4 facelifts that improved on the originals
In the 1980s, a magazine called Car Collector and Car Classics featured a serial column with an interesting premise: rate a chosen car in its styling and design from a scale of 1–10, and work with the idea that each successive year of the vehicle’s generation is a lesser version of the original.
It’s a fine rule of thumb for a purist, but the truth is that there are exceptions. No, it’s not about whether a 1969 Dodge Charger is nicer than a 1968 model—those are purely subjective—but it’s possible that there are examples which can be demonstrated objectively, like the four models below.
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1957 vs 1958 Plymouth
When Virgil Exner introduced Chrysler Corporation’s “Forward Look” for 1957, it made Harley Earl appear like he’d outlasted his welcome at General Motors. The Plymouth, in particular, became the sleekest and most interesting (from an engineering point of view) vehicle among the “low-priced three.”
But there was one feature that gave the Plymouth somewhat of a cross-eyed appearance: faux quad headlights. At that time, lighting laws were changing around the country, and while DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial offered duals or quads depending on the state, Plymouth (and Dodge) merely elected to give the illusion of quads while really using the inner lens for parking lights. That lens was slightly smaller than the outboard headlight, giving the Plymouth a subtly odd look. For 1958, a true quad system was implemented, improving the Plymouth’s looks dramatically.
1964 vs 1965 Buick Riviera
The introduction of the Riviera in the fall of 1962 solved General Motors’ “Thunderbird problem” with a personal-luxury vehicle of unparalleled elegance, thanks to its British-inspired razor edges, Ferrari-inspired front end, and tasteful use of chrome.
But the Riviera also became an enduring classic, often ranking at the top of 1960s American car design. Originally designed with hidden headlights in mind, production costs and time constraints precluded that from happening for its debut. Thus, the 1963–64 Riviera was gorgeous, but it had a ponderous look thanks to the quad headlights in the eggcrate grille.
For 1965, the Riviera featured stacked headlights hiding behind the vertical grilles on the front fenders, just as designer Ned Nickles had originally intended. Combined with the new Gran Sport package, which included a dual-quad 425, the completely fulfilled 1965 Riviera also had performance to match.
1964 vs 1965 Pontiac Tempest/LeMans/GTO
There was nothing special about Pontiac’s 1964 Tempest series, especially after three years of using a transaxle and offering half a 389 for power. Underneath the crisp styling was utterly conventional engineering, from its mechanicals to its suspension.
Certainly the Tempest was a handsome car, especially the new-fangled GTO form, but when Pontiac stylists unleashed the facelifted 1965 edition, it made the ’64 seem old hat. Pontiac implemented its trademark vertical headlights with a slight forward slant, with the rear deck (extended marginally from 1964) also with a frontwards lean.
While the 1965 Tempest series was not a design triumph the way the 1963–65 Riviera was, it nonetheless was the personification of everything that was great about General Motors in the 1960s thanks to crisp, clean styling, and (for the LeMans and GTO) quasi-hidden full-width taillights and floating grille—it could even be termed “pretty.” Interestingly, the other GM A-bodies received small facelifts that were similar to the ’64s.
1969 vs 1970 Plymouth Fury
After the Plymouth and Dodge downsizing gaffe for 1962, the Chrysler Corporation was gun shy with its designs for much of the 1960s. That all changed with the “Fuselage” full-size cars for 1969. The boxiness of before evolved into a smooth, curved piece of massiveness.
With the Plymouth Fury series in particular, four years of stacked headlights gave way to conventional horizontal headlights, but the Fury’s styling was somewhat unremarkable. That would change with a distinctive facelift for 1970 that featured a loop front bumper that included hidden headlights for the Sport Fury, Sport Suburban wagon, and mid-year Fury Gran Coupe models. Even the Fury I, II, and III models were handsome, even with their exposed headlights.
And although full-size performance seemed like a dying breed several years before, the Sport Fury GT brought it back in high form with an optional 440 six-barrel and reflective strobe stripes. Add slotted Rallye wheels and it would leave little doubt that 1970 was the better looker from Plymouth.