Hot, Then Not
Why do some cars go from hero-to-zero faster than junior-high socialites?
Today, the lead time required to build a car is out of synch with society's attention span. Thanks to the information revolution, both rules and perceptions change even before the metal can be shaped. The public, you might say, never had it so fast. Let's look at some modern machines that burned bright and faded fast, plus some icons that continue to shine.
It had its fling with polite society, a soiree combined from the macho family resemblance to the military-derived Hummer H1 and the housebroken underpinnings of a Chevy Suburban. Hot when it first landed, thanks to the shift in the environmental winds, the H2 is now the redneck's parade float.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
At first charm, the PT appealed to the latent street-rodder and recalled woody beach-wagon fables. Early to the then-new retro market, the PT Cruiser was more suggestive than definitive, and thus imprinted on many a creative mind. But with familiarity, the PT was exposed as cute above all else, and cute has a limited shelf life.
Volkswagen New Beetle
The German automaker beat the retro drum harder than anyone with the New Beetle, and for pure nostalgia it sold well until everyone who loved "Herbie" had one. After that, the domed interior and storage limitations inherent in the shape kept the New Beetle an interesting piece of background scenery.
Feeling a raging urge to attract young guys with sagging pants, Toyota spawned Scion. Its hippest urban box, the xB made all the papers in a major way but its "my shoes came in this" vibe has lost its newsy punch. The square panel truck built on an economy car chassis never majored with its target audience, but those wanting inexpensive wheels with the utility of a cardboard box made some sales. Even those that bit might admit—once the marketing hip-hype wore off—that the main description is "ugly."
Sports-car fans were all atwitter when Pontiac delivered the sexy Solstice intact from the show scene. Its daring looks, small size, two seats and drop-top sent all the right messages. We finally had an American machine to compete in the rational sports-car class dominated by Mazda's iconic Miata. Well, not really. Pontiac tried hard, much to their credit, but the reality is GM delivered a sports car that's more sporty than sport, thanks to oatmeal power and a total aversion to storage space.
Trying to be cool, or merely fashionably suave, is a rough assignment given this is a narrow and constantly shifting target. Ford reaffirmed that with the 2002 Thunderbird. A retro hit at introduction, the two-seater flashed its poodle skirt to eager sales applause, but almost as quickly buyers realized it was a new millennium and wanted something more forward-thinking.
For shameless hype, nothing comes close to besting the white-heat generated by the Segway at its county-fair huckster's intro. Kept a mysterious fabricated "secret," and promising nothing less than a transportation revolution, the technically laudable but overpriced and limited utility version of the Jetson's reel lawnmower went from honest interest to snickering rejection by lunchtime.
Now to the Perennially Hot …
Ford didn't as much go retro with the 2005 Mustang as simply return to core pony car values. For proof, the Mustang continues its strong sales nearly three years on, buoyed by a constant supply of new surface-treatment niche versions and the occasional all-nighter at the horsepower bar. It's the '60s without the flashbacks, with an original cast of characters—namely Shelby—aided by modern conveniences. Let's hope Ford has the vision to carry the Mustang forward once all the retro-rockets have been fired.
Another blast from the past with unrelenting demand, somehow the world's sleekest teardrop gets it right while doing everything wrong (strut suspension, engine hanging off the back, expensive at half the price). And yet the purity of the message and the experience keeps the rich waiting in line.
Cute as your kid sister, cheekily affordable, ashamed to be seen at gas pumps, the new MINI zoomed out of the garage both retro and hip, and has kept revved up with a never-ending series of special editions. And unlike the confused or half-baked Thunderbird, the MINI—both the original and the redux—has never been anything but a pocket rocket.
Tom Wilson began a career in automotive journalism in 1979. In 1982 he became a full-time scribe to "support his racing habit," as he calls it. He currently owns two diesel-powered vehicles.
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