FUTURE TO THE BACK?


My corny term for 'new' automotive configurations that seem familiar.....
"Martha, haven't we seen these concepts before?"

Station wagons
- Chrysler Pacifica
My first reaction was that it is a 50s-60s station wagon: passenger seats which fold flat into the floor (unlike 90s minivans whose seats latch in place so they can be taken out and put in the garage, though more recently minivans have offered fold-flush seats).
Another 50s-60s station wagon feature recently popping up in minivans is the locker-in-floor in the rear, giving much needed secure storage for vehicles without trunks. (Also used as footwell for the extra rear-facing seat that big GM wagons offered as an option.)

Of course windowed minivans of the last two decades have been used for what station wagons used to be, just taller to be roomier but with compromised suspension to fit in the same garages.
Now the trend, called "crossover" to confuse potential buyers, is lower rooflines (or is it higher suspensions on Volvo's? - and what's the boxy Ford Flex (built on a Volvo platform) but a cross between a station wagon and a Chevrolet Suburban (er, sorry, Ford Excursion)? :-). Is that really the 2011 Explorer in Ford PR claiming they've re-invented it? Not your father's Bronco for sure.

Then there's Audi, crowing about the new A4 station wagon. Oh, but that's essentially the same platform as the VW Passat which has had a more practical station wagon shape for a few years. (Hint - isn't an extra benefit of a straight roofline more headroom in the rear seat?)

- And large glass area in roofs is available today. Look at the 2009 Jetta station wagon for example (right there between the roof rack rails!).
Does anyone remember the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser's large glass forward /of the roof rack, and small windows in the edge of the roof alongside the rack? (Offered as late as circa-1990. Good for seeing mountain scenery on a sunny day, perhaps too dim to see stars as the glass had to have heavy tint - but IDEA: electrically-controlled tint, used today on business jets and coming soon to airliners.)

And I'll throw in mention of the windows in the curved roof edge of 1970s "VW-bus" vans, and more recently on Japanese versions of that Toyota engine-between-front-seats van, called Sky-Light roof and the curved glass panels can open (which would help ventilate as all that glass lets the sun in).
Nope, can't do that on a Dodge Caravan - its roof is relatively flat, all the better to keep overall height low and to carry things on the roof - even the current VW Eurovan is a tall vehicle relative to the Caravan (which does compromise to get that garagable height - the suspension, for example, lacks adequate travel for anything but smooth pavement).

- The snub-nosed 1939 Chevrolet truck.
Is that the concept introduced in the last decade or two as the cab-over-engine local delivery truck from Japan, sold by GM?
(I understand Ford had a similar truck layout. Why did production cease?)
Similar functionality in a lighter-duty truck came in the early 60s as the pickup truck version of the Corvair Greenbriar van/"wagon" - short nose, engine underneath in the back. (Just like the pick-up truck version of the VW "bus", one model with "crew cab" extra seating. IIRC the Corvair had a dropped centre floor with hinged side panel for loading your lawn mower or whatever - the VW had hinged box sides to change from flat bed to box, but to my knowledge did not have a dropped centre floor which is more costly due difficult beam structure. It may have had stowage lockers forward of the rear wheels to utilize that space.)

- Today's mini-van resembles such early 60 vehicles as Chevrolet and Dodge vans:
> Short nose
> Compact engine-transmission package (then between the seats like the newer Toyota van, today transverse and pushed forward).
But.....have you seen GM's l'Universelle and Expedier show vehicles from the early 1950s? Looks like designers of the 1960s Corvair Greenbriar had.

- And there's "micro" size.
Are the Mercedes "SMART" and Aston-Martin Cygnet just going back to concept of the BMW Isetta and other leser cars of its era? (Albeit seeming more practical for entry and exit.)

