1962 Ford Seattle
1961 Ford Gyron
1962 Ford Seattle (top); 1961 Ford Gyron. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

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Haven’t We Met Before?

What a strange irony that so-called “Cars of the Future” have in many cases turned out to be cars of the past. Here we are well into the 21st Century, and there is a growing list of re-creations, homages and retro-mobiles on the market that would actually be familiar to people who designed the 1961 Ford Gyron. Now that was a car of the future!

Cars like the Gyron and the 1962 Ford Seattle predicted an exciting automotive world where personal transportation would resemble rockets and spaceships. There was even a Levicar which, you know, would levitate.

Exposed to those dream-cars a half-century ago, consumers could be forgiven for believing that such vehicles would be the norm, say… about now.

Well, not so much.

It’s probably the fault of baby boomers. They were kids when the Gyron and similar concepts were presented, and while those were definitely cool, it turned out the cars they really wanted were already on the road. They liked their cars then, and they still do. Car manufacturers are happy to oblige (heck, they employ a lot of boomer engineers who are thrilled to re-create what used to be the car of their dreams). Meanwhile, a whole new generation of consumers is falling for the charms of retro cars made modern.

So let’s take a look at some Cars of the Future, from the vantage point of someone from, say, the 1960s, who absolutely wouldn’t believe that not only are the Mustang, Challenger and Camaro still around, but “Holy tailpipe, Batman!” they look the same!

Ford Mustang

2009 Ford Mustang Bullitt
2009 Ford Mustang Bullitt. Click image to enlarge

The Mustang, of course, has been in continuous production since 1964, but Ford gave up on its original look at the beginning of the 1970s. Mustangs were always popular, but there was this constant moan that the first designs were the best, and that everything thereafter was an ersatz version of the original pony car. That wasn’t entirely fair, as there were some quite nice versions through the decades, but Ford finally relented in 2005, releasing a Mustang design that was based pretty much entirely on the second-generation version of the car as immortalized by actor Steve McQueen in the movie, “Bullitt.” Since then we’ve seen a full-on revival of the original model, with Shelby versions, KRs and Bullitts, of course, now we’re back to the 5.0L Mustang V8 engine (302 cubic inches) just like the 1968 car. There’s even a new Boss 302 that makes 440-hp, which I’m sure would make Steve very happy.

Dodge Challenger

2009 Ford Mustang Bullitt
2009 Ford Mustang Bullitt. Click image to enlarge

The thing is, the first retro-named car that Chrysler put on its big 300 platform was the Dodge Charger. But everyone knows that the modern Charger disappointed fans of the original. It was a four-door sedan, after all, while the original Charger was a coupe. It was only available with an automatic transmission, while the original car could be ordered with stick. But Dodge came good, releasing an all-new Challenger in 2009 that not only silenced the coupe/manual crowd, but blew everyone away with a design that just about recreated the 1970 Dodge Challenger. How did they do that? The Chrysler Corporation was listing badly by that time, and you’d think if they were going to invest in anything it would be a compact car. Fortunately for car fans, hotter heads prevailed; made in Canada, by the way.

Chevrolet Camaro

2011 Chevrolet Camaro
2011 Chevrolet Camaro. Click image to enlarge

General Motors was not exactly in the pink a few years ago, either. But if Ford was reviving the classic Mustang, and Dodge was offering a retro-Challenger, then Chevrolet was going to revive the Camaro, and that was that. So it was that in 2006, and to frenzied applause and cheering from a huge crowd of GM-types and some less-detached journalists as well, a prototype Camaro was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show; whereupon it quietly disappeared, relegated to the corner of the GM display at auto shows thereafter. True, a concept Camaro Convertible did follow, but some got the impression that GM was going to, you know, “forget” the Camaro, because the company really DID need a new compact, a new midsize, a new SUV… well, it needed pretty much a new everything. But 2010 rolled along and the production Camaro rolled out. Based on the first-generation car, you might say it’s a bit over-the-top, but it’s definitely recognizable. And like the Dodge Challenger, it’s made in Canada.

Volkswagen New Beetle

2010 VW New Beetle
2010 VW New Beetle. Click image to enlarge

The Volkswagen Beetle (or Bug, as it was called in North America) arrived inauspiciously in Canada in 1952, with 94 sold during its first year. Its debut was likely greeted the same way here as it was everywhere else: with scepticism, at best. Who knew? Compared with other imported compact cars (subcompact, in those days), a key reason for its success in North America (in my opinion) is that it could happily motor along highways at 110 km/h, with room for more (it was the gearing; that long-legged fourth). To say that the Beetle was a global success is an understatement, as VW produced an astonishing 21 million of them during its production life. But by 1978, in Canada at least, the original Beetle was finished. Until 1998, that is, when an all New Beetle was released, based on the Golf platform. After an impressive run, 2010 was the last year for the current New Beetle, but VW promises (threatens, depending on your point of view…) to release a “new” New Beetle soon.


