Here’s what we’ve learned about ‘retro’ cars

Well, the new Ford Mustang has been unveiled and the sun still came up the next day.

With the amount of tension hanging over the whole thing, you might have thought that there was a 50/50 chance the world would actually end if Ford messed it up.

But the updated design does answer the question about what probably after you’ve done the whole retro thing. Best I can tell, the trend should be called “retro-y.” Ford has taken the beloved design that was inspired by several old Mustangs and progressed the theme for 2015. I suspect that, ever so gradually, the look of the current 2014 model will be a fond memory. Radical change could have been disastrous, which is likely the reason for a more retro-y approach.

Others have come face to face with the issue, too. When the Volkswagen “new” Beetle arrived near the end of the last millennium, it ushered in a largely untapped way of marketing cars: making something old new again.

And so the “retro” craze began. Soon, there was a Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Prowler and a whole slew of Ford products that combined old-school styling cues with modern technology.

Was/is it a good idea? Like everything else in life, the answer isn’t a simple one. Blending old features into a new car with a new name helped the PT Cruiser sell by the hundreds of thousands. People were attracted to the nostalgia it presented.

However, trying to make a brand-new version out of an old name? That appeared, at least in the beginning, to be a little bit trickier. A case in point was the “new” Ford Thunderbird that lasted from 2002-2005.

What led to its demise? Obviously falling demand, but was that because of price, performance or practicality reasons? Was there something missing? Maybe a bit of all of it? Or, was it — gulp — a sign that the retro bubble was about to burst?

The latter was certainly not the case if the Ford GT that followed had anything to say about it. For a lack of a better word, that car — aside from its sky-high price — was an utterly perfect blend of speed, beauty and a name from the past. It put the retro in “retro.” High demand has led to strong pricing for used models.

And then there’s the current Mustang.

No matter what the T-Bird story implies, the GT and the Mustang are proof positive that it’s actually possible to re-create the past without trampling all over the legend. You can chalk up the current success, partially anyway, to a lot of lackluster Mustangs between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. It would have actually been tough for Ford to mess up with the retro 2005 Mustang.

With updated versions of it and the Beetle and the Mini Cooper, we know that the shelf life of retro vehicles can be extended provided that they’re actually good cars that have good value. The Chevrolet SSR (built between 2003 and 2006) truck turned out to be a one-hit wonder that defied usefulness. It wasn’t a truck, and it was certainly not a car, and it was expensive.

Then there was the short-lived “new” Pontiac GTO, proof that you can’t expect the public to automatically fall in love with a vehicle because you put a badge that everyone loves on the fender. The fact is there was so much fussing over the name — and whether the vehicle represented it — that few people seemed to realize that the GTO was actually a wonderful driving machine. Pontiac could have called it a Grand Prix or made up a new name, but as soon as “GTO” was put on the fender, the critics were ready with their torches and pitchforks.

It’s the same kind of fired-up reaction that Dodge received over the four-door Charger, a car that was only ever offered as a two-door and had a name that’s just as sacred as “GTO.” Dress up this Chrysler 300 derivative sedan with some “R/T” and “Daytona” badges and put a “Hemi” under the hood and do you really have a tribute to the past? Not really. It was built to appeal to muscle-car lovers, not be a retro Charger.

There’s no question when you look into the rear-view mirror you had better be careful or you just might have a (marketing) wreck on your hands.

What will the next Camaro look like? If the 2015 Mustang, the current Beetle and the new Mini Cooper are any indication, it will be . . . “retro-y.”

You can message Rhonda by logging on to and clicking the contact link. Wheelbase Media is a worldwide provider of automotive news and feature stories.


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