How Come No New Icons?

Car companies have been resurrecting iconic car names one after the other—the latest being Ford’s Bronco. Previous efforts include the Thunderbird reboot and from General Motors, the GTO, Impala, and (current) Camaro, also resurrected in the early 2000s.

But why aren’t new icons being made?

The short answer: Iconic cars can’t be made anymore because committees can’t make them according to a set of rules. The icons of the past broke the rules—it’s what made them iconic.

Consider the iconic and the original Pontiac GTO. It was designed by a small conspiracy of engineers, including most famously John DeLorean. They broke GM’s rule that only big cars could be built with big engines. DeLorean and his crew took a big engine, the Pontiac’s 389 V8, and put it into a medium-sized car, the Tempest. The idea was to make the medium-sized car go very fast and build them lighter than the big car that was meant for the original engine.

The result of this “illegal” action, according to GM’s rules, was the 1964 GTO. It ruled the streets for most of the ’60s, spawning a dozen imitators and becoming an icon.

DeLorean tried it again a few years later. He thought it would be neat if Pontiac had a two-seat coupe/roadster similar to the Corvette but costing less. He actually built the thing on the down low and dared to put the prototype on display at the ’66 New York Auto Show— without permission. It was tentatively called the Banshee, and its life was even more tentative. When GM upper management found out about it, the car was pulled off the floor and disappeared.

That sort of thing is why they aren’t making icons anymore.

Also, there is a fear of shysters and lawsuits. The latter is what killed another iconic car from General Motors, the Chevy Corvair (more about that one here). It was too original at any speed for the safety advocate, Ralph Nader.

Also, done-in for similar reasons were vehicles like the original Bronco (and its Chevy rival, the K5 Blazer) as well as the original and iconic Land Rover Defender, Toyota Land Cruiser, and the International Scout.

Vehicles with high centers of gravity and without roofs driven too fast by not-smart-enough people are just the clientele responsible for the elimination of such iconic designs, replaced by homogenous regulations that lead to boring (because all the same) designs.

Iconic cars like the GTO and the might-have-been Banshee were not only rule-breaking cars but often the product of a single man’s vision. Mavericks, like DeLorean, gave us the iconic car named after himself, as well as another car that was supposedly named after himself, the ’69 Grand Prix SSJ) and had to give them up. Gordon Beuhrig was another one of those guys who pretty much single-handedly created the art deco-era Cord 810 with its iconic coffin nosed front end.

It is a car that looks like nothing else—another iconic quality.

Raymond Loewy created the similarly iconic Studebaker Avanti, which outlived Studebaker for that reason—as well as the paint scheme for JFK’s presidential 707, another icon.

Harry Stutz, the founder of the company bearing his name, gave us icons such as the Bearcat—the “car that made good in a day” by placing at Indy just a few weeks after it was created—and also the Blackhawk. Harry Stutz also pioneered the transaxle, a combination of the transmission and axle into a single unit rather than the usual two separate components.

The guy was a mad genius like that better-known icon, Henry Ford, who created all by himself in its essentials—the Model T—perhaps the ultimate automotive icon.

Fast-forward to the 50s and the finned and chrome-dipped Chryslers of Virgil Exner—Mr. Excess, as he was both fondly and not-so-fondly known.

Bill “gasoline in his veins” Mitchell over at General Motors, drew the’ 55-57 Chevy Bel Air, the ’59 Series 62 Cadillac, the ’61 Corvette Sting Ray, the ’66 Buick Riviera, and the ’70 Camaro.

One man—several icons.

Porsche—the cars and the man.

Real-life Henry Reardens, who made their vision, inspired by their genius, come to life.

Inspired by genius was a common theme during the auto industry’s iconic era. It started at the beginning of the industry of the 1890s and finished up in the 1980s—the decade that icons began to die off, chiefly because there were no longer iconic designers.

Can you think of one from the ’90s or even now?

Talented designers do still work at the various car companies, but they play by the rules and work within the system, including within the regs as part of a collective.

This makes it hard to design an icon.

A few, like the Camaro and the Ford Mustang (largely the creation of another icon, Lee Iacocca) survive, largely on the fumes of their past and the loyalty of the cohort that loved them from the beginning.

Not much new, though, just reminiscing about what was. It is a looking backward, nostalgia for what the iconic rock band Rush described in one of their hits as a better, vanished time.

Emphasis on vanished.

Every now and then, you catch a glimpse of that better time—a glint of chrome, the sound of something different, redwood and leather, hot metal and oil.

Maybe even the scent of country air.


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