Editorial: Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be. Or Is It?

David C. Holzman
by David C. Holzman
editorial nostalgia ain t what it used to be or is it

For the last decade or so, nostalgia has been big in the car biz. Does it work? If substance backs it up. To wit . . .

* The MINI is a great drive.

* The PT Cruiser is practical—easy to park yet plenty of hauling volume, especially if you remove the back seats.

* The current Mustang has so much style it doesn’t need much substance, and it does have the muscle car thing going for it. (Fun fact: Mitt Romney drives a 2005. Chris Dodd was driving a late model ’stang until he started running for president. Then he traded it for an Escape Hybrid.)

* The Miata is probably the best drive per dollar. It does that job so well that people often forget that it tips the ragtop to British roadsters of the mid-twentieth century.

* The New Microbus concept could have made minivans cool. I would have had trouble holding onto my wallet, and I’m a single guy. I want to drive it around America.

When it lacks substance, nostalgia doesn’t go very far . . .

* The new T’bird was an expensive car that looked nice but didn’t do anything well.

* The PT is an interesting styling concept, but a terrible execution. (Pokemon eyes on a retromobile???!) Good style doesn’t go stale, but the PT was stale almost out the door. It’s not a driver’s car and it’s not a reliable car. The original xB does everything better than the PT, and if you don’t care about cool, so does the Element. Another fatal mistake by the pentastar.

* The Charger is a pale imitation of the original, as if some middle-schoolers tried to copy it with papier mâché, with a really mean face. The slit windows are annoyingly impractical on both the Charger and the Magnum.

* Even the Camaro is weak in the styling department, for similar reasons, although the concept looked much better. Even if deus ex machina saves GM and the economy roars back, I predict mediocre sales.

Rule breaker . . .

* The VW (Real) Beetle was a car that eschewed style for substance. It had so much practicality, from which it derived so much personality, that it became stylish. The New Beetle eschews substance for style. I’m not wild about it—too cutesy—but they did a really good job of cutesy, and a lot of people like that.

You can’t hang nostalgia on a name alone . . .

* The “GTO” completely lacks the original’s panache. Imagine it next to the real thing. (G8 is a much better name for a Pontiac in this age of globalization. In fact, Pontiac should have had a top of the line G8, which they could have called the “Summit.” Then Larry Summers could have bought one.)

One reason we like retro is because it so often puts the “car” in charisma (or the other way around). Most of today’s vehicles have all the personality of a room air conditioner. But you can inject personality without invoking the past, if only the bean counters would get out of the way. Occasionally, they do . . .

* The (real—gen 1) xB looks so cool that even my friend, Paul, a 53 year old family man with an aging Odyssey and an early ’00s Civic hatch with about 35,000 miles and a few dents that he calls his “pocket rocket,” whose life is far too interesting and successful for a midlife crisis, wants one. It’s also extremely practical; kind of a modern Old Beetle.

* The original Saturn was another car that was cool without being retro, something that could happen because it was created outside of the usual GM channels. Too bad GM blew it.

* The Acura Integra’s cool was a combination of major, yet inexpensive, fun, practicality, and better style than most anything on the road (even if it is still not nearly as stylish as, say, a Corvair).

* The CRX was cheap, quick, agile, and honest.

* The old, boxy Volvos look exactly like what they are, and they do their job well. (They are already becoming classics.)

* The ’90s Caprices really look like they’re going to pull you over. I want to drive a black and white down the left lane and watch everybody get out of my way.

We wouldn’t need retro if there were more room for creativity in the big car companies. And we wouldn’t need it if all the once-great brands hadn’t completely lost touch with their heritage. Take Chevrolet. Through the mid-’60s, most of these were gorgeous pieces of commercial art. Despite the names of some of the modern models—Malibu, for instance—these cars bear little resemblance to and completely lack the artistry of their classical forebears. Of course, when even a Citroën looks like an appliance, you know the end of days is near.

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  • Pch101 Pch101 on Apr 27, 2009
    What savings are invested in does not matter for this purpose. Investments are not categorized as savings. That's the point that you are missing. Money paid to the consumer goes to (a) consumption, (b) taxes, (c) savings and (d) investment. That's it. If you look at the (b) taxes, they're fairly flat. So the extra money isn't flowing there. Consumption (a) is also fairly flat. The amount of consumption is fairly consistent across the decades. The rest of the cash goes to (c) savings and (d) investing. What isn't being saved, paid in taxes or consumed is being invested. It's the net figure; you need to back into it.

  • George B George B on Apr 28, 2009

    In my opinion the Ford Mustang does retro the best of recent cars. RWD, two doors, V8 option, and affordable. It would be better if it went on a diet, but that was also true at the start of the 70s. Potential future nostalgia cars are the various RWD Japanese cars from the late 80s through mid 90s. Mazda RX-7, Mitsubishi Starion, Toyota MR2 and Supra, Nissan 300ZX, etc. Fun cars Gen X wanted, but couldn't quite afford when new. Not sure how many survived body cancer, import drag racing, and drifting. Not RWD, but the Honda CRX also has import nostalgia potential. Another vehicle class with nostalgia potential are retro pickup trucks that are full sized and basic, not super-sized and fully loaded. Guys seem to be drawn to old pickup trucks. Maybe the proposed and shelved 2011 Ford F-100 could have tapped into some part of old pickup truck nostalgia. http://www.pickuptrucks.com/html/2011/ford/f100/rumors/is-ford-thinking-smaller-with-a-new-f-100-pickup-based-on-f-150.html

  • Tassos ask me if I care.
  • ToolGuy • Nice vehicle, reasonable price, good writeup. I like your ALL CAPS. 🙂"my mid-trim EX tester is saddled with dummy buttons for a function that’s not there"• If you press the Dummy button, does a narcissist show up spouting grandiose comments? Lol.
  • MaintenanceCosts These are everywhere around here. I'm not sure the extra power over a CR-V hybrid is worth the fragile interior materials and the Kia dealership experience.
  • MaintenanceCosts It's such a shame about the unusable ergonomics. I kind of like the looks of this Camaro and by all accounts it's the best-driving of the current generation of ponycars. A manual 2SS would be a really fun toy if only I could see out of it enough to drive safely.
  • ToolGuy Gut feel: It won't sell all that well as a new vehicle, but will be wildly popular in the used market 12.5 years from now.(See FJ Cruiser)
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