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Monday, June 27, 2005

Yes Retro Does Work

Jerry Flint, car pundit extraordinaire, argues in this
column that retro does not work for car companies. His argument is fundamentally flawed, but for reasons most might not suspect.

I've said it several times on this blog. The European and American manufacturers have an enormous advantage over their Asian competitors. They have a design heritage to draw from. Asian car companies really don't. What if entire lineups were retro? Would that sell? There are companies that already do this.

BMW for one. Their Mini is clearly retro, but so are the BMW sedans for the most part. With the two kidney grill, and minimal changes to bodywork, BMWs are retro simply by not changing dramatically. Can any Japanese manufacturer escape with such behavior? Not really. Take the Accord for example. There are tremendous changes to the grill, and trunk areas between this generation and the last one. In a segment of the market known for being dangerously bland, Honda has made significant changes in design from generation to generation. Granted, these designs are not dramatic, but they change the vehicle enough so that consumers will be able to tell the difference. With horsepower output, reliability, and mileage very similar in the FWD mid size sedan class, design is needed to differentiate and make sales. To rely on last generation's design, or to make subtle changes in the design risks failure. European and to a lesser extent American manufacturers have the luxury of being subtle.

In the case of the MINI, and the Mustang, these are retro vehicles that essentially represent a "movement" if you will. What I mean by that is, they evoke an era of the automobile, the 1960s, and specifically they evoke a class of vehicle from that era. The Mustang is the embodiment of the coupe/fastback/muscle car. The MINI is the embodiment of the hip small European car. Even though the original MINI was not a strong seller in the US, because of what it represents historically, it sells well here. When design evokes a feeling in customers, they react spontaneously. Emotional products lead to emotional, not rational, decisions. And that means customers buying.

I think Flint missed a popular "retro" car in his analysis. I believe the 300c is retro. First of all, the 300 moniker directly tells the consumer that this car is a continuation of the 300 series top of the line Chrysler vehicles from the 50s and 60s. Secondly, the car's design in a more vague manner evokes a style from a bygone era in America's past. The big chrome grill full size sedan is a part of America that arguably lasted 40 years. I do not believe a Japanese company could have made the 300 either in the past or now. The closest vehicle, the Toyota Avalon, a big boulevardier, just does not have the pizazz of the 300.

Flint points out notable "retro" failures. First the new VW Bug. I would argue that this incarnation of the Bug was initially very successful. VW failed to act upon that and did not introduce Bug variations like a convertible or turbo model until recently, far too late to affect overall sales. Secondly I believe VW made too miniscule of design changes to the vehicle in subsequent generations. And third I believe the Bug appealed to a different class of buyers then the original, and sales subsequently slumped. The fact that the Bug is a FWD, front engine car that is essentially a Golf underneath didn't help matters either.

The other notable failure is the Ford Thunderbird. I don't know if I would be so harsh as to call the Thunderbird a failure, as initial sales were decent, but it definitely could not be classified as a success. The T-bird suffered I believe for being too retro, and being retro to a car that itself was not enormously successful! The initial two seat T-bird was nowhere near as successful in sales as subsequent generations that could seat four. Ford fell into the trap of listening to car connoisseurs rather than consumers, because it has long been a popular opinion that the original iteration of the Thunderbird was the most beautiful of all. This new T-bird, with its too heavy removable roof, and lack of space doomed it to niche status. A retro vehicle that does not appeal to many consumers is in danger of becoming a fad vehicle, and having a very short production life. In a sense the Hummer falls into this category. It's not so much retro, but it does draw upon a uniquely American design heritage, that of the Humvee military vehicle. It's expensive price, and poor gas mileage force it to become a fad vehicle, and dropped quickly by the public.

So in short, I think Flint is wrong. If a retro car is done right, appeals to a large audience, is relatively inexpensive, and evokes an emotional response, consider it a success.

Comments:
I agree with a great deal of what you say, Retro is not the kiss of death. But to rely on retro alone can be foolish.

Chrysler's PT Cruiser was a fluke, but value is what keeps it selling. The 300 is more than retro, it's a return to rear wheel drive and attractive styling.

The Mini is pure retro, but there is some value there and if done right could have some staying power. The new Beetle, well that's a case of pure retro also, but I can't figure why people keep buying it, not much value.

The Thunderbird could have done better, but was doomed from the begining. Underpowered with 252 hp when released, a 2 seater roadster has to have more apeal than just retro. The Miata was sucessful because it captured the appeal of British roadsters and had the perception of Japanese quality. That combined with a reasonalbe price when introduced. Now the Miata is the standard for small 2 seat roadsters.

Ford should release the Lincoln Mark X roadster on the same platform with a longer wheelbase and seating 4. Then increase the power and you'll sell. Just like the 58 T-Birds.

The Mustang is cashing in on retro that's for sure, but in the end it's going to be the car that sells that one. Time will tell, but I think the Mustang will sell well into the future.

GM seems to be the only company that can't hit a home run with retro styling. The SSR is sitting on dealer lots, the victim of impracticle utility and high prices. GM would have been better served with a new Camaro or Firebird. The new HHR will only sell on price and hopefully the reliabilit of it's Cobalt underpinnings. This one was too late for the party.

Retro styling can only do so much, the rest has to be value or performance and perhaps a little of both like the Mustang.
 
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