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Retro Rides, Part 1

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volkswagen New Beetle, Mini Cooper, Chevrolet HHR, Ford Mustang
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Retro Rides, Part 1

Bill Crittenden
9 February 2006

Retro Cars for the Family

Retro designed vehicles are nothing new on the automotive market.  For years American drivers have had the "original" retro car-the Chrysler PT Cruiser.  Soon after the PT Cruiser, Ford joined in with the 50's-inspired Thunderbird.

Since then the market has seen more retro cars on the market.  What's great about retro cars is the range of styles and types of cars available from over 100 years of automotive history.

Here's a look at what's out there and what's to come, starting with the practical cars that aren't out of reach for the average American family.

Chrysler PT Cruiser

The "original" retro car, it was essentially a Dodge Neon reformed to be taller and larger.  This is similar to the way automakers turn sedans into minivans, such as the Toyota Camry into the Toyota Sienna.  It was minivan enough to be considered a light truck by the government.

But that's where the minivan similarities ended.  The car had four swing-open doors on a 1930's-shaped exterior.  After initial runaway success, the PT Cruiser has fallen in popularity, but Chrysler keeps changing the car enough to keep it fresh.  They have added woodies, two-tone paint schemes, turbochargers and now convertibles to the options a PT Cruiser buyer can choose from.

Despite some brake issues with the first year models, it is essentially a solid car with acceptable gas mileage.  The biggest feature may be the copious amounts of headroom that the tall roofline creates.  By far, the most practical of the retro rides today.  My major issue with the car is the beige dash panels, which look like the same material as plastic bumpers but did not match the color of the exterior (which, looking at the material, should have been easy to do).

Volkswagen New Beetle

The New Beetle is a revival of one of the most iconic cars in world history.  The car has essentially the same round shape as the original, but mechanically is a thoroughly modern and somewhat mundane front-wheel drive coupe.

It is probably the only car on the market that has a built-in flower vase as standard equipment.  OK, it probably holds pens just as well, which is a bonus.

The car is, like the original, small.  Trunk space is minimal.  For those looking to hot rod their ride, stuffing a modern engine in the front of the car makes underhood space extremely cramped.

Turbocharged versions and a convertible give VW buyers new reasons to love the car.

Mini Cooper

This new BMW-made version of the classic Cooper follows the formula of the Volkswagen New Beetle's revival.  The car is modern BMW (at a modern BMW price, unfortunately) wrapped in the shape of the original Mini Cooper.

Practicality is hampered by the BMW-high price for a car this size and the small size that makes it difficult to drive and ride in for taller or larger drivers.

But for those who live in a big city and want a small car, the solid BMW design and Mini Cooper size make a much better city car than the Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio or Hyundai Accent.

Chevrolet HHR

The compact HHR is perhaps the only retro inspired car to come close to the Chrysler PT Cruiser in practicality.  The Cobalt-based wagon is meant to look like a 1930's Chevrolet Suburban.

The look of the car came out extremely well in the production version, and interior controls are a good mix of retro style and modern usefulness.  The taillights are little round units that fit more with the style than the PT Cruiser's modern composites.

However, the way the roof curves downward around the narrow windows and gives the car a distinctive look from the exterior can be a pain for taller persons in the interior, expecially drivers.

The low cost of the vehicle, good mileage and wagon back make it very practical as a small family car, something only one other car on this list can claim.  It's also a good small wagon alternative in the GM stable for the very modern style Pontiac Vibe.

Ford Mustang

I saved the best for last.  I have no reservations about saying this.  The car speaks for itself, in sales and in popularity.

Ford has, for the last three styling changes, used styling elements from the original 1960's Ford Mustangs in increasing proportions.  However, the most recent Mustang is the complete package, an original Mustang reborn, down to the round speedometer with tall, narrow numbers.

The car doesn't have the family-car practicality of a PT Cruiser or HHR, but with a V6 base engine, back seats, and a base price under $20,000 (V6 Deluxe), the car is far more practical than the Thunderbird or SSR.  This mix of practical sports car backed by the tradition of the Mustang has translated into good sales, and new Mustangs can be seen everywhere.

The Mustang is a versatile vehicle, from the V6 convertibles popular with rental fleets, to the performance Cobra all the way up to the race car FR5000.


Part 2 will be about retro sports cars, those cars that are out of the financial reach of average Joes (like me) and some honorable mentions:  cars that have retro styling on some part but aren't the total retro package.

©2006 Bill Crittenden

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