When Did the Nineties Retro Era End? Did It Ever? – Daniel Strohl @Hemmings


All eras come to an end, right? The highs and lows of one era might go on to help shape successive eras, but if we can sort out the tangles and messes of history to put a definitive start date on a certain time period, we should be able to mark its conclusion as well.

If so, then just try to pin down the end of the automotive retro design era that started way back in the Nineties.

Pinning down the start of that trend, though not exactly clear cut, is rather simple. While the Concept One/New Beetle gets credit for opening the floodgates, we can trace the beginnings back to the production Miata and the concept Viper in 1989 and, before that, to the 1987 Nissan Be-1 and its pike program brethren. Then, from the late Nineties until the mid-Oughts, it was one heritage-inspired nameplate or body shape or design ethos or concept car after another. You couldn’t swing an automaker executive by his necktie at a car show without him crashing into some sort of retro paint and graphics liveries, retro wheels, retro logos, retro special editions, retro headlamp and taillamp designs, or an actual vintage car trotted out to support the relaunch of its name after 40-something years.

Whatever the retro stuff did for the automakers’ bottom lines, it seemed to have universal appeal. Carmakers around the globe launched their own retro designs and kept mining their back catalogs for material suitable to bring forward a few decades. It became evident that they’d ride the wave as long as they could, despite a chorus of critics growing weary of the trend and wondering if all this retro was just a cover for a bankruptcy of fresh design ideas.

The LX Charger Daytona with a 1969 Daytona at the former’s introduction. Stellantis Media image.

Logically, it would have to come to an end at some point, right? Not all the old designs were icons and trendsetters, so modern designers ultimately had a finite pool of material to draw from. And even if they really committed to replicating older vehicles’ design graduations – as Dodge did with the Charger, for instance – they’d eventually circle back around to the modern designs they had just abandoned.

More than that, the steady march of improving safety standards and increasing fuel mileage requirements made it ever more difficult to incorporate designs from eras in which neither safety nor mileage were much of a concern. Note that dagmars, sparrow strainers, sky-high tailfins, and chrome bumpers never appeared during the retro era; similarly, note that the big round headlamps that pretty much defined any car mimicking its predecessors’ sealed-beams eventually gave way to today’s squinty angry headlamps with far less frontal surface area.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro RS. GM Media photo

So with logic and legislation poised against the permanence of retro design, exactly what was its sell-by date? That all depends on how we characterize the end of an era. Did it come with introduction of the last retro vehicle? If so, then it’d be sometime in the late Oughts when the Chevrolet HHR (2006), Fiat 500 (2007), Dodge Challenger (2008), and the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro (2010) all debuted.

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