The automotive name of thrones: Revival of the fittest

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Cars can play a big part in our lives. As kids on family road trips, back seats turned into torture chambers at the hands of merciless siblings, but as we emerged into adulthood our cars became an open ticket to freedom.

Oh, and the back seat moved from a place of misery to one of unbridled joy – but that’s a different story.

The memorable nature of particular names is a rich vein for automakers. Designers get misty-eyed about the possibilities of putting a modern spin on classic icons, while marketing departments light up at the idea of products that are favourably remembered.

In an attempt to clarify the bedlam that is the automotive name game we take a look at the myth, mystique and madness behind some of the more successful attempts at reviving old badges, and some that fell well short of the mark.

This week we’re taking a look at resurrected nameplates

Before I even kick this off you’re probably already thinking Monaro – and if you weren’t before, you are now.

The original Monaro coupe had a fairly short run, just eight years in production across two generations (HK-HT-HG and HQ-HJ-HX) with a bonus year in 1977, when Holden applied the name to the HZ sedan.

That’s long enough to create an indelible memory in the hearts and minds of Aussie motoring fans, though. When Holden rolled out a two-door concept at the 1998 Sydney motor show, based on the VT Commodore and simply called the Holden Coupé, it took all of about 15 seconds for Holden fans to start calling it the Monaro.

Monaro badges were firmly affixed by the time the coupe reached production in 2001, but not without some controversy. Holden purists weren’t altogether pleased, claiming as the Monaro name had never been attached to a Commodore derivative before, it had no place on the new two-door.

That kind of logic neatly ignores the fact the Kingswood exited production in 1984, and the Commodore had become Holden’s sole large family four-door.

Any ill will was soon forgotten though, with the Michael Simcoe designed Monaro creating a buzz amongst Aussie motoring fans, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the halcyon days of the 60s and 70s.

Other GM brands suddenly saw potential for revivals of their own. Buick, for whom the VT was supposedly co-developed before plans were scrapped, reignited its interest with a view to launching a 21st century Riviera.

Chevrolet wouldn’t dare apply the Camaro name but did think Chevelle had legs, however in the end Pontiac, the General’s squint-and-it-looks-kind-of-fast division, won out. A plan was forged to breathe life back into the wild GTO badge with the fairly mild Euro-influenced Monaro, sporting an ugly new front bumper and a fuel tank moved from under the floor and into the boot to meet US crash regulations.

Pontiac fans loved the big V8 and rear-drive dynamics, but the subtle styling failed to get their blood pumping. Bonnet nostrils were added to boost the aggression, but at the end of the day it was too pretty to fit alongside the rest of Pontiac’s range where tacked-on plastic cladding directly correlated with how aggressive the car was intended to be.

The Monaro’s Australian revival was a success, but again short-lived. Production wrapped in 2006, but Holden still had nostalgia on its mind by 2015, when it rolled out the new-age Sandman.

Not the ute and panel van that defined the 70s originals though, rather a ute (that’s fine) and wagon (what?) with orange decals, kitsch shagpile seat covers and cargo mats. At least the wagon offered some semblance of surfboard-carrying capability with a set of roof racks, but the, uh ‘recreational space’ in the rear just didn’t match the *ahem* versatility of the original Sandman panel van.

When it comes to pale pastiche, Volkswagen struck gold in 1997 with the New Beetle, after a rapturous reception to the 1994 Concept One show car.

The New Beetle’s form factor was a modernist take on the Volkswagen Type 1 (later known as the Beetle). Mechanically, the 1938 original’s air-cooled, rear-mounted flat-four engine was ditched for a more economical set of components adapted from the Volkswagen Golf.

Of course, if you didn’t like the New Beetle and lived in Mexico you could always buy a version of the original – it remained in production until 2003. A second-generation modern Beetle (dropping the ‘New’ part of its name) backed off on the cutesy styling details a little, but retained front-engine, front-drive mechanicals, however neither of the revivals matched the affordability and ruggedness that made the original so endearing.

As the instigator of the worldwide retro craze, the New Beetle can probably also take the blame for cars like the modern Mini, which now includes five-door hatchbacks and heavy SUVs that were never part of the original plan.

Fiat’s 500 similarly plays the nostalgia card, but the contemporary interpretation is priced more like a luxury item, forgetting its down-to-earth role as one of the cars that put the world on wheels. Add the 500X SUV and misshapen 500L MPV, and links to the past become even more tenuous.

Dodge likes to get fast and loose with history too, though in the case of the Dodge Dart perhaps the change was already written in the history books. The first Dodge Dart of 1960 was introduced as a lower-priced version of the brand’s full-size range.

That’s American full-size, by the way, meaning an overall length of 5.35 metres, and a wheelbase almost 3.0 metres long on sedans and 3.1 metres long on wagons. By its second generation, however, Dodge dropped the Dart to a mid-size model and by generation three (arriving inside the space of four years) it had become a compact.

