) -- In 2007, rumors swelled that the 50th anniversary of the iconic '57 Chevy meant a reissue.
Despite a variety of toy replicas that hit shelves that year -- and the
teased fans with in 2002 -- no new Bel Air convertibles rolled off the assembly line. Why not?
Chevy isn't likely to roll new editions of the Bel Air Sports Coupes off production lines to attract fans of the 1957 original. But there are other ways to satisfy the cravings for such distinctive cars.
As American carmakers fight their way back to profitability and look for ways to entice buyers, why not go retro and reintroduce modern versions of classic cars such as the Bel Air or the '63 Corvette? Would today's drivers respond as well to tailfins as they do to hybrids and SUVs?
For years, car designers seemed hellbent on tossing out anything that instilled personality. Cookie-cutter designs became so prevalent that even auto buffs might have a hard time distinguishing one make or model from another as they passed on the highway. Even the distinctive back-end slope of the Saab 900 was done away with for reasons that were never well explained to aficionados.
"My father worked for General Motors for 30 years and throughout that time -- the '70s, '80s and '90s -- the designs from GM,
were just so bland and unattractive to the buying public. I think when they all hit rock bottom, they finally realized that the car as an icon in Americana needs to be more than just transportation," says Christopher Sondles, owner of
, an Indiana company that builds, restores and modifies classic cars. "In terms of performance and attitude, it was over from 1972 to 1974 when the gas crunch hit. From then until very recently, post-bailout, the U.S. automakers were just making the same car over and over again -- underpowered and undesirable, just a mode of transportation -- and that's not the American way."
"Some people are very concerned about how much gas we put in one to get from A to B," he says. "Other people are more concerned about how you get from A to B."
Bringing back replicas of many famous cars, however, is unlikely for reasons both practical and economic.
One key problem is modern safety requirements. Though made of steel, the frame-based designs of the '50s and '60s fail to offer the same impact-dissipating buckle as lighter, unibody constructions. Gas mileage -- demanded by the budget conscious and government regulators alike -- would also suffer from heavy builds and the air drag those fins would create.
The question also remains whether nostalgia alone could justify enough market share to make reissued profitable for car companies.
So instead of flat-out copies of past classics, automakers have tried to blend past and present ideals. The PT Cruiser generated buzz for a distinctive look that hinted at, rather than copied, the look of classic sedans from the '40s and '50s. The
Beetle reminds drivers of the classic bug without copying it too closely (something anyone hoping for even slight legroom and safety can appreciate). The new generation of Ford Mustangs, like other touted muscle cars of recent years, intentionally avoids being a replica.
"Detroit is providing a sense of retro in some of their designs," Sondles says. "I don't think they will ever recreate a '57 Chevrolet, but cars like the Challenger, Charger, Camaro and the latest edition of the Ford Mustang all have a very muscle-car, late-'60s feel to them. And, of course, the people buying those cars were young people when those muscle cars were hot. Not many people anymore in the buying public were necessarily of a younger driving age when a '57 Chevy was new. What you are seeing with that car is an antiquated design that collectors love, but not necessarily something that would appeal to the mass market like the Challenger, Charger or Camaro."
"I think we will continue to see cars that are leaning back towards a day when the 'Big Three' were a little more pure in the American buyer's mind, and those designs kind of give that feeling," he adds.
Even the collectors market has evolved in recent years, becoming more frugal and time-strapped, Sondles says. In response, a year ago he started a business,
, that builds replicas of classic car bodies, many of which sell for under $17,000 -- better than the $25,000 to $30,000 a new build would cost.
"Most people who are entering into buying these new bodies, they just want them right now: 'How soon can I turn the key and drive this car?' That's part of the American buying habit right now," Sondles says. "
Collectible cars used to be projects. They are not projects anymore. What people want is immediate gratification."
How the cars of the future will be built, in terms of performance and aesthetics, may depend a lot on capturing the imagination of younger buyers.
"One of the things that concerns as the owner of a restoration shop is that my core customers are 50 to 65 years old," Sondles says. "It is the same thing the Big Three are seeing. If you don't get younger people -- 20-somethings, 30-somethings -- interested in U.S.-built cars, the market will really be in trouble 15 years from now. That's why finally the Big Three had to start looking at how they can appeal to the guy who has never owned anything but a
"Toyota started with, 'How can I convince someone to buy a Toyota who has ever bought anything but a General Motors car,'" he explains. "We are on the other side of that now. 'How do I convince a
kid -- because his dad had a Honda and his uncle had a Honda and he always has driven one -- to buy a Ford Mustang or a Chevrolet Camaro?' We are now on the flip side of what happened 25 to 30 years ago."
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