2006 Chevrolet HHR
2006 Chevrolet HHR. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

When the “retro craze” got under way with the Volkswagen New Beetle and was reinforced by the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Mini, some suspected that the whole business of building vehicles inspired by past glories was a fad and would quickly bow out. Now we are looking at maybe two or three more retro vehicles coming down the pike, headed by the Chevrolet HHR, scheduled for late summer introduction.

Of course, there’s nothing particularly new in automakers looking back a year or two for inspiration when designing a new vehicle. It’s just that the Beetle, PT and Mini were industry blockbusters that far exceeded expectations.

2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser GT
2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser GT. Click image to enlarge

I always tend to think of the aforementioned trio as “the” spearheads of the trend towards retro designs, but of course there have been others in recent years. The most recent Ford Thunderbird was a good example of a clever rework of an old design and it was certainly a sensation when it first appeared. This was always an expensive specialty vehicle, though, and has never been produced in large numbers. Even the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren sports super car, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, sneaks a few styling cues from Mercedes sports racers of the 1950s, despite its carbon fibre bodywork and advanced technology. The startling Plymouth Prowler, another limited edition super-retro model, was always a sensation – and not only among fans of 1940s hot rods. The new Ford Mustang draws extensively on older designs and is the better for it.

2005 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo Cabriolet
2005 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo Cabriolet. Photo: Russell Purcell. Click image to enlarge

But naturally enough, it has been the more affordable retro cars that have gained the most attention and become familiar sights on our roads. The New Beetle drew cries of “build it” from the assembled automotive media when it was shown as a concept a few years ago at the Detroit auto show – and VW did just that.

The PT Cruiser, inspired to some extent by, 1940s/1950s designs, has always appealed to a wide range of buyers and has quite recently become even more affordable with the introduction of a sub-$20,000 version.

2005 50th Anniversary Thunderbird
2005 50th Anniversary Thunderbird. Click image to enlarge

The Mini is an impressively sympathetic styling job on the old and much-loved British city car of the 1960s. The fact that it’s about half as big again doesn’t matter a jot. It just means that the new Mini is a far more practical and versatile automobile than its tiny predecessor. Neither does it matter that the car wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for a takeover by Germany’s BMW.

Few auto buyers I speak to seem to care much about national origins nowadays – they want good looks, practicality, durability, performance and a fair price. How many VW New Beetle or PT Cruiser owners know that their cars are built in Mexico and would Mini buyers really care if their vehicles rolled off production lines in Korea, rather than England? I don’t think so.

2001 Plymouth Prowler
2001 Plymouth Prowler. Click image to enlarge

Of course, one challenge retro car manufacturers face sooner or later is “where do we go from here?” Retro products are not “evolutionary” like most basic vehicles that can be updated and upgraded for many model years if needed. Generally, the idea is to create variants on the basic theme or add performance models. This has happened with all three of our pioneer retro cars and for each we have a convertible model, performance versions and other enhancements on the base vehicle. All we’re waiting for now is the wonderful Panel Cruiser Chrysler showed a few years ago. Perhaps it’s waiting in the wings if a sales slowdown looms.

2005 Mini Cooper
2005 Mini Cooper. Photo: Russell Purcell. Click image to enlarge

General Motors is a little late to the retro party, but never mind – an interesting and innovative new model is always worth waiting for, especially if it comes in at a competitive price. Chevrolet’s HHR will inevitably become known as “Chevy’s PT Cruiser” until it establishes its own reputation. It does have similar general looks, but certainly has its own character. The HHR is based on Chevrolet’s Cobalt platform – one way of keeping prices down and ensuring that the mechanical fundamentals are well developed.

Styling is said to be influenced by the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban, but there are other design factors at work too. Even the wild Chevrolet SSR limited-edition super truck may have been in the thoughts of the design team when they penned this one.

2006 Chevrolet HHR
2006 Chevrolet HHR. Click image to enlarge

The best news of all is that the HHR will be priced at less than $19,000, so even the thriftiest of retro fans will be able to get in line for one. Of course, the vehicle will come with a big options list in the spirit of “build your own” and no doubt the aftermarket people – ever attentive to opportunities like this – will be coming up with some weird and wonderful ways of customizing the HHR. Like its PT Cruiser rival, the HHR will be built in Mexico.

Having driven and checked out the HHR, I’d guess that it’ll have the same wide-demographic appeal as the New Beetle, PT Cruiser and Mini. Although advertising agencies – obsessed as always with the youth market – will focus on young buyers, watch for lots of owners who may be old enough to remember those inspirational 1949 Suburbans.

Up next in the retro stakes? Certainly something from Toyota and maybe even another Japanese nameplate.

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