Again, American compact – at 4.98 metres from tip-to-tail. Engine options ranged from a modest 2.8-litre six at the small end, up to a whopping 7.2-litre V8.

Fast forward from the Dart’s demise in the mid 1970s to 2013 and the Dart badge made a return, again as a ‘compact model’ but this time with a more reasonable 4.67-metre length and 2.7-metre wheelbase.

Drive shifted from rear to front, and the engine line-up included 2.0-litre and 2.4-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated and 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo options ranging from 119kW to 137kW. A little more inspiring than the sub-70kW rating of earlier Darts equipped with California’s crippling emissions control hardware, but a long way off the 300kW+ peak of V8 versions.

Good thing Dodge was a little closer to the mark with Charger and Challenger, both of which keep the muscle car dream alive with insanely high-powered SRT and Demon variants.

Chevrolet is also guilty of some Dart-esque malpractice with icons like the Impala and Malibu. Born in the 1950s and ’60s respectively as top-line models of the Bel Air and Chevelle ranges, both have since been spun into standalone models.

You could have either sedan, coupe, wagon or convertible in their first few generations, while rear-wheel drive sent the fun of available V8 engines to the correct end.

Time changes everything though, and these arching icons dripping in chrome and excess became bland boxes on wheels during America’s so-called malaise era, before emerging in the modern era as sensible front-wheel drive appliances.

Impala is built on GM’s Epsilon II platform, Malibu on a newer version of the same called E2XX (on which the new Commodore is also based). Four-cylinder engines make up the bulk of available options, but Impala has the sparkling flagship alternative of a 3.6-litre V6 – a far cry from the iconic 454 cubic inch (7.4L) V8 of days past.

Ford spun the mystery prize wheel on its past glory too, but by being selective about where cars were sold hoped no one would notice the considerable change of pace for the Maverick name. After starting life as a two- and four-door model powered by inline-sixes and V8s in the 70s, the Maverick badge took a decade-long (or so) nap before being trotted out again.

In the late 1980s Aussies welcomed rebadged Nissan Patrols wearing Ford Maverick badges. Compact coupe and sedan origins be damned, the Maverick was now a big four-wheel drive bruiser – but Ford didn’t stop there.

European buyers also got a 4×4 Maverick in the 1990s, this time a rebadged Nissan Terrano II. With the theme of 4×4 Mavericks firmly established, the original soft-roader Ford Escape went in to bat as the Maverick in some parts of Europe, too.

Today Ford has pulled a similar trick with the Territory, once a three-row SUV with big-six power for the Aussie market, now a forgettable mid-sized Chinese-market rebadge of the JMC Yusheng SM330.

It’s easy to point the finger at American brands and their local offshoots with so much history to trade on, but the problem extends around the world.

Fancy a turbocharged all-wheel drive Mitsubishi coupe? You could buy one in the form of the Eclipse. As the years piled on so did the weight and size, but at its heart there was still some semblance of sporting spirit.

After a six-year hiatus the Eclipse returned, this time as a global model. Still turbocharged, still all-wheel drive. Sounds good until you realise the new Eclipse Cross morphed into a lumpen SUV with a face not even a mother could love, just 110kW from a 1.5-litre turbo engine, and a CVT auto – desecrating any fond memories of the original.

GM made a change of similar scope, albeit in a different direction with the Cruze. Transforming it from an unloved compact SUV (that may have actually been ahead of its time when it debuted in 2001) into a run-of-the-mill small sedan and hatch in 2008. Perhaps it was hoping the lack of success for the previous model meant no-one knew (or cared) if the name had appeared before.

Alfa Romeo has been kinder to enthusiasts with its revival of the Giulia name (Giulietta was not as well-treated, it seems) adapting from a pert and perky four-door with enticing twin-cam engines and a devout following in motorsport, particularly rallying.

From there the Giulia evolved into a proper sports car with typically gorgeous two-door styling as a coupe or spider, all the while keeping a lively rear-wheel drive tradition alive into the late 1970s.

Then there was nothing. Giulia went away and over time so did rear-wheel drive dynamics. Further down the track, GM tried to integrate Alfa Romeo into its grand plan of turning every mid-sizer it could into a derivative of the Vectra, but the Italians fought back and refused to let front-driven mid-sizers hit the market without at least a dash of excitement (and expensive re-engineering) in them.

In its current guise, FCA-controlled Alfa Romeo has been given status within the group as a rival to German prestige brands. The result is a new rear-wheel drive platform for the current-generation Giulia and masses of critical praise for a car that’s a joy to drive, even in its most basic form.

That’s just the start though, head to the top of the range and the stonking Giulia Quadrifoglio packs a 375kW/600Nm punch from a 2.9 twin-turbo V6. While it may not directly connect to Giulias of the past, there’s no denying the legacy takes a step-up in this generation.

Has there been a revived nameplate that broke your heart, or maybe one that reignited your love affair with a particular badge? There’s plenty more examples so sound-off in the comments and let us know your favourites.

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