Three years ago at the 1998 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), when Volkswagen unveiled its wonderfully nostalgic New Beetle, it successfully took the soul of the original and put it into an entirely new body, creating a wave of excitement around a vehicle with a decidedly retro look.
In spring 1999, Jaguar brought back the S-TYPE, British nomenclature last seen in the 1960s. Wearing an elliptical vertical-bar grille and four round headlights like its '63 namesake, the S-TYPE helped Jaguar achieve its best-ever sales year in 1999.
Several other automakers have since followed suit, creating retro-inspired vehicles that tug at our nostalgic heartstrings.
At this year's NAIAS and Los Angeles International Auto Show, many new concepts, as well as a couple of production vehicles, featured retro design cues. Retro is back, so to speak—and it's hitting highways around the country.
Anyone Wanna Go Cruisin'?
Arriving in showrooms first is the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the vehicle that begs the question, "Is it a car or a minivan?" With a starting base price of only $15,450, the PT Cruiser features a skin reminiscent of a mid-1930s sedan, not to mention panel trucks, Woodys and street rods from the 1940s and '50s.
Bryan Nesbitt, Chrysler PT Cruiser exterior designer, said, "You can't avoid its retro-yet-still-contemporary cues." These cues include chrome door handles, a signature wing badge, pronounced fender flares and bullet-shaped taillights.
BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine
When looking at Munich's all-new supercar, the Z8, it's hard to overlook the styling elements made famous on the legendary BMW 507. From the twin-kidney grille and side air vents to the chrome door handles and bulging wheel arches, BMW designers successfully integrated the 507's classic design features into the Z8.
"All these features from the bible of sports car design, though entirely reinterpreted, contribute to the appearance of the Z8," said Chris Bangle, head of BMW design. "It gives the new sports car that distinctive look that says, 'This is a BMW—the legend lives on!'"
At the NAIAS 2000, Chevrolet and Chrysler—two automakers with a lot of history making 1950s road burners—came ready to rumble, unveiling concepts with big V8s and retro styling.
The Chevrolet SSR taps into decades of Chevrolet heritage, evident in its styling and in the head-snapping performance of its 6.0-liter V8. Ed Welburn, director of GM's Corporate Brand Character Center, said, "The front end design is unmistakable Chevrolet, drawing on its heritage of the early 1950s. The strong fender forms, in side view, are very much a part of Chevy's brand character, especially in that kind of line that spins off the wheel."
Chrysler's 300 Hemi C sports heritage too, especially under the hood. Its 5.7-liter 353-horsepower V8 is modeled after an engine—the legendary 5.7-liter Hemi V8—that powered many of Chrysler's race cars in the 1950s.
But what's power without good looks? The 300 Hemi C's proportions, seemingly endless hood and monocoque profile with pronounced wheel flares pay homage to the celebrated '57 300 C in a completely modern interpretation. "This vehicle explores a direction we might take if we were to return to an all-American V8, rear-wheel drive luxury performance car such as the famed '57 Chrysler 300 C convertible," said Tom Gale, executive vice president of Product Development and Design.
If built, the SSR and 300 Hemi C could hit streets in production form in two to three years.
European Air—With Flair
Both Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz have a long history of building beautiful 2-seat roadsters, such as the E-type and 190 SL, respectively. In Detroit at the NAIAS 2000, aspects of this beauty returned in the Jaguar F-TYPE Concept and Mercedes-Benz Vision SLA Concept.
Clearly, the F-TYPE's design—highlighted by a sleek shape, a long hood and small, singular taillights—was inspired by the 1960's E-type roadster, better known in the U.S. as the XK-E. "The F-TYPE Concept is a clear signal of Jaguar's intent to return to the true sports car market in which we were so successful in the 1950s and '60s," commented Jaguar's managing director Jonathan Browning.
While the F-TYPE's retro inspirations are predominantly exterior, the SLA's are primarily interior. With a futuristic-looking body, which features a Formula One-type nose, the SLA goes retro with a metal shiftgate, a classic round instrument cluster, a radio with a drilled-aluminum face and large knobs, and an aluminum luggage rack on the rear decklid.
If Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz move ahead with these new cars, they could reach the market in two or three years, priced around $50,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Return of the Dune Buggy
Volkswagen ignited the retro fire with the New Beetle. Now it's stoking it with the New Beetle Dune, a concept unveiled at the 2000 L.A. International Auto Show.
Evoking memories of dune buggies and Baja Bugs, the Dune maintains the fundamental, retro shape of the New Beetle. But unlike the New Beetle, the Dune sports a V5 engine, 4MOTION all-wheel drive, 18-inch wheels, and a removable middle portion of the roof.
Although the Dune is an able off-roader with spunk, it's unlikely Volkswagen will send it on to production. However, an all-wheel-drive New Beetle could be in the cards in the near future.
Minimobile Has Major Retro Appeal
Posted Thursday, September 28, 9:00 P.M. CT
PARIS—After the reception that greeted the return of the Volkswagen Beetle, it’s no surprise that BMW is expecting a similar reaction to the Mini Cooper. Ever since BMW first announced the car would return, the official debut here in Paris of the British-built Mini Cooper has been a much-anticipated event. Fans of the “Mr. Bean” Britcom will recognize the Mini as the vehicle driven by Rowan Atkinson’s title character.
“The Mini is a piece of automotive history. Our mission was to combine the emotional power of the former model with the technology of the future,” chief designer Frank Stephenson said. BMW inherited the Mini from its relationship with Land Rover. Sales of the old Mini have slowed outside the UK and Japan, but BMW thinks the new version will revitalize the brand.
The four-seater features a 16-valve, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and enhanced safety features such as a stiffer body, standard front and side-impact airbags and an optional head airbag system. A 1.4-liter engine will come later, and BMW said it is readying an automatic transmission especially for the U.S. market. Production of the first group of cars is set to begin in March 2001 at BMW’s Oxford, England, facility, with Minis available in BMW dealerships next summer at a price of around $14,000. BMW expects to sell 100,000 in the first year worldwide, with a long-term goal of 200,000 sales per year.
Other Retro Concept Cars
Chrysler Atlantic (Concept) V W Microbus (Concept) Ford Forty-Nine (Concept)
Dodge Super Hemi 8 ( Concept )