- GM bringing back the in-line 6 cylinder engine, a common configuration in the 50s and 60s (the only light-vehicle engine provided by Chevrolet from 1929 to 1955).
(Smoother and providing more torque over a wider speed range than the V-6, GM now puts it in rear-drive truck/SUV vehicles that can accept its length compared to the V-6.
(And now are using a 5-cylinder in-line engine in smaller trucks, just like some VWs, as well as the 4-cylinder in-line engine which would not be smoother unless money is spent on balance shafts as Japanese makers often did.)
(Mercedes hung onto the straight 6 in sedans longer than most car makers.)

- Twice Ford brought out a swoopy/circular/oval Taurus then backed the design off to a more practical vehicle (first introducing the changes in the Mercury Sable version of the Taurus). Last time a rectangular rear window and higher trunk lid (thus more space) were key changes. It went on to be one of the best selling cars in the US, probably because it was what so many people want - a medium-sized sedan.

Hey, if an idea is good let's "recycle" it. Nothing wrong with that per se, though I'd prefer not to hear the term "new" for what isn't. And I wonder why Ford did not learn from their experience with the first Taurus - someone was asleep when they designed the second new version.

- And Volkswagen pushed under-powered cheap models far longer than most manufacturers, then 'poof' replaced them with a radically different up-to-date model. First the bump (the Beetle replaced by the Golf/Rabbit - whose platform the new retro Beattle is based on), then the van (the original and Vanagon versions with rear engine replaced by the Eurovan with front engine front wheel drive). Granted, there was a Project 266AE to be executed by Porsche, looking like a Ford Fiesta but probably rear engine. And the Beattle looks like a dusting off of the NSU Type 32 concept designed by the original Mr. Porsche. Along the way VW did produce other vehicles, such as the Karman Ghia which resembles an economy low-performance version of the Type 114 proposal, and the rear-engine square-back VW car whose designation I forget (popular circa the 1960s).

- Plus the oddity of the $2 million Bugatti, which not only brings back cars as rarely affordable to purchase but comes with tires like they used to be - short-life, and wheels that must be replaced periodically. Well, it is like a race car in many respects despite its refinement, perhaps like the SR-71 Blackbird airplane and maybe the Space Shuttle (built years ago, never equalled, probably will never be built again).

Footnote on the Taurus
Circa the 2007 model year Ford replaced the Taurus with the 500. Apparently the marketing weenies decided that the new car was so much better that the Taurus name was no longer appropriate. But would people looking for a Taurus, due own experience or recommendation, connect to the new name? So the new boss decided to revert to the Taurus and Sable names (instead of "Ford Taurus 500" to hint of a connection for anyone who'd read rave reviews of the model 500 and was eager to purchase one).
No, I wouldn't assume all sales people are smart enough to communicate the similarities and differences if the potential purchaser did get as far as visiting the showroom. I know one shopper who to wanted to replace her Toyota Corona but was told that Toyota no longer made the model - but in plain view on the showroom floor was a car that had grown in size to what her old Corona was, the Corolla. She ended up elsewhere buying a late-80s Chevrolet Nova which is really a Corolla made by the GM-Toyota joint venture factory in California - nothing like the old Nova in design or size or quality. The Nova was purchased from a car rental company's lot - Toyota dealer management snoozed and lost that sale. (Recycling names when the vehicle is radically different in size is a favourite game of the old Detroit automobile companies, assured to confuse potential customers. So is changing names - the Corolla-based GM car was later called the Geo Prism or Passport whatever during GM's period of trying what later worked for Toyota: a different brand name. GM abandoned that approach - for example, its current little Korean-built car carries the Chevrolet brand name)
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Chrysler changed its minivan shape to more rounded, then lurched after GM's minivan look by tweaking it to look more aggressive. Now they've returned to mostly boxy. I'm reminded of friends' Toyota van - very nice vehicle, except they could really use the roof height lost to that styling droop, to carry something they often did in their 1993 Grand Caravan without having to use tools to reduce its height. I don't understand the thinking of designers - the van is a box to carry things!
(Never mind the number of Isuzu Troopers, Honda Pilots, Honda Elements, trendy Scion wagons, and assorted Jeep wagons on the road - "square won't sell". ;-)

