You know how the industry is updating cars more and more frequently? These car generations are the opposite: let’s go back in time and revisit some modern classics!
Everyone likes all-new cars. Gearheads rush to compare the new model with its direct rivals in all possible ways. Regular fans marvel upon so many novelties in terms of design, powertrain, and safety. And regular customers will always appreciate getting newer – and generally better – products for the same money.
The problem is that all-new cars are a complex venture to execute. Not only do they cost a lot to develop, but they also imply high risks. There are times when automakers prefer to play safe and keep the existing model in line for longer. Here, we are going to take a closer look at that and show you some examples.
What is a car generation?
In this industry, a car generation is the lifespan of a project. The Land Rover Range Rover of the top photo was initially released in 1970 and received multiple partial updates over time. An all-new project, however, would only come in 1996. Therefore, we can say that the SUV stayed in the first generation for 26 years.
We usually apply the term “generation” when the automaker preserves the model name from one project to the other. The goal is to compare that evolution to what happens in families, from parents to their kids. However, it is acceptable to extend that notion in case the new project comes with a whole new image.
New car generations are useful to make substantial upgrades to the product and/or to work on its image. However, their nature implies releasing something new. People may not like it, it may be too expensive, it may bring drawbacks compared to the outgoing car… That is why this solution is not absolutely perfect.
Long-lasting car generations
The average lifespan of a car generation is eight years with at least one partial update in the middle. One of the exceptions is when the maker skips that facelift so as to bring the all-new project earlier. The other is our case of interest here: when it keeps the same generation on sale for a longer time, over a decade.
Now, we have to make a distinction here. Sometimes, the automaker keeps the car generation for price reasons; the RAM 1500 Classic shown here, for example, has become the entry-level model and is much cheaper than its newer siblings. In that case, it goes on unchanged for as long as its sales are worth it.
Here, this article is going to focus on long-lasting car generations that preserved their prestige. In other words, projects that spent that time at the same market position, without any value-oriented rebranding. In each case, we are going to briefly describe their history and what happened to them after those years.
Alfa Romeo Spider (1966–1993)
Convertible cars were in fashion in the 1960s, especially in Europe. Alfa Romeo was replacing the Giulietta lineup with the Giulia but decided to spin off the convertible. The Spider arrived with an aerodynamic and charming design based on the Superflow concept. Its 1.6L engine was soon joined by a 1.8L and a 1.3L.
While those cars never sell high volumes, bundling attractive style, low weight, and strong engine quickly made fans. After giving it more versions, Alfa Romeo would make bigger changes in 1970. The Spider got a Kamm tail, a 2.0L engine, and even a targa version. It also added a small rear seat to become a 2+2.
In the 1980s, the project started showing its age. Alfa Romeo did its best to make the Spider keep up and gave it refreshed style, stronger engines, and a Quadrifoglio Verde version. However, newer rivals became more attractive by offering more refined dynamics and higher reliability. Its production ceased in 1993.
Chevrolet Opala (1968–1992)
GM started operating in Brazil only with trucks because of government restrictions. Once it was cleared to build cars, it went all the way. The Opala was born with a blend of European design and North American powertrain. It was a perfect addition to an emergent market which was thirsty for locally made options.
After debuting as a sedan, the Opala received a hardtop coupé of elegant lines; it was the first example of personal luxury car produced in Brazil. The Caravan station wagon would come later with the lineup’s first facelift. An interesting fact is that it only had two doors to cater to the regional preference of that time.
Chevrolet benefitted from the fact that Brazil was under a military dictatorship which banned imports. The Opala slotted between the Ford Landau and the Volkswagen Santana, so it had a whole part of the luxury market for itself. Thirty years later, the car is still cherished by older enthusiasts for its unique qualities.
Fiat Panda (1980–2003)
In the late 1970s, Fiat was revamping its entire line. The Panda appeared as a subcompact with Giugiaro design and a no-frills approach that made it practical and affordable. Once the Uno came to fight regular hatchbacks, the Panda was freed to embrace its oddball self. The 4×4 version played a major role in that.
This car was an easy match with anyone who was not looking for opulence. It was easy to drive on narrow streets, used fuel-efficient engines, handled all weather and terrain conditions… It would even bring many trim levels, from the upscale Sisley to the commercial Van with a trunk extender made of black plastic.
Despite being a low-cost car, the Panda kept getting updates up to the end of its first car generation. The 1990 line had an interesting addition: the Elettra version had fully electric powertrain. Sadly, it was heavier and less powerful than the gasoline or diesel Panda, which harmed its performance, and cost much more.
Ford Capri (1968–1986)
In the late 1960s, Ford wanted to replicate the Mustang’s success in Europe. The Capri was not created by Lee Iacocca, but it did a wonderful job at adapting the pony car’s attributes to the new clientele. It shared mechanical parts with the Cortina line and, just like the latter, was produced at several European plants.
An interesting feature was offering four engine options in multiple trim levels: the Capri became attractive to many customer profiles. Ford responded by making small improvements year after year, including the addition of high-performance versions. The Capri also built a successful racing history at the same time.
Ford gave it two heavy facelifts. In 1974, it became larger and more practical to suit the austerity of the oil crisis. In 1978, the Capri was brought to date with Ford’s visual identity, which made it sportier and more impactful. The new looks also made it more aerodynamic, which favored performance and fuel efficiency.
