By on June 17, 2020

Nothing like a nice evening drive on a warm summer’s night, streetlights whipping by as the western horizon glows with hues of peach and lavender. Yessir, there’s nothing like some leisurely motoring. And what’s that up ahead?

Oh, an FJ Cruiser, Toyota’s answer to the retro craze sweeping the industry back in the early to middle 2000s. Big ol’ thing, it was — and thirsty, too. Kept its resale value, though, but certainly not its initial sales prowess. That thing’s popularity dwindled faster than inhibitions at a kegger.

Will a time ever come when automakers again dive into retro with such ferocity, I wondered?

Recall that simple, long-ago time. I do it often after spending time on social media! It was a decade that brought us the blandest of mainstream sedans from all corners of the earth after a decade that saw the pinnacle of Japanese quality reached.

In the background, however, another crop of designers toiled furiously, dreaming of another era. From those pens came:

PT Cruiser (2001)
Ford Thunderbird (2002)
Chrysler Crossfire (2004)
Fifth-generation Ford Mustang (2005)
Toyota FJ Cruiser (2006)
Chevrolet HHR (2006)

Yes, the Volkswagen New Beetle and Plymouth Prowler was just a warm-up act. These were not cars that boasted a clear design lineage with the generation of vehicle that came immediately before, and before that, and so on. They were departures; either aping a long-ago model or adopting distinctive styling cues of yesteryear.

And history has not been kind to these models, with the exception of the Mustang, which continues to wear its heritage on its sleeve, and possibly the HHR, which was an interesting way to package a cheap Cobalt. The panel van version remains an intriguing vehicle. The SS variant of said van is very intriguing.

Automakers continue to try to rekindle past successes and foist historical design elements on us, but there’s no critical mass of unabashedly retro design like we saw 15 years ago. There’ll be a new Nissan Z soon, but the previous 350Z and 370Z more or less kept the original design recipe intact, minus the distinctively retro flourishes expected of the upcoming model. There’ll be others, too, but it’ll be a scattershot affair.

In this writer’s view, the public’s current disinterest in the passenger car arena makes a wide-scale retro effort unlikely. Crossovers don’t lend themselves to mimicry. What could they mimic? And trucks are trucks, always existing in the present day.

What are your thoughts? Have we finished blasting from the past?

[Image: General Motors]

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80 Comments on “QOTD: Are We Done With Retro?...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    No, Jeep Wrangler. There’s a saying if Karl Probst (original Jeep designer) were to return today he would still recognize his original Jeep design from 1940 in today’s Wrangler

  • avatar
    paxman356

    When someone at Chevy decides that the Vega should be next, I’m all for Retro continuing. If they say the Chevette needs to return, it is dead.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    ctrl-f “Bronco” – Phrase not found
    ctrl-f “Camaro” – Phrase not found

    Retro designs are dead ends. Great for cars for one generation, but then what?
    People complained the Holden GTO didn’t look like an old GTO. Pontiac was right in not designing a whole new car, especially not forcing a retro design on it, they look better today than the 2005 retro Mustangs and first retro Camaros do.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      To me, the ‘new’ GTO resembled a 2000 Nissan Sentra from the rear.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I do not agree that in 2020 the GTO looks better than either the ’05 Mustang or Zeta Camaro.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      You don’t have to do retro, but it didn’t need to look like a Grand Prix either.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Based on the Bronco it appears retro isn’t done yet.

      The Ranger just came back as well but in name only as its no longer a mini truck.

      Maybe Dodge can bring back the Omni – in Shelby form of course.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        Retro only works with those who are nostalgic. The whole “they don’t make ’em like they used to” crowd. That is typically us Boomers. We have money to relive some sort of misguided fantasy of our youth.
        Harley Davidson rode that horse to financial success but now is in trouble.
        Jeep Wrangler is cashing in on it but has successfully shifted appeal to soccer mom types who want to appear adventuristic. Adding 2 doors aka Unlimited was a no brainers. That same strategy turned the pickup into the ubiquitous family sedan.
        Current muscle cars are driven mostly by Boomers. They are too pricey for anyone younger.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I doubt if we will see retro for a long long time. Economy is tightening up and it would be harder for manufacturers to spend for a all new separate design for a retro vehicle if the volume is going to be low even if they use a shared platform. For the near future more cost cutting. How about instead of retro offer smaller base compact pickups that share parts and platforms with cuvs which is what Ford is planning for their new compact truck. Offering more value at lower prices will stimulate more sales and keep the revenue coming in for the manufacturers. Utilize any plants making a similar vehicle with underused capacity.

