Retro Cars Making a Comeback

Mini Cooper S
Mini Cooper S, Photo: Dr. John Bullas

Have you noticed that car manufacturers have slowed their production of new retro-looking cars? The only company I can think of that has never stopped building a retro car is Porsche. It’s totally amazing that the current Porsche 911 motorcar really does look a lot like an original Porsche 356, which was actually designed right after WWII. What a tribute to the design genius of Dr. Porsche and his original design team.

Of course, one can’t mention Porsche without thinking of Volkswagen, and as we all know, Volkswagen is currently building its retro-looking VW Beatle. I feel it’s a successful update from original series one retro design. The original retro design had a reputation of being a “chick car,” so the VW designers gave the new one a more aggressive look. From certain rear angles, it even looks like a fat Porsche. It’s certainly one of the more successful retro cars.

Speaking of successful, probably the most successful retro car of all time is the Mazda Miata. Looking unashamedly like a 1960s British Lotus Elan, when first introduced to the world market there were actually waiting lists for the car at Mazda dealers. I bought a Miata when they first came out because it was so perfect looking. It was a special edition model in British racing green with tan leather, and it had a perfectly fitting hardtop. It was underpowered and a little tight, but what a wonderful rendition of a Lotus Elan. I have many driving hours in the classic Lotus Elan, and that too was a wonderful original. The Lotus Elan is a collectible today, and someday the Miata copy will also be highly coveted.

Another retro car that has been quite a marketing success is the new Mini Cooper. I’m a Mini lover, and have been for over 50 years. In the ’60s I had two: one a Countryman and the other a Cooper S. The Cooper S was really something special because it was customized by a specialist company in England named Radford, who upgraded Minis for the royals and many celebrities. (I believe Princess Anne and Peter Sellers drove Radford Minis.) Mine was painted in a Rolls Royce Sable color with tan leather interior piped green. I also toured Europe for a month in a friend’s 1971 Mini 1000, with my wife, mother-in-law and four-year-old son as passengers in the little thing. We were all quite comfortable, thank you. (Several decades later my family and I toured Europe in my Mercedes 500 sedan, and it was a lot more comfortable than the Mini!)

Fast forward to now. I just traded in my 2004 Cooper S for a new Cooper S. The new one is a better, faster car, but far from perfect. The outside is lovely, with puppy dog looks that everyone seems to like. If only Mini would design a more grown-up dashboard and quiet down the car at highway speeds, it would greatly improve the car. The new BMW Mini is a serious road car with some bad Mickey Mouse details. I’m surprised that BMW allowed these details in one of their unique products.

There have been several retro cars that didn’t quite make the grade. The retro Ford Thunderbird of a few years ago, was forced to be built upon a long Lincoln chassis and came out looking a little too big. It’s a pretty car, but off. The Chrysler PT Cruiser sold well but the convertible version was pretty ugly and the car was never much fun to drive, I like the aggressive looks of the new retro Chevy Camaro, but it has the worst sight lines of any car I’ve ever been in. I consider this a major design flaw. I love the looks of the new Corvette. It’s future-retro, if there’s such a thing. For pure looks and absurd, brutal and wonderful acceleration, the new Corvette is the performance bargain of the world.

Technology is moving so fast. Sometimes it’s enjoyable just to sit back and look at something new that reminds us of the less rapidly moving times of the past. Borrowing from the past combined with new, innovative technology has produced some very interesting new cars.

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