I’m a car guy. Always have been. As a penniless student I was one of those people that would make the (false) economy of happily subsisting on a steady diet of Top Ramen and Pop-Tarts if it meant I could pay for that new performance chip on my banged-up 911. But with age comes wisdom, and one reaches a point in life where the Bohemian pleasures of hitch-hiking or crashing on friends’ couches just does not hold the allure and proletarian nobility it once did. It was maybe that or the free breakfasts at Holiday Inn Express. Can’t decide.
In any event, get a car guy to reminisce about early Steve McQueen movies or discuss the plot twists in gear-head classics like Vanishing Point or Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and you’ll be there a while, so get comfortable. Car guys love to wax poetic about vintage horsepower and the evocative shapes and visceral, fry-your-loafers, bugs-in-your-teeth driving experiences inherent in 1960s-70s GT cars. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the auto industry cleverly exploited the graying of the baby boomers by re-issuing versions of its most famous badges – Charger, Mustang, Beetle, Thunderbird, and now, Challenger.
Demographics are only part of the reason. Simply looking at the evolution of car names tells you a lot about the degradation of the automobile from a symbol of power, freedom and often excess to a dull, quotidian appliance. Cars used to have great names: Falcon, Dart, Fury, Cougar, Firebird, Mustang, Charger, Barracuda, Hornet, Starlight. Now we have Elantra, Sentry, Altima, Camry, Sienna, Corrolla, Tercel, Maxima. There’s even a Nissan SUV called the Murano. Murano is a small island off Venice famous for its artisans that produce delicate glass sculptures and figurines. Delicate glass is hardly something you want to equate with a muscular, go-anywhere, do-anything SUV. As Jerry Seinfeld might say, who were the overpaid branding geniuses that came up with that one? That’s almost as bad as the luggage manufacturer that—get this—launched a line of luggage named after Amelia Earhart. Yes, Amelia Earhart luggage. Luggage that honors someone most famous for getting lost and never being found. Braaaavo.
When the Beetle was re-imagined in the mid-1990s, I applauded. Smart thinking on VW’s part, I reckoned. The idea was a simple one: Resurrect the image and nostalgia of that instantly recognizable car that made your company famous–quick!: can you think of any other VW model?– and bring it into the 21st century. It worked wonders for VW. Ford followed suit shortly thereafter with the Thunderbird, although the line between tasteful homage and shameless exploitation was starting to blur. By the new millennium, the Mustang re-appeared and, with its success, the “retro” boom was in full swing. Some automakers that did not choose to resurrect a model from their glory days still played the retro card by simply launching new models that evoked the style and details of earlier road card, often not even their own models. Chrysler’s 300 and it’s PT Cruiser are the most famous and successful examples. The 300’s Bentley-esque front grill and the high waist of 1930s gangster saloons gave the 300 a sleek, slightly menacing stance. A clever marketing push followed and the 300 became (for a while, at least) the ride of choice for rap artists, athletes and urban hipsters.
But, with the Challenger, one must conclude that this trend has decidedly jumped the shark. Too often, what is worth doing is worth overdoing – at least for the Big 3 which have a terrible history of blowing huge strategic advantages by not pivoting quickly enough to address new market realities. GM’s recent shuttering of several SUV and light truck plants is another example of a bloated company not adjusting to changing market conditions. In a $4/gallon world, GM should have been throttling back SUV and light truck production for a while now. Everyone knew this day was coming. Instead, GM continued to stamp them out like CDs. Those blunders will continue to crush the SUV/light truck aftermarket and hurt its dealer network for years to come. How Rick Wagoner continues to hold a job baffles me.
The “new” Challenger epitomizes a troublesome trend of “retro rehash” that I have seen in too many markets now. The fashion and music industries are other segments where the pre-occupation with trotting out new spins on the golden oldies that worked for so long has eclipsed real intellectual work on their part in actually innovating new designs (fashion and apparel) or discovering and promoting new music that is not entirely derivative or referential. Interestingly enough, the woes of the music industry are eerily similar to those of the auto industry. Music industry execs love to whine about piracy, peer-to-peer file sharing, concert ticket prices, and a host of other evils to explain their troubles, but the real culprit is prevalent “me-too”-ism in signing artists and a lack of innovation and creativity on the part of the entire industry. The auto industry–and to a lesser extent, the music and fashion industries–have been for a long time utterly bereft of any real innovation. This “retro” boom is simply the most clear manifestation of this lack of innovation. Why bother creating new products that customers want when you can rest on old ideas that you can simply re-introduce with a little tweaking?
In the end, I think the “new” Challenger is as doomed as was its original namesake. Auto buffs will remember that what ultimately buried the 1970s Challenger was the one-two punch of a gas crisis and performance figures that did not break any new ground. The original Challenger simply debuted too late. By the time production ramped up, the muscle car boom that began in the mid-1960s was well on its way out. The 1973 oil shock was just the final stake through the heart. With the new Challenger, the similarities are ominous. $4 gas is killing the appetite for big, raw, powerful vehicles. Heck, even GM itself is considering selling the Hummer–the epitome of the brutish, thirsty, muscular SUV–and Ford has already sold Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover. Perhaps now, the automakers, the music execs and the fashionistas will begin thinking more about innovation and how their very existence will likely depend on it. There simply aren’t any more bodies to exhume. Old wine in new bottles is simply not a sustainable strategy.