Zero to Hero: Why do certain out-of-fashion cars suddenly get hot?
This past August, I vacationed in Nantucket. I highly recommend it if you enjoy feeling extremely poor. Even if you arrive aboard a million-dollar boat, you’ll surely dock next to someone with a $10 million yacht, which will be tied up next to a Gucci helicopter lashed to the conning tower of a Ferragamo submarine. When beaches erode in Nantucket, homeowners stabilize the dunes with a slurry of caviar soaked in Scotch and mixed with shredded money.
So why is everybody on Nantucket driving a twenty-five-year-old Jeep Grand Wagoneer? On any given day, the Grand Union grocery store parking lot looks like an AMC dealership circa 1983.
I had a buddy in high school who bought a 1979 Cherokee Chief – the Grand Wagoneer’s less-grand cousin – fiberglassed over the rust holes, and had himself a swell old four-by-four. But his primary motivating factor was the Chief’s price, which was $800. Nantucket is an interesting automotive case study, because money is truly not a factor. Nantucketers aren’t flocking to the Grand Wagoneer because they can’t afford a new Range Rover. They’re doing so because the Wagoneer somehow became cool.
Some cars are cool in the first place and remain so forever (say, a Ford GT40). Some cars are uncool from the start and will never improve (Pontiac Aztek, Suzuki X-90). But some cars start out cool, then go through a period when they’re considered deeply lame, and then finally return to coolness. The poster car for this trend is the late-’70s Pontiac Firebird.
The 1979 Firebird offered nine engine options, some of them nearly as appealing as a punch in the groin. The largest was a 403-cubic-inch V-8 that put out 185 hp. Throw in a three-speed automatic and a tasteful hood decal that recalled a chicken as interpreted by a drunken prison tattoo artist, and you had a car for the times. And those times were January through March 1979. By about 1990, late-’70s Trans Ams were driven exclusively by bank robbers, unemployed porn stars, and high-school truants. Yet now, nice ones are selling for $30,000 and up.
The cause of this resurgence, I think, is that the Trans Am is such an over-the-top representative of its era. It’s not halfhearted in its righteous ’70s style, and that gives it some sneaky appeal. The Wagoneer was something of an ’80s yuppie icon, and it presaged the fleet of luxury SUVs that would arrive the following decade. But I guarantee that nobody on Nantucket was interested in it during the years when it was merely a gas-guzzling used truck wearing fake wood and riding on a Cro-Magnon suspension. The Grand Wagoneer had to be uncool before it could become an antiestablishment fashion statement. You can’t “discover” something that never went away.
The cases of the Wagoneer and the Trans Am got me thinking about which contemporary vehicles will be in a similar position twenty-five years from now. And it seems that the prime candidate must be a vehicle with an outsize personality, one that defines a bygone era and inspires passionate opinions, both positive and negative. In 2034, I predict that the HUMMER H3T Alpha will be a cool niche classic.
The H3T Alpha is the ultimate representative of the SUV era. It’s a huge, body-on-frame V-8 pickup available with three locking differentials and thirty-three-inch tires, built by the most politically incorrect division of pre-Chapter 11 General Motors. Unlike the Chevy trucks with which it shares its major mechanicals, the Hummer is stylistically unapologetic. That’s why so many automotively ignorant people hate Hummer vehicles but don’t even notice the millions of Chevy pickups and SUVs that are so similar – because the jacked-up, squared-off H3T isn’t trying to hide what it is. And that is why it’s destined to be cool.
Like it or not, the H3T will be a major icon of the 2000s, the same way a tail-fin Caddy is to the ’50s or a Pontiac GTO is to the ’60s. If you took an H3T to Nantucket right now, you’d be chased by villagers wielding Williams-Sonoma torches and Restoration Hardware pitchforks. But slap a beach permit on one twenty-five years from now, and you’ll be an individualist with a keen eye for Americana.
If it turns out that I’m wrong, feel free to write me a letter. I won’t be upset, because I’ll be filthy rich by then, having used my cool-uncool-cool car theorem to capitalize on the imminent collectibility of a once-scorned outlier. You can put your money in the stock market, but I’ll keep mine in the IROC market.
By: Ezra Dyer
Illustration: Tim Marrs