How Come No New Icons?

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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 is they can’t be made. Icons aren’t made by committees – according to rules. The icons of the past broke the rules. It’s what made them iconic.

Consider the iconic – 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 – Pontiac’s 389 V8 – and put it into a medium-sized car, the Tempest. The idea being to make the medium-sized car go very fast – it being considerably lighter than the big car that engine was supposed to go into.

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 had the balls 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 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 that real-life Better Call Saul, Ralph Nader.

Also done-in for similar reasons – or rather, because of similar threats from shysters and regulatory zampolits   – vehicles like original Bronco (and its Chevy rival, the K5 Blazer) as well as the original – and iconic – Land Rover Defender, Toyota LandCruiser and 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. Guys like DeLorean (who also 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 also guys like Gordon Beuhrig – 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 – 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 – who 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.

This was a common theme during the iconic era of the car industry, which spanned from its beginning in the 1890s through to about the 1980s, when the icons began to die off, chiefly because there were no longer iconic designers.

Can you think of one from the ’90s  . . . or 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 Camaro (and also 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.

But there is not much new; 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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  1. I was born in the early 80s and one American car that inspired me as a child was the first generation Taurus/Sable, particularly 1986-88. Some of my family members had the fully loaded LX models with digital cluster, keypad entry and climate control. For their time, they were extremely forward looking vehicles both inside and out. The 1st generation SHO was a fun drive with all the best comfort, features and a manual shift. I might add, Ford has lost many customers to foreign makers due to their lack of offering manual shift for decades. By the release of the 2nd generation, most luxury features were cut. By the 3rd generation, they radically redesigned the platform, and it only got worse after. The last generation was the better of redesign, but it was too bulky and large. It makes me smile when i see an old Gen 1 on the road. Maybe Ford could relaunch an updated redesign based off the original DN5 body and recapture the market with Make America Great Again? Ive seen some early 80s photos of the prototypes under the Sigma (Taurus) project, it must have been an exciting project to work on.

    • Hi Seth,

      The story of the Taurus is a tragic one. The first generation was one of the greatest success stories in the history of the business; the cars were everywhere in the late ’80s. Because the original Taurus was a great car; a family car as well as (in SHO form) a very fun car. The Yamaha-sourced V6 was a high-water-mark engine for the period and the fact that you could get a manual transmission with it – in a four door Ford – was just spectacular.

      But then Ford did what companies like Honda and Toyota almost never do. They fixed what wasn’t broken. They altered the car fundamentally (e.g., no more manual) and bored it up, and sales began to wilt. Instead of returning – quickly – to what worked, Ford kept heading in the opposite direction.

      The rise and fall of the Taurus is a topic I’ll dig into at greater length, soon… assuming I’m not imprisoned for not Diapering!

      • Great. Cant wait to hear you next on David Knight’s show! Eric Taub’s “TAURUS: The making of the car that saved Ford“ is a great read on the project.

  2. Hey Eric, what do you think about this new Ineos Grenadier as a replacement for the Defender?

    Think that has any hope ?

    • I’m stuck with LMN that uses the original parts companies and produces much better quality parts for my trucks before a mexican puta was put in charge. Everything I ever bought for my trucks was better quality than original.

      The only thing I’m stuck with is this godawful country and my screaming wife. I’ve wanted to get the hell out of this country for 20 years but now am stuck per the laws they recently passed. I can leave if I can sneak out.

      • Morning, Eight!

        I also would like to “get out” – but where to? This question comes up often and I think it is well worth discussing. Is there any place left in the world that is meaningfully more free that a man could realistically move to if not very wealthy – or very young, so as to start over from scratch and rebuild a life? I’ve thought about this a lot and can’t come up with anything to justify making the effort.

        Many countries won’t even accept a “gringo” – no citizenship means few legal rights – and many of these countries are even worse kleptocracies than this one.

        I have Swiss citizenship because my mother is Swiss; it’s a beautiful country and I have emigration rights and also have enough operational German to function (besides which the Swiss are multilingual). But the cost of living there is comparable to the cost of living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, which means $400k will buy you a condo, maybe. Plus I’m too old to start over but not old enough (or rich enough) to just retire.

        So my engines idle. I remain put.

        • Afternoon eric. You summed it up. It’s pointless for me to bitch. There was a time when some S. American countries would have allowed me and I could have paid off people to leave me alone. But the longer I’ve stayed in this country the poorer I’ve become and it hasn’t been because I am allergic to work. I’d say a 70 year old operating big dirt construction equipment and being able to do all sorts of trucking including heavy hauling which isn’t your typical steering wheel holding job and putting in 12 hr or 14 hr days isn’t lazy but the tough part is, I wasn’t making a decent wage. The last job I had paid me the same wage as the job I quit in 1986 because it didn’t pay enough.

