It is ironic that the auto industry is embracing 'retro' design even as it promotes a technology revolution. Think about it: We are witnessing the introduction of fuel cells, brake-by-wire, stability control, night vision, steer-by-wire, 'smart' airbags, telematics, voice recognition and video screens for cranky children. On balance, this is good stuff. New technology will make our cars safer, cleaner and more efficient.
But we are losing our emotional connection to our cars and trucks. In the old days, any 18-year-old could open up the hood and find his way around the carburetor. But how many kids can reprogram the engine control unit on a modern vehicle? We feel nostalgia for simpler times when we could play do-it-yourself, and the auto industry knows this.
Apple Computer's Steve Jobs once boasted that computers have replaced hot rods in the minds of teen-agers today. Some prominent auto designers think he's right. A year ago, Ford designer J Mays unveiled a concept car dubbed the 24-7. The most important thing about it was the cockpit's array of communications gear. Mays took a lot of criticism for the car, which was boxy and ugly. But he was trying to get people to focus on the instrument panel, not the exterior.
I don't believe automotive designers have figured out how to react to the 21st century. It's as if the industry's top designers are trying to feel their way through a darkened room. Chrysler designer Trevor Creed acknowledged this in his speech in January at the Automotive News World Congress. Young designers in school, he noted, are producing boxy, offbeat designs that look weird to industry veterans.
So we seek solace in retro designs. The recent Detroit auto show was a treasure trove of retro. The Ford Forty-Nine, Thunderbird roadster, BMW Mini and VW Microbus are clever adaptations. As their designers noted, they were not slavish imitations of the past. Instead, they grafted old design themes onto new technology. This was especially true for the Microbus, which featured flat-panel video screens.
I suspect that the retro craze is an interim style trend, something for the industry to cling to until a new millennial style emerges. I feel certain of one thing: We haven't seen that new style yet.
E-mail Editor David Sedgwick at [email protected]