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.
Designers prefer the loftier sounding "heritage design."
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.
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.)
The retro revolution of the early 2000s is littered one-hit wonders.
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.
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.
Relying on this approach of playing off a company's heritage can be both a blessing and curse.
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.
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.
The secret lies in tapping into the greatness of heritage while keeping the vision firmly fixed on the future.