2009 Mini Cooper
2009 Mini Cooper; photo by Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge

Alec Issigonis designed the original Mini — or Mini Minor, as it was named in 1959 — for the British Motor Corporation (BMC). It was a revolutionary car, whose packaging (front-wheel drive, transverse engine, wheels at the corners, small outside, big inside) revolutionized car design. The Mini was a sensation from the get-go. John Cooper made performance versions that won the Monte Carlo Rally among countless other races, and numerous variants were produced over the years. Mini became a stand-alone brand, and went on to sell over five-million units, although not too many were sold in the US (exports to the US ended in 1967; we got them until 1979 in Canada). The “new” Mini, or BMW Mini, or MINI, as it is now written, was designed by Frank Stephenson, but is clearly a modernized version of the classic Mini. The car is built in the UK, and saw its official launch in 2001. Our first models arrived for 2002, and to my mind, BMW has done a fantastic job in preserving the Mini look, building on its performance potential, and both rescuing and reviving the Mini mystique.

Fiat 500

2012 Fiat 500
2012 Fiat 500. Click image to enlarge

The tiny Fiat 500 debuted in 1957. About the size of a matchbox, it putatively accommodated four people and was propelled by a 500-cc, two-cylinder, air-cooled engine. It quickly spread all over Europe and some even made their way to Canada. Soon, larger engined models emerged, some up to 600 cc (okay, I jest…), and nifty fabric sunroofs were fitted so that crazy Europeans could soak up some rays on the Riviera. There was even a Jolly model. This entire concept didn’t sell well in North America, but man, that was a cute little car. So it was that in 2008 an all-new retro 500 greeted European buyers – it was even named European Car of the Year — and this is the car that will spearhead Fiat’s return to our shores in 2011 (as a 2012 model). Really, it’s a great statement, and not what you expect in today’s rather austere environment of practical eco-econo-boxes. It’s eye-catching, cheap to run and buy, stylish (hey, it’s Italian!). It comes in cool colours and has cheerful interiors, recalling a time when people just had a lot more fun. Was it really that great back in the 1950s? Absolutely. It’s however you want it to have been!

Toyota FJ Cruiser

2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser
2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser. Click image to enlarge

When the production version of the FJ Cruiser was shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 2004, journalists just melted into a pool next to it. Recalling Toyota’s FJ40 Land Cruisers sold from the 1960s to the early 1980s, the FJ Cruiser successfully reproduced the earlier model’s gnarly exterior and tough-as-nails character in a modern, streetable (and eminently off-roadable) form. This was quite a trick, when you think about it, because the original FJ40 wasn’t a household name (in North America, at least) and Toyota, don’t forget, wasn’t exactly a company from whom you’d expect a “retro” vehicle celebrating its early years. The FJ Cruiser went on sale in 2005 as a 2006 model to popular acclaim and decent sales. But 2010 was not a good year for the FJ Cruiser, which sold only 899 units in Canada. Personally, I think the FJ Cruiser gave Toyota instant cachet. The message? Here’s a company with a history; it made cool vehicles; it still does!

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Click image to enlarge

Well, Mercedes certainly has a long history, and when it comes to celebrating that history in the form of a modern re-creation, it has countless vehicles from which to choose. But there’s really only one truly iconic and instantly recognizable Mercedes-Benz, and that’s the awesome 300SL “Gullwing” introduced in 1954. Mercedes brought an original 300SL to the Detroit Auto Show this year, and journalists were allowed to get inside, close the door, and pretend they were piloting this storied sports car down the German Autobahn at some ridiculous speed. Quite a thrill, even standing still! The original car was powered with a straight six-cylinder, direct-injected engine making 212-horsepower, and was priced at a heady $11,000 US (nice examples are worth up to a million dollars now). Introduced as a 2011 model, and powered with a 6.2-litre V8 engine, the $198,000 SLS AMG delivers 563 rorty horsepower through a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. It is an awesome car to drive and a magnificent vehicle to photograph, especially in profile with the doors open. Getting in and out of both models, however, is one part of the retro experience that can challenge the less flexible.

Volvo C30

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Click image to enlarge

Perhaps not quite as “retro” as the vehicles above, the Volvo C30 is very much inspired by the Volvo P1800ES from 1972-73. Take a look at the back, and you’ll see what I mean. The P1800ES was a clever way to extend the life of the P1800 sports coupe that was introduced in 1961. Ten years on, the coupe was looking dated and the decision was made to squeeze an extra couple of years out of it by making an “Estate,” or sport wagon version. It’s the way this was achieved that made the P1800ES so interesting, with the entire rear liftgate made of glass. Jan Wilsgaard was the Design Chief for Volvo at the time, although current designers at Volvo say that it was a team effort. Also, a prototype by Italian design studio Frua seems to have been an inspiration, but regardless, the final result was novel and pleasing to the eye (not a home-run, though, as only 8,077 were built). Nonetheless, the P1800ES has emerged as one of the most recognizable cars from the Swedish maker, and the C30 is currently Volvo Canada’s best selling car.

