The Terrible Twos: Detroit’s Sequels Through The Years

Smart movie producers know that a sequel to a blockbuster film is the closest thing to free money in Hollywood.  The audience is “pre-sold” and even a mediocre film can make serious coin by trading on the name of the original. But the formula, such as it is, is definitely not foolproof.  Everybody loved The Sting in 1973.  But you could fit every fan of The Sting II into a Chevette Express.

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed that there are no second acts in American life.  But that certainly doesn’t hold true for Detroit.  Shameless sequels have been infrequent but by no means rare in the car game.  It’s high time that someone took a look at the follow up models to some of Detroit’s blockbusters.  How do we remember the car after the car?  This list is subjective and by no means complete.  And some of these cars didn’t share one bit of hardware with their progenitor.  But they all used their namesake to tempt buyers into scratching a check and driving one home.

Good sequel: Continental Mark II.  For 1956,  FoMoCo unveiled a timeless classic that traded on the design themes of a legitimate milestone car and managed to maintain the original’s dignity.  The Mark II was an expensive car ($10K in strong ’50s dollars) and looks good to this day.  Part of the reason that it still conveys grace and dignity is the lack of tacky ornamentation and faddish cues like tail fins and giant chrome geegaws stuck on every surface. The Continental was the first model of Ford’s (overly) ambitious plan to create a stand-alone division above Lincoln, and its life was far too brief.  It appeared for ’56 and ’57, and even with the sky high price, Ford lost money on every Continental ever built.

Good sequel:  Mercury Capri II -1976-1978.  The original Capri had been a spiritual revival of one of the most popular cars of all time.  It was sporty, economical,  fun to drive and made money for FoMoCo. The sequel was even better.  With a pair of modern, powerful engines and good looks to match, the Cap II was a evolutionary design that kept the flavor of the original, while broadening the appeal of what was already a good design.  The updated look planed off some of the dated body sculpting, while keeping the essence of the original.  The 2.8 V6 and 2.0L OHV 4 had plenty of ponies for rally driving or interstate travel and was economical to own.

Bad sequel:  Ford Mustang II – 1974-1978.  It was cruel fate to come of age in the mid ’70s and buy your first new car after all of the fun and excitement had been removed from it by shifting political and economic winds.  True, the ’71-’73 series was just as far removed from the original as could be, but to use a Pinto chassis on anything but a Pinto was pure evil.  The II was a sheep in sheep’s clothing, but Ford needed the volume in those days of gas lines and high inflation.  It’s a pity that the sequel never lived up to the original.

Bad sequel:  Lincoln and Continental – 1958-1960. Liberace’s car.  That kind of sums up this dreadful, enormous chrome spattered mistake that was built at Ford’s Wixom plant from 1957 to 1960. Every styling cliché imaginable went into this car and none of them improved the look a bit.  From the weird canted headlights to the weird canted tail fins, these cars oozed kitsch.  And this car was big. I once attended a car show where half a dozen were lined up for judging and I wouldn’t get too close to them.  I was afraid that Zero fighters would drop out of the clouds and start strafing me.  The next gen Conti was a much more dignified and understated car.  Technically, this was Continental Mark III, but was airbrushed out of Lincoln’s corporate history when HF II declared the 1969 Mark III the direct descendant of the two original designs. This causes some confusion even today.

Bad sequel:  Lincoln Continental Mark IV- 1972-1976.  What?  Another Lincoln?  No, not really.  More like a Thunderbird with a faux Rolls Royce grille.  The IV was thirsty, tacky and pretentious, but it sold surprisingly well (over 150,000 copies 74-76).  It was a cash machine for Ford and proof of the old adage that nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public.

Bad Sequel:  Chevy Citation II – 1984-1985.  Quality does matter.  The “First Chevy Of The ’80s” went from the best selling car in America to total collapse within 36 months of launch.  What went wrong?  Locking brakes, faulty powertrains, leaks, overheating, you name it.  If British Leyland had made the Citation,  no one would have batted an eye.  But GM actually made some good cars in this era and the multiple problems with the Citation were inexcusable.  The Citation II was an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of the original and restore GM’s reputation.  It didn’t work.  It took a totally new line of cars (Celebrity, 6000, Cutlass Ciera and Buick Century) to wash off the stink of the X-Car debacle.  GM added some sheetmetal to the basic X-Body (which bumped the Celeb to the midsize class) and raised the price a couple of grand.  Celebrity became the best selling car in America.

