Doug Drives: Has Anyone Ever Successfully Followed Up a Retro Car Design?

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
doug drives has anyone ever successfully followed up a retro car design

The new Mustang is handsome, isn’t it? I was behind one the other day in traffic, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it: in the right color, with the right wheels, there’s a good argument to be made that the Mustang is one of the most attractive coupes on the market today. Too bad it’s still just another in a long list of retro designs.

I was thinking about this recently because there has been a lot of retro designs in the last few years — and virtually all of those models are still sporting retro designs. Which leads me to wonder: Has anyone ever actually successfully followed up on a retro design? Has anyone ever created a retro design, and then un-retroized it, and still found success?

In other words: Once you’ve gone retro, is it even possible to go back?

Here’s what I mean: When Chevrolet revived the Camaro back in 2010, they did so with a retro design. This was all the rage back then. We had a retro Mustang, and a retro Challenger, and a retro Camaro, and a host of other retro cars because apparently we wanted to escape the depression of the financial crisis by just pretending everything came from the ‘60s.

Well, here we are, six years later, there’s a new Camaro out, and it looks a lot like the old one. And it still uses a lot of retro design language. In other words, when it comes to styling, the new Camaro isn’t really new. It’s just a slightly evolved version of the old Camaro, which itself was just a modern version of the original Camaro.

The Camaro isn’t alone in this. Back when the Dodge Challenger made its debut for the 2008 model year, we all thought that it was a) impressively cool, and b) the size of a VFW hall. Well, it’s been eight years since the first Challenger rolled off the assembly line — and guess what? It’s still the same damn car. They’ve updated the headlights, they’ve updated the taillights, they’ve given us more technology, but ultimately the Challenger remains virtually identical to the one that first went on sale during the Bush presidency.

The Mustang isn’t much different. Oh, sure, they’ve redesigned it with a nip here and a tuck there. But ultimately, it still has the retro look: the long hood, the tail lights, the old-school design touches like the badge and the roof line. The Mustang’s future, it seems, is still firmly rooted in the past.

And it isn’t just muscle cars. Actually, I could go on for days about retro cars that automakers are clearly struggling to follow up their initial design. For example: the Mini Cooper. It came out in 2002, it was redesigned in 2008, it was redesigned again last year, and my God it still looks exactly like it did when it came out. I can only imagine the meetings at BMW about this, where executives are cowering in fear because they have absolutely no idea where to take the Mini Cooper next.

And how about the Volkswagen Beetle? It came out in 2000, eventually they made a convertible, it languished for a while, and then, BAM! There’s now a new one that they swear is all new, totally redesigned, fully changed, even though it looks identical to the original.

I mean, yes, there are a few new lines, and new tail lights, but it doesn’t pass the crucial test: If my girlfriend thinks it hasn’t changed, then it hasn’t changed. Oh, sure, I can spot the changes — but I’m not the normal consumer. I am the guy who can tell apart the Mercury Tracer from the Ford Escort. Volkswagen isn’t targeting me. My girlfriend is the normal consumer, and Volkswagen would be disappointed to find out she thinks the Beetle looks exactly like it did when it first came out 15 years ago. (“BUT THE TAIL LIGHTS!!!!” they would say.)

Some automakers take a different approach to retro designs — and just cancel them altogether. Rather than follow up on the HHR, Chevrolet made a different decision: ditch it. They made the same decision with the SSR. Chrysler said the same thing about the PT Cruiser and the Prowler.

All of this has got me thinking two things. Number one: Maybe, if you’re into designing cars, retro isn’t the best idea. It’s good for a few sales up front, but it’ll absolutely destroy any hope you have of cultivating a long-term success story in the future. And number two: Has there ever been a single retro-designed car that successfully shook off its retro roots? I am honestly, truly curious if one exists, because I can’t think of one. And usually, I would be able to figure it out. After all, I’m the guy who can tell the difference between a Ford Escort and a Mercury Tracer.

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2 of 74 comments
  • 415s30 415s30 on Dec 19, 2015

    I always think about this on the road, there are a bunch of cars that are meant to look like old cars. They don't more forward. All things considered the automobile as we know it today just isn't that old of an invention, we had the style and art, now do we bow down to safety and aero trying to hold onto some of the past? Perhaps all cars fun to drive will be classics and we will have an autonomous electric etc.. vehicle for normal use. And we know that car should look like an Aptera for aero efficiency. So I too have been behind a new Mustang in traffic, pondering the design conundrum (I sure like to be behind a Mustang instead of a Camaro, they are awful). Will the Mustang become a modern car without holding onto the past? Maybe the next trend will be giving up the retro and going full speed into the future.

  • Raph Raph on Dec 19, 2015

    Mustang tried to break with the past and it was a resounding failure, so much so, they had to call the it the Probe. Prior to the Probe fiasco the Fox body Mustangs tried to break with Mustang convention and by and large were not considered very Mustang like (even Ford intentionally left the 79-93 cars out of its ads when the S-197 was introduced). The fox cars were popular because they were cheap speed and really only appeal to a specific subset of Mustang owner (namely kids and young adults during the fox car's heyday) and outside that group most people find them unattractive if they even know what they are looking at and if they do they will flatly tell you that the fox cars and to some extent the later sn95/new edge cars aren't what a Mustang is supposed to look like.

  • Sayahh Is it 1974 or 1794? The article is inconsistent.
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  • JamesGarfield What charging network does the Polestar use?
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