DETROIT — Don't count on seeing poodle skirts and hula hoops anytime soon. But another '50s icon, cars jeweled in gleaming chrome, is making a comeback.

While the return has been gradual, it has hit its zenith at the North American International Auto Show. Designers have unabashedly added chrome touches.

The shiny stuff doesn't just glint from big grilles and wheels. It also shows up on mirrors, door handles, trim strips, cowls and vents, tailpipes and side window trim.

The trick is to not get carried away. "If you are discreet, it does look like added jewelry. It's not overpowering or distracting," says Michael Nicholas, Chrysler Group chief exterior designer.

For decades, automotive critics ridiculed chrome as a symbol of American excess on the decadent hulking beasts that ruled the road at midcentury.

The industry instead embraced the clean, one-color austerity of the Europeans. Downside? "Cars all became the same," says J Mays, Ford's chief designer.

Now, instead of running from chrome, designers are starting to revel in it -- or at least plastic or polished aluminum versions made to look like it.

Where chrome is king:

Buick Enclave crossover concept. Chrome shows up on the door handles, around the side windows, parking lights, taillights and the three Buick vent holes in the hood. The door handles are chrome, along with bumper trim strip, tailpipe tips and the emblem in the rear.

Ford F-250 Super Chief concept. This huge pickup features chromed strips running across the transparent roof meant to evoke the dome-car feeling from the heyday of passenger-train travel.

Chrysler Imperial concept. The reincarnation of Chrysler's onetime luxury car has door handles, mirrors, window framing and a polished aluminum emblem across the back.

"We didn't want it to be garish, but just enough to give elegance," Nicholas says. The goal was to create a look of "stately nobility."

Cadillac Escalade. The new version of the Escalade, introduced last year, has chrome rub rails, door handles, running boards, engine vents and grille.

German automakers also have picked up on the chrome craze. Volkswagens, such as the new Eos convertible, and Audis, such as the Roadjet concept, have big, chrome grilles — not to mention brushed aluminum accents. "It definitely has a richness to it," says Audi designer Toby Gillies.

Most Asian nameplates have stayed clear of chrome. But the trend may grow to the point that it's too hard to ignore.

"I think we'll continue to see it," Welborn says. "It's a great way to complete the design."

See pictures of these and other cars from the Detroit Auto Show here.


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