Resto Modding and the Death of Retro

1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1 Twister Special

Why is Volkswagen’s New Beetle considered to be a retro design yet the Porsche 911 is not?  The same reason the current and last generation Mustangs are retro – no continuity.  Lineage and continuity are not the same thing.  The current Mustang is successful at being a modern car that harks back to its forefathers with a design language that draws obvious inspiration from that lineage.  But it is unabashedly retro because in between Genesis and the Second Coming was a whole bunch of completely unrelated material.  Mach 1, Fox, Mustang II:  Decades of ‘Mustang’ but apparently not Mustang enough to be the anointed ones come resurrection time.  A team of designers had to look at the back catalog and decide what it means to be a ‘Mustang.’  Does that mean that if you have a classic Mach 1 you chose wrong?  Well, no comment here, but if Ford had done what Porsche did the with 911, your car wouldn’t exist.  That would save you a lot on insurance.

Porsche 911 Family

Show a 991 911 (ugh…really?) a picture of itself from 1963 and it would most likely feel pretty good about how its ageing.  Its grandmother would coo, “Oh, you’ve still got the family nose.  You’ve always been a handsome boy.  But you know, I never liked those lights you tried on when you were a 996.”  The Mustang’s Grandmother would be focusing on what a nice man he’d grown up to be, trying to forget about all the drunken slacker years of mullets, acid-wash jeans, Guns ‘n Roses, and Keystone Light.

1986 Ford Mustang

The 911 is a story of evolution and continuity.  Porsche is just as hamstrung by its tradition and design language as the Ford folks are, but they wisely stuck to it throughout, showing faith in their original choices.  The history of the Mustang shows FMC for what it is:  A corporate behemoth that chases whatever their bloated committee-driven management thinks the kids might want today.  The problem with today is how quickly it becomes yesterday.  Which is, like, everyday.

So where does this put the current Beetle and Mini…and the Ford GT, Camaro, and Dodge Challenger/Charger for that matter?  In a pile labeled, “Most Egregious Retro Crimes Ever.”  The original Beetle only looked the way it did because its engine was in the back.  It only drove the way it did because its engine was in the back.  Everything that made the Beetle the Beetle was down to engine placement.  There is not a designer alive that would, when asked to draw a front-engined hatchback, sketch anything looking like a Beetle.  No, the New Beetle was a cynical marketing exercise attempting to tickle us in our wayback bones.  Surprising how many people needed a laugh.

The original Mini is an icon too because of engine packaging.  That front transverse engine/gearbox placement was a stroke of genius and the rest of the car was able to be shrink wrapped around it as a result.  The modern iteration, for one, ain’t mini, and two, adds nothing to the original’s inspiration.  The interior is the greatest triumph of retro-form over admitting-the-world-keeps-turning-function in history.

Other cars that exist only to poke Baby Boomers in their cash dispensing Good-Old-Days buttons are the Ford GT, New Camaro, and Dodge Challenger/Charger.  Ford’s retro track record has been duly noted here, but what’s Dodge’s excuse? They have just proven, with the new Viper, that they can do a really good job at moving a car’s iconic design language forward without resorting to retro-pastiche.  Even the original, while no doubt a spiritual nod to the Shelby Daytona Coupe, actually copied none of that car’s iconography save a stripe or two.  But the Challenger/Charger abominations?  Not only do they share their namesakes’ statuses as bloated, useless, gas-guzzling, space taker-uppers, they even try to look like them.  The same goes for the modern Camaro.  Their designs are saying that Chevy and Chrysler believe the only relevant artistic growth in the last thirty years has been in cartooning.

So how does it end?  When can we let our talented designers look forward instead of backwards?  The answer is in the Rise of Resto Mod.  The new Camaro, with its hilarious vintage visage and cartoon proportions, has nothing to do with the vintage car driving experience.  Good, you say.  I agree.  So why does it have to look like it does?  Surely Chevy would have a better time convincing folks that, post-buyout/payback, they are producing modern, better driving automobiles capable of competing with the best the world has to offer, if the car were wrapped in a sleek modern shell.

Now, with the resto mod movement, baby boomers can do better than buying an all-form, no-function modern car with retro design.  They can build, or have built, a car with actual vintage form and modern function.  Take that ’69 Camaro or Mustang, pop in a clean-running modern crate engine, some modern brakes, coilovers and chassis stiffeners, modern wiring loom, comfortable seats and seatbelts, etc. and go driving.  Until you spend some time in an old car, even one just twenty years old, you can’t believe how different actual vintage motoring is to modern retro motoring.

But what about being able to sell my all original ’67 Whatever SS at Barrett-Jackson for $400,000 dollars, you cry?  Well, in the coming years there will be a lot of folks waking up to the sound of a big bubble popping, wishing that they had realized that any car produced in the hundreds-of-thousands will never be truly collectible and that they’d just driven and enjoyed the damn thing.

When you climb into your new Camaro or Mustang, look out through the letterbox windows crowded by thirty airbags, you drive off knowing that nowhere but the track could you ever reach the edges of grip.   You will feel thoughts gnawing at you…this is not that exciting…and it’s pretty useless day-to-day…and my buddy’s BMW is probably quicker and its definitely more comfortable.

But when you open the door on your resto-mod, and slip into the contour-hugging seat that you chose yourself, smell the old vinyl and plastic, and crank over that rocking great small-block lump, safe in the knowledge that it will go and stop like never before, you will feel alive.  You will honor your childhood and your adulthood at the same time.

And most importantly you will allow the designers to move forward and please the rest of us, rather than just you loud-mouthed baby boomers.

This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness


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About nicholasdamato

Nicholas D’Amato is a seasoned observer of all things automotive, a gushing fount of opinion, a writer with motorsport in his blood, an aesthete and a scholar. Which is strange because really he’s just a bass player. For years, Nicholas has toured the world, ostensibly to perform great music, but he knows it’s really to soak up as much car culture as possible as he bounces from country to country, city to city. As if to prove a point, his writing has been featured in EVO Magazine and Bass Player. He is a regular contributor to

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