  • avatar

    When the 5th gen Mustang arrived it was, in my mind, a great move by Ford. Those first couple of years were great looking cars and I appreciated the retro look. I also was drawn to the PT Cruiser. I was driving an 84 Shelby Charger at the time and the Cruiser looked like it would work well for lugging my modest sound reinforcement gear around. It also reminded me of the possibilities I saw in the original Caravan. Throw a Tascam 388, tie lines and the rest of the gear needed and, viola, a mobile remote recording studio/vehicle.

    Agree with Steph’s thoughts, though. The Cruiser/HHR being the most illustrative of a design that had nowhere to go. The others had some room for design tweaks, witness the Mustang, that would have allowed a few years of “new” car for the marketplace.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I can’t believe Steph didn’t mention the Camaro, from 2009 to the present through 2 generations the exterior has been based on the 1967-1969 model. I still want to see a modern interpretation of the 1970 model. (Although in classic GM fashion the Camaro is likely dead before it can get another generation.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Dropping the Camaro/Firebird back in 2002 was a boneheaded Lutz move by GM. Did he really think that most of its customers would go to CUVs or the retro SSR?

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        I don’t think it was Lutz. When he was with Chrysler, he lamented the loss of the RWD M-body Chrysler to a FWD K-car derivative. After all, he championed the Pontiac Solstice. The 4th generation Camaro was built in Quebec, which might have had something to do with it’s demise.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        I guess it was to save the Camaro any further embarrassment. In 2001, sales were under 30K, yet it was far superior to the Mustang on paper. Mustang sales were more than 155K strong.

        It even had the LS1 and 6-speed double overdrive trans and no one seemed too upset. Yes sales rose to more than 42K for 2002, but think back to when the Mustang was threatening to go FWD (Mazda Probe) and Mustang fans/buyers about went insane.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    I have a retro car in my stable; and several MINIs in the past.

    The pony cars work because of their long heritage. MINI, if sales are any indication, is apparently not the route to go given how the brand seems to be locked into the same design form. Mustang has changed forms several times over the years so somehow it works – don’t ask me why – you would never mistake my 2014 with a 1964 Mustang but some of the same design elements are there. And, to my eyes, the S550 (2015+ Mustangs) look more Ford Fusion-ish than classic. And the Challenger looks bloated compared to the original but it still has a lot of eye appeal.

    I liked the PT Cruiser – when I first saw the photos – but in reality it was smaller than I expected. I swear Chrysler tried to make it look like a midsize or even larger in the magazine advertising. After a few years it became a BHPH lot special.

    I had an interest in buying a HHR LT, just for it’s (admittedly small) hauling capacity. I got talked out if by a gear head friend of mine: “Dude, it’s just a Cobalt.”

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      I think current Mustangs capture the spirit of the original more then it being a copy of the original. Had Mustang followed a design trajectory from 1964 without the deviations of the Mustang II, Fox body etc. I can see it naturally looking like it does without being labeled “retro”

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Definitely not. Look at the new, much-anticipated, Ford Bronco or the new Land Rover Defender with all of their retro-inspired styling.

  • avatar
    deanst

    The biggest thing at Ford in decades is the Bronco and were talking about the death of retro. Huh?

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    Classic designs are just that that. There’s a reason people gravitate to them. The 911 will keep 911ing. And even though the VW Squareback is a classic to me, it won’t return to production, nor will the Gen1 Scirocco, nor the Mercury Capri. Thus we live in a world of endless blandness, and the auto makers wonder why youth don’t want their vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      +1 Pig_Iron. That’s the important distinction here: There is retro design and there is classic design. Retro may very well be fading. But Classic is always there.

      Fortunately for Ford, both the Mustang and Bronco are classic designs. And, man, would I love a V6 Capri with manual right about now – based on the original, not the rebadged Fox body.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      911 is a perfect example of a classic design that’s continually updated without redesigns for the sake of redesign. I wish more cars would follow the old VW Bug philosophy of updating and improving without necessarily changing good basic design. When I look back at cars from the early 60s that were well designed it breaks my heart that they only lasted a couple of years before they were completely changed

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    “And trucks are trucks, always existing in the present day.”

