Oldies but goodies
For a bunch of forward-looking car guys, automotive engineers and designers sure love to live in the past. Call it homage, nostalgia, retro, or rip-off. They are constantly trying to recreate some favorite car by reimagining it for the present day. In the past several years, we've seen successful reinventions by three import manufacturers: Volkswagen's New Beetle, BMW's Mini Cooper, and Fiat's 500. The Detroit Three have been somewhat less blatant in their appropriation of historic badges and designs, but the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Charger all borrow shapes and cues from earlier models. The formula isn't foolproof, however. Ford tried to revive the 50s-era two-seat Thunderbird a while back, but it left out the zest. There are thousands of automobile models that have been produced, and there are ample opportunities for more classics that, because of originality, obscurity, or emotional appeal deserve to be recreated. Here are a few suggestions:
What did Steve Jobs, Paul Newman, and Elvis Presley have in common? They were all owners of a Nash Metropolitan, a tiny, two-passenger car sold in the U.S. from 1954 to 1962. Produced by Austin in the U.K. for Nash-Hudson, it was shorter and lighter than the Volkswagen Beetle, making it one of the smallest cars ever sold on our shores. But since gasoline was still cheap and plentiful, sales were nearly as tiny as the car itself. Why it should be revived To restore the memory of the Nash name and because small cars are getting popular again.
Porsche 356 Speedster
In 1954, import car dealer Max Hoffman lobbied Porsche to build a stripped, open-top version of the 356. Thus, the Speedster was born. Like all 356's, its engine, suspension, and chassis came from Volkswagen, but with its distinctive turtle-backed shape and cut-down windshield, it became popular for weekend racing. Only a few thousand Speedsters were ever produced, and they are highly sought-after by collectors. Why it should be revived As prices for mainstream Porsches speed past $100k, it is time to create a bargain-priced model for less-affluent buyers.
In the 1980s, GM saw a market for a sporty and fuel-efficient commuter car and created the Fiero, a sexy mid-engine design fitted with parts-bin components. The car was popular with consumers until reports of engine fires dampened sales. The Fiero was discontinued in 1988. Why it should be revived GM dropped the hammer too quickly. The automaker actually improved the Fiero during its first production run and deserves a chance to show it can make it even better.
Tourists coming back from England like to rave about the comfort, convenience, and practicality of London taxis. That's because regulations there dictate ample roof height and seat-cushion width, while requiring that all interior space be confined in a vehicle no longer than 15 feet. The FX4, designed by Austin and built by a specialty coachbuilder, was introduced in 1958 and remained in production for 39 years. Why it should be revived Taxi riders have unique needs, and the banged-up minivans you find in most American cities don't come close to meeting them.
Studebaker Commander Starliner
The Avanti is better remembered today, but the Commander Starliner coupe of the 1950s was a far more influential car with its clean lines, distinctive stance, and dramatic rearward slope. Sadly, the car was "grotesquely underpowered" according to one source, and, rushed into production, suffered from ill-fitting body panels. Studebaker grossly underestimated demand for the coupe, and thousands of disappointed customers were forced to go elsewhere. Why it should be revived It is very cool, and who ever heard of a cool Studebaker?
The bread loaf-shaped Microbus made its appearance as VW's second model in 1951 and was still in international production as recently as 2010 (German production ended in 1968). Underpowered, not very aerodynamic, and -- as a consequence -- not very fast, the Microbus was nonetheless more space-efficient than anything else on wheels, not excluding an Airstream trailer. Why it should be revived VW took a revival concept to auto shows in 2001 but -- despite rave reviews -- decided not to proceed. Now that VW is bigger and wealthier, it should.
Chrysler Town & Country
When Chrysler resumed new car production after World War II, it added the Town & Country line. The sedans and convertibles were uniquely fitted with doors, rear quarter panels, and trunk lids made of mahogany-veneered plywood framed by white ash. Though owners tired of the high-maintenance wood, the cars were highly prized, and surviving examples today sell for $100,000 or more. Why it should be revived In this resource-conscious era, what could be more appealing than a car made out of the ultimate renewable resource -- wood?
In 1984, Jeep's new owner, AMC, created a Grand Wagoneer by making the original Jeep design more car-like and adding luxury features like artificial wood trim and a new grille to the old body-on-frame platform. Despite its archaic engineering, the Grand Wagoneer found a devoted following in places like Nantucket and Harbor Springs. Chrysler took over Jeep in 1987 and kept the Grand Wagoneer going with few modifications until 1991. Why it should be revived With its primitive engineering, it's a luxury sport utility vehicle for people who can't afford -- or don't want to be seen in -- a Cadillac Escalade
In 1961, the world got its first mass-produced amphibious automobile. Designed and manufactured in Germany, the Amphicar's water propulsion was provided by twin propellers mounted under the rear bumper. Despite the lack of a freeboard, two Amphicars survived 20-foot waves to cross the English Channel in 1968. Only 4,000 were ever produced. Why it should be revived Since the flying car forecast for the 1950s never made it into production, an amphibious car seems like a reasonable substitute.
Lincoln Continental convertible
Despite being a foot and a half shorter than its immediate predecessor, the 1961 Continental was one of the largest and heaviest cars ever built, immediately recognizable for its unadorned slab sides and center-opening "suicide doors." A big hit in salesrooms, it has found a second life in the movies and was featured in the opening sequence of the HBO series Entourage. Why it should be revived It is the ultimate statement of American exceptionalism and could find a second life as a parade float, sightseeing bus, or a McMansion driveway accessory.