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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

January 16, 1999

Baseball legend Yogi Berra is credited with saying that "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be," and he may be right, although lately the auto companies have been trying to prove him wrong. Over the past few months, it's come to our attention that certain automotive model names that were well-known decades ago have risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of the past. Here's five old/new "famous" names and the reasons that they're famous:

FORD THUNDERBIRD - Perhaps no automotive model name has undergone so many changes and been introduced in so many guises as Ford's Thunderbird. Originally produced as a "personal" (as opposed to "sports") two-seater in 1955, it was built to counter the then-new Chevy Corvette, also a two-seater. The original T-Bird had an all-American V8 engine, put power to the pavement via the rear wheels, and was a moderate success. It was replaced by four-seat coupes that were distinct from the rest of the Fords line. And depending on who you talk to, the rest of the T-Birds were ho-hum large cars until the name was retired in '97 - but not for long. The T-Bird name is again being resurrected, but this time it goes back to being a two-seat "concept" car, also propelled by a front-mounted V8 engine through the rear wheels. And like the original, its removable hardtop has small porthole windows and a wrap-around windshield. Ford says a similar car will be mass-produced but won't say when.

MERCEDES-BENZ SLR - Even in the '50s, Mercedes-Benz was arguably the most powerful name in sports car endurance racing, initially with its six cylinder "gull-wing" 300SL coupe. It soon became a production car, eventually retiring as a pro sports-racer. Its replacement in '54 was the 300SLR - an envelope-bodied version of its then all-conquering straight-eight W 196 Grand Prix single-seater. The 300SLR was always the measure of the field and in '54 it was so fast at Le Mans that the car utilized an "air brake" in the form of a foot-tall air-foil panel that was manually raised by the driver. Retired from racing in '55, the 300SLR was strictly a race car and never offered for sale to the general public. At the recent Detroit auto show, however, Mercedes-Benz reintroduced the SLR suffix (English translation: Sports, Light, Racecar) but this time it's powered by a 500 horsepower supercharged V8 engine. It's a show car that M-B executives say may be offered as a $250,000 exotic some time in the future.

CHEVROLET NOMAD - Of all the classic "Heavy-Chevies" built between '55 and '57, the Bel Air Nomad two-door station wagon is arguably the most desirable. Well, maybe the convertible and the two-door hardtop bring bigger bucks, but the Nomad is the most "exotic." It was trim and slim, with wrap-around windows that folded back into a raked-forward tailgate. Originally Nomad was a Chevrolet concept "show car" that was an adaptation of the Corvette. As sold to the public, the Bel Air Nomad was available with an anemic straight six and a couple of V8s that ranged from mild to wild during its three-year life span. Chevrolet now has a show car dubbed the Nomad and it's as close to a line-for-line reproduction as the original as possible. It too is powered by the Chevy "small-block" V8 engine - pumped up to 305 horses.

DODGE CHARGER - Muscle car enthusiasts remember the Dodge Charger of the '60s as a two-door mid-sized sedan that was the archetypal pavement- burner of that era. While the body shell went through several changes during its salad days (1966 to 1970), the engines available in the various Chargers ranged from a relatively plebeian 318 cubic-inch V8 (I had a couple of these low-pressure Chargers myself) to the thundering 426 CID "Hemi" that put out 425-plus horsepower and motivated a couple of generations of drag racers both amateur and professional. It culminated in the form of the '69 Charger Daytona, a high-winged, long- nosed racer that had to be sold to the public in significant numbers to qualify as a "stock" car on the NASCAR racing circuit. The Charger name last appeared in '87 on a four cylinder fastback coupe that was based on Dodge's unloved Omni econobox. The newest Charger show car is traditional only in that it's powered by a V8 engine that drives the rear wheels. It's a swoopy four-door that's only 54-inches high and uses compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel. Dodge officials only smile at questions relating to its production potential.

NISSAN Z-CAR - The Datsun 240Z was the car that set the standard for future sports cars when it was introduced as a 1970 model. It was fast, comfortable and classic in its long-nosed, short-tailed European design. The original Z-Car (as they came to be called) progressed to the 260Z and then to the 280Z, all of which carried the same body shell. Datsun changed its name in this country to Nissan in '82 and the Nissan sports car mindset then underwent several metamorphic changes that lead to its last sportster, the fast, but expensive 300ZX Twin Turbo. Unfortunately, it was dropped in '97, cited as a money-loser. In a desperate attempt to recapture its youth, Nissan has been buying and restoring original Z-cars and "remanufacturing" them for resale through selected dealers around the country. At the recent Detroit auto show, there appeared on the Nissan stand a cute little front-engined, rear-drive two-seater sports coupe that was labeled the Nissan Z Concept. If it isn't earmarked for production, it should be. Nissan could use a car that would grab the attention of the public, much like the original 240Z did nearly 30 years ago.

These names are fun to reflect on, but I hope the craze doesn't go too far. The public's not ready for the resurrection of such model names as "Dictator" (Studebaker '34), "Torpedo" (Tucker '46) or "Chummy" (Austin '26).