November 23, 2012

News & Features

Tomorrow's classics? Auto experts pick future favorites

New York Times News Service


The Audi R8 (top), Cadillac Escalade (left) and Toyota Prius were picked by multiple writers as possible future classics.

It's hard to know which creative works will endure. Which current pop songs will be played at nostalgia-themed parties 20 years from now. Which movie quotations will join the ranks of "Luke, I am your father" or "We're gonna need a bigger boat." And which cream puffs will be proudly displayed at classic-car shows a generation from now.

That last one is tricky. Cars, like films and songs, are creative works. But they're also commodities built to serve a purpose, and their value often wanes in proportion to the superiority of newer machinery.

A car's attaining collector status often has less to do with its monetary value than with mojo. If a machine can make hearts sing, then there will always be a devoted following, regardless of the depreciation curve. The fact that there are still pristine Corvairs on the road speaks to the power of charisma.

So which of today's cars will defy the call of the salvage yard? It helps to establish a frame of reference. Consider five classics: the first-generation Porsche 911, the Volkswagen Beetle, the '70s-era Cadillac Fleetwood, the original Ford Mustang and the Ford wagons known as woodies.

Three automotive journalists have chosen, from vehicles on the road today, the cars that they believe will one day compare to those revered rides. Here are their verdicts.

Ezra Dyer, auto section writer for The New York Times
Porsche 911 = Audi R8: The R8 is spiritual heir to the original 911 because, oddly enough, the 911 is a prisoner of its much-beloved, rear-engine, flat-six-cylinder design. Porsche's reluctance to tinker with that success left the designers of the R8 free to build what Porsche didn't dare — a mid-engine chassis, V-8 or V-10 power and radical styling that introduced us to the term side-blades. Long after three-second zero-to-60 times become blasé, the magic of the R8 will endure.

Beetle = Toyota Prius: The Beetle was a revolutionary car that changed how people thought about mass-market transportation. As dedicated as the Beetle was to simplicity, the Prius is equally focused on fuel economy.

Typically, cars that obsess over a single objective become niche products, but the Prius bucked that trend by offering a beguiling combination of technical wizardry, everyday practicality and offbeat styling at a mainstream price. The Prius exudes an endearing optimism; its colorful charts and graphs challenge you to be a better person. It'll fit right in during the next Age of Aquarius.

Fleetwood = Hummer H3: Like the Cadillac, the Hummer H3 Alpha is a big American dinosaur that seems tragically dated not long after its showroom heyday. And like the dreadnoughts of the 1970s, the Hummer will find salvation in its brashness. Hummers are inextricably of their era, the most steroidal sport-utility vehicles on the road during the apex of the SUV mania.

Such flag bearers eventually incite nostalgia, no matter how distasteful they seem in hindsight. The H3 Alpha is my favorite model because it's relatively nimble, yet packs a V-8 and serious off-road equipment like locking differentials and massive skid plates. Yes, the H3 has attitude, but its boasts aren't empty. Someday, we'll appreciate that.

Mustang = Jeep Wrangler: It's unlikely that any car will ever replicate the impact of the Mustang, a critical and popular smash hit. But the Jeep has iconic style and similar demographic-crossing appeal. Last year, Jeep sold a whopping 122,460 Wranglers; it appeals to men and women, young and old, blue collar and white. It tells you something that in the cutthroat world of carmaking, the Wrangler has no competition.

Woody wagon = Chevy SSR: Woody wagons conjure a beach-cruiser vibe of good times, surfboards and vacations. And that's why my pick for a latter-day woody wagon is not a literal interpretation, but rather a vehicle that captures the woody's fun-loving ethos: the Chevy SSR.

Introduced in 2003 and discontinued after 2006, the SSR was a retro-styled hardtop convertible pickup. At the time, critics questioned the purpose of a vehicle that seemed to occupy a no-man's land between truck and sports car, and the SSR had only one year where its sales broke into five digits. But the SSR wasn't meant to be useful (though it could actually tow quite a bit). It was meant for top-down, surfboard-in-back summertime fun. The SSR seems a little bit goofy right now, but I'm already wistful.

Keith Martin, editor and publisher of Sports Car Market magazine
Porsche 911 = Tesla Roadster: The 911s had simplicity, reliability and high performance in a visually distinct package. Fifty years from now, the electric Tesla Roadster will offer the same qualities to collectors.

The Tesla is built on the Lotus Elise platform, but replaces the gasoline drivetrain with 6,831 lithium-ion cells. It offers breathtaking performance, and represents the next era of high-performance cars. It has an instantly recognizable profile, like the 911, and will be looked upon as the beginning of high-performance alternative-energy vehicles.