Chrysler PT Cruiser

2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser
2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser. Click image to enlarge

Okay, it’s not in production now, but close enough, yes? The PT Cruiser is not so much a re-creation of a particular car; rather, it’s a recreation of an era. A solid seller in North America and abroad, and released to much fanfare, the PT Cruiser likely inspired other manufacturers to themselves have a go at retro. Looking at the PT Cruiser, you get the idea that if car design had evolved in a direct line from the 1930s and 1940s, all cars would have ended up looking something like it. But they didn’t, so when the PT Cruiser was introduced as a 2000 model, it seemed like a kind of idealized hot rod for the masses, recalling a distant mythical era that combined dames and gangsters, art deco and surf wagons. Bryan Nesbitt was the designer, with no small prodding from Bob Lutz (Mr. Lutz loves this kind of vehicle and has had a role in greenlighting many). Production of the PT Cruiser has ended now, but clubs supporting them have formed all over the world. Granted, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay.

Chevrolet HHR

2011 Chevrolet HHR
2011 Chevrolet HHR. Click image to enlarge

After working for Chrysler, Bryan Nesbitt (see directly above) moved to General Motors, followed shortly thereafter by Bob Lutz. And guess what? General Motors developed its own “PT Cruiser.” (Apparently, sketches of this vehicle already existed at GM, and Mr. Nesbitt brought them to fruition following Mr. Lutz’ direction). The Chevrolet HHR (Heritage High Roof) debuted as a 2006 model and is inspired by the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban. Like the PT Cruiser, the HHR was (is) built in Mexico, but in addition to the standard five-passenger version, a Panel is also offered making it an ideal small, light commercial vehicle.

Honourable Mentions

There are a few other models that could be included in the list above. The 2002 Ford Thunderbird, for instance, and the Ford GT are both very much inspired by classic versions of these cars, but production ended a while ago. That Thunderbird, though — inspired by the 1957-58 two-seat models — what a sensation it was! People paid huge premiums to get behind the wheel; Halle Berry drove one in “Die Another Day;” it was the hottest car around. Briefly.

Likewise the Jaguar S-Type: a major deal back in 2000. Based on the S-Type introduced in 1963 (a model was surely less revered than the iconic Mark 2) the car did its job of elbowing Jaguar into the conversation when the subject of luxury cars came up. Not that many people bought one, but they talked about it.

The Plymouth Prowler; Chevrolet SSR — both these vehicles released to a lot of hoopla, were produced in very limited numbers, and disappointed due to the lack of an engine to go with the looks; but retro, for sure.

2011 Jeep Wrangler
Porsche 911 coupe and cabriolet
2011 Jeep Wrangler (to); Porsche 911 coupe and cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

Finally, two vehicles that aren’t retro, but are largely a continuous evolution from the introduction of the first models back in the 1940s. The Ford Gyron designer would recognize both of them, and I’ll bet he’d be fascinated at how they’ve both changed and stayed the same over the years.

The first is the Jeep. Put a GI Jeep from World War 2 next to a 2011 Jeep Wrangler and there it is! If ever a vehicle hit the nail on the head, then the Jeep has to get the prize. It was right then and it’s right now; it does everything it’s supposed to, and a bit more (now you get air conditioning, and navigation). Still has a bizarre convertible top, though. You’d think they could get that right after 60 years.

And our last “retro” car is, of course, the Porsche 911. That shape; you can’t beat it. Sure, the 911 officially goes back only to 1963, but it’s an evolution of the 356 that came before it, and that beautiful profile goes all the way back to 1948, when the first production 356 was released. Probably the biggest change to the 911 occurred in 1999, when the air-cooled engine was finally retired. Attempts have been made by Porsche to introduce sports models with the engine at the front (the 928), but people like the 911 just the way it is. The 911 will likely continue forever.

And if you want to see a real “car of the future” now, check out the Mercedes-Benz Aestheics No. 2 displayed at the Detroit Auto Show this year. It’s actually an exercise for an interior, but I think looks dead cool. A 21st Century Levicar, in fact.

The final question is, “What makes these retro cars special?” After all, they’re a subset of thousands of vehicles over the years that have uneventfully come and gone. We don’t give those vehicles another thought.

Surely the answer is that we like these cars because they have character and personality. Designed by people who were and are excited by mobility, they appeal to our emotions. In short, they make their owners feel good.

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