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Auto Makers, in a Blast From the Past, Retool Iconic Trucks

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/12/2018 Mike Colias and Christina Rogers

While Americans have been promised a future of electric cars that can drive themselves, dealer showrooms are going back in time, as auto makers launch a slate of roomy off-roaders with nostalgia-inducing names.

Ford’s Bronco, the bulky SUV, is returning to the market in 2020, ending a nearly quarter-century hiatus. It is part of a comeback parade for throwback-mobiles including the Chevrolet Blazer, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Land Rover Defender and Ford Ranger. Jeep is resurrecting the Wagoneer and the Scrambler, while Volkswagen is toying with putting the Microbus back in the lineup.

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The retro trend comes during a renaissance in the U.S. truck market due to low gasoline prices, more efficient designs and a willingness among buyers to pay record prices for automobiles. About two-thirds of the 17.2 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year were pickups or SUVs.

Auto executives have a soft spot for historic brands, and nameplates like Taurus and Camaro, 350Z and Charger have gone in and out of retirement in recent decades. Bringing back old truck names, some retired due to political pressure or high fuel prices, is evidence these executives believe consumers’ obsession with heftier vehicles is a permanent condition.

“This off-road, rough-and-tough imagery is still very attractive to a large population of SUV buyers,” said Joe Hinrichs, global operations chief at Ford Motor Co., who lobbied for years inside Ford to revive the Bronco and the Ranger. “We saw a lot of value sitting there on the shelf not being used.”

“But you have to deliver to bring the value of the name out,” Mr. Hinrichs said. “It has to be able to climb rocks and go through dirt and sand.”

Analysts say auto makers save tens of millions of dollars by reusing old, iconic names. Jim Sanfilippo, a marketing consultant, said names like Bronco are “golden” because millennial buyers are familiar with their heritage.

Today’s pickups and SUVs, however, have more sway than their predecessors had over auto makers’ financial well-being. In the 1970s and ’80s, SUVs like Range Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser were largely niche products, capable rigs for rumbling through rugged terrain. They surged in popularity through the 1990s as stylish alternatives to station wagons and minivans.

Today, the bulk of profits earned at Ford, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV come from pickups and SUVs. Fiat Chrysler’s move to revive the Wagoneer, the roomy wagon that sported wood panels, or the Scrambler pickup based on the Wrangler could send margins even higher.

The strategy, however, has risk. In the late 2000s, GM, stumbling toward bankruptcy and pleading for taxpayer support, killed one of the best-known SUV brands in history, the Hummer. Executives phased out the Hummer lineup, which the Sierra Club said “embodied the worst impulses of the American auto industry.”

Some GM dealers and officials now regret that move as bigger vehicles have come back into fashion. “Very seldom did people take it off-road, but they loved them for the cachet,” said Ed Williamson, a GM dealer in Miami whose now-closed Hummer store was one of the nation’s largest.

While Hummer remains mothballed, other familiar faces are coming out of storage. Ford’s Ranger, once popular among buyers seeking a cheap truck, goes on sale in 2019, eight years after Ford killed the U.S. version. The auto maker is reintroducing Ranger after GM’s success with the 2014 reintroduction of two smaller trucks, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Ford is expected to unveil the Ranger over the weekend at an event ahead of next week’s Detroit auto show.

One person excited about throwback trucks is Bryan Rood, the 37-year-old owner of a small business in Columbus, Ohio, that restores old Broncos with modern-day interiors and Ford Mustang engines. He has a waiting list of nearly 50 buyers, even with some vehicles priced at $225,000, he said.

“People want the vintage SUVs,” Mr. Rood said. “But they aren’t buying them to show off at car shows. They’re driving them.” He plans to offer customization packages for the next-generation Bronco when it goes on sale.

GM is dusting off the Chevy Blazer name with a new model expected to start production at a plant in Mexico by early 2019, according to people familiar with the plans. A GM spokesman declined to comment. GM sold the Blazer until the late 1990s as a rival to the Bronco, although the new one is planned as an upscale crossover SUV, the people said.

a large red truck driving down a dirt road© dave lauridsen for The Wall Street Journal

Jeep, one of the faster growing brands in recent years, is expected to sell a Wagoneer by 2020, the first time since 1991 that “the Woody” will be available, with the base model likely priced around $60,000. Plans also call for a larger Grand Wagoneer, likely designed to rival $100,000 versions of Tata Motor’s Land Rover lineup.

Before the Wagoneer’s return, Fiat Chrysler will revive the Jeep Scrambler, a pickup-truck version of its popular Wrangler jeep last sold in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan owned a Scrambler and used it to do work on his ranch in California.

Other throwback names scheduled to get new life include Indian auto maker Tata Motors’ Land Rover Defender SUV, which hasn’t been in U.S. showrooms since 1997. Mitsubishi Motors resurrected the brand name of its Eclipse sports coupe, a popular car featured in the 2001 movie “The Fast and The Furious,” for its new crossover. And Volkswagen AG is even toying with bringing back its icon of 1960s counterculture, the microbus.


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