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by Steve Kasher
Welcome to the dawn of yet another model year. The calendar of autodom indicates we are now beginning 2002. Looking over most of the lineups there seems a long list of carryover models. That is hardly any surprise. But the last year (maybe two) has started something. Something different. Something I'm not sure even the American manufacturers are aware of. A renaissance? A fresh start? Maybe both.
Most of us in the "Allpar Circle" are aware of the retros available in today's market. Reinterpretations of the Beetle, the T-bird and, well, apparently the '39 Ford Sedan (depending on one's own view of PT Cruisers.)
But more than retro, there is an underlying sense that Ford and General Motors and, hopefully, the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler are moving towards both re-establishing the value and definitions of their respective brands. We're seeing GM unifying Cadillacs under the "jewel" style, starting with their revamped Escalade and new Catera replacement, the CTS. Ford Motor Company has established a "Living Legends" studio that will serve to perpetuate the new T-bird, the Mustang and possibly the Forty-Nine. With careful planning and execution, revered nameplates of the past could be successfully resurrected and begin to fortify the Big Three's position in their own domestic market.
From talk through the grapevine, the upcoming LX (Intrepid, Concorde, 300M) is going in two distinct directions. Evolution or Retro. I hold reservations about both avenues. For Chrysler, evolution doesn't seem to work, or at least work well. Most replacements (Neon, Intrepid, Caravan, Stratus) have been evolutionary but none has proven to be as successful as their original counterparts. But with retro, there is the risk of "time-warping" to a degree that creates products that can stale easily and offend buyers who prefer "background' style rather than "Hey, Look at me!"
But I have to nod towards the past. Not literally. Not tailfins or dagmars. Not hardtops or Woodies. The past has elements best left behind. But what was considered American style has ashamedly been morphed towards the European style, and not always with great success. The 85-89 Lancer/LeBaron GTS were half-baked interpretations of Euro-style.
But what exactly qualifies as "American Style". The Germans have certainly adhered to their often-termed teutonic style. The Italians treasure than undeniable sensuousness of the Ferrari, the brutality of Lamborghini. Every Rolls-Royce, from Silver Ghost to Silver Seraph carries the unmistakable opulence of Britain's winged goddess. But American style is as broadly influenced as its multicultural population. And furthermore, how easy could it be to re-establish historical names that were so carelessly tossed by their owners?
It is hard to argue that American management style isn't a bit undisciplined, often ignoring any adherence to heritage for a quick buck or the latest fad. How many SUVs do these people think we'll be able to swallow?
I see American style as unique. As passionate but not necessarily sensual. As "in-your-face" without being offensive. But more than anything that it pays respect to its past, its heritage, to those who toiled in developing forebearers that defined and sustained the company into the 21st century.
And for Chrysler, I am of the belief that they can seize the opportunity to capture and lock in on the "essence of Chrysler". I've heard rumors of the Concorde name being replaced by New Yorker. But why was the New Yorker name tossed only five years ago? Because the decontented version of the LHS wasn't selling so well. But the cache of the New Yorker name was assailed by its creators not the buying public. The LHS name itself was little more than a cheap attempt to appeal to the buyers of alphanumeric cars like LS400, 740i, STS. The LHS name meant nothing and as a result it too has died.
Many of Chrysler's past nameplates have been summarily compromised or tarnished prior to an inevitable demise. Newport, Imperial, Saratoga, Windsor. Even LeBaron, a former coachbuilder of exquisite custom bodies. And in Allpar's forum, I have gone as far as to advance the Newport and Imperial names for consideration on the LX series. Plausible? Well, who would've believed the 300 name could be successfully marketed after most recently being used on a Cordoba. American would appear to forget more quickly than actually forgive.
Chrysler could conceivably create a legitimate LX-based Newport. And it does not have to appear as a cheap rendition of, say, the 300N. The opportunity is there to create a new definition of Newport. And Imperial. And even as a CS Saratoga or Windsor. And they would not necessarily have to emulate their predecessors, but rather clearly define themselves in a way that Exner, Engel or Iaccoca never did. Those guys only wanted to sell cars.
And sell cars they did. But the numbers never remained constant or even close to it. No true "perennial best sellers". If landau roofs and wire wheel covers were in vogue (or not), then they simply had to be added. Historical relevance? Who cared?
Hopefully, and with maybe a few uttered prayers, those burning the candles in Auburn Hills will find themselves in the midst of some true soul searching. And the fruits of their efforts will appear in the coming months as well-executed and thoroughly conceived Chryslers. I wish the best of luck in their endeavors.
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