Top Five

Looking Back to Move Forward

Automotive industry has always toyed with retro design, but the 2000s was the time where it had the most attention (and cars)

Danillo Almeida


Hyundai’s latest release, the IONIQ 5, turns out very interesting to analyze when it comes to design because its all-electric powertrain contrasts with the retro-inspired design. However, the Korean automaker is only one to apply what has become a regular tendency in this industry: Renault, for instance, is working on a similar model.

Retro design consists of taking visual components from older cars, often from the 1930s to the 1960s, and giving them a modern-day interpretation. Many automakers have used that tendency to create a whole new car with a strong image from the beginning; that is helpful to make it stand out in the market or simply bring more profit.

Even though there are several retro cars being released here and there in the latest years, we can consider that the tendency was born in the late 1990s and had its heyday in the following years, when several automakers released their tributes to past creations. The following paragraphs show five companies that participated of that moment.

2003 Chevrolet SSR


Released in 2003, the SSR took inspiration from the Advance Design trucks of the late 1940s to become sort of a performance pickup. However, that and the convertible roof turned out to be too little to make it competitive with the high prices charged back then — everything else in it was shared with the other GM models available at the time.

2006 Chevrolet HHR

Three years later, Chevrolet used the same formula to develop the HHR but working at the compact segment as a crossover option to the conventional Cobalt. It also had a turbocharged SS trim level and a panel van version, besides some concept projects. The HHR also used the same platform and powertrain of other GM models.

By using so many components from the corporate bin, those models had little to offer above the standard of their respective market categories; the SSR was also harmed by its own price tag. The pickup was discontinued in 2006 while the crossover lasted until 2011, but both of them had moderate sales figures from beginning to end.


After the Dodge Viper’s success, the North-American maker decided to release another image car in the 1990s. Being inspired in 1930s hot rods explains why the Prowler was so different from any other car of its time: open front wheels, isolated bumpers and narrow body. In 2001, the PT Cruiser arrived as a more conventionally-styled counterpart.

The models made an interesting addition to a company that was struggling to find itself between the partnerships with Mitsubishi and Mercedes-Benz. Both had a great reception from people and press in very different ways: the Prowler seduced the enthusiasts while the PT Cruiser was a great option in the compact segment.

The Prowler is considered the starting point of the 2000s “retro trend” in the U.S., which means its market success motivated releasing some of the other models featured here. The PT Cruiser had a much more discreet image in the market but its single generation managed to sell over a million units around the world in nine years.


After spending over a century creating cars of all types, by the early 2000s the Turin maker had fallen into a rut of compact models which were uninteresting and, as a consequence, unprofitable. Among all the concept cars released back then, the 2004 Trepiùno did not mark the beginning of a new era as much as a new way to think and work.

The 500 came back with a retro-chic flair rather than only being cheap, so the image became its strongest selling point. Fiat has invested in it by releasing many — many — special editions of all types and that has made it kind of a fashion symbol. The Abarth branch has worked on it as well through performance variations.

Fiat tried to capitalize on the 500’s success by creating the 500L minivan, the 124 Spider, and the 500X crossover, but only the latter sold moderately well. Last year, the hatchback reached its second generation with all-new platform, electric propulsion, the 3+1 sibling with Veloster-style doors and, of course, many special editions again.


The Thunderbird had been produced from 1955 to 1997 and updated to keep up with Ford’s advancements but that also made it lose character. The all-new generation came in 2001 heavily inspired in its first iteration, but making use of several modern technologies to become a typical North-American personal luxury vehicle once again.

The T-Bird was widely acclaimed by the press for its elegant looks and a careful recreation of many elements that kept a safe market distance from the Mustang. The problem was that Ford relied on cost-cutting a little too much: its biggest sources of criticism were heavy use of plastic and internal parts shared with other models.

Along with weak marketing strategies, those problems ultimately led to a poor sales performance. The car received some special editions of multiple themes, including a James Bond one in 2003, but its sales never took off. In nowadays, several units retained their original value and the Thunderbird has built an image of a collector’s item.

1998 Volkswagen New Beetle


No other car would be more suitable for the German company to join the retro trend with. Hype for the “New Beetle” started in 1994, when the Concept One came out. The production car arrived four years later with playful design and charming details and was soon loved and customized by many. However, sales never caught up with that.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle

While front engine and traction and a hefty price tag were quite frustrating, the biggest issue was lack of purpose: the new car had the Golf’s platform but a smaller cabin and more divisive design. Volkswagen’s first response was investing in special editions so as to focus on its “premium” image, but had only moderate success.

The Beetle was updated in 2011 with the old nicknames in every country and sportier looks but it ended competing with the Scirocco, which was struggling as well. Had it reappeared as a supermini, it would have escaped that internal conflict and made a stronger option than Lupo, Fox or up!, which never really sold well in Europe.

Lately, retro style has become just another resource available in the industry’s portfolio: companies apply them to a few car models whenever they consider convenient. What other modern-day cars with retro design do you know? Feel free to share all your thoughts and opinions about those models by using the comment button below!



Danillo Almeida

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.