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Play It Again ... And Again ... And Again, Sam!?

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On: Mon, Aug 9, 2010 at 9:51AM | By: Lou Ruggieri

Play It Again ... And Again ... And Again, Sam!?

There is nothing like hearing a great cover song.  It's a new twist on an old favorite, reminiscent of your youth and days gone by when everything seemed to be better for anyone lucky enough to be a part of the time. Whether it's The Atari’s doing a cover of 'Boys of Summer', or Joe Cocker's great rendition of 'With a Little Help from My Friends' by The Beatles, or Lenny Kravitz's cover of the Guess Who hit 'American Woman', the feeling you get makes you instantly tell the youngest person around that will listen exactly where you were the first time you heard or saw the original band play that song. But as good as even the best covers are, no band has ever made it truly big on covers alone. Real success comes from original material, and what makes a band truly memorable.  


The auto industry, however, seems to be stuck in a series of cover albums over the past decade or so. Beginning with the PT Cruiser that harked back to the Woodys of the 30s, there has been a disturbing, and not so subtle, trend among auto designers. Car after car, there has been an incredible number of retro styles that hark back to some other decade. The annoying Volkswagen New Beetle made its return to the streets after many years in the hazy memories of the 70s. Chevy has had little in the way of retro success. The list of sales disappointments includes the SSR that was supposed to recall pickup trucks of the 1940s and 1950s, or the HHR which did not recall the 1949 Suburbans like GM said it was modeled after, but instead simply recalled the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Ford jumped on the bandwagon with the overpriced and under performing Thunderbird, and then had mild success with the Ford GT, even though it couldn't secure the rights to the name GT40. The Jeep Commander, Toyota FJ Cruiser, the list goes on and on.

These designs, although some are pretty, do an injustice to their forefathers on a number of levels and dilute the history of their storied past. Times are different now, people are different, and cars are different. Take, for example, the 55-57 Thunderbird. 45 years ago this car was a revolution on wheels; it was the first "Personal Luxury Car" in America. Two doors, a V8 engine, and a design like nothing the country had ever seen. It was an instant success, and lives on in people's minds as a triumph of the automotive world.

Fast forward half a century and look at the 2002–2005 Thunderbird. It was introduced without much fanfare; its design was a poor plastic interpretation of the original, using many parts-bin amenities. It didn't deliver in terms of performance or ride, and Ford was trying to reinsert it in a market that was saturated with quality two-seat roadsters that delivered far more for the same, or even less, money. The once great T-Bird was reduced to a mediocre car with a premium car price tag.

Pony cars seem to be the main target of modern retro. The Ford Mustang restarted this trend in 2005 that recalls Mustangs of the late 60s. The Dodge Challenger is almost an exact copy of the 1970 version. The brand new for 2010 Chevrolet Camaro is a design that is actually 40 years old. (The Camaro even won the 2010 World Car Design of the Year award at the New York Auto Show.)

The Mustang and Camaro, on the other hand, do deliver in terms of performance, but their offense is just as grievous an action as any other car out there, if not worse. These cars are built to remind us all of the great cars of the 60s. But GM and Ford have all but painted themselves in a corner with these designs. First of all, it makes the 1970-2004 models all look like the odd men out. The original attempts at creation seem less impressive because, if for no other reason, the 60s design is the one each company chose to bring back. I doubt we will see another 1971 Camaro design in 2027, even though that car was a beautifully powerful machine. Go look at pictures of a 69 Mach 1, then at a 2011 Mustang GT, and then look at a 2004 Mustang Cobra. Although the 2004 will outgun the new car, and has an independent rear end along with an Eaton supercharger, it still looks less like a "Mustang" than the 2011, only because the 2011 looks like a Mustang that everyone knows. Go, look ... we'll wait...

... See what we mean? Another issue is this: Where do the Mustang or Camaro designers go from here? If you start changing things, then purists will get upset and say that Ford and Chevy are getting away from their roots. Yet, no design can stay the same forever. So what's a company to do? How do you improve on a design that was heralded as the best in the name plate's 45 year history?

What is most frustrating about these retro designs is this scenario: A father brings his young son to his first classic car auto show in their 2007 Mustang GT. They both enjoy a Pepsi and a hot dog while walking around the empty parking lot of a local food establishment in a warm August night's air. The excited father brings his young son over to his childhood favorite car, the 1968 Shelby GT500 KR, and the son says with a less than exuberant, "That looks like our car, daddy," and the father doesn't see the thrill he hoped for in his son's eyes. Or worse yet, the son gets excited and wants to spend time around the Edsel in the corner of the show because it looks like something he has never seen before. Retro designs dilute the purity of the original cars. They make something that is a universally loved automotive work of art, and turn it mundane because it simply becomes commonplace.

Then things get really complicated in the future when Ford or Chevy decides to do another retro theme and that same child has to now explain to his child that that 2032 Mustang reminds him of the 2005 Mustang his father had, but that Mustang was actually a reenacted design from 40 years before that.

It is obvious that car companies are reaching out to Baby Boomers, because there are a lot of them, and they have more money to spare than subsequent generations, at the moment. But trying to give an aging population one more chance to buy that one car that got away might not bring all the joy it's intended to. Memories have a way of painting a fonder picture of the world than what it may actually have been, and that's because reality in its true form is often less than appealing. Some people might have to find out the hard way that even if you get the car you wanted, the girl you had with it isn't coming back, neither is the hair you had, or the 40-yard dash time you used to brag about. But what's going to happen when there are no Boomers left and Generation X becomes the aging crowd? The new Mustang on the showroom floor will be a retro Mustang II design? Or perhaps the brand new/old 2036 Iroc-Z with the 'new' B4C Police Package?

Although retro cars have brought a modicum of success to the automotive marketplace, it is an artificial inflation that was designed to prey on the immediate emotional reaction of retirees. But that reaction cannot be sustained. At first glance, the Camaro might elicit recollections of going to Homecoming with the prom queen back in 1969, and cause someone to purchase a Camaro out of nostalgia. But slowly, after driving that Camaro day in and day out, those highlighted memories begin to fade. They get replaced with unedited reality, and that 1969 Camaro design starts to bring about thoughts of food shopping on Saturday afternoons, or trips to the proctologist, or bad knees at every ingress and egress of the low-slung car.

The past is best left where it was ... In the minds and hearts of those that were there, when they were there. The stories, the life, the cars, and the music are the things that get passed down from father to son with pride. Even if a company can replicate a 40-year-old design perfectly, they can never remake the time period and circumstances that made those designs of the 50s and 60s great. No one gets excited about taking a car out of the garage, or on a Sunday morning, that they see everyday. It's the new and original designs that make new memories for everyone that will truly succeed, and not just feeding off of the success of the past through imitation. It’s like listening to covers of the same songs over and over. No matter how good the song is, after a while things will begin to just sound like glorified karaoke, and no one wants that.

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