Beginning in the late 1990s, after industry trends continued to push for sleeker, more futuristic cars, there was a counter-push to bring back the glory days of the ’60s and ’70s through updated retro-inspired vehicles — and it still continues today. This has been a very American trend; international companies from Europe or Asia don’t seem to have the same desire to re-cast their historic cars in such an intentional manner.
To be clear, there is a difference between using inspiration and design language from a company’s history to influence its current models, and designing a car outright to look like it drove directly out of the 60s and into the 21st century. The former is common practice — it’s actually rare to find vehicles that don’t pay homage to a brand’s own bloodlines in one way or another. A perfect example of this is the Mercedes SLS AMG — a completely new car, but clearly a descendent of the old iconic 300SL coupes of years past.
But these cars take it a step further. They are engineered to represent what a car from the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s would look like if it was built today. It’s not just an homage to the originals, but a direct repurposing of the old formula that made them so iconic and enduring in the first place. Essentially, these cars were made to look old — in a modern interpretation, at least.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, so if you think we left anything out, sound off in the comments below.
1. PT Cruiser
It doesn’t really get more retro-inspired than the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Everything from the vertical grille to the flared fenders to the lights made it the poster child for the retro-throwback movement, and though polarizing, it garnered a loyal following. It certainly didn’t hurt that the non-convertible model was quite versatile, giving it everyday practicality and not sentencing it to the garage as a weekend warrior.
2. Chevrolet Camaro
The Chevrolet Camaro is one of the trio of muscle car revivals that also included the retro return of the Mustang and Challenger around 2005. Prior to the most recent generation, the Camaro took on the sleek, streamlined shape that all but ignored the angular, muscular appearance of the original models. That came back in 2010, to do battle with the Mustang that got the same treatment in 2005. The familiar muscular haunches and the grinning, angled grille had made a return, and the formula has been an immensely popular one.
3. Chevrolet SSR
The Chevy SSR never enjoyed mainstream success, but it wasn’t meant to; it was a stab at a factory-made hot-rod truck. It featured a beefy 6.0 liter V8, and it certainly had the eye-catching looks of modded hot-rod. As a truck though, its performance was debatable, and for work you’d be best looking at a more conventional choice. But the SSR is among the defining vehicles of the retro-throwback phase.
4. Chevrolet HHR
The Chevrolet HHR was one of GM’s earlier attempts at the compact crossover market, which at its debut in 2006 was just beginning to form. Though crossovers would blow up into one of the largest segments in the industry, the HHR and its retro-inspired looks was modeled after the 1949 Suburban; its name, HHR, stood for “Heritage High Roof.” It did fairly well, and remained in production through 2011, before being having its plug pulled as GM moved on to a new platform.
5. Volkswagen Beetle
The Volkswagen Beetle remained largely unchanged for years. Decades, even. When it was rehashed in 1998, Volkswagen’s engineers were especially careful not to mess with the given formula. It still featured the iconic round lights, the bubble-like shape, and the rakish back that the original was known for. The ‘New Beetle’ gave way to the Beetle in 2012, which saw the new car align even more with its heritage, though with several modern twists.
6. Plymouth Prowler
The Plymouth Prowler was a lot of things, and was also not a lot of things — resulting in a deep divide over consumer sentiments about the vehicle. One thing was undeniable though: It was retro. The wedge-shaped front grille spoke directly to a similar setup on cars from the ’30s and ’40s. Like the SSR, the Prowler was intended to be a factory-built hot-rod, and from the looks alone, it pushed all the right buttons.
7. Ford Thunderbird
The Ford Thunderbird nameplate is among the most respected in automotive lore, as it carries quite a legacy on its back. Ford tried to relive the magic in the early 2000s with a modern take on the T-Bird, but there was no denying that the engineers were shooting for a retro approach. Virtually everything about the exterior of this car was made to conjure up visions of the originals, from its long boat-like physique to its round headlamps and chrome grille.
8. Ford Mustang
In 2005, Ford decided that its new Mustang needed a change. Having seen the success with previous “retro” cars, and identifying the passion that Mustang fans showed for the earlier models, Ford brought the original Mustang design language into the 21st century. Virtually every component, even on the inside, was made in the spirit of the original car that started it all. History repeats itself: Shortly after Ford was met with great success for its throwback Mustang, Dodge brought back the old-school Challenger look, and Chevy dug deep into its Camaro heritage to revive a decades-old rivalry that had ended up dead in the water.
9. Jeep Wrangler
Jeep has a solid tactic for making retro-themed cars: Don’t play with the original design in the first place. Yeah, the new Wranglers look new and are sleeker and far more capable, but the overall design has barely changed. The round lights up from and square lights in back, the boxy shape, and the ability to shed the roof has made it among the most enduring icons of automotive history.
10. Dodge Challenger
It wouldn’t be a good old ménage à trois without the Dodge Challenger to do business with the Camaro and Mustang, and arguably, the Challenger stuck the closest to its early-day roots. The round ovular grille and rear lights are almost directly lifted from the early Challenger models, and the huge muscular rear fender flares that nearly cut out the rear window entirely are pulled right from the early 1970s Challenger’s playbook. The Challenger is a literal modern translation of the old car, and it’s proven to be exceptionally popular.
11. Mini Cooper
Though the newest generation (not pictured) is undeniably modern, the Mini Cooper makes no qualms about its cute retro aesthetic. It’s easy to see the Mini’s roots traced back to the original Mini, though the recent models have grown considerably due to tighter safety standards; but overall, they feel like a throwback to Mini’s original golden days, which is reflected in many aspects of the car. Most telling is the big, round, wide-eyed lights, and the cockpit is very retro-futuristic as well, with the pizza-size speedometer eating up half the dashboard.