Why automakers are bringing back classic names and shapes

Mercedes-Benz G-Class

When feeling threatened, many major corporations—Hollywood movie studios, fast food restaurants, America—will mine their heritage for old ideas. These are frequently not their best ideas but they are familiar, tropes almost, and will often suffice to rally the faithful, providing a link, sometimes misplaced, to memory or nostalgia. Desperate or not, automakers frequently do the same thing. With several throwback ideas returning to the present, we took a closer look at a slew of all-new vehicles that dig into or call up a marque’s history.

Volvo, a brand known for making stolid station wagons, recently introduced a new mid-size wagon, the V60, with a squared-off profile that harkens back to the iconic 200-series estates of the last quarter of the 20th century. After a 20-year absence from the sports coupe market, Toyota unveiled a Supra concept that previews the revival of that nameplate. Land Rover recollected the history of its foundational luxury off roader—originally available only as a three-door—to add an outrageously luxurious three-door SV Coupe to the Range Rover range. Aston Martin’s newly launched Lagonda sub-brand showed a creasy, futuristic sedan concept that paid homage to the Space Age William Towns Lagonda four-door of the Malaise Era. And even Mercedes-Benz is in on the action with an all-new, yet mimetic, version of its venerable G-wagen SUV, a vehicle that was continually massaged but essentially carried on for decades with its original design, executed 40 years ago.

Toyota Supra racing concept
Toyota Supra racing concept
Toyota

This is exciting for those of us who remember or have history with these original vehicles. But it begs the question, what does all of this mean? We talked to some of the industry’s top designers to find out.

As it turns out, these references definitely serve a purpose. They can act as a germinating source of connection, a seed that helps to foster affection for a brand. “It’s a little idea that resonates,” says Gerry McGovern, design director of Land Rover. “You may not see it, but when you’re told, it makes it more interesting. At a certain connoisseur level, people are interested in being told a story.”

These nostalgia plays can also be a source of distinction or definition, especially when working from a blank slate in a vehicle category that has never before existed in a brand’s history. This is particularly potent in the contemporary push for electric vehicles, which so often try to define themselves, from a design perspective, in opposition to the traditional shapes and configurations of vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine.

Range Rover SV Coupe
Range Rover SV Coupe
Land Rover

“In this company, just by coincidence, we invented the car,” says Robert Lesnick, the head of exterior design for Mercedes-Benz. “So there are certain elements that are there, or have been there, seemingly forever, like power domes on the hood of the 300 SL, or the upright star on our hood, or our Panamericana grille. We can add some of these elements in their own way to something like the face of the new EQ [electrified] vehicles, and then it will be instantly recognizable. It came from the past, but it is a modern interpretation.”

In the right instances, such cues can also be a source of liberation. Aston Martin and Lagonda are both brands with more than a century of heritage. But while Aston has long revered tradition, and a kind of timeless beauty, Lagonda—especially in its incarnation in the 1970s to 1990s as the outrageously wedgy Towns sedan, which featured one of the first uses of a computerized digital dashboard and touch-sensitive controls—has frequently been a disruptor. Calling back to the sharp prow and tail of that car gives the brand free reign to do almost anything.

Aston Martin Lagonda
Aston Martin Lagonda Vision Concept

“Our brand fit is with Rolls-Royce and Bentley,” says Marek Reichman, head of design for Lagonda (and Aston Martin) as we discuss the brand’s radical new all-electric, self-driving, lozenge-shaped concept. “But their focus is on 110 year-old technology, whereas Lagonda has always been a disruptor, especially during the Towns era.”

One thing on which the designers with whom we spoke concur is that these callbacks may have more relevance in the market’s loftier price ranges. “I think in general, in the world of luxury, to arrive at a certain amount of status as a brand, you have got to have a certain level of heritage,” says McGovern. “It’s important to draw on that, not for ideas necessarily, but for a sense of longevity and consistency.”

Mercedes certainly attempted to demonstrate its long-term relevance atop the automotive price pyramid in the updated version of its Maybach ultra-luxury limousine on display at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. But this occurred in a very unexpected way. The car had two-tone paint, a heritage feature from the Classic inter-War era last rehashed during the auto industry’s Baroque Revival in the malaise days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Do you know why we have that?” asked Lesnick of the dual-colored hues. His answer sums up any revival trend. “Because people want it.”

Mercedes-Maybach S650
Mercedes-Maybach S650
Mercedes-Maybach