What are the best retro cars ever made?
In a car industry where technology seems to move ever onward at a frightening pace manufacturers often decide to break the cycle and look to the past for inspiration. The resulting retro cars play into the heritage of the car brand, our own sense of nostalgia and often gather a loyal enthusiast following. Below, we’ve picked the recent retro cars that we think have done the best job.
What is a retro car?
Love it or hate it, retro style has been a common theme throughout the history of car design. It’s inevitable that those imagining new cars are influenced by what’s gone before but most new models emerge with at least the intention of reflecting the modern aesthetic or even establishing new visuals that will help define the future. Most, but not all.
On occasion car designers go completely retro, deliberately and obviously looking back to recreate classic design themes from history. Sometimes the particular car brand has a much-loved model languishing in its back catalogue that it wants to reference, or recreate, for financial gain. There are also long running model lines that have merely passed original design themes down their generations so that the current versions inherit a retro look by default. Other times, designers just design retro cars because lots of people really like them.
Done well, retro is nostalgic, familiar and yet different from the majority of cars that roll off the production lines in a given era. Modern technology overlaid with classic design themes is a formula that’s been revisited time and time again by different cars over the years and our pick of the best retro cars are the models on this theme that we think stand out…
The modern MNI might well be the classic example of a retro recreation of a much loved model from the past. Starting out in 1959, the original Mini actually went through seven generations, built by BMC, British Leyland and Rover, before production finally ended in 2000. Then BMW arrived, breaking the bloodline with its retro remake in 2001.
The ‘new’ MINI retrained the iconic design themes from the original, both inside and out, but it was far larger and more modern in its execution. Today MINI is a car brand rather than merely a car – those retro design themes have been employed on estates, coupes, roadsters and SUVs in recent years, often to the dismay of the purists.
The 3-door hatchback remains the centrepiece of the line-up, however, and there have been some outstanding versions over the three generations built during BMW’s tenure. From the MINI Electric to the latest 2-seater John Cooper Works GP hot hatch, the car and the brand is still riding the retro wave of success.
Mercedes SLS AMG
Mercedes did a very thorough job of referencing the classic 1950s 300SL Gullwing when creating the new supercar it would launch in 2010 – right down to the original’s party-piece doors.
The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG mimicked the proportions of the original, with its long bonnet and stubby tail, but also its detailing, with the grille and those distinctive side vents. The gullwing doors open on gas struts but have to be closed manually and can detach to let occupants out if the car ends up on its roof.
Under the skin, it was every inch the modern supercar though, the 1,619kg kerb weight achieved despite the presence of AMG’s monstrous 6.2-litre V8. The engine sent 420kW to the rear wheels in the standard car and 435kW in the GT edition. The base model was good for 0-100km/h in 3.8 seconds and would get to 315km/h if let off the leash on a runway. Later the Black Series would take power up to 464kW and Mercedes briefly offered the SLS AMG Electric Drive with a pure electric powertrain offering 552kW and 1,000Nm of torque.
Land Rover Defender
You could argue that until the current model launched, the Land Rover Defender’s design wasn’t so much retro as just old. The unmistakable squared-off look didn’t really change much from the Land Rover series models dating back to the late 1940s through to the ‘90’ and ‘110’ that would take the Defender name in 1991 and rumble on until 2016. The technology beneath evolved at a similarly slow pace but why overhaul a vehicle that has shown itself to be so outstandingly fit for purpose?
The Defender design is certainly iconic and one of those cars that’s instantly identifiable from almost any angle, whether or not the usual thick layer of mud has been applied. The new Defender certainly continues the theme with elements clearly rooted in its past but it’s undoubtedly the Land Rover’s most dramatic redesign yet.
The Defender has transformed into a true multi-purpose vehicle, in the sense that the inherent toughness and capability of its predecessors now has a sheen of quality and comfort. It’s broken with the past in some respects but it enables the car to compete effectively against both pure off-roaders and family SUVs.
The BMW Z8 was conceived as a modern day homage to the BMW 507 of the late 1950s and the V8 engined roadster looked like it had jumped right out of that era when it was launched in 2000. Over 5,700 were built before production closed in 2003.
The Z8’s beautifully curvaceous exterior was designed by Henrik Fisker. The car was previewed by the Z07 concept at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, a design that subtly reworked the 507, and the biggest surprise when the final Z8 emerged was that it had stuck so closely to the concept.
With the 294kW V8 engine from the E39 BMW M5 in the nose, it promised much but was criticised for not quite delivering the goods either as a luxury cruiser or a hardcore sports car. The fact that it was only offered in left-hand drive also didn’t help its cause in the UK.