Beetle = Mini Cooper: When BMW rolled out the new Mini in 2001, it became the Beetle of its era. Produced in vast numbers, it offered panache and performance in a reliable package. There still is nothing quite like it on the road, and like the classic Beetle it has an instantly recognizable shape. BMW did a masterful job of keeping the simple touches of the original Mini alive, while complying with modern safety and smog regulations, as well as growing demand for more competence and luxury in vehicles.

Fleetwood = Cadillac Escalade: Cadillacs at their high points are imposing statements of success and conspicuous consumption, and the 1970s Fleetwood ticked all the right boxes. Fifty years from now, the 2012 Escalade will make the same statement.

For Cadillac to introduce an SUV in 1999 was an outrageous move, and exactly what was necessary to bring bling and younger buyers into the Cadillac fold. The 2012 Escalade comes with more features and accessories than a Manhattan condo, and with a megawatt sound system thumping as you move through traffic, it lets the world know that you are personally using enough natural resources to support a small town.

Mustang = Toyota Prius: Like the 1964 Mustang, the Prius changed the company making it — and its customers. The Mustang conveyed sexiness and fun from the maker of the staid Falcon. The hybrid Prius allowed owners to appear environmentally responsible in an inexpensive car that could be fueled at any gasoline pump. There are six Priuses on my block, and when the next-door neighbor came home last week with a new red one, it was high fives all around. The Prius is a feel-good car for the 21st century.

Woody wagon = Ford F-450 Pickup: The 1948 woody was a blend of craftsmanship and practicality; in addition to looking good, it had a job to do, typically picking up passengers from a train station and taking them to their final destination.

Fifty years from now, the Ford Super Duty F-450 King Ranch pickup will represent the ultimate station hack — an over-the-top SUV able to take passengers and their luggage wherever they need to go, while cosseting them with comforts like touch screens, leather interiors and multizone climate control systems. Underneath is Ford's big, tough 6.7-liter turbo diesel putting out 400 horsepower and 800 foot-pounds of torque. It's the ultimate working luxury truck.

Phil Patton, auto design writer for The New York Times
Porsche 911 = Audi R8: The Audi R8 has quietly moved into a spot once held by the Porsche 911 — a race car that was a practical daily drive. The work of Walter de Silva, former designer for Alfa Romeo, the R8 summarized Audi's sensual take on German technology the way the 911 summarized Porsche's cool, Bauhaus approach. Like the 911, the R8 has established itself as a perennial shape that can evolve.

Beetle = Volkswagen Up: No car will ever match the original Beetle. None will sell as many copies or serve as so many people's emotionally weighted first car. The people's car had personality, too. But VW executives and designers say the real new Beetle is the Up, a smaller, basic car that the company hopes can make it the world's largest auto manufacturer.

While the Up may be the new people's car for Europe, Asia and Africa, there are no plans to sell it in the U.S. The Up shares the practical design cleverness and the spatial versatility of the original Beetle, with a sense of personality.

Fleetwood = Chevrolet Suburban and Cadillac Escalade: Today the limousine-sedan is a vanishing breed; the new Cadillac XTS is smaller than the old Fleetwood, and Lincoln is ending production of the Town Car. Its replacements are giant black SUVs, especially the sibling Suburban and Escalade, differentiated mostly by their trim.

They make up caravans for politicians and stars. They are giant chunks of metal, often with darkened windows, that hold lots of people and lots of luggage. They appear as if carved by some computer-driven milling machine out of solid obsidian. They blend into the night outside nightclubs, leaving the focus on the stars and celebrities moving in and out of the spotlights.

Mustang = Volkswagen GTI: The Mustang has gone through generations of evolution. It can be dressed down into a cute convertible for teenagers or up into a muscular fastback for the likes of Steve McQueen in "Bullitt." It created a whole new category of car: the pony car.

Neatly enough, 20 years later, with the 1984 GTI, Volkswagen offered an updated take on the mass car as sports car. VW has now presented six generations of the car, and developed a cult following of drivers who appreciate jokes about its five-hole, "telephone dialer" wheels. And the GTI created a whole new category of car, too: the so-called hot hatch.

Woody wagon = Nissan Cube: The odd, box-shaped Japanese car is more social space than transportation device. It is defiantly anti-aerodynamic — it is an anti-car. Future historians will point to it as a model appropriate for a generation that, polls suggest, is ambivalent about cars.

The rugged woody suggested a beach shack on wheels. The Cube plays a similar role as a functionalist modernist room to go. It's the room young people use to socialize because they lack space at home. And like so many Japanese designs, it has become a worldwide icon.


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