    Chevy SSR winks knowingly at you.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I agree with Steph.

    Another consideration: The retro cars listed from 15 years ago were mimicking cars from 40 years prior. Today’s generation of buyers don’t even remember those older vehicles, and who wants anything retro from 1980? Maybe the TR-7?

    In this age of cost-cutting and efficiency, and expen$ive EV development, I can’t see mfrs signing up to do more short-run retro designs.

    But I *did* want that Nissan IDx concept from 2013.

    • 0 avatar
      Varezhka

      Yup, nostalgia works only if it’s a good memory.
      When your childhood memory is that of Reagan/Thatcher era of mass unemployment and the domestic cars you remember are the Chrysler K-cars and the Chevy Celebrities, it’s harder to cash in.

      There will always be a demand for a retro/nostalgic cars, but maybe in a smaller scale.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      I would buy a Lancia Stratos in a heartbeat if it were sale but that was mid-70s. A lightweight 2 seat wedge with a V6 behind the driver with 250hp.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    I think the defining link connecting all of those retro efforts is cashing in on Boomer nostalgia. Given that Millennials seem primed to be just as navel-gazing and self-obsessed as their parents (speaking as one), we might start to see more 80’s and 90’s retro in 10-20 years as they start hitting middle age.

  • avatar
    Sobro

    Eh, retro styling wasn’t jellybeaned and it’s a good way to differentiate the product. I can see design cues from the 50’s cars showing up in SUV’s, especially regrowing the greenhouse and rounded instead of “flame surfaced” fender bumps. Hood bulges and actual bumper rub strips could come, too, eventually.

  • avatar
    loner

    “And trucks are trucks, always existing in the present day.”

    I’d love to see Chevy make a throwback square-body pickup/SUV with cues from 1980-ish. It would definitely be an improvement over their current styling.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I loved the “retro” Jaguars and wish they would come back.

  • avatar
    detlump

    I think we’ll see a return to retro styling, at least in electric vehicles. Aerodynamics may not matter that much for most electric vehicle driving. Also some styling today is affected by pedestrian impact standards that may go away with collision avoidance systems in the future (or not).

    Take a look at all the custom car bodies for golf carts and you will see where EVs will be in the future.

    With a rolling platform that is the same, any body style could be added on top. Isn’t the performance of Teslas pretty much the same regardless of body style given the same drivetrain? That’s not the case with ICE vehicles.

  • avatar
    millerluke

    No one’s mentioned the Challenger? It’s about the only car today that still sells (reasonably frequently) that has the retro-touch. Steph is right in that with the current appetite for crossovers, you won’t see retro vehicles, since it’s a fairly new segment. Maybe in 20 years we’ll see Dodge release a ‘retro’ Journey

    • 0 avatar
      nrd515

      If retro is done right, like the Challenger, it’s great. If it’s done wrong, and wrong way too long (How did GM not get the hint it didn’t work about 2011?)like the Camaro, it’s very bad. The Camaro is a great chassis in a very ugly wrapper. IF GM had come to their senses and gone to a 2nd gen retro look, that had some utility, I would have at least considered a Camaro, but instead they doubled down on the ugly when they made a platform change, and sales tanked. If GM came out with a 68-72 Chevelle SS take off that looked good (Few and far between at GM lately), I would be interested, for sure. The 6.2 LS in a good looking 2 door coupe, with a usable trunk and decent room inside? Hell yes. If GM did do it, I would expect them to mess it up and make it look like a Colonade ’73 Chevelle, and that would just be a disaster.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Let’s bring back:

    1. The 85 MPH speedometer with a red “55” in it.

    2. Real mechanical odometers which can be read in junkyards.

    3. Column shifters (Tesla did this already…).

    4. Bench seats.

    5. Woodgrain siding.

    6. 5 mph bumpers with the rubber tips.

    7. 12-14″ wheels.

    8. Recirculating ball steering.

    9. Vinyl seats.

    10. Drum brakes.

    /s

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Probably nothing more was intended for all those that went away. Mission accomplished, they sucked and hopefully made lots of money.

    But if Ford doesn’t screw it up, the Bronco could live on for generations. Not too much SUV, great off-road, but a lot more livable than annoying wartime bathtub.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    I would think it would be difficult to do a retro design inspired by the 1990 Ford Explorer. And SUVs are all anyone is buying these days. Maybe a successful design would put people back in sedans and coupes, but what automaker would be willing to chance it?

