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DETROIT AUTO SHOW -- 1999

Clinton tours 'retro' show

T-Bird, Charger recall bygone days

Originally published: Jan. 11, 1999

As a Detroit snowstorm seemed to bring down the curtain on the first automotive century, the industry put on a dream world reunion of old moments cloaked in glittering 21st-century techno-garb.

The air of fantasy continued through Friday, Jan. 8, when President Clinton toured the show. Although facing an impeachment trial in Washington, D.C., he found time to admire the auto industry's toys.

What he saw could be titled: What has the New Beetle wrought?

The show was littered with bits and pieces of bumpers and front grilles harking back to the glory days of carmaking.

The Cadillac Evoq grille dared to speak of the Roaring Twenties. The Ram-based Dodge Power Wagon pickup, with its brutish front end, hollered like a 5-year-old kid in a pile of sand, circa 1955.

A Ford Thunderbird reclaimed everything it had originally promised in the 1950s and then squandered. A rear porthole window. A V-8 Jaguar engine.

‘JUST COOL’

“Look at the T-bird,” enthused competitor Joe Eberhardt, vice president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc. “I don't know whether it's retro or whether it's new. It's just cool.”

In addition to Ford's T-bird, DaimlerChrysler AG is calling up the ghost of Steve McQueen with a new power-packed Dodge Charger. And General Motors threw the spotlight onto a new Chevrolet Impala.

Even Nissan Motor Corp., eager to assure America it is alive and kicking, could not resist giving the world back the car it cannot forget -- a new concept Z.

“Nostalgia is here to stay,” declared Michael Gialdini, senior manager for Dodge truck marketing plans. “As designs differentiate themselves, there will be more and more niche demand for the nostalgic vehicles.”

Retro fashion is nothing new. In fact, if anything, the auto industry is unfashionably late getting to the party. Twenty-somethings these days can be found jiving and jitterbugging to blaring late-1940s juke-joint jazz.

Chic young women can be seen dressed in the hip-hugger bellbottoms and stacked platform shoes of the pre-disco 1970s. And their dates wear horn-rimmed glasses and geeky new Gap shirts that young men unanimously rejected around 1966.

SAFETY BLANKET

Marketing executives and designers taking in the Detroit show wondered aloud about why such frivolity is seeping into automotive metal.

David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, explained: “American companies ran away from the past, and what they're finding out is that was not such a good thing to do.’’

J Mays, chief designer for Ford and one of the architects of the new fashion, suggested that carmakers are reaching out to the past for comfort.

“The late 1990s have been a little bit like 11:45 p.m. New Year's Eve and everybody's had three glasses of champagne,” Mays said. “Now we're remembering the good things and forgetting all of the bad things. We are starting to feel a bit pressured about the unknown, and at the same time, our safety blanket is looking back at what is familiar.”

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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