During the late '90s and early 2000s, several car companies adopted a business model centered around the concept of "retro." Essentially, they sought to capitalize on the nostalgia surrounding their iconic past models, hoping to appeal to older customers as well as the trendy millennial demographic. This approach led to the creation of vehicles such as Volkswagen's New Beetle, BMW's MINI (distinct from the original Mini), and even contemporary muscle cars like the Mustang, Challenger, and Camaro. Rather than introducing a progressive design language like their counterparts, these cars adopted a modern interpretation of their respective predecessors' aesthetics.
Volvo 480 and Volvo C30
Although quite modern-looking at the time, the Volvo 480's overall design had a substantially retro motif, meant to bring back nostalgia of the sexy P1800 ES - which was a shooting brake version of the P1800 made famous by Roger Moore in "The Saint." Both models had a similar silhouette, with a low-slung roof and a frameless glass rear hatch that went almost in a straight line from the roof to the rear bumper.
In addition to its front-wheel drive configuration, the 480 boasted the distinctive and charming pop-up headlights that were characteristic of the 1980s. The suspension settings were expertly fine-tuned by the renowned Lotus, enhancing the car's dynamic performance. Initially, the engine options comprised a range of four-cylinder units sourced from Renault. However, after a successful production run spanning nine years and producing just over 80,000 units, Volvo made the decision to discontinue the 480 without introducing a successor.
Until 2006 that is, when the Volvo C30 was launched following a similar design idea. The C30, a compact three-door hatchback, embraced a rear design reminiscent of the P1800 ES (and the 480). However, its overall styling and certain safety features were initially showcased in the 2001 Volvo SCC concept car. Initially, the C30 achieved respectable sales for a niche model. Unfortunately, over time, it struggled to maintain momentum, and sales declined towards the end of its lifespan. Eventually, production ceased in 2012, without any immediate plans for a direct successor.
Nissan BE-1, S-Cargo, Pao and Figaro
A full decade prior to the debut of the Volkswagen New Beetle and roughly 14 years before the introduction of the MINI, the Nissan BE-1 emerged as the pioneer of retro mini cars. Drawing heavy inspiration from the iconic Austin Mini, its design exuded a nostalgic charm, while the underlying technical framework was borrowed from the Nissan/Datsun Micra K10. Regrettably, the level of success it attained pales in comparison to the abundance of contemporary retro vehicles adorning our mall parking lots. With a production run limited to a mere 10,000 units between 1987 and 1988, the Nissan BE-1 remains a relatively rare gem.
The BE-1 marked the debut of the skunkworks team's series of four retro Nissans. Sharing its foundation with the Micra K10, the Nissan Pao sported a rebellious design reminiscent of the Renault 4, while incorporating certain elements inspired by the Citroen 2CV. Perhaps owing to these unique features, the Pao achieved a relatively greater level of success, with over 50,000 units manufactured between 1989 and 1990.
Continuing their retro venture with increased optimism, Nissan introduced the Figaro in 1991. This diminutive sports car paid homage to the classic Datsun Fairlady roadsters of the 1960s, which themselves bore resemblance to British roadsters of the era. Despite catering to an even more niche market, the Figaro managed to sell 20,000 units between 1991 and 1992, doubling the sales figures of the BE-1.
Among the four retro offerings, the S-Cargo stood out as the quirkiest. This compact cargo van, reminiscent of the modern Citroen 2CV Fourgonette from various angles, adopted the Micra K10 platform and featured a larger engine sourced from the Nissan Pulsar. With a production run limited to just 10,600 units between 1989 and 1990, the S-Cargo's name cleverly played on the combination of "cargo van" and the French word for snail, "escargot," reflecting its snail-like appearance. None of these four predecessors to modern retro cars received direct successors, as Nissan opted for a distinct shift in styling direction during the 1990s.
Its design clearly harked back to the gorgeous BMW 507 roadster, while the all-aluminum spaceframe chassis and BMW M5 E39 engine should have resulted in killer momentum for its sales.
Regrettably, the BMW Z8 didn't receive widespread acclaim for its theoretical attributes, leading to a modest production of only 5,703 units between 1999 and 2003. Consequently, BMW chose not to pursue the development of a worthy successor model. Perhaps the Z8's striking "instant classic" design proved to be a tad overwhelming for BMW customers of that era. Additionally, the Mercedes-Benz SL roadster had already established a firm foothold as the preferred choice in the Z8's price range, further impacting its market reception.
Chrysler PT Cruiser, Plymouth Prowler and Chevrolet HHR
Beneath its nostalgic exterior, the PT Cruiser incorporated a blend of Dodge components, primarily sourced from the Neon. However, it stood as a distinct model in its own right. Despite its unique appeal, the combination of niche styling and the use of parts from the Dodge lineup led to a decline in sales as the model neared the end of its production cycle. Consequently, Chrysler made the decision to gradually phase it out, with the final units rolling off the assembly line in 2010. Throughout its ten-year lifespan, the PT Cruiser amassed a production volume of 1.35 million units.
The Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler faced a somewhat similar fate, although for different reasons. This rear-wheel drive convertible sports car boasted a remarkably avant-garde design for its time, featuring a transaxle transmission layout and utilizing numerous aluminum components in its chassis. However, the decision to opt for a V6 powertrain instead of a V8 dissuaded many potential buyers. Despite the widespread appeal of its looks, only 11,702 Prowlers were manufactured between 1997 and 2002.
A few years later, looking at the initial success of the PT Cruiser and having Brian Nessbit on board, GM also dipped its toes in the retro-styling market with the Chevrolet HHR. The HHR was a compact MPV that banefited from soaring sales in the first few years of production, but it turned stale even faster than the PT Cruiser.
Drawing significant inspiration from the 1940s Chevrolet Suburban, the HHR showcased an exterior design that aimed to evoke nostalgia. However, this retro approach did not resonate as strongly with consumers as General Motors had anticipated. Over a span of five years, from 2005 to 2010, just over half a million HHR units were sold. Eventually, GM opted to discontinue the HHR and introduced a range of non-retro compact family cars, such as the Chevrolet Traverse, Trax, and Orlando, as replacements for the HHR model.
2001 Ford Thunderbird
Initially, the Thunderbird enjoyed substantial sales and captured the attention of buyers. However, this success proved fleeting, as interest quickly waned. The Thunderbird's once shining star status rapidly faded, leaving it largely forgotten, even catching Ford off guard.
With a mere four years of production and a total of 68,098 units manufactured, the Thunderbird's journey came to an abrupt halt without a successor. Perhaps a twelfth generation, potentially powered by electricity, could have fared better. However, considering the dominance of SUVs in the automotive landscape, it is unlikely to happen in the near future. Or ever, for that matter.