  • avatar
    la834

    There’s a new VW microbus on the way…

  • avatar
    MrIcky

    No we aren’t done with Retro, because what one person calls retro is another person ‘nod to heritage’ or ‘classic design language’ (direct quotes from articles I’ve read). Sure, HHRs and PT Cruiser are on the more blatant end of the spectrum. I mean you can kind of go crazy with this- wierd example- the 1st Countach was 74 and the Aventador could easily be a ‘retro callback’ to that, the 911 is obvious. As mentioned, the Bronco is clearly retro. So, I’d say- no, retro isn’t going away any time soon, but it might not be labeled retro for marketing reasons.

  • avatar
    mcs

    BMW is gluing a 1930’s BMW grill onto their cars…

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I mean, I just got a Challenger which is probably the most retro vehicle on sale and it sells in numbers enough to keep it around which can’t be said of it’s less retro GM competition.

    So not dead yet.

    • 0 avatar
      teddyc73

      You mean.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Thanks for the contribution $#!+b!rd

        • 0 avatar
          ToolGuy

          “I’ve got a big thing about mind management: Don’t get angry. Because when you get angry, you say things that later you wish you had never said. You make bad decisions. I removed emotion…

          “Now emotion is one of the most dangerous things. If you have emotion control then you don’t make the mistakes, you don’t have the big problems and you don’t say things that later you wish you had never said.

          “So, I learned that and that was one of the big things. Mind management removed the emotion, allowed me to be a much better racing driver and won most of my races in the first five laps, because everybody else was uptight.”

          – Sir Jackie Stewart

  • avatar
    slavuta

    I’ve heard that Miata is just a style copy of some old British car. So, this is retro then.
    I also saw that VAZ still makes their famous 1970 Niva only called now 4×4, because GM owns “Niva” name.

    Challenger looks retro to me. I mean, if they would make a nice streamlined car like Legend used to be, that would be interesting. This is like 1930 beautiful woman will be still beautiful in the picture in 2020. But generally, Retro as genre is dead. If people buy Camry and Civic like crazy, “Robots” is way to go

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I’d be happy with retro if it were 70s and 80s inspired, the stuff they build now is just overblown nonsense.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I like the retro them because when you see the vehicle you know exactly what it is. You can also look at the non Wrangler Jeeps. The seven slot grill says Jeep.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Personally, the Crossfire doesn’t belong in that list; I believe you meant the Prowler.

    Aside from that, each of those vehicles had their problems which had to do with either their design, their performance or their price. Sometimes a combination of any two or three.

    • PT Cruiser (2001): This thing’s biggest problem was its performance. Throughout its life, with the exception of a few performance-specific models, it was grossly underpowered. I really wanted to like it but every time I test drove one, it simply felt like it couldn’t get out of its own way.

    • Ford Thunderbird (2002): While it was a bit of a throwback, it had both design and performance issues. It looked nothing like the ’58-’60 models that was so popular and had so many replicas built and again, couldn’t really get out of its own way.

    • Plymouth Prowler (1997): I wanted this thing… OH, how I wanted this thing! The only reason I didn’t buy one was that I simply couldn’t afford it plus the fact that I needed something more practical as a daily driver–especially since I had moved to a new state and had just asked my girlfriend to marry me. Just the year before I had bought a brand-new Camaro and that carried me as both daily driver and ‘cruiser’ for over six years, before being supplemented by a Saturn Vue.

    •Fifth-generation Ford Mustang (2005): Definitely a partial throwback to the ’64 model, though much more reminiscent of the ’68/’69 version. I think Ford wanted to avoid the issues caused by their Pinto-based Mustang II of the mid-’70s and to be honest the overall look of the ’05 still holds on to some extent as they have worked hard to maintain at least the front-end appearance of the late-’60s, early ’70s Mustangs. It may be more modern now but enough of the retro look remains to keep it going reasonably well.

    • Toyota FJ Cruiser (2006): This one took some time to get used to. It really isn’t a retro to me, outside of the grille itself, while trying to be a hybrid of sorts with its 2-door look at 4-door size (the suicide-style half-doors blended into the body well enough they weren’t even noticeable except when open.) The drawback was that it was always a fixed hardtop and came across more as a Land Rover copy than anything truly retro.

