Risk-averse CEOs and their accounting sidekicks like nothing better than a proven franchise. That’s why there have been 23 James Bond films and five Die Hards. If business guys could figure out how to bring Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin back from the grave, they’d buy them new bell-bottoms and send them out on tour.
Now let us turn our minds to the car business, where resurrection has become the order of the day. Never before have so many reincarnated models graced the showroom. The Ford Mustang Boss 302, first created 44 years ago, is back. So are the Dodge Challenger, the Mini, the Camaro, the Fiat 500 and … well, you get the picture. As Yogi Berra said: it’s déjà vu all over again.
Some see this bumper crop of tribute models as a sign that the automotive world is creatively bankrupt, unable to mint compelling new ideas. Others see it a golden age. Now you can have that Boss 302 or Z-28 you could never afford back in the days when you still had your hair. Maybe you didn’t make it to Woodstock. Never mind – you can still buy a VW Beetle (and this one won’t leak oil).
It’s not as simple as that. As a lifelong car guy, mechanic and engineering buff, I’ve watched the reborn car phenomenon with intense interest, and have driven most of the new models for comparison with the cars that inspired them. Two key facts struck me. First: all of these machines are functionally superior to the cars they’re based on. Second: functional superiority isn’t everything.
Collectively, the tribute cars showed me that the world really has moved on – you might fantasize about a Mini that’s the same size and weight as the one Sir Alex Issigonis designed back in the 1950s, but modern safety standards and consumer expectations make that impossible. (Would you buy a car with wind-up windows, no air conditioning and the crash protection of a shopping cart?)
The resurrected car must walk a fine engineering and stylistic line, meeting the rules and expectations of the present while capturing the spirit of the past and, ideally, moving it forward. It isn’t easy. Here’s my rundown on the pleasures and perils of automotive reincarnation:
Making a new Camaro is not unlike creating a new Elvis Presley. Like The King, the Camaro is a legend, with a massive fan base that has never forgotten the glory days. The original Camaro hit the market in 1967, as Detroit lived through what would prove to be its last golden age: Motown was cranking out hits, America was on its way to the moon and pony cars like the Camaro embodied America’s youthful energy and raw industrial power. The first-generation Camaro was an instant classic. Then came the follow-ons, each of them worse than the previous model. Generation Two (1970-81) was a swollen version of the original, with corn-fed hips and a gaping grille that gave it the look of a whale feeding on plankton. By Generation Four (1993-2002), the Camaro had sunk to a level that could be compared to John Travolta’s before his comeback in Pulp Fiction: a legend had been converted into a joke. Mercifully, it was allowed to disappear.
The Camaro returned eight years later, in a much-hyped resurrection, as a 2010 model. The new Camaro is a far more sophisticated car than its forebear, with independent rear suspension, fuel injection and excellent build quality (unlike the storied 1967 car, the body panels on the new Camaro line up perfectly, and there isn’t a ripple or wave to be seen). And yet the Camaro left me cold. The car was too big, the interior strained too hard to capture the spirit of the 1960s, and the shape was overdone, with a bluff hood, an over-styled tail, and a chopped top that made me feel like I was driving a V-powered machine gun nest.
The new Boss isn’t the most refined pony car on the market (unlike the Camaro, it still has a solid rear axle). Yet I loved the Boss for the way it nailed the spirit of the original. Like the first Boss, which came out in 1969, the new one is a bit rawboned, with a throbbing small-block V-8 and a blue-collar feel to the interior. The new Boss had satellite radio and Bluetooth, but if I shut my eyes, I could imagine that Neil Armstrong had just stepped on the moon and that my eight-track tape player was about to click over to that new Rolling Stones song. In the age of computerized design and robot manufacture, it’s all too easy to sand all the rough edges off a car, but Ford designers hit the sweet spot. The new Boss is smoother and better than the old one, yet like Neil Young’s guitar, it is unique and slightly imperfect. That may be by design, or by accident. Either way, the Boss is cool.
This is Volkswagen’s second remake of the Beetle. The New Beetle, which hit the market in 1997, was a cartoonish reimagining of the original car, with exaggerated curves and a dash-mounted flower vase. (Unsurprisingly, the buyer profile skewed sharply female.) The current Beetle came out in 2011, and features a shape more reminiscent of the original car, with a slightly flattened roofline and toned-down curves.
Based on a Golf chassis, the newest Beetle is far superior to the car that inspired it. The original Beetle, with a design that dates back to the 1930s, had weak brakes, limited power and bad aerodynamics (the curved body developed lift at high speeds, destabilizing the car.) The new Beetle fixes all these problems with modern mechanics (unlike the original, the new car has a water-cooled, front-mounted engine and front-wheel-drive.) All this should be good, yet I found the car utterly lacking in character. Driving it felt like piloting a VW Golf, a Toyota Corolla, or a Ford Focus – fine, but about as memorable as a dentist’s waiting room.
The resurrected Thunderbird came out in 2002, and was designed to capitalize on nostalgia for the legendary original, which defined a new category when it was introduced in 1954: the personal luxury car. But the new car was like a bad Beach Boys cover band that arrived about three decades too late – the world had moved on. With dated, over-cautious styling and unremarkable engineering, the Thunderbird was a non-starter, and was taken off the market just four years after its introduction.
Fiat 500 Abarth
The original 500, which dates back to the 1950s, is one of the smallest four-seat cars ever built, a tiny, tootling machine that melts the hearts of all who gaze upon its Lilliputian form. The Abarth version, which added modified suspension and a high-performance motor, became a giant-killing legend. When Fiat announced that it would build a new Abarth, I wondered how they could possibly do justice to the car, given legislative and market realities. After spending two weeks with the 2013 version, I was pleasantly surprised.
Although its mechanics were completely different (the old car had a two-cylinder in the rear, the new one had a turbocharged four up front) the 2013 had the charm of the original, but with far more performance (and more room inside, too). Stylistically, the 2013 Abarth is a home run – no other car looks like it, and the Abarth grows on you. (When my wife and I took it on a trip, we found ourselves staring at it every time we parked.) Like the original, the new Abarth is quirky – the dash has limited gauge space thanks to the retro design, and the body is short and relatively tall, giving the car the curbside presence of a high-powered phone booth mounted on fat Pirelli tires. In the Abarth, it was like going back to the 1960s, but with all the technical advantages of the internet age. The car was unusual, cool, and a lot of fun. This is how you resurrect a car.
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