Bad Sequel: Renault Encore – 1984- 1987.  Okay, this is not a Detroit sequel, more like Kenosha.  Here’s a car that advertised its sequel status with its very name.  The Encore was no great shakes as a car, (it was basically a hatchback Alliance) but it was an exercise in corporate overreach that summed up the whole Renault/AMC partnership in those years.  The Alliance had won Car Of The Year honors the preceding season and it probably would have made sense to pull up a marketing stool and milk that recognition for all it was worth.  But Franco American created an entirely new name and proved once again that they were completely tone deaf to the American car market.  It came and went quickly and had almost no market presence after the early adopters were satisfied. Today, it seems to be in Detroit’s witness protection program.  A lot of them were parked behind barns and sheds when they broke down and never ran again.

Bad Sequel:  Ford LTD II – 1977-1979.  The Torino had grown as obese as Elvis during the early and mid ’70s and by the end of its run (in ’76) was a full size car inexplicably classified as a midsize.  After a short run of Elites, Ford unveiled the LTD II which traded on the name of the flagship and brought generic styling to its highest expression.  The II was cobbled together using some of the same themes present on its namesake, and offered a surprisingly full lineup (Wagon, 2 and 4 doors, Ranchero).  But it was the wrong car at the wrong time as there were no engine options except big, thirsty V-8’s.  After the second oil shock in 1979, cars like this became virtually unsaleable and Ford dumped the deuce and didn’t replace it in the lineup.  Most were junked when their carbureted engines started going out in the mid 80’s and are rare today.

Bad Sequel: Ford Bronco II -1984 -1990.  Back in the ’80s, Sport Utilities were more utility than sport.  The critical mass of car buyers (especially women) had not warmed up to their truck like road manners and hard ride. The minivan was the vehicle craze of the day  and serious 4 wheel drive machines were still ruff tuff camping/fishing/backwoods rigs. The original Bronco had appeared in 1966 and over the years had morphed into a full size SUV that had an expensive unleaded gasoline habit.

By 1984, Ford decided that the time had come to downsize their big Bronc to grab a piece of the compact SUV pie, that was soon to be gobbled up by the new Jeep Cherokee.  The donor chassis was the new for ’82 Ranger small truck and sales were initially quite strong.  But the Ranger was designed to haul light cargo over real roads, not outdoorsmen who wanted to climb 45 degree angles in the woods.  When the Bronco II started rolling over in those woods, Ford had a PR disaster on its hands.  The B II ‘s unfavorably high center of gravity was baked into the vehicle and couldn’t easily be corrected, so when Consumer reports gave the vehicle the dreaded “avoid” label in March of 1989, sales dropped off a cliff and never recovered. The Bronco II was replaced by the Ford Explorer in 1991.

Good Sequel:  Hummer H2 – 2002-2009.  Some will argue that this is a bad sequel.  Those that do usually attend Earth Day rallies and believe that politicians can save the whales.  The H2 was controversial in its day and it sure didn’t save Hummer (which is buried next to Oakland in the GM corporate graveyard), but it made money that GM needed at the time.  The H2 was more a lifestyle appliance than practical transportation, and many were bought as “company cars” because they enjoyed favored tax status due to their nearly 8700 pounds of ground crushing weight (which made them a commercial vehicle).  They sold reasonably well at the start of their run and eventually grew to over 33,000 units at retail.  But 10MPG and a crashing economy in 2007-2008 absolutely killed demand and by the end, barely 1500 units shipped in the final year.  GM very publicly shopped its Hummer division to potential buyers in the latter years and the few buyers that existed for this kind of vehicle didn’t want to drive an orphan.  The whole Hummer division no longer exists.

Good Sequel: “New” Beetle – 1998-present.  Okay, different platform, front engine instead of rear and a working heater.  The New Beetle is not for everybody.  But it’s cute.  And it was one of the rare times when a giant car maker actually listened to the clamor for a new car that had started as a concept that was done on a lark.  It’s been a success;  fourteen model years is a miracle in this era for an essentially unchanged design.  But then again, that’s been a tradition with the Beetle.

Bad Sequel: Dodge Charger/Challenger – 2006-present.  A four door Charger?  I don’t care how many curves it has in the roof line, it’s still a four door and not a real Charger in my book.  Real Chargers never saw fleet duty with the state patrol and never turned up at Avis or Hertz.  The Challenger uses the same chassis but at least its a two door, like its namesake.

Okay, this is by no means the final word on sequel cars.  What’s your favorite second act?  What car deserves resurrection? Which should have stayed buried?