    • Chevrolet HHR (2006): This is another one I truly wanted to like. The problem here wasn’t the power but rather the fact that it was grossly over-engineered and as a result grossly over-priced. Chevy touted it during the R&D stage as being designed for the Camaro driver but by mandating the folding hardtop the price shot up to Corvette levels, taking it completely out of the intended market. Had it been left as a solid roof sporty pickup, I would wager its sales would have dominated the mid-sized pickup market, over and above both the Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Yarg!!! I misread HHR for SSR and for that I both apologize and emphasize, since the SSR was also a retro back to the early ’50s in overall appearance, even if modernized. The HHR was more of the same for the PT Cruiser, though by comparison it never appealed to me.

      • 0 avatar
        cardave5150

        I remember reading that the main reason the SSR existed was a study in deep-draw sheetmetal stamping (the rear fenders were a real challenge to be able to form without tearing the steel).

        Similarly, the Prowler was an engineering exercise in aluminum construction (adhesives, aluminum stamping, etc).

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          @cardave5150: Very possibly true; I certainly wouldn’t bet against those statements as they were both quite unique vehicles when they came out. On the other hand, the Prowler was very popular with the people who owned them and tended to command ‘used’ prices higher than average due to both their uniqueness and their rarity. Again, I wanted one badly but was suffering a low point in my income status at the time.

          The SSR turned out to be too many expensive experiments in one vehicle, which drove the price far higher than forecast or intended and essentially killed itself on release because of it. At $30K it would have undoubtedly sold in much larger numbers but at $60K it became direct competition to the Corvette while lacking any of the cache of the Corvette. I would have loved to have one, sans the drop-top, but they just weren’t built in that configuration, which would have saved tons of money for the prospective buyer AND for the company itself.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Pretty sure the 02 Thunderbird was stylistically linked to the 55-57 gen 1 cars. As such it looked nothing like the larger, 4 seat 58-60 models, and that is probably a good thing.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I would looks seriously at a ’55-’57 Chevrolet lookalike – or near-duplicate – with modern underpinnings. Those were full size sedans, and that might be the only model that could pull off the retro look, or at least a heavy dose of classic retro “luxury” touches, the way Ford transformed the Taurus into the pocket-battleship Continental of 1988-94.

    • 0 avatar
      cardave5150

      Somewhere around the bankruptcy years, Chevy had a concept car that debuted at Detroit (maybe ’06-08 time frame) that looked like a modern interpretation of a Nomad. I would have bought one if it had been produced.

      • 0 avatar
        cardave5150

        I looked it up – 2004 Nomad Concept. It was a Nomad-looking 2-door wagon with a the front-end appearance of a C1 Corvette.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          The 2004 Nomad Concept. Which was a Nomad-looking 2-door wagon or you could call it a shooting brake was based on the Solstace/Sky roadster.
          I would have loved one since it’s sporty yet practical.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    Count me in with retro, I guess, because I enjoy looking at every one of those turn-of-the millennium designs better than anything currently on sale. They were so clean, so unfussy, achieving beauty with proportion and shape rather than with applied detail. Today’s cars share similar shapes, specified by aero and safety considerations, and must distinguish themselves with fake vents and floating roofs and superfluous lines. There must be a large overlap between auto stylists and tattoo artists now. In that sense, today’s ugly cars look like the ugly people driving them.

    I’m going to crawl back into my flame suit now…

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    I know I won’t be happy until I start seeing big fins on everything.

  • avatar
    gregtwelve

    If retro means having some padding in the seats like my 16 year old Chevy Silverado rather than feeling like I am sitting on a piece of cardboard like my son’s new Equinox and his previously leased VW Jetta I am all for retro. Or how about the visibility out the windshield of my 1961 Imapala bubbletop which I wish I still owned.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Faced with the choice of a modern Yamaha MT-09 vs. mechanically-identical retro XSR900, I chose modern.

    The advantage to modern is that you can customize with a functional windshield, luggage, Waze, etc. without ruining “the look”. The downside is that you have to wait 30 years to be imitated by hipsters.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Had to google those but the “retro” looks pretty cool, especially in the right livery.

      But then I’m the guy who would choose a cruiser over any other type of bike, every dang time.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Obviously not, considering the look of the new Bronco in the most recent TTAC article.

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