Allow me to cite an example. Freeman Thomas, now with Ford, is largely credited with thinking up the New Beetle design while he was with VW. This design, while visually matching the original VW ‘bug’, turned out to be tremendously inefficient given the VW chassis it was built on.

In order to have a curvature in the roof matching the original bug, the driver has to sit in the centre, and that makes for a dashboard that is seemingly miles long. After the novelty wore off, of having a New Beetle that looked like the old Beetle, sales began to slide.

So, is it too soon to sound the death knell of retro? Not quite. There are still success stories in the industry to point to. A much more successful example of retro is the new Mini.

The original Mini was made by BMC in England. Millions were sold. It was the car for young people in the 60s. Even the Beatles bought Minis – theirs customised by Radford, who also customised Rolls Royces and Bentleys. The original stayed in production for decades.

BMW bought the Mini name and marketing rights and designed an all-new Mini under the leadership of Frank Stephenson. Over 500 000 new Minis have been sold, in both coupe and convertible form.

The new Mini even survived a re-design after BMW realised the idea of having the headlamps mounted on the bonnet wasn’t very sensible, as they jiggled all the time. Now they are mounted solidly on the chassis and the new bonnet has holes in it for the headlamps.

The introduction of the Mini convertible was a brilliant step. Although the original Mini also came as a convertible, the new Mini convertible is much more of a mainstream volume offering than the BMC Mini convertible ever was.

One of the secrets of success with the new Mini is the extent to which BMW immersed itself in Mini lore. For instance, they arranged to buy the name ‘Cooper’ because in the days of the original Mini the hot models were the Coopers – those modified by Cooper & Son, racing car builders.

But will the new Mini soon suffer the same fate as the new Beetle; that is, will it peak out as soon as the trendsetters who bought the first wave of cars realise they are no longer setting the trend but instead driving last year’s hot ticket? In other words, will it become a victim of its own success?

The faithful (though much larger) rendition of the spirit of the original has undeniably strong retro appeal, but there is also only so far you can go in changing its lines before you lose its ‘Mini-ness’, so to speak. And this could pose problems for BMW in their efforts to further introduce new models.

There is another way to go retro that is thought to be safer than bringing back a full body shape and that is to use retro ‘design cues’. Chrysler tried to include retro influences from as far back as the 1930s in its Crossfire sports car, which was put into production in 2003 and is built on a first-generation Mercedes SLK platform.

The Joe Dehner-designed show car, called a ‘concept’ car in Detroit, is full-on retro, with a rear end that looks like a 1930s Raymond Loewy-designed streamlined diesel passenger locomotive.

The hood has grooves cut into it like a Chris Craft speedboat from the 50s and the interior is a symphony of simulated brushed aluminium, recalling the era when car dashboards were all metal, before plastics came into play.

The rear deck lid has a motorised, fully articulated spoiler that extends to add downforce. This is a gadget that warms the cockles of the hearts of techno-buffs who like mechanical gadgetry.

But, offered in both fastback coupe and convertible form, the Crossfire has been a dud in the marketplace, falling far short of sales projections. Why has it failed? Perhaps because there are far fewer members of the public who appreciate retro design cues than most designers realise.

Chrysler had earlier had a hit with the Plymouth Prowler, built between 1997 and 2002. This was a no-compromise car because it was full-tilt boogie retro, looking for all the world like a ’32 Ford roadster customised in the early 50s by George Barris, Dean Jeffries or some other wizard of the welding torch back then.

That car came about because Chrysler wanted an exciting car to test out new manufacturing methods. It had an extruded aluminium tube frame and many lightweight body panels. It was totally impractical – there was no trunk compartment for a start – but nevertheless over 14 000 were sold. And they are still selling for near their original US$30 000 price tag as used cars today.

Chrysler might not have made any money with the car, but it did finetune its method of building niche cars. It also created a morale builder that lifted the spirits of the employees and the dealer body.

Ford undertook a similar exercise in retro in 2005 and 2006, spending $100 million on tooling up for the Ford GT. At first J Mays, the design director, wanted a car that merely used design cues from the GT40 race cars of the 60s.

But after viewing a short-nose version that only had a few cues from the original, he realised it had to have the proportions of the original, so he authorised a design that was virtually an echo of the GT40.

The concept was well received and soon after came authorisation to produce it. The car was so popular that all the first-year models sold for more than their list price, and even the second and final year they sold for the full list price (US$160 000).

When it came time to introduce a mass-volume car, Ford clambered to safer ground, giving the present-generation Mustang a few design cues from the popular 60s version.

For the niche markets, it signed Caroll Shelby, an old Texan race driver, to produce some badged cars, just as it did from 1965 to 1970. With little invested in tooling to distinguish the separately badged Shelby models, Ford counts on a hotter engine, tapes, stripes and scoops to work the retro vein.

So far, it’s working. The car is selling for about US$10 000 more than the regular Mustangs in the same showroom, because of its huge horsepower (500 HP) and the Shelby name on its hood.

The retro concept is a double-edged sword in the car design world. No car company wants to be in the business of merely reproducing mechanically updated versions of formerly successful cars. And yet, if a designer sticks out their neck too far, there’s a risk they’ll get their head cut off.

Today’s car designers sometimes get too far ahead of the public’s taste, and that’s when we have a failure to communicate.

Retro is not dead, and won’t be dead as a design trend unless there are more large-volume failures. One thing’s for sure, retro is no guaranteed win. 

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