COVER

Blasts from the past

DANYLO HAWALESHKA July 20 1998
COVER

Blasts from the past

DANYLO HAWALESHKA July 20 1998

Blasts from the past

DANYLO HAWALESHKA

Donelda Warren is selling pop and hamburgers to perspiring Volkswagen fanatics at the annual June Jitter Bug car show in Niagara Falls, Ont. The sky is pale blue and the sun is as hot as the demand for Volkswagen’s New Beetle. Warren, an X-ray technician, knows firsthand just how lively that market is this year. Last winter, the 55-year-old mother of two grown children placed an advance order for a red 1998 Beetle with air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and “power everything.”

Price: $26,820 including tax. But while awaiting delivery, Warren also bought a house and decided paying for both would be too expensive. She placed an ad for the car and her phone started ringing. One of the first people to get through desperately wanted the car as a gift for his fiancée and offered Warren $1,680 above cost. “I had his money in my hands before I had the Beetle,” Warren says, marvelling at her good fortune. “I couldn’t even catch my breath and he was at my door.”

Welcome back to the future, where car nostalgia is rampant and retro cars rule. Cashing in like no other vehicle is VWs resurrection of one of the world’s most popular automobiles—a car that in its previous incarnation stood for low-budget, no-frills motoring. Consid-

Nostalgia is rampant and RETRO cars rule

er that would-be owners of the New Beetle have offered dealers thousands of dollars above the suggested retail price; that showroom arguments have broken out between customers who covet one; that some people have followed the cars while they were being delivered to dealerships so they could be first to take a test drive.

Other auto manufacturers are also mining their golden pasts. Ford plans to launch a back-to-its-roots Thunderbird coupe, drawing on the 1950s classic for styling cues. Chrysler’s Plymouth Prowler,

meanwhile, is a throwback to the days of souped-up cars glorified in movies such as American Graffiti. And while no one expects that retro cars will ever outsell minivans, they are valuable for strengthening a manufacturer’s brand image. “It’s not just how many you sell,” says Maryann Keller, an auto analyst and managing director of financial services company ING Baring Furman Selz in New York City. “It’s how many people think about you.”

Why now? As with so many consumer trends, the automotive renaissance is being driven by aging baby boomers and their disposable incomes. Boomers are still buying minivans and sport utilities in droves, but a growing number of them have paid off the mortgage and seen their children leave home. Enter cars

dripping with nostalgia but equipped with the latest technology for performance and safety. The trend reminds Keller of her own youth and her first car, an old British roadster. “When I think about it, it’s a wonder I survived in that thing,” Keller says. “But I also look back on it very fondly. Hell, I was thin and blond and I was driving a hot little red car, and now I’m no longer any of those. So when I think back on the car, I also think back on my lifestyle. These are powerful associations.”

The lesson is not lost on manufacturers. Ford last year discontinued the Thunderbird after years of sagging sales. What was originally a powerful, stylish coupe that set young hearts beating faster had metamorphosed into a big, heavy boat better suited to floating down highways. So earlier this year, Ford vowed to return the Thunderbird name to its 1955 roots as a two-seater with an estimated price of $45,000. The redesigned luxury coupe is expected by the year 2000, in time for the 2001 model year.

There are others. Chrysler’s $52,100 Prowler, with its cheeky hot-rod looks, was designed not to be a mass-market success but to associate the middle-of-the-road Plymouth brand with power and sexy styling. Even before its introduction in 1997, the Prowler was plastered on the cover of

every major North American car magazine, thereby accomplishing what its designers had set out to do—namely, to get people talking. Bill Seltenheim, an auto analyst with Autodata Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., says the Prowler is symbolic of a creative revival in the North American automobile industry after two decades of downsizing and often-conservative design. “I don’t think they’re running out of ideas just because a car has a retro look,” adds Seltenheim. “They’re looking back at what was classic, had a good design, and then improving on it.”

Oddly enough, retro cars sometimes look nothing like the original. Chrysler’s recently launched 300M sport sedan is intended to evoke memories of that company’s famous 300 series muscle cars, which made their racing debut at Daytona in 1955. Yet the similarity between the two cars is limited to the front grill and the hype. The 1950s version was boxy and crude, while the 1999 edition is curvy and luxurious. But that is fine, analysts say, because the whole point of the exercise is to cultivate the 300M’s image as luxury wedded to power.

The retro trend is also big in Japan, but in that market it has nothing to do with power. Several of that country’s automakers have introduced tiny, quaint-looking cars that look like knockoffs of the British Mini and have quirky names such as the Mitsubishi Flying Pug, the Daihatsu Opti Parco and the Subaru Bistro Type S. The target market is young, upwardly mobile career women, for whom a car

is as much a fashion statement as a form of transportation.

So far, none of the retro cars has attracted anything like the attention given to the New Beetle. Everything about it is different, yet there is a comfortable familiarity to the car. “I had a whole kindergarten class on a field trip stop and give me the peace sign,” says Kathy Westcott, a teacher’s aide from North Tonawanda, N.Y., whose husband bought her a blue New Beetle for her 39th birthday.

For all the nostalgia, the New Beetle shares no parts with its popular predecessor, relying on the same chassis as the Golf hatchback. Gone is the air-cooled, rear-mounted 40-horsepower engine, replaced by a 115-horsepower water-cooled engine in front. The old bug’s distinctive beep-beep horn is gone, too, replaced by one that honks like a Ford. Among the improvements over the original: a functioning heater, fourwheel disc brakes, a remote keyless entry system and four air bags— two up front and two more stuffed into the sides of the front seats.

The biggest attraction, however, is the New Beetle’s rounded shape, which borrows heavily from the original while still managing to look futuristic. Retired secretary Jeannine Raymond, 66, gained a new appreciation of the car’s styling while cruising around her Montreal neighborhood. “Look how everyone’s staring at us,” Raymond said. “It’s the Celine Dion of cars.”

Craig Cisco of Peterborough, Ont., bought a black New Beetle (licence plate: 2 BUG U) and drove it to the Niagara show, parking next to a replica of Herbie, the dressed-up Beetle in the 1968 movie The Love Bug. Cisco, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, thinks the car is about $5,000 overpriced. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he complains, pointing to the cramped rear quarters. “There’s no back seat!” Yet despite his misgivings and his wife’s objections, Cisco bought one. “Is it a Beetle?” asks Cisco, who owns two older Bugs. “No, of course not, but somewhere along the way you feel the same charm.” For manufacturers, that is what the retro movement is all about: reviving old memories to sell new cars. □