In the end, the Z8 has had the last laugh because those classic roadster looks and a starring role in 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, helped ensure there’s never any shortage of people wanting to own one. There’s nothing retro about its auction prices today.
The Ford Mustang has grown to become a hugely influential car for Ford since it was first launched in 1965. It was one of the vehicles that helped carve the muscle car into American automotive folklore and even some rather bloated iterations over the years have done little to tarnish the brand.
Happily, the latest 6th generation Ford Mustang launched in 2015 has seen a definite return to form. The amount of performance you get for your cash with a Mustang isn’t easy to beat and there are still fewer cars with anything like the same kind of heritage and nostalgia surrounding them.
The design of the current car has a modern edge but the familiar Mustang elements are there and now there’s an engine range that includes a 2.3-litre ecoboost turbo petrol with 231kW so you don’t have to put up with V8 thirst.
Of course, you should put up with the V8’s thirst because in return you get 325kW, 0-100km/h in 4.3 seconds if you opt for the 10-speed (yes, 10) automatic gearbox, and the essential Mustang soundtrack.
Car brands coming back from the dead is nothing new. Building something that resonates with buyers from scratch is a tough task so it makes sense for manufacturers to delve into their history books and gain a head start by reusing a once famous name. What is unusual is for a brand to return with a model that achieves the widespread critical acclaim that the Alpine A110 has.
Alpine can trace its lineage back to the mid 1950s when it began building its own sports cars based on Renault componentry and the A110 arrived in 1961 based on a similar formula. The rear-engined, rear-wheel drive, 2-door coupe was built until 1977 and Alpine soldiered on until 1995 when the last A610 was built. The Alpine factory in Dieppe turned to building Renault’s hot hatches until the brand made its comeback with the new A110 in 2017.
Mid-engined, rear-wheel drive and sporting aluminium bodywork that closely echoes the early A110s, the new car has proven a huge hit with enthusiasts and was named runner up for the European Car of the Year award in 2019. Its fluency and balance make it a joy to drive and its standard 185kW 1.8-litre turbocharged engine gives the 1,100kg car (215kW in S guise) a real turn of speed. The distinctive hunchbacked profile and twin headlights directly reference the A110’s ancestors, helping to make it a great example of retro done right.
The Fiat 500 was launched in 1957 with a design that has been instrumental in forming the template for the modern city car. The tiny, cheap Italian runabout was then recreated for the modern age in the ultra-retro shape of the 2007 mk2 version. Fiat’s skill with its recreation was in holding true to the impossibly cute original while growing the car for extra practicality and adding the refinement and technology that modern buyers expect – even at the lower end of the market.
The modern Fiat 500 was a great success for Fiat to the extent that the firm is still building and selling them even as we enter the next chapter in the old-school city car’s story.
An all-new, all-electric mk3 Fiat 500 has now been revealed. The new design freshens the look further but the curving bodywork and round light signatures that were central to the original’s success remain. Power now comes from a distinctly un-retro 42kWh battery pack that’s capable of delivering up to 320 kilometres of range on a charge.
The Porsche 911 is probably the ultimate icon of the sports car world and perhaps the ultimate example of a car that has maintained an unbreakable bond with its design roots while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of technology. When you see a 911, you know exactly what it is. It’s far harder to tell exactly which of the multitude of versions, specifications and generations that have rolled out of Stuttgart since 1963 you’re dealing with.
The 911 has evolved rather than being reinvented, each generation taking the rear engined, rear-wheel drive layout and pushing it to new heights of performance while gently finessing the proportions and design elements that have stood for years.
The latest 992 generation car is unmistakably 911 from the oval headlights to the powerful haunches and the trademark curving roofline. Under the skin though, there’s a twin-turbo flat-six married to an 8-speed PDK gearbox and a structure that relies heavily on aluminium to reduce weight. It’s every inch the modern sports car but one that’s fully tuned-in to its glorious heritage.
The unmistakable Mercedes-G-Class was conceived as an uncompromising off-road vehicle that would serve military and civilian purposes in the harshest terrain there is. Somehow in the years since its 1979 launch, it has become a status symbol and urban fashion statement.
What’s remained throughout are the G-Wagen’s boxy, retro looks, even though the interior has grown progressively more luxurious and the engine installations progressively more powerful. Today’s G-Class is the W463 version and it comes complete with a high-class cabin boasting the latest Mercedes-Benz technology. A pair of 12.3-inch digital displays make up the dash and the quality of the materials reflect the price.
