Retro blasts from the recent past

By David Linklater

Chrylser PT Cruiser. Photo / Supplied
Chrylser PT Cruiser. Photo / Supplied

At the turn of the century, something strange happened in the automotive world - there was an explosion of interest in retro-styled cars. Not old cars, but brand-new models with shapes paying homage to classics from the past.

Why? Second-guessing any fashion trend is a hopeless task. But I well remember a theory expounded by a colleague in 1999, as we discussed the launch of the new Beetle and impending arrival of a new Mini.

He reckoned there was a global anxiety about the transition into the 21st century; not just the millennium bug destroying all computers and grounding every plane in the world, but also a general fear about what the next 100 years would bring.

Retro cars, he suggested, gave comfort by letting people keep a link to the past while embarking on a scary new future.

Here, we choose five that made a mark - even if not all of them necessarily made us car enthusiasts smile.

VOLKSWAGEN NEW BEETLE (1998-2011, 2012-)
The new Beetle caused offence to the purists in so many ways. For a start, it appropriated the styling of the original in a cartoonish way, without adhering to the engineering template. Because it was based on the platform of the Golf IV, the engine was at the wrong end, driving the wrong wheels (front, in both cases). It had a flower vase on the dashboard. It was silly.

The buying public pretty much ignored all of that and saw it simply as something refreshingly different. It had a modern powertrain, was good to drive and really didn't take itself too seriously at all.

The big developments came at the start: a turbo version in 1999, a convertible in 2003. Naturally, the new Beetle became less popular as it became less novel. But it carried on for 13 years, which is testament to how right the idea was. Towards the end, the biggest problem was not the concept of the car, but the age of the platform, which was two full generations behind the current Golf.

Still, the first new Beetle will be remembered kindly.

MINI (2001-07, 2007-)
It's not quite contemporary with the new Beetle, but close enough to be considered part of the same mindset. The new Mini - or MINI, as maker BMW would prefer it was written - was born of a desire by the Munich maker to cover its bases in the premium small-car market, but with a reluctance to produce a BMW that wasn't rear-drive.

So the 1-series was created to capture the traditional BMW buyer, and the new Mini embraced the retro-trend on a front-drive platform.

We in the press had just finished whining about the new Beetle, so in 2001 we were able to start on the Mini: a British car done by Germans, and one that was comically large compared with the original.

Wrong again. While you could justifiably say the new Beetle was mainly a styling exercise, the Mini was a piece of virtuoso chassis engineering. Underneath the tongue-in-cheek styling, BMW's Mini was a gem to drive and a car that could easily handle a lot of power. Which it got in hotted-up models.

An all-new version introduced in 2007 was barely distinguishable from the 2001 original, proof that BMW got it right the first time.

Of course, the Mini brand has now moved well beyond that retro ethos and expanded into a range of models, including the likes of a roadster and (even larger) crossover wagon. But that's another story...

FIAT 500 (2007-)
Fiat should perhaps pen a note of thanks to Volkswagen and BMW, the former for making it okay to lampoon the styling of a much-loved classic and put the engine at the wrong end, the latter for reinforcing a fact that new small cars have to be much, much bigger than really old ones.

The new 500 came late in the piece and buyer expectations about these types of cars were fully formed by the time it went on sale. So zero points to Fiat for bravery, but a big thumbs-up for styling execution and powertrain technology.

PLYMOUTH PROWLER
(1997, 1999-2002)Chrysler was obsessed with retro cars in the 1990s. One of its most famous, if not the most enduring, was the Plymouth Prowler. A modern take on the hot-rod concept, with open wheels and an open cabin, the Prowler was notable for its surreal styling and part-aluminium construction, but was let down by its V6 engine and four-speed automatic gearbox. Because it was light, it was still fast, but people wanted a V8 in their modern hot-rod. Who wouldn't?

The Prowler started out as a Plymouth, but became a Chrysler when the P-brand was axed in 2001. It remains a rare retro-car; just over 11,000 were built.

CHRYSLER PT CRUISER (2000-10)
Never has a car fallen from favour so quickly. The PT was created to wear the Plymouth badge, but entered the market just as the brand disappeared. For a while, it was still the hottest thing around, an attention-grabber, with MPV-style seating in the rear.

But somewhere along the line, people got wise. The four-cylinder engines were weak, the build quality highly questionable. A three-star EuroNCAP crash-test rating didn't help the image. It went from being just the thing to a bit of a joke. Fashion can be fickle.

In the US, the car regained some credibility with a turbo engine option (up to 170kW) and the PT did carry through until 2010. But unlike the new Beetle and Mini, it just seemed to date so quickly. Even for a retro car, that's a big problem.

- NZ Herald

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