke the memories of the Muscle Car era... then it better have Muscle. There are dozens of sporting sedans on the market that can beat the Marauder in every category of automotive testing except mass. The car is huge. Remember, the original Muscle Car, The GTO, was a mid-sized sedan with a big engine, not a big car with a mid-sized engine.
Nissan's 350Z is supposed to be reminiscent of the original Datsun 240Z. To bad they didn't bring back the Datsun name (a mistake they never should have made). The 350Z doesn't try to look anything like its early heritage. They did add a few touches to the interior to mimic the original Z. But overall they are only trying to mimic the "concept" of the 240Z. The concept was a fun to drive, basic sports car at an affordable price. Maybe the 350Z will survive a redesign or two. But what about that affordability in the 240Z. The 240Z was affordable by anyone's standards. The 350Z may be affordable with no options at about $27K. But to get leather you have to go all the way up to the $33K Touring model. That's not like 1970. At $33K you are stepping into the BMW Z4's price point, and predictions are that the convertible version of the 350Z will be about 5-7K more than an equivalent coupe. At $5,000 more than the coupe that puts the convertible Z in the $32-40,000 price range. This IS the BMW's arena. Can the 350Z stand toe to toe with the BMW Z4. Nissan is walking a delicate line here. They have a car that performs great, but is hard to get at the affordable price point. Look at the cars on dealers' lots, they are mostly upper scale versions selling for over $30K. Over $30K for a sports car that claims to be affordable is a hard pill to swallow. Once you cross over the $30 barrier you are looking at entry-luxury cars. And remember, the 300ZX died when it got too expensive and was getting close to the Corvette's price range. The 350Z can't afford (no pun intended) to get to expensive.
Speaking of BMW, the Z3 was kind of a retro car. And it survived a redesign if you consider the new Z4 a redesign. After all the Z4 is replacing the Z3. The Z4 is a bit daring in the styling department. But to follow the trend BMW can just start with a fresh design in 4 years or so. The Z4 doesn't share anything styling wise with the Z3. I expect demand for the Z4 will last a few years and then drop off quickly.
Retro is cool. But how do you go from retro back to a normal design? And at what point is retro not retro because it is just old from being reused for too long?
The next 5 years should shed a lot of light on cars with heavy retro themes. I don't have the answer yet, but I am thinking about it. Mostly I expect the retro styling to be a fad. However, I am hesitant to make that an official claim. After all, I like retro cars.
BTW... I heard a rumor that Chevrolet is going to be showing a new Camaro on the car show circuit sometime in 2004. Hmmm, I like Camaros too. After all, I own two of them. Maybe they will "retro" the 1969 Camaro, arguably the most popular year in its 35 year history.