Jaguar XJ-S (1975–1996)
The British grand tourer was impactful for its design, with the famous rear buttresses, and its V12 engine, which made it on par with Lamborghini and Ferrari cars. While it was widely praised for both reasons and Jaguar’s refinement, releasing such a gas-guzzling car in the middle of an oil crisis was not the best idea.
After a series of minor improvements over the years, Jaguar gave it a new V12 in 1981 which made things much better. In that second phase, a six-cylinder 3.6L was added, and the targa body was replaced with a regular convertible which proved highly successful. There was also a sporty XJR-S with a 328-hp 6.0-liter.
The last update came in 1991, after Ford’s acquisition of the marque. That move brought technical tweaks like bigger engines, simpler brakes, and more modern trim parts. On the other hand, the model lost some traits which built its character in the past. The XJS lived to celebrate Jaguar’s 60th anniversary in 1995.
Jeep Wagoneer (1962–1991)
While it was originally described as a station wagon, it turned out to be one of the very first SUVs. Besides that, the Super Wagoneer version released in 1966 established the luxury SUV niche eight years before we even heard of a Land Rover Range Rover. However, there is much more to know about the full-size Jeep.
The Wagoneer was produced by Willys in the first year, Kaiser up to 1970, AMC up to 1987, and Chrysler until the end. Each phase brought a series of improvements, from optional air conditioning in 1964 to the Quadra-Trac system in 1973. The 1989–1991 models are considered the best Wagoneer ever offered.
The SUV’s history is interesting because it survived younger rivals and stricter environmental regulations unfazed. Some years had much higher sales than others, sure, but the Wagoneer offered a combination of comfort, power, overall reliability, and off-road capability which the industry took a long time to match.
Land Rover Range Rover (1970–1996)
In the late 1940s, the British automaker noticed that the market had space for an off-road car with more comfort and amenities than the “Series I”. The first attempts failed for being too expensive, having poor performance, or both. The Range Rover was released in 1970 with attributes to be “A Car for All Reasons”.
Since it quickly became successful, Land Rover kept it largely unchanged for its first decade. A four-door version would only come in 1981, after the release of many independent projects. Then, a highly unusual story would start: the Range Rover evolved in luxury and moved upmarket as the next years went by.
The SUV received leather trim, automatic transmission, more refined dashboard, and a smoother external design in the 1980s. It would only enter the USA in 1987 and managed to be successful again despite the age. The first generation even survived the arrival of the second for two years, adding a Classic surname.
Mercedes-Benz SL-Class (1971–1989)
While 18 years does not seem long in this list, they make the roadster’s R107 iteration the second-longest living for Mercedes-Benz. This SL-Class was the only open-top model in the lineup during its entire cycle and made sure to bravely defend the automaker in this market segment. It even had a coupé, the SLC.
An interesting fact is that the R107 was particularly successful in North America, building on the image of its predecessor. It took the role of a personal luxury car back when that market niche was in fashion there. Mercedes-Benz did its part by giving it exclusive versions with more refinement and bigger engines.
Here, this SL-Class stands out because it did not receive gradual improvements over the years. The US car underwent minor changes to comply with the local laws, there were some engine revisions, and not much else. A notable fact is that the coupé body style helped the automaker win many on and off-road races.
Mitsubishi Debonair (1964–1986)
In its early days, Mitsubishi would focus on small and efficient cars. The Debonair came as a stark contrast to that, but the automaker was cautious. It had specific dimensions to fall into a favorable tax category in Japan, and a relatively small 2.0L engine. It was also marketed as an executive car for business purposes.
Such an austere image allowed the Debonair to sail through 22 years with pretty much the same USA-like design. The only updates it would receive in all that time focused on powertrain. Mitsubishi would replace the 2.0L with newer, more efficient units. There was a time when a 2.6L was added with a luxury version.
The sedan managed to build a strong image in its niche, sure, but it is easy to see that this niche was not a top-seller. By staying untouched for so long, the Debonair became increasingly unattractive compared to younger direct rivals. Sales kept dramatically dropping until the company decided to shake things up.
Toyota Century (1967–1997)
Back when Lexus did not exist, this was the reference in terms of Toyota luxury. The Century got its name from the 100th birthday of the company’s founder and soon became commonplace among businessmen, government leaders, and Japanese royals. It has its own logo, a gold phoenix, and often comes in black.
Toyota did not bother to change it much because it became a symbol of conservative success. Over time, the Century would only receive powertrain updates, usually focused on emission control, and light design tweaks. It even had a limousine version, which made it comparable to Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz cars.
Just like the Mitsubishi Debonair, the Toyota Century catered to a specific market niche. The fact that it is more refined allowed it to sell more and for a longer time, but not by much. Once the Japanese bubble of the 1980s burst and people began to consider other cars, the company had to bring the car up to date.
The examples above prove that, sometimes, a car project is just too good to let go. Those makers decided to keep investing in them, which made them reach their final years in top shape. Do you think that the car industry should do that again? Or would you rather see new projects arrive as frequently as they do now?
Danillo Almeida has explored his passion for cars in two distinct ways. The first one is his graduation course in Mechanical Engineering, which will hopefully lead to a job position in the field. The other one is expressing his knowledge and opinions on the matter through writing. Almeida has already contributed to blogs, stores, and websites in general writing automotive content in many formats.