It’s not all style over substance though because the G-Class can off-road, even if its well-heeled owners usually prefer not to. It has three locking differentials, a low range gearbox and can wade through water of up to 700mm in depth. In Australia we are treated to the mighty Mercedes-AMG G63 version only with a 4.0-litre V8, producing 430kW for a 4.5s 0-100km/h time.
Even when looking to the future, car manufacturers struggle to resist the urge to trawl their past for inspiration. The Honda e is a landmark car for Honda, a pure-electric city car showcasing the technology that the brand hopes will power it into the decades ahead, yet the design is unashamedly retro.
The Honda e takes its styling cues directly from the first generation Honda Civic of the 1970s with its circular headlamps set back in the full-width front grille, and a similar motif for the rear lighting. Inside, large touch screens that extend across the whole dash can be set-off against old-school wood finishes.
The Honda e has an electric motor mounted at the rear that drives the rear wheels. With the range-topping battery option it can deliver 113kW and a 0-100km/h sprint of 8.0s. Honda claims a driving range of up to 220km’s on a charge that will take 5 hours from a 7kW wallbox charger but can be topped up to 80% in 30 minutes by a 100kW rapid charger.
The Jimny is the classic small, utilitarian 4×4 from Suzuki, a model that’s been in production since 1970 with clear design themes maintained throughout. There’s been a strong resurgence in interest since the brand released the 4th generation Jimny in 2018, primarily because of its re-adoption of the ultra-boxy retro lines that characterised the early Jimny models.
In a market where small SUVs are proliferating at a dramatic rate the Jimny manages to stand out by strongly referencing its roots as a small, go-anywhere 4×4. Unlike most of its rivals, it’s still off-road capable too, thanks to the tough ladder frame chassis and ALLGRIP Pro 4×4 system with low rage setting.
This focus on all-terrain ability makes the Jimny a little rough around the edges on the road with the 75kW 1.5-litre petrol quite noisy at a fast cruise, slow steering and a ride that’s on the choppy side. That, however, is something buyers are more than willing to put up with in the name of style.
Retro cars: the best, and worst, of the rest
Our top 10 features the retro cars that we think have done the retro thing best but there are, of course, many models that missed out. Some were ruthlessly cut on the narrowest of judges’ decisions others missed by a country mile because, to be frank, they weren’t very good.
Retro done well is a great thing. The creators behind our favourite retro cars managed to clothe a strong engineering base in well-judged old-school aesthetics, producing something that worked on all levels but no amount of historical references are going to save a car that doesn’t get the basics right.
Chrysler’s PT Cruiser was a 1950’s Americana body on uncompetitive Chrysler Neon mechanicals that still sold in relatively big numbers and Nissan’s Figaro Kei car gained a cult following in the UK despite never being sold officially and riding on dated first generation Nissan Micra underpinnings.
Even Volkswagen’s attempt at fashioning its own retro-fuelled success story failed to hit the mark. The ‘New Beetle’ arrived in 1998 looking like a convincing visual modernisation of the classic VW design, but a mountain of headroom and a flower power vase on the dash couldn’t stop it feeling largely like its Mk4 Golf doner car from behind the wheel. The BMW MINI did a more comprehensive job of capturing the spirit of the original as well as the look a few years later.
More unfortunate to miss out were the Ford Mustang’s modern day muscle car rivals, the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Charger. The Camaro first emerged in 1967 but the fifth (2010) and sixth (2016) generations have put it back on the map with updates on the classic V8 formula and styling that references the original. The Dodge Charger is another classic of the genre with the Mk7 version, now a 4-door, showing less of a direct visual link to the early 1960s cars but still packing the requisite muscle in the engine bay.
We included the gorgeous BMW Z8 in our top 10 but it had competition in the premium retro sports car stakes from the equally visually arresting Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. Classic Alfa Romeo style and a modern Ferrari V8 meant the 8C has a huge amount going for it but it’s a shame that only 500 were built.
Then there’s the Ford GT, a faithful recreation of the Le Mans-winning GT40 of the 1960s. We’ve now had two generations of Ford’s supercar, the first built in 2005 to help mark the firm’s 2003 centenary and the second arriving in 2017, both adopting the ground-hugging shape and deep bonnet vents of the original.
And retro isn’t limited to the upper echelons of the sports car market. The Caterham 7 missed out on inclusion primarily because its current design isn’t a recreation or reference to an original – it’s the same. If you include its time as the Lotus Seven, this lightweight formula for fun has been in production with minimal visual changes since 1957. And that brings us to the Mazda MX-5, the greatest modern day exponent of the classic British roadster formula. It’s definitely retro in ethos but the more recent models have taken a contemporary design direction that the MX-5 is none the worse for, it’s Abarth 124 Spider sister car took a more retro design approach.