As each model year brings a new crop of cars, automakers hedge their bets on the next big thing. Some models are over-hyped and disappear after a few unsuccessful years. Others seem to be designed with outright contempt for the car-buying public, offering something that no one is looking for. But every year, inspired or otherwise, there will always be new class models designed with young buyers in mind.
This urge to appeal to next-generation car buyers has been an obsession of nearly every automaker since the 1960s. Offering a combination of affordability, performance, and technology, these cars are designed to attract young buyers and turn them into lifelong brand loyalists. Still, there’s no set recipe for success. The original Ford Mustang was a runaway success as a sporty, affordable two-door coupe with a host of options that allowed buyers to personalize their cars. In contrast, the AMC Marlin, introduced just a months after the Mustang, offered similar features but became one of the biggest sales flops of the 1960s.
For each successful youth-oriented car, there have been scores of spectacular failures. Those cars may not have been a success, but decades later, they offer a glimpse into the tastes of their era. Here are eight hits and misses throughout history designed to hook young car shoppers.
1. 1960 Chevrolet Corvair Monza
In the late 1950s, a team of Chevrolet executives realized that a new generation was coming of age and wanted a car that was unique, affordable, and fun. Chevy’s answer was the 1960 Monza, a two-door coupe version of its radical new Corvair. The Monza came with bucket seats, a four-speed manual transmission, and, after 1962, a 150-horsepower turbocharged flat-six engine, making it the second turbocharged production car ever built. The Monza’s early popularity was quickly overshadowed by the muscle car era, and Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed famously called car’s safety into question. After nine years in production, Chevrolet quietly discontinued the Corvair in 1969.
2. 1965 Ford Mustang
While the Chevy beat it to the punch by a few years, Ford’s iconic Mustang is widely considered to be the first car truly designed for younger buyers. In the early 1960s, Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca saw that the booming new “youth market” wanted a car that appealed to it, and set about designing a sporty coupe based on the underpinnings of the humble Ford Falcon. Priced at an affordable $2,368 (less than $18,000 today), the Mustang was a runaway success for Ford. Before its first redesign in 1967, Ford had already sold more than 1.2 million Mustangs.
3. Datsun 240Z
Not only was the Datsun 240Z a world-class sports car, it was also instrumental in legitimizing Japanese cars in the American market. Launched at the height of the muscle car era, the 240Z offered high-tech features like an independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and an overhead cam engine in a car that cost $1,000 less than a Z/28 Camaro. Datsun’s (and later, Nissan’s) Z cars were an instant success, and five decades later, the 370Z still carries on the tradition set by the iconic 240Z.
4. Chevrolet Vega
Introduced in 1971 to compete with the AMC Gremlin and the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega was seen as a breath of fresh air in the compact segment. With its “baby Camaro” styling, comfortable interior, and competitive price, it was an instant sales success with young buyers — it even won Motor Trend’s coveted Car of the Year award.
But within a year, everything went wrong. Build quality was atrocious, and the cars began to rust while they were still sitting on dealer lots. To make matters worse, the aluminum engine was known to self-destruct after about 50,000 miles. Today, the Vega is considered one of the worst cars ever built and is shorthand for how bad American cars were in the 1970s. Despite selling more than 2 million Vegas, good luck seeing any on the road today.
5. Volkswagen GTI
In 1976, Volkswagen did the seemingly impossible by transforming its humble Golf hatchback into one of the best performance cars in the world. Weighing less than one ton, the GTI was one of the best-handling cars of its day, and its 1.6-liter, 110-horsepower engine took the car from zero to 60 in 9 seconds — over a full second quicker than the contemporary Mustang. By 1983, the GTI was being built in Volkswagen’s first American factory and had single-handedly kicked off the hot hatch market, offering generations of young drivers entry into the performance car market.
6. 1984 Pontiac Fiero
The fiberglass Fiero was Pontiac’s last great attempt to regain the magic it once had with young buyers. In a 1981 New York Times article, company executives lamented the difficulty of appealing to the “modern youth market” without the use of a trusty V8 engine, and dropped hints at a mid-engined “highly styled commuter car” in the works that would eventually became the Fiero. Built between 1984 and 1988, the car suffered from underwhelming sales, reliability issues, and performance that didn’t live up to its exciting looks. Pontiac never recaptured the elusive youth market, and the brand folded in 2010.
7. Ford SVO Mustang
By the mid ’80s, even the sportiest Mustangs looked ancient to a new generation of performance car buyers, especially compared to the crop of affordable sports cars that included the Mazda RX-7, Nissan 280ZX, Porsche 944, and Toyota Supra. The Mustang was in trouble — so much so that Ford was seriously considering discontinuing its iconic ponycar. The SVO Mustang was Ford’s last-ditch effort at relevancy, and it worked. With world-class handling and a 200-horsepower turbocharged inline four putting out as much power as the heaver V8 models, the SVO proved that the Mustang could still hang with the young bucks, and may have saved it from extinction.
8. 1987 Nissan Pulsar NX
Based on Nissan’s subcompact Sentra, the 1987 NX was the first car designed at the company’s San Diego design studio and aimed squarely at the American youth market. The sporty NX was the world’s first modular production car, and it came standard with removable T-tops and a hatchback. The car’s true party piece was the optional “SportBak,” a $500 removable roof that transformed the car from a coupe into a long wagon. Despite its unique design and versatility, its underwhelming performance and high starting price (around $11,000, or $20,000 today) made the NX a tough sell, and it disappeared from the American market after the 1990 model year.
While cars have radically changed throughout the past six decades, automakers have always depended on a combination of looks, technology, and performance to appeal to younger buyers. Though a ’65 Mustang had little in common with a Nissan Pulsar NX, they were each designed with the same basic principles in mind. Not all of these “youth market” cars may have been successful (or aged particularly well), but each they give a fascinating look into just how far automakers are willing to go to land that next generation of loyal car buyers.
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