          Just remind me of that next time I bitch. I am fortunate in ways I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated till recently with all the turmoil in some states and esp. large cities and even in Texas, some small cities.

          Don’t get me wrong, I would have never moved to town, any town, voluntarily and I know most people wouldn’t live where I do…..thankfully. If the billionaires and govt want to displace me, and it’s likely govt. will, they can haul my carcass away…….from my cold, dead hands…….

    • Hi Rich!

      I almost mentioned Barra. Probably should have. Because it’s relevant to the current lack of icons at GM. I personally observed the . .. transition. I began working as a car journalist in the early ’90s and so personally got to know a number of senior executives and engineers. Amazing men. Yes, I’ll say it – and italicize it. Car guys, who spoke the language and felt the passion. I had drinks with these men many times – and we talked cars, women and made fun of saaaaaaaaaaaaaafety. They agreed with guys like me – and back then, almost all car journalists were guys, too – about the cloying, insufferable termagants then on the periphery who expressed “concern” about fast cars and driving fast and having fun rather than having a load in one’s pants over saaaaaaaaaaaafety.

      I keep in touch with some of these guys – all retired now. They express sadness and disgust in re what GM is today.

      • eric, if I didn’t post that video of Barra introducing the Volt, I apologize. The press was there and some corporate types plus some guy who was probably some corporate type, just not GM, the power company I think.

        Barra was showing how easy it was to plug it in and use it and they had some charging stations out front that hogged the parking area.

        Then someone in the press asked where the electricity was from and she said “This building”. Then they asked a bit more explicit question and she gave the name of some power company(she was wrong) “she guessed”. Then they got to the nutcutting she was avoiding and asked how the electricity was generated. She didn’t know but this corporate guy who must have worked for the power company gave the correct name and they asked him “how” it was made. He said “About 95% of it is coal produced”. Boy, did that put a damper on the questions. He followed up with “nearly all electricity is produced with coal or natgas”. Barra was trying to divert them to other questions at this point.

        I can remember when GM would have produced an example of what an electric car might be like but not a production model. “They’re too expensive taking into account of their needing an engine and a motor, battery and all the rest”. Of course that would be back when you and I didn’t have to help buy hybrid cars for those who wanted them.

        • Oh, that doesn’t stop EV fanboys anymore. They’ll just say “Oh, well ACKTUHALLY EVs still pollute less because blah blah efficiency something!”

          • Hi Chuck,

            Among the many despicable aspects of this EV virtue-signaling business is the glaring fact that almost all the EVs on the “market” tout their speed/power… which requires the gratuitous use of energy/raw materials to make the EV and more energy to make that power. If “the environment” is so important, than only a minimalist EV ought to be tolerable to these disingenuous SOBs, who are that for precisely this reason.

            And for others, too.

  3. I recently saw a really nice looking car on the road. It had obviously been shaved and a new paint job and I wondered what brand it could be. Smooth, slick, styling I haven’t seen in over 20 years. I finally figured out it was a Japanese car that they made for Ford too and this appeared to be the Ford model. I forget the name but they were slick looking cars. It was the only Ford I’d have bought for 30 years or more. Damn, just can’t recall the name.

  4. Surprised no one mentioned the Viper, there’s a car that until it’s last Gen was willing to kill you for not knowing how to drive it.

    You see millions of whorevettes on the road, they’re not bad, but then you see a Viper, any gen, and it gets you excited!

    Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a 90s icon right there that until it was retired was iconic

  5. I’m going to go with Jim H and say that there has been at least one iconic car built during the Government Era – the Miata. The Miata is an oddity. It was designed and built by and for a world that no longer exists, where twisty roads become racetracks after dark and the police have neither the time nor the manpower to do anything about it, but yet that seems to be the secret to its success. Perhaps that world still exists after all, waiting to reassert itself at the first opportunity. We can only hope.

    Allegedly, the Miata can trace its beginnings to a friendly disagreement between two brothers who raced on Mulholland Drive above LA. One brother was a devotee of British sports cars like the Lotus Elan, the other preferred Japanese machinery like the Datsun 510, believing them to be just as good to drive but much more reliable. Eventually, the brothers went their separate ways, and the one who loved Japanese cars followed his passion as far as working for Mazda’s North American operation. Eventually, he started to admit to himself that maybe his brother had been partially right – those old European machines, when they worked, were really something. So what if it was possible to combine the driving feel of an old British roadster with the reliability of a modern Japanese commuter car?

