When reinventing a classic car name works—and why it fails

To define its future, Ford reached into its past. In November, the American carmaker unveiled the Mustang Mach-E, placing the iconic pony logo on Ford’s biggest splash in the electric vehicle category.

The rationale for leaning on a legacy nameplate is clear. After all, a battery-powered Mustang inspired far more interest than a new electric vehicle without the nostalgia would have, and $500 deposits for the “First Edition” due later in 2020 quickly sold out. Saying “Mustang” signifies not only that Ford cares deeply about this car, but also that it expects Mach-E to compete in the new Tesla-inspired world of performance EVs. The name is so powerful that Ford may roll out Mustang as an offshoot brand à la Ram (née Dodge) or Genesis (Hyundai)—a subfamily of vehicles meant to be united by Mustang DNA.

Yet any reinvention of an established car name carries serious risk, which is clear given the many auto enthusiasts who bristled at the idea of an electric crossover with a pony car’s name: 47% disapproved of the move in a recent Autolist poll; just 19% were in support.

What’s in a name?

To see a carmaker doing it right, take a look at, well, Ford. The last Bronco rolled off the assembly line nearly a quarter-century ago, not long after the rugged 4×4 became synonymous with a certain car chase across Los Angeles. In 2017, the company announced a new Bronco for model year 2021, and so far the rollout has been a smashing success. The revived Bronco promises to be a rugged, off-roading, body-on-frame SUV. Most important, it looks like a Ford Bronco. The tough, squared-off front end feels like a modern take on a boxy classic, similar to the way Ford’s 2005 reinvention of the Mustang brought a classic shape into the 21st century.

Contrast that approach with the Bronco’s old nemesis, the Chevrolet Blazer. General Motors tried to stir up warm feelings by resuscitating the nameplate of its own box on wheels, but the new Blazer shares little of its namesake’s DNA. Instead, Chevy took a few aggressive styling cues from its current-model Camaro sports car and applied them to a midsize crossover, disappointing any fans who had hoped for something closer to the Blazer they grew up with. And where Ford promises to manufacture its revived Bronco in Michigan, GM opted to build the Blazer in Mexico—then further agitated local autoworkers by putting the car on display at the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium as a symbol of Chevy’s future. (The automaker quickly replaced it with the Traverse, which is built in Michigan.)

When it comes to sales, though, these missteps may not matter. Blazer sales in 2019 didn’t match the gaudy totals of Chevy’s established crossovers like the Traverse and Equinox, but it found enough of a niche to prompt Chevrolet to resurrect a related name, the Trailblazer, for a small modern crossover vehicle. GM bet big that America’s madness for high-riding crossovers has yet to reach its peak and redefined its classic names for a new era.

When nameplate revivals swim against the automotive currents of their time, though, a famous name may not be enough. In 2012, Dodge dug up the Dart name from the 1960s and ’70s to drum up interest in a new small sedan derived from the company’s new business partner, Fiat. (Both brands are now owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the Italian-American result of their merger.) The new Dart had sporty small-car energy but emerged as Americans’ interest in small cars declined. The Dart died in 2016. Meanwhile the Lincoln Continental, Ford Motor’s flagship of 20th-century luxury, returned in 2017 after a 15-year absence to paltry sales numbers in a world that had largely moved on.

Name recognition can’t gloss over design flaws, either. In 2002 Ford revived the Thunderbird after a five-year gap with a gorgeous retro convertible that recalled the 1950s and wowed the auto press. Those same publications then turned on the two-seater, citing cheap materials, lousy driving dynamics, and a steep price. The Thunderbird vanished for good in 2005.

A new twist on nostalgia

Mustang isn’t the only legacy name joining the EV revolution. At the dawn of this decade, automakers face new challenges in modernizing iconic cars and nameplates. GM, for example, purchased a pricey Super Bowl ad this year to trumpet the electrified revival of the Hummer, promising a battery-powered, GMC-badged successor to the climate villain from a generation ago. Tellingly, the teaser emphasized the new vehicle’s gaudy performance stats—1,000 horsepower, 11,500 lb.-ft. of torque, 0 to 60 mph in three seconds—ahead of its zero-emissions cred.

The Mustang Mach-E signals a similar shift in the way carmakers will try to sell battery-powered versions of familiar brands. It has been attempted before: Ford in the 2010s built a few electric Fusion sedans badged “Energi,” a name more in line with purely eco-focused electrics like the Nissan Leaf. But “Mustang” and “Mach-E” are both callbacks to Ford’s performance past, signaling its intention to compete with the likes of Tesla. At the same time, Ford is halting production on most of its car models to chase the crossover wave. By slapping the pony badge on a tall crossover, the U.S. brand is gambling it can juice excitement in an electric without alienating diehards who see the move as anathema. (The novel coronavirus pandemic won’t delay the Mustang Mach-E’s official rollout, Ford says, though it will affect the debut of the new Bronco.)

Elsewhere, Jeep—another Fiat Chrysler brand—is preparing a plug-in hybrid version of the Wrangler, an American design so iconic the brand will never be able to change its core profile. Meanwhile Germany’s Porsche took the opposite path to that of Ford: It applied a new name, Taycan, to its performance EV project, rather than risk diluting an existing name like the Panamera, which comes with comparable performance and nearly the same price tag. The Stuttgart automaker also notably declined to build an e-911 that would undoubtedly freak out the flat-six faithful.

As long as pop culture continues to be recycled, so will car names. And for those who don’t like a classic name slapped on something new? Well, you could always buy a revived-but-same-as-ever DeLorean.

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