What’s dead may never die.
You don’t need to be a Game of Thrones fan to believe that quote – at least not if you’re paying attention to the auto industry.
As the 2019 Detroit auto show begins this week with media previews, dead cars are coming back to life with a supernatural vengeance.
The resurrection trend now includes Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Jeep and Toyota, which are all resuscitating models that were discontinued years ago.
“A lot of these nameplates are quite iconic,” said Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at consultancy Portico Analytics. It “brings back a sense of nostalgia but with all the modern amenities.”
It’s Toyota’s turn this week. In Detroit, the automaker will reveal the long-anticipated return of the Toyota Supra, a sports car that gained a cult following among Generation X in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Supra fizzled out more than 20 years ago. But retro is cool again, so the Supra is getting a second shot.
Toyota joins a crowded party:
The Ford Ranger midsize pickup truck is making a comeback this year. Discontinued less than a decade ago in the U.S., it actually never went away in certain foreign markets. Now, Ford needs a midsize offering as Americans salivate over pickups of all stripes.
Next up: The Ford Bronco SUV is heading to dealerships as a 2020 model. Ford is seeking to recapture the intensely loyal following the Bronco had before the O.J. Simpson chase basically forced the company to discontinue the nameplate in the 1990s.
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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns the Jeep brand, is reviving the Jeep Gladiator pickup this year.
The new Gladiator, which was originally sold in the 1960s, debuted in a show-stopping reveal at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Like the Ranger, it’s aiming for the midsize pickup segment.
Honda plans to begin selling the Honda Passport SUV later this year.
It’s a remake of the Passport SUV sold in the 1990s, which was originally a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo “with some minor modifications,” according to Autotrader.
General Motors weeks ago began selling a new SUV called the Chevy Blazer, which takes inspiration from several models of old, including the Chevy TrailBlazer, which faded out about a decade ago.
There are multiple reasons for automakers to revive older vehicles. They include:
Cheaper than making it from scratch
Automakers typically retain trademarks for discontinued models. And they may not have to spend as much on marketing.
“They have the benefit of being recognized model names that the automakers already own,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of Cars.com. “Lo and behold they had these already paid for. So they can whip them out and use them.”
They generate buzz
Just like the entertainment industry loves franchises and sequels, the built-in fan base for past vehicles makes them buzzworthy.
“It’s easier sometimes to bring back an old nameplate and build on the awareness and the positive reaction,” said Stephanie Brinley, auto analyst at IHS Markit.
Quite simply, retro is in. Older drivers have fond memories of cars from days gone by. And younger consumers often view long-gone brands as authentic.
Many of these vehicles “transcend generations,” said Jonathan Klinger, vice president of public relations at classic-car insurer Hagerty. “It’s fun to look back at different eras.”
But while nostalgia sells, it’s not a guarantee of success. Tinkering with vehicles from the past can be risky.
“When you go ahead and bring one of those nameplates back, there’s also tremendous pressure to get the products right and make sure it matches the expectations people have from their memory,” Brinley said. “It certainly has to resonate.”
For example, the Pontiac GTO flopped after GM revived it in 2004, about three decades after it ended its first run. The muscle car didn’t have the inspiring design of its ancestor, and it was swiftly discontinued.
What’s ironic about the trend is that cars typically get discontinued because people lose interest the first time around. For example, GM and Ford recently announced plans to kill several long-running models, including the Chevy Impala and Ford Taurus, as many Americans have lost interest in passenger cars.
This isn’t the first time the Taurus has died. It was dropped in the early 2000s, only to be revived under a new regime at Ford.
So if absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps the grave is only a temporary destination.
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