    He asked his bosses for permission to work on the idea, and somehow or other, permission ended up granted. A few years later, the Miata was born, to the instant and enduring delight of pretty much everyone. It may have become a little more luxurious over the years, gained and lost weight, even had coupe and folding-hardtop variants at different times, but through it all, it has remained remarkably true to itself, and this is reflected in its fanbase which remains strong and thriving to this day. Did you know that “Miata” is a recursive acronym for “Miata is always the answer”?

    At the risk of starting another flame war, I would like to emphasize that if your name is BrentP, Jeremy, Nunzio, or Tionico, the Miata – one of the most iconic and joyful cars of the post-regulation era – literally would not exist at all were it not for the specific type of street racing that your bicycle makes difficult or impossible to carry out in an ethical way.

  6. So why do we allow it?

    Why allow these petty apparatchiks, these busybody zampolits, these fascist gesundheitfuhers, these three bong hit Marxists, every one of them acting outside of “law” as we understand it to be (debated and voted upon by a bicameral legislature to be signed off by a chief executive and under constant review of an independent judiciary checking for compliance with the Bill of Rights) to, quite literally, suck the very air out our lives, through mandates and fatwas and edicts covering face diapering to throttling innovation in car design and every thing in between.

    A healthy society would be tarring and feathering these people by the busload.

    There are 400 million firearms in citizen’s hands and 8 TRILLION rounds of ammo in 2020 Amerika.

    Might as well be paperweights for all the damn good they are doing right now.

    • Hi AF,

      I know. It baffles me, too. I suspect part of it is incremental accommodation. The frog in the pot thing. People get used to a certain temperature, which then feels “normal.” Then the heat is increased again, just slightly. Repeat.

      But, perhaps we have gotten to the point at which enough of us will buck – kick the chute, so to speak. I’m doing all I can toward that end.

      • I hope you’re right, and I’m doing to the same to push back against the flood of childish idiocy, shrieking harridans and high functioning retards that seem to now make up the body politic of Amerika.

        You don’t necessarily need to be religious to find wisdom in the Bible:

        “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths”

    • Hi AF,

      “debated and voted upon by a bicameral legislature”

      The bicameral legislature was effectively destroyed by the 17th amendment. Now we just have a large HOR with a smaller, “first class” section.


    • Hi Anti-Fed
      “Might as well be paperweights for all the damn good they are doing right now.”

      Everybody waiting for someone else to get the job done.

    • I think we’d do better these days if we had a bi-camel legislature (Two guys, each with a camel) [The animal or the cigarette- I’m sure either vestige of autonomous life and normalcy are equally unwelcome in the pompous chambers of facsimiles of ancient Roman rule].

      • Hi Nunz!

        I’ll raise you. Say what you will about Rome – especially during the reign of the 12 Caesars – but they were a manlier people. Can you imagine a man like Julius Caesar – or even Tiberius – wearing a Face Diaper and cringing in fear of getting sick?

        No, me either.

        If we must live under a dictatorship, may it at least be one with some balls. This sickly, pussified society is . . . sickening.

        • I totally agree with ya, Eric! (I’ll bet Claudius would’ve worn one though!)

          By contrast, we seem to have gone the way of the Greeks! 🙁

    • The reason we all put up with it is because we don’t work together… no one person can do anything alone… but there’s no community groups anymore. Everyone got used to not doing that… now they can’t even imagine being able to propose anything or vote on everything. In the 1800’s–early 1900’s people could have a town hall meeting, and everyone fit inside the building. But the population exploded, and the problem is that the people didn’t come up with a new form of staying informed and in control. So creepies took over all the guv positions and the money system too, and it’s been downhill ever since.

      So I think the problem with the world is the SYSTEM… there is none, or not a good one anyway. The system is what prevents civilization from falling to crazy mad dictators.

  7. Any imagination, any pride, any skill, any dreams are all extracted by today’s education system and governance. The Icons in this article were the result of all mentioned plus a pinch of individual independence which has now been replaced by “Team”. One can see “Team” mentioned everywhere. Any “individual” achievement is rarely if ever mentioned. Look at TV shows and movies. Most are remakes (lousy ones at that) that require little imagination from the “Team”. Look at cars,,, they all look the same, perform about the same. Architecture is another area that has been hit. Cookie cutter housing? Apparel… Compare today’s horrid styles to even the 1920s where most wore suits.

