2000 VW New Beetle
With the recent and impending demise of the PT Cruiser and New Beetle, it would seem that the two early stars of retro design may be signaling an end to the trend as a movement in contemporary automotive design.
Although the recent retro craze may have picked up steam when VW showed a concept New Beetle at auto shows in 1994, retro as a concept has been around for some time. The king of retro design may be the evergreen Porsche 911, a car who’s shape dates to the 1963. Before the New Beatle was even a concept, Chrysler was pinning the Viper with inspiration from the AC Cobra of the 60’s. As for the New Beetle, by the time the design was finalize and pushed out to a welcoming market in 1998, other car makers began looking back on their own design catalog for greatest hits inspired products.
1997 Plymouth Prowler
The rush of products that followed the New Beetle covered almost every aspect of the market. The most charming of the retro cars appealed to both those old enough to remember their inspirations and anyone young enough to not know what a cassette tape was. Still other cars captured specific memories of hot rodding’s golden era of the 40’s and 50’s like Plymouth’s Prowler or the stylish flair of the 57′ Thunderbird with Fords release of the eleventh generation Thunderbird. The new T-Bird was designed by J. Mays same guy who brought us the New Beetle and the Ford GT, a retro inspired supercar. As with other forms of popular culture, the need to re-explore old concepts and themes is a constant. We hear it when rappers reapproation of old samples, and see it when new filmmakers and artists try to mimic the styles of the masters. Automotive design was fast becoming the new pop and America was paying attention to industural design again, thanks in part to firms like Apple. Design was becoming the ingredient that made a crop of otherwise technically competent cars stand out among their peers. Retro was a quick fix, when conventional design could not bring new buyers into the showroom. There was a lot of retro to go around and just as many interpretations.
2002 Mini Cooper
Some went as far as to replicate the original look and feel in a modern package. BMW’s Mini stayed true to the original Austin car from the 60’s, but with rock solid BMW technology. A few other cars used retro inspired detailing like the 94-99′ Impala (round 61′ style tail lights) or the 5th gen Mustang’s 65′ inspired side scallop. Retro seemed to work best as an all or nothing concept.
Retro cars are best when they represented a limited edition design that functions as a halo car. Both the PT Cruiser and New Beetle were intended to be long-term products with few design changes. As a result, they became stale and the market moved on, attaching its feelings of nostalgia to other cars. The soon to be canceled Chevrolet SSR pickup represents a halo car (or truck) with a limited production run that performed its job admirably. The HHR, although far from a halo car for Chevy will be riding into the sunset soon, only hanging around for half the time of the PT Cruiser.
Nostalgia as it were hits different age groups at different times. So the likely hood of it attaching itself to any car at any given moment is always present. Auto reminiscing sometimes ends up with history repeating it self in some surprising ways. Currently the big three all have retro styled muscle cars that hark to about the same era. All three incorporate modern technology (some more than others), but they are essentially modern versions of the cars they pay tribute to. Unlike the New Beetle or PT Cruiser, they have been evolving (the Mustang more than others).
Retro style is not limited to entry-level or muscle cars. Chrysler expanded on the wave it help create by expertly blendeding retro themes from various other makers into the design of its groundbreaking 300 luxury sedan. Even Mercedes is feeling a little nostalgic with the design of its SLS AMG supercar.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
Where will it end? It’s hard to say. There are new retro influenced cars on the horizon. Fiat’s 500 will be sold in the US soon and might become the next cute retro car must have (even though it’s retro point of reference is based in Europe).
As long as old people long for the cars of their youth. Retro style may always have a place in the automotive marketplace, especially as our culture moves faster and recycles concepts at a more alarming rate. Just as kit cars offered a path to replicas of Cobras, modern alternatives like California-based EuroMasters, offers a new electric replicas of Porsche 550 and 356 spyders. I’m already feeling nostalgic for old Diamond Stars and Civics from decades gone by. The future might well look like the 40’s or the 80’s for that matter if you wait long enough.
A Short Retro Design Checklist:
1997-2002 Chrysler Prowler
1998-2012 VW New Beetle
2000-2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser
2001-current BMW Mini
2002 -2005 Ford Thunderbird
2003-2006 Chevrolet SSR
2005-2006 Ford GT
2005-current Ford Mustang
2005-2011 Chevrolet HHR
2008 – current Dodge Challenger
2009 – current Chevrolet Camaro
2010-current Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG