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August 28, 2009

News & Features

Clunkers or classics? Museum pieces they aren't, but these models had their moment

New York Times News Service

Buick Roadmaster

1996 Buick Roadmaster: A wagon with a Corvette V-8 engine. (General Motors)

Cars that have earned the status of classics have something to say. Enormous, grandly decorated Packards expressed the cocksure attitude of America between the two world wars. The jutting tailfins of Cadillacs spoke of the brash confidence that prevailed in a country on its way to landing men on the moon.

Posterity will probably not be so kind to the mass-market vehicles of the 1980s and early '90s. But do any hold the potential to become keepsakes, or is it just as well that pretty soon more than a million will have been crushed and shredded under the "cash for clunkers" program that ended Aug. 24?

Some would say that the traditional qualities that define a classic -- brilliant engineering, noteworthy heritage and designs that lift our emotions -- are mostly absent from these cars. Built in large numbers, they lack even the appeal of relative rarity.

Still, there are those who worry about the losses. Eddie Alterman, editor in chief of Car and Driver, points out that the rebate program had an eligibility window that began in 1984, just as cars were starting, if ever so tentatively, to get good again. This new generation represented the beginning of the industry's recovery from its hurried efforts to comply with the regulatory changes of the 1970s, and laid the foundation for powerful and efficient cars that became available as the automobile entered its second century.

"It would be a shame to wipe out the rootstock of all the great cars that followed, to see a utopian symbol like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer or a car with the rich personality of an Alfa Romeo 164 get clobbered," he says.

Here, then, are a few of the cars it would be hard to see go, ones that may never be featured in museums but could one day give rise to wistful memories.

1996 Buick Roadmaster Station Wagon
In the pre-Hummer era, station wagons were the family hauler of choice for families too hip to drive a minivan. The Roadmaster was a 2-ton dreadnought with a secret weapon under the hood: a Corvette V-8 engine. Power enough to haul your yacht to the marina.

1988 Jaguar XJ6
After ironing out many of its persistent reliability failings, Jaguar redesigned the XJ6 flagship sedan for 1988. The men's-club ambience of walnut and leather trim permeated the interior and the British tradition of understated elegance lived on.

1991 Pontiac Formula Firebird
After years of sad decline that reduced the once-muscular Firebird to a wheezer, General Motors breathed life into its sporty coupe in the '90s. Never practical but always stylish, the Firebird's facelift for 1991 gave the brand a second wind.

1991 Cadillac STS
The first green shoots in Cadillac's comeback came in the form of a Seville sedan with European-class road holding. The firm suspension and crisp body shape caught the attention of luxury buyers and enthusiasts alike, starting a climb in credibility for GM as a contender against German brands.

1987 Ford Mustang
Ford's Mustang was showing signs of fatigue in this era, but constant engineering updates made it popular among enthusiasts as a low-cost, high-performance starting point for a homebrew hot rod. Even the highway patrols of many state police agencies thought so, adopting the Mustang as a pursuit vehicle.

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