    The individual and imagination effect can be easily graphed. Rising from the 1890s to peak by 1980 or so. Then steady down to bottom out in 2020. A graph of government interference, be it in fatwas or in “education” will also align perfectly. The advent of digital is another graph that follows as well. All kill any human individualism and imagination and pride. In fact these traits are mostly demonized today.

    • Please don’t take anything away from the A-Team. They got it done. We could use a bit more Hannibal, Face, BA, and Murdock these days.

  8. Though it’s Japanese, the Mazda MX-5 Miata might be described as iconic — or least hugely successful, as it enters its fourth decade of production. But the Gen 1’s iconic pop-up, bug-eyed headlights became illegal by the late 1990s … because of saaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety, you know.

    Unlike most humans in their fourth decade of adulthood, the Miata has not packed on pounds and girth with age. That’s perhaps its most iconic achievement, unmatched by, say, the Toyota RAV4. Now in its third decade, the first compact SUV has added many inches of wheelbase and pounds of curb weight since its much-loved first generation (1994-2000).

    Pickups have become the iconic symbol of automotive obesity, seemingly sucking up an invisible drip feed of high-fructose corn syrup that packs on a couple of hundred pounds of fresh flab every year. The compact pickup format of the 1990s no longer is available at any price.

    Remember the land yachts of the late 1960s, such as the dreadnaught 1969 Chrysler station wagon, with its billowing yards of Coppertone brown sheet metal? Land yachts were felled by the quadrupling of gasoline prices during the inflationary 1970s.

    What will bring down today’s lumbering 3-ton, 22-foot long pickup stegosauri? Best guess is economic depression, the same thing that sank Harry Stutz in the 1930s. Who can forget the stockbroker parked on Wall Street in November 1929 with the hand-lettered sign, “100 dollars takes this Stutz Bearcat”? 🙁

    • Hi Jim,

      Huge Miata fan here; I think it makes the cut. Also, I thought about making mention in the article about the incredibly iconic motorcycles designed by the Japanese. Examples include the Honda CB750, the Kaw Z1900 and H1/H2 triples; the Yamaha RDs… etc.

        • Hi Ken,

          Officially Jealous now… I have always wanted to own one of these weirdo bikes. I’ve had to make due with my S1250 (“Little Stinker”) and my ’76 Kz900 (last year for the four-four pipes).

      • I never liked the Miata. No guts. People laud it’s handling, but I think that the thing is sprung like a rubber band and handles like jelly. It drives like a tin can. I guess it’s an icon in it’s own right though. It used to be a chick car before everyone ditched manual transmissions.

      • As a long time Miata owner myself, I think it is worth a mention that the internet made things different. Many got to converse with the father of the Miata,

        Could you imagine discussing your favorite rides with the people who influenced them? It was fairly new thing to do then.

        • Hi J,

          Indeed! I was lucky enough to meet Bill Porter (among other things, he designed the Firebird’s Honeycomb wheels) as well as Marty Schorr and some other guys car guys will know about. It’s been a while since I’ve met anyone new that car guys might like to meet…

  9. A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to meet Peter Brock briefly at at car show for Datsuns. I would place Peter in the Icon group in working on development of the Corvette at GM. While he was there GM had a very vast library with some data on wind coefficients for automobiles taken from the Germans after WW2. Pete quit GM and went to work for Shelby (quitting a job back then was a huge deal which you were expected to toil for the same firm all your life, and hope for the gold watch). The Shelby Cobra was fast but hit a wall at 160mph. Pete remembered the data and told Shelby they could get the cobra above 160 mph aerodynamically with a new body design that curved then abruptly had a cut off at the end. That was the Daytona Coupe. Then Peter left Shelby and raced Datsuns and made them a competitive force. That kind of thinking and engineering is not done today. Cars and everything have a lawyer and a bureaucrat component that weighs into everything done today

  10. Iconic; nah. There were/are some interesting builds that had a modicum of aesthetic, but they’ve either been ‘standardized’ or were too bizarre for their own good and died out.
    The FCA/Dodge/DeimlerChrystler Ram up until recently had some flair. The crosshair grill, the bulbous nose with lowered panels; it stood out. Now, with the exception of the massive badge in the grill that says “RAM”, you couldn’t tell it apart from a Chevy, Ford, or even Toyota.
    The Plymouth Prowler. Priced too high, very limited practicality, and too weird for most, it had some sense of style. Similar to the Chevy SSR.
    Isuzu VehiCross – PlasticFantastic but at least brought a unique look.
    The MINI relaunch. A sense of the old, but with some different styling. For what else was on the road when it first re-hit, it was unique. Now they’ve given it a bunch of Cheetos and Coke and they’re friggin’ huge, but it was good for a while.


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