Friday, September 7, 2018

Retro looks don't guarantee design success

What is THAT? The 1991 Nissan Figaro created a world-wide rage for retro.
My friend, author Douglas Kalajian, has a sharp eye for cars of the past. But it was his wife Robyn who first spotted the Nissan Figaro as it cut across their path.

"What is THAT?"

To Doug's credit, he remembered the Figaro, a car that Nissan produced for only one model year, and never officially sold in the United States. A rare sighting, indeed.

Then he saw it again.

"If I'd gotten out of my car a few seconds earlier I'd have snapped a photo and called out," he wrote me.

"From what I've read, there were zero imported to the U.S. and it has been very difficult to get them registered here because they don't come close to complying with American regs. Canada is a little less harsh but only a little. There are a handful on Hemmings, and prices are all over the place. It would fit in the garage! Really, it would fit in the hall closet."

The Figaro was intentionally designed to look like a mini-car of the 1950s, but was completely modern in function. Like Douglas, I remember what a sensation the Figaro was in 1991.

Everyone wanted one (even in Japan you had to win a lottery to get a Figaro). It ignited a rage for retro.

The retro-look Jaguar S-Type was designed in 1995 and launched in 1999. The almost as nostalgic looking Jaguar X-Type arrived in 2002. BMW began development of its new Mini in 1995 and  launched it in 2000 to enormous success.

Royal Enfield has profited enormously from its investment in classically styled motorcycles that have modern features like disc brakes and fuel injection. It is about to introduce two brand new motorcycles that will look like British bikes of the 1960s, but be powered by a new 650cc parallel twin motor.

Retro has been good to Royal Enfield. But retro hasn't always been good to vehicle makers.

Recently I happened across a CraigsList ad in California for a retro-design car I'd never heard of: the Fiat 500 1957 Edition.

Sold in the United States in 2014 and 2015, the 1957 Edition looked a bit like the Fiat 500 introduced in 1957. But despite its looks, like the Nissan Figaro and the new Mini, it was a completely modern car. Even the key fob was retro-styled.

The circa 1957 Fiat 500 behind the "1957 Edition" of 2014.
Here's the thing. The 1957 Edition was a "retro" version of the Fiat Chrysler Fiat 500, itself launched in 2007 as a retro tribute to the 1957 car.

Retro on retro. It should have been a sensation.

So: why had I never heard of it?

Maybe because the price was high compared with other models? Perhaps because the lackluster commercial prepared for it used 1957 production values?

Maybe it was because a retro key fob, radio buttons designed to look like old-fashioned dials, and painted steel wheels weren't enough to make a 2015 Fiat 500 look like a true 1957 Fiat 500.

Something similar happened to the retro-styled Ford Thunderbird two-seater of 2002-2005. Initially praised, sales of the design declined every year until it was discontinued. Marketing may have been the problem for the retro 'Bird.

"If there was a marketing effort by Ford Motor, I wasn't aware of it," wrote Jerry Flint of Forbes magazine.

Whatever the explanation, the Fiat 1957 Edition is a lesson that retro-modern vehicles don't always succeed. I'll let Douglas have the last word:

"The appeal of a retro-mobile rests on the original being fondly remembered. Who remembers the 1957 anything, much less the 1957 Fiat? And if you did and actually had owned one, would you remember it fondly or would the mere thought make you break out in hives?"


  1. Thanks for posting, enjoyed the article. But your comment "Who remembers the 1957 anything?" Well, how about the most iconic USA automobile of all time, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air? (No, I don't own one.)

  2. Yes, very glad you made that comment, Doug and I discussed the iconic '57 Chevrolet. I concluded that the Chevy was the exception that proved the rule. Not a lot of other '57s were as enviable. The '57 Continental Mark II was out there, but a pretty rare bird.


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