Why retro throwbacks are (usually) a bad idea

| 7 Nov 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Why retro throwbacks are (usually) a bad idea

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Back in the June issue of Classic & Sports Car, Martin Buckley made the case for the Ford Thunderbird reboot, the soft 11th-generation boat of a car from 2005.

You read that right: for, not against.

Buckley made the surprising admission that the Thunderbird had stealthily won him over. But then who am I to judge, with my own questionable taste in cars. 

Classic & Sports Car – Why retro throwbacks are (usually) a bad idea
The 2018 Ford Mustang is a worthy tribute to the original

He also implied that the T-bird was the best of the retro, throwback, whatever-you-want-to-call-them designs of the early 2000s, of which there are several.

The Beetle immediately springs to mind, with other contemporaries including the MINI plus Ford’s GT, Mustang and, latterly, the Fiat 500.

At least Ford has got the Mustang right with its latest iteration, albeit after a few too many attempts. It’s a great car, and one which captures the original perfectly: plain and simple, old-school power, with the original’s styling lines brought nicely up to today’s expectations.

Modern safety rules mean cars inevitably get bigger, which is noticeable on the 500, Beetle and MINI, but the Mustang wears it well.

Classic & Sports Car – Why retro throwbacks are (usually) a bad idea
Toyota’s recent(ish) FJ Cruiser

Unfortunately, another of the retro type stared me down recently in what was (I think) a first-ever encounter for me.

Down a road dotted with mildly appreciating classics, usually comprising 1992 Audi S4 Avant (no, really), Saab 900 and a Porsche 928S2 that’s slowly crumbling and flaking into orange – all of which are still in daily use – was a 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser. 

In beige.

The utilitarian original FJ40 Land Cruiser has crept into vogue recently, sending its values soaring both Stateside and in the UK, but the rework seemed to get everything just a bit wrong. The boxy shape was rounded off, uncomfortably, while the roofline was brought lower and closer to the bonnetline, again uncomfortably. 

Vast in size – a Land Cruiser chassis lengthened, in fact – but with only two doors, it was launched in 2005 after an apparently warm concept reception in 2003.  

There are some nice touches that refer back to the likeable original, though, such as the white grille insert that is unmistakably FJ, and it’s supposedly good off-road – though not so good on it.

That said, I suspect people are less bothered by its roadholding and capability as a car than they are about simply having an FJ. Or that would be the case with the original, at least. This one, I’m not so sure.

Classic & Sports Car – Why retro throwbacks are (usually) a bad idea
The original FJ40

It lasted until as late as 2018 in Japan, the ‘Final Edition’ being launched in 2017 after the ‘Ultimate Edition’ had closed it off in America (even the names were uncomfortably done, then).

Around 100,000 were shifted in America in the first two years, but it was never deemed right for the UK market and never officially sold here, making this chance encounter noteworthy. 

Suzuki’s Jimny has shown Toyota how it should have been done in the past year or so with its happily flawed reboot. Make it likeable enough and we’ll overlook the foibles, much like we do with our own classics.

It also got me thinking as to what else should get the retro treatment. A Lancia Stratos concept seems to appear every now and then, always looking great but never getting close to realisation. 

Would Lamborghini recreate the Muira? It’s probably best it doesn’t; better instead to retain the allure and mystique of the all-but-perfect original. 

Closer to the run-of-the-mill, how about a proper throwback Audi quattro? On the other hand, two concepts have already come and gone, generally looking like fastback TTs. So perhaps not. An Alfa Romeo Duetto? Heck, it’d be nice for Alfa to make any little convertible. 

Really, though, the best way to pay tribute to a legend is to incorporate little nods in a new model, rather than to threaten its legacy with a fully fledged and ill-judged reboot. Or focus on the future, and we owners will look after the past.


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