From the New Beetle to the new Mustang, from the PT to the GT, retro automotive designs are hot.
"Americans always are in love with retro," says Michael Marsden, dean and vice president of academics at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis.
Marsden is an expert on popular culture and a former car culture columnist for Motor Trend magazine.
"In automobiles, exciting design is at the top end of the market, not at the mid-range," Marsden adds. "Designers are playing far too safe."
Designers fail to recognize that to the buyer, "It's all about style, about using a car to make a statement," Marsden says.
Car companies may not be willing to take what they see as a risk with cutting-edge design in the middle of the market. But they eagerly look backward for exciting designs that have proved successful.
Still, retro works only if it is well executed, warns C. Edson Armi, a professor of art and architectural history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Any car that originally was well executed, if you really understand what made that car great, then you can do good retro," says Armi, who has written two books on U.S. automotive design.
"The Ford GT has a lot of emotion that the Thunderbird doesn't have," Armi adds. "People want freshness, not reheated leftovers."
Displayed here are a variety of recent retro designs, with commentary and even a letter grade - from the author, not the professors.
Volkswagen New Beetle
Inspiration: 1949 -77 VW Type 1
Launched: 1998 model year
Sales history: 275,659 since launch; 30,504 in first eight months of 2004
Comment: Volkswagen didn't want a New Beetle. In fact, things were so bad in the early '90s that VW appeared to be next in line to follow Alfa Romeo, Renault and Peugeot in retreat from the U.S. market. But a pair of American designers -- J Mays and Freeman Thomas -- convinced VW to put their bright yellow Concept 1 on the stand at Detroit in 1994 and Beetlemania swept the country.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
Inspiration: 1940s sedan delivery vehicles
Launched: 2001 model year
Sales history: 562,590 since launch; 79,858 in first eight months of 2004
Comment: The Pronto Cruizer was a concept at the 1998 Geneva show intended to draw attention to a new Chrysler-BMW joint-venture engine project, but it ended up being a "segment-busting" car that carried a generation back to its teen years, spawning Cruiser clubs and customizers.
Inspiration: 1955-57 Ford Thunderbird
Launched: 2002 model year
Sales history: 51,354 since launch; 8,992 in first eight months of 2004
Comment: Mediocre interior in a car that was both way too expensive and way too late. The new 'bird debuted as a production-ready concept at the Detroit show in January 1999 but didn't go into production until nearly two years later. By then, the buzz had dissolved into (yawn) sleepy zzzz's.
Inspiration: 1970 Datsun 240Z
Launched: 2003 model year
Sales history: 85,012 since launch; 21,781 in first eight months of 2004
Comment: Carlos Ghosn's business plan may have revitalized the company, but it was the Z car that reinvigorated Nissan staffers and customers. While clearly inspired by the original Datsun sports car, the new Z is clearly a contemporary sports car.
Inspiration: 1959 Austin Mini
Launched: 2003 model year
Sales history: 83,353 since launch; 22,753 in first eight months of 2004
Comment: When asked to design a car only four feet wide, four feet tall and just 10 feet long that could seat four adults and carry their luggage, engineer Alec Issigonis didn't just build a small car, he created a cultural icon -- and then racer John Cooper took it from there. When BMW bought Rover Group in 1994, the Mini brand was part of the package, and the new Mini is delightful, inside and out.
Inspiration: 1947-52 Chevrolet pickup trucks
Launched: 2004 model year
Sales history: 8,113 since launch; 6,449 in 2004
Comment: The Super Sport Roadster's design pleases the eye, but the retractable top takes it out of the price range of the young guys for whom this could have been a contemporary El Camino. Like Plymouth hot-rod Prowler, SSR figures to have a brief lifespan after an initial burst of attention-seeking buyers willing to pay a high price for an impractical vehicle.
Inspiration: 1949 Chevrolet Suburban
Sales history: to be determined
Comment: Will anyone really accept the link between the Heritage High Roof -- built on a compact car-based platform and powered by a four-cylinder engine -- and Chevy's legendary workhorse?
Inspiration: 1960s Ford GT40 racecar
Launched: summer 2004
Sales plan: Ford will build only 4500 units and figures that dealers will keep a third of them to attract showroom traffic.
Comment: It took Ford some 40 years to put its GT sports car into production (the original hundred or so street-legal GT40s were mildly modified racecars). The team that developed this 205-mph sports car faced a tough assignment: create a modern car within the confines of an ancient racecar shape while meeting contemporary regulations and a seemingly impossible timetable. It will be interesting to see how Ford percolates the team's process into other production programs.
Inspiration: 1963 Honda S500
Launched: 2000 model year
Sales history: 42,804 since launch; 5,353 in first eight months of 2004
Comment: Soichiro Honda's first car was no front-drive econobox. It was the S500, an innovative roadster with a half-liter, aluminum engine that breathed through four carburetors and spun to 8000 rpm. To help celebrate Honda Motor's golden anniversary, the company produced another revolutionary roadster, the S2000, and gave American auto enthusiasts a big thrill/small package treat they hadn't experienced since Colin Chapman launched Lotus.
Chrysler 300C and Pontiac GTO
Grade: Chrysler B+ (we're saving the A for the Dodge Charger coupe coming on the same platform); Pontiac D- (and shame on GM for tarnishing an historic nameplate).
Inspiration: 1950s Hemi-powered American family sedan (300C) and 1960s American muscle car (GTO), though these cars are retro more in name than in design
Launched: Chrysler 300C (2005 model year), Pontiac GTO (2004 model year)
Sales history: Chrysler 300: 65,709 since launch (includes 300M); GTO: 5,630 since launch.
Comment: Chrysler's reinterpretation of the classic American sedan (and station wagon in the form of the Dodge Magnum) has been such a gangbuster that it's been featured in "gangsta" rap videos. On the other hand, the Pontiac, a rebadged Australian Holden, is almost invisible on American roads, not only because of slow sales but because it looks more like an oversized Sunfire than any sort of muscle car. Too bad, because the GTO is a wonderful car to drive and might have made a worthy successor for GM's F-body Camaro and Firebird.
Inspiration: 1967 Ford Mustang
Launched: fall 2004
Sales history: to be determined, but there's a lot of pent up demand
Comment: When I graduated from college, my graduation to myself was a 1969 Mustang fastback. When I saw the concept for the new Mustang at the 2003 Detroit auto show, it was like falling in love with a first love all over again. Hmmm, I wonder if Ford has any Indian Fire paint left its palette.