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Instant Classics

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Instant Car Classics

By John DiPietro for Edmunds.com

Date Posted 09-11-2003

We've all heard the expression "everything old is new again," and nowhere does that ring truer than with today's automakers.

Ten or 20 years ago, if you told someone that Ford would bring back a two-seat Thunderbird roadster or that the Volkswagen Beetle would be resurrected, you may have been asked if you were on some "controlled substance" that was widely used during the Bug's late-'60s heyday. Yet in addition to current versions of those automotive icons are a handful of other "instant classics" that pay homage to their roots.

Ford's Thunderbird was introduced in 1955 as a more upscale answer to Chevrolet's Corvette. Whereas a V8 engine was optional on the Corvette, it was standard fare for the T-bird, which also had real side windows as opposed to the 'Vette's vinyl side curtains. After a few years as a two-seat roadster, however, the Thunderbird slowly became a mockery of itself, reaching its low point in the early '80s when it was reduced to being essentially a fluffed-up Ford Fairmont coupe. For 2002, the two-seat roadster T-bird was reborn, flying exclusively with V8 power and wearing plumage that captured the essence of that original '55.

Not as well known among Americans as the Thunderbird, and last available here in 1967, the Mini Cooper nonetheless enjoyed a cultlike following in the 1960s. The epitome of space efficiency, the Mini was the first car to have a front-mounted, transversely arranged four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. Extremely lightweight, a well-balanced chassis, responsive steering and room for four adults within its diminutive body endeared the Mini to its devoted enthusiasts.

Now a subsidiary of BMW, the Mini returned to the streets in 2002. Benefiting from modern advances such as stability control and airbags, the Mini retains the style, easily managed size and agile moves that made it popular back in the days of the British invasion.

When Datsun (now Nissan) brought out its first "Z" car (the 240Z) in 1970, it had everything a driving enthusiast needed, such as a smooth and peppy inline six, precise steering, a well-sorted chassis and full instrumentation. With its vinyl seats and roll-up windows, it was clear that this car was all about having fun while driving, not being pampered with power everything and a posh interior. A low price (around $3,500) and a sleek body influenced by the lovely Jaguar E-Type wrapped it all up.

After subsequent 260Z and 280Z iterations, the Z adopted an "X" in its name and a plushness to its character that made it more of a luxurious GT than an elemental sports car. More and more gizmos were added onto and into the Z, which became the 300ZX as the engine size continued to grow. By the mid-1990s there was even a 300-horsepower, twin-turbo version that could run with most Porsches and Ferraris. But it all ended in 1996, when a combination of increasing prices and decreasing interest in sports cars sounded the death knell for Nissan's Z car.

For 2003, the Z came back, in more ways than one. Nissan took an almost militant approach to getting its sports car back into fighting shape; any extraneous baloney that didn't enhance performance was left on the product planners' desks. Even the car's name (350Z) was pared down, losing the "X" and returning to just a "Z" after the numbers that denote its engine size. The reincarnated Z is nearly 300 pounds lighter than its predecessor. With a superb 3.5-liter V6, razor-sharp steering and handling ability that reminds us why cars can be so much fun, Nissan's sports car is once again an outright enthusiast's bargain.

When Pontiac introduced the GTO in 1964, a new genre was born — the muscle car. Essentially a midsize coupe with a powerful V8 driving the rear wheels, a muscle car's forte was blistering acceleration in a straight line. Through 1973, the "Goat" continued to be based on Pontiac's intermediate-size coupe, but by then its performance had become an embarrassment. After suffering the indignity of becoming a warmed-over 1974 Pontiac Ventura (a twin to the Chevrolet Nova), the GTO died a quiet death.

For 2004, Pontiac brings back those vaunted three letters, once again found on a midsize coupe. Although some purists may be offended that the new GTO is actually based on an Australian-market General Motors vehicle, the car's ability to blast down the road after painting two black stripes on the pavement should go a long way toward winning their acceptance.

Few cars have matched the instant recognition factor of the Volkswagen Beetle. When the Volkswagen "Type 11" debuted here in the States in 1946, it wasn't long before it acquired the nicknames "Beetle" and "Bug," with the former becoming its unofficial name. The economical Beetle had an air-cooled, four-cylinder engine mounted in the back that propelled the rear wheels. Right up until 1978, the last year the Beetle was sold in the U.S., the little VW retained its old-fashioned body style (complete with running boards) and air-cooled "pancake" four.

Twenty years later, VW jumped on the retro ride and brought back the Beetle. Well, sort of. Although the New Beetle (the car's actual name) does a great job of capturing the styling essence of the original Bug, it now has a front-mounted, water-cooled engine that drives the front wheels. As with the newest GTO, fans of the original Beetle may be bugged that the current version differs so greatly in a few key respects. But for the greater percentage of fans who don't care about such things and just like the way the old Beetle looks, the New Beetle's charming design just might be enough.

With most of these "instant classics" combining retro styling with modern technology, enthusiasts who love those timeless designs of days gone by needn't go without modern-day safety, comfort and performance. Looks like the "good old days" are back.

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