Just Fade Away

Designers prefer the loftier sounding "heritage design."

A cursory look at the latest offerings from auto manufacturers in both production and showcar guise reveals that retro design themes may be on their way out. It's ironic that the hottest design trend opening the 21st century was less about heralding some space-age future than celebrating the middle part of the century that just closed.

This pop culture phenomenon arguably started with the launch of the Volkswagen New Beetle in 1997 and saw its influence in a wide range of vehicles, from the entry-level Chrysler PT Cruiser up through high-dollar roadsters like the BMW Z8, a car that paid homage to the BMW 507.

Design practitioners, who also eschew the word "styling," are loathe to call these throwbacks "retro," preferring the loftier sounding "heritage design." Retro, however, is convenient shorthand to describe cars that recall an earlier time. The strong tug of nostalgia is further proof that there is more to a car's appeal than its ability to transport someone to and fro – it can be, in some ways, a time machine.

Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.

The retro revolution of the early 2000s is littered one-hit wonders.

A number of retro designs endure. The VW Beetle, even in its latest incarnation, retains much of the flavor of the original, although on this go around, it has a much more conventional interior. The Dodge Challenger is another, and certainly the modern interpretation of the Mini seems to have caught on and continues to evolve and spin off variants never imagined by Alec Issigonis. (Discuss among yourselves whether Mini is good or bad retro.)

Other designs that play on retro themes, like the PT Cruiser, had a fairly good run before being abandoned by Chrysler. The Mexican plant that produced this throwback mini-wagon is now churning out another retro-inspired ride, the quirky Fiat 500. And then there was the Chevy clone of the PT, the HHR, which is now but a memory.

The retro revolution of the early 2000s is littered with a lot of cars that became the automotive equivalent of the music industry's one-hit wonders. There is no better poster child for this than the Ford Thunderbird. It looked cool, but lacked the performance one would expect from a compact two-seat convertible. Or how about the V-6 powered Plymouth Prowler? Retro hot rod looks alone can take you only so far.

Relying on this approach of playing off a company's heritage can be both a blessing and curse.

In addition to the production cars, retro fever saw a flood of nostalgia-inspired showcars that never quite made the transition from show stand to showroom. A few of my favorites of the past decade include the Chevy Nomad, Ford Fortynine, Cadillac Sixteen and the Chrysler Atlantic.

Retro design's pull on both designers and enthusiasts who buy them is strong, but as Jaguar's Ian Callum has pointed out, relying on this approach of playing off a company's heritage can be both a blessing and curse. In the case of Jag, merely rehashing designs of the Mark II in the latter day S-Type really didn't do much to evolve a brand's image. And as he points out, a lot of those designs that this retro approach emulates were cutting-edge propositions back in the day. As a result, by throwing off this slavish devotion to what once was frees a marque to redefine itself for the future, much as this famed British make has done with the new XF, XJ and F-Type.

The secret lies in tapping into the greatness of heritage while keeping the vision firmly fixed on the future.

In its own way, the retro philosophy – where the car is sort of a modern doppelgänger of a previous classic – will not disappear entirely, but it will evolve. The car to watch as the way forward will be the next-generation Ford Mustang, due in 2014. It will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first pony car and while the 2005 version very much was sort of a modern knock-off of the original, the next one promises to be recognizable as a Mustang, but in a much more contemporary way. Retro will live on, but it will be in the proportions – such as the classic long hood, short rear tail of the Mustang – and in the detailing rather than trying to build a faithful recreation. The secret will lie in being able to tap into the greatness of a marque's heritage while keeping the vision firmly fixed on the future.

What do you think about retro automotive design?
It's excellent, we need more of it 992 (32.9%)
It's okay 1410 (46.7%)
It should be left in the past where it belongs 615 (20.4%)

Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      I think VW would've have more success with the beetle being the cheapest car on the market.
      Avinash Machado
      • 2 Years Ago
      I like Retro design. Much better than some modern bland designs like Camry.
      • 2 Years Ago
      As long as they sell why would they stop making them, some seem to forget that many of those models like the Camaro that are selling pretty good now were discontinued years ago because the "modern" look wasn't selling
      • 2 Years Ago
      We need more, but they shouldn't be cheap cars only made to look like the old thing.
      Brian Regan
      • 2 Years Ago
      I don't care if it's horribly underpowered. I'd still love to own a Prowler.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I'd love to see a retro-styled VW Bus with a TDI motor! If it was done right, that car could be amazing.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I love retro and hate people who say that design is dated. Well, that's the whole idea, it's dated back when your proud to take the car to a car show. As a PT cruiser owner and wishing for it in 2000, I'm happy owner. Still see PT cruisers in car show because it's customizable. It's the only car I know of that you can have 2 shelves in the back thus having 3 levels of storage. Each level able to hold 200+ lbs. Or if you need the room, remove the seats & shelves and you have flat floor van loading. Car companies should make modern design and retro on the same platform just like VW does with Jetta & bug. I wish ford would have made the 49er off the Jaguar XJ S platform. I wish the canceled 2005 T bird would have gone one more generation under the new better handling 2006 Mustang platform. Making it a track star like the Mustang. The Fusion is a modified Aston Martin nose. PT cruiser died because management wouldn't up grade it. The big caravan got similar fuel mileage with an upgraded transmission. The 2006 outside change was ok but the inside was destroyed with that big grab handle on the dash. PT cruiser should have had a 2 dr 1.6L-2.0L economy, 3.3L or 2.4L turbo 180hp + 6sp auto, extended wheel base 6" + 6 " over hang for additional room behind the rear seat. I've heard people talking with families wanted the car but no room for stroller + shopping. Plus make it standard with 2 rear shelves that can hold 200+250lbs + cargo net behind the seat. Then if they made that, a 2 door pickup off that platform. The big miss also is the lack of bringing a small diesel to US market. I still wish they would build a VW bug pickup and for those who dislike retro, a jetta nosed pickup with the 2.0L diesel. I bet the bug pickup would hit more car shows over the jetta nosed pickup.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Actually the retro movement started with the original Dodge Viper in 1992 and it's concept car in 1989. The goal being to re-imagine the iconic Shelby Cobra. Pretty successful even though it was digging up another brands heritage.
      • 2 Years Ago
      There will always be a market for retro designs of cars that have emotional meaning. I think women as a particular market demographic find retro design attractive because it turns what can often be an appliance (Camry) into a personal statement (Nee Beetle, Fiat 500).
      • 2 Years Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      I'll take a retro TR6 with modern mechanicals. Are you listening BMW? They own the Triumph name.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Are you related to Peter DeLorenzo? If you haven't got the memo, he hates Chrysler more than the American public hates Congress. He did like the new "old" Beetle however.
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