More boxes
Then there's the Honda "Element" model, which marketing types call "funky' and claim the interior has an "open architecture design that was inspired by the airiness of lifeguard stations and college dorm rooms". (! - dorm rooms must have improved since my day.) While I've never seen the inside of a lifequard station, I suspect that in warm climates like California, and more so in poorer warm locations, they more resemble a golf cart with a roof to keep the rain off but no sides. (Heck, part of the airline terminal at Ontario California is built like that.) But Konservative Keith likes boxy vehicles, which the Element is. And he'll give Honda credit for clean looking vehicles - even the 2009 Pilot is clean compared to its competition, despite marketing hype that it now has a "strong dose of traditional sport ute styling". And he can't understand the 40% difference in price of the Pilot over the Element, especially as marketing PR regurgitated by a local newspaper suggests four-wheel-drive is an option in both cases.
Worse, there's the first generation of "Scion" vehicles, a new brand from Toyota - awkwardly styled boxes, which competitors like Kia and Nissan decided to exaggerate on, all the better to be uglier.
And now there's the Ford Flex, reportedly well received by a wide range of people. Visualize a box, with a lower box on the front of it, nicely styled and detailed but too stark - they should have copied the New Mini. What is that shape? Find a two word term near the beginning of this article.

And Chrysler is building Caravan cargo versions again. Perhaps the demise of the Chevrolet Astro/GMC whatever helped motivate them, though the smooth-road Caravan cannot replace all uses of the Astro. Chrysler say the B series and Sprinter vans are too large for many users, though the shortest low-roof versions of the Sprinter aren't huge (but the roof is higher than the Caravan). Just in time for the introduction of the Ford "Transit Connect" small van.

Can't Wait until last year
One bad marketing move is to change the size of a well known model. Mazda, for example, had a small mini-van well liked by its owners. The MPV provided many of the advantages of the Chrysler/Dodge minivan but in a smaller size that suited couples and small young families. Then they grew it into a direct competitor with more seats and more doors. Then they did a "future to the back" move, replacing it with a small vehicle again, called [I forget, not the "Mazda 5" which is a stretched Mazda 3]. They couldn't confuse customers more if they deliberately tried.

Commenting on the grill of the new Subaru Trebeca model, in his view having an ugly nose compared to Subaru models in prior years, Michael Yount of Knoxville TN claimed in the September 26, 2005 issue of Autoweek magazine that an automotive magazine once commented on the change of grill from 1970 to 1971 models of the Plymouth Barracuda by saying: "One look at the grill and we can't wait until last year."

Retro styling
Chrysler did a good job on the new Challenger, readily identifiable by those who knew the 1970s car.
GM, on the other hand, botched the new Camaro - it looks like a cross between a Challenger and a Mustang, should sell a lot of those cars (why buy an awkward copy-cat when you can have the real thing?). GM was shown how to style a new Camaro to evoke the original clean look but stumbled on with their notion.
The Mustang? No need for a retro design - whether you care for it or not the Mustang has always looked like a Mustang, even when they changed the size of it. (I commend Ford for making recent ones look more like the muscle-car versions circa 1970, the new ones are tidy in size but not awkward-looking like the Mustang II was.)

Electronics too:
Toyota recently added an automatic headlight dimmer system to its cars.
A good idea, which is why General Motors offered it half a century ago.
Well, Toyota's system does include the lesser case of detecting tail lights of a vehicle ahead.

And in other products:
An ad for the Blackberry FLIP cellular phone showed its external display presenting an analogue clock dial complete with little windows for AM vs PM and day just like wrist watches once had. Heavily discounted however.

Stations wagons are coming back.
- One Korean manufacturer has a new wagon about the size of a Mazda 5 but squarish.
- Volvo is calling its XC90 a "tall wagon". Doesn't look very tall to me, and seems to have an inefficient rear end shape.


Copyright Keith Sketchley, page version 2015.05.08

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