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December 11, 2006

Retro? ... Why Not!

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"Retro" automobile styling doesn't particularly bother me, yet it apparently does in some professional design circles.

A while back I posted that styling lost its progressive thrust by the late 1940s. If that's the case, then borrowing themes or details from previous decades becomes a legitimate styling option.

That is, if there's been no fundamental "progress" and if there is no clear view as to what might represent "progress," then anything that works -- functionally and in terms of appearance -- can be used.

I suspect stylists (they tend to prefer the term "designer") proclaim dislike for Retro because they were fed the notion in school that their role was to thrust into the future fashioning ever-improved (stylistically) vehicles. I feel sorry for those who actually believe this. I also wonder how many stylists are like Hollywood Republicans and have leaned to either keep their mouths shut or mumble the sort of words expected by their peers.

If I were a pop-psychologist I might even assert that, for young stylists, Retro is a self-esteem issue. It would be a sign of no new design worlds for them to conquer. Why, they'd be in the same league as those despised architects forever designing in the Classical style.

Yes, I exaggerate. There are exceptions. Ford's J Mays has supervised a lot of Retro styling. And Freeman Thomas had a major hand in such Retro projects as the Volkswagen New Beetle and the original Audi TT sports car.

In spite of the grumbling I see in car magazines, Retro cars keep appearing. An example that struck the fancy of long-time designer Robert Cumberford (columnist for Auto & Design, and design editor for Automobile magazine) was BMW's Concept Coupe Mille Miglia.

The Concept Coupe (as I call it here) is a show car inspired by the BMW 328 aerodynamic coupe that won the (modified beyond recognition) 1940 Mille Miglia road race.

For more information on the 328 coupe, click here and scroll down.

Here are some views of the 1940 racing car and the 2006 show car it inspired.


1940 BMW 328 Mille Miglia Coupe

BMW 328 - 1.jpg

BMW 328 - 2.jpg

2006 BMW Concept Coupe Mille Miglia

BMW Mille Miglia Concept Coupe - 2006.jpg

BMW Concept Coupe - 1.jpg

BMW Concept Coupe - 2.jpg

BMW Concept Coupe - 3.jpg

BMW Concept Coupe - 4.jpg

As can be seen, the show car is clearly similar to the racing car, yet no detail is identical That's what makes the Concept Coupe an excellent example of Retro done right.

I suppose, in theory, the engineers who designed the Mille Miglia racer might have duplicated the show car styling had the technology been available. Which is another key: Good Retro can create what original designers might have created had they the materials and fabrication techniques to do so.

Even though I've been making a case that Retro is not the spawn of the Devil, I'm not saying that styling must be Retro. My contention is, it's hard not to avoid Retro -- especially with regard to details. To cite one example, most practical shapes of doors have probably already been explored.

If a few creative, new bits can be added to a design, that's great! This is easiest where new technology is in play, and currently that's been in the area of exterior lights (headlights, tail lights, etc.).

Regarding the Concept Coupe, if you are familiar with Chris Bangle styling of BMWs, you should be able to pick out creases and complicated curves (such as are found on the Z4 sports car). So its design's really a combination of an old theme and styling cues along with some current styling elements and perhaps a dash of new twists (that diagonal strip light at the rear, for instance).



posted by Donald at December 11, 2006


If the above is a throwback, I'm all for it! That is one f'ing beautiful car.

Style is going to follow consumer reaction; as evidence, the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Unfortunately, the minority crowd loses out; as evidence, I love the style of my '97 Honda CRV but they insisted on changing it this year and making it look like all the other SUVs that flooded the market immediately after. They made the same mistake with the Civic Wagon and rounded out the boxy edges that both cut down on style and storage room.

Retro? Yeah, I'd like to see the '57 T-Bird on the road again.

Posted by: susan on December 11, 2006 2:06 AM

Great post, Donald.
One question. On the 2006 concept car, isn;'t the rear window incredibly small? So small that it's an accent rather than a necessity? And, if so, does it matter as nothing will be able to catch up with it except another 2006 Mille Miglia?

Posted by: DarkoV on December 11, 2006 8:47 AM

My complaint with 'retro' styling in lower end cars such as all the new Chevys is that they have all the forms 'right' but they have no character of their own. Mere shadows of their predecessors. It's a infringement and bastardization of history.

Posted by: Eric on December 11, 2006 1:33 PM

The designer of the Concept Coupe borrowed his sculpting from the Italian futurists (which is perfectly alright).

I like everything about his design except for the faux airvents and the red rear roof stripe. It would have been perfect without any ornamentation whatsoever.

Posted by: ricpic on December 11, 2006 3:21 PM

Oops. That's a strip light not a red stripe. Quess you can't do without it. Sorry.

Posted by: ricpic on December 11, 2006 3:24 PM

I hate the concept car. Paint it black and it can be in the next Batman movie. It's like a parody of the Mille Miglia.

I can't really understand what the executive rationale for these retro cars are. Car buffs clearly pine for the Mille Miglia, so why not just manufacture a new one one, faithfully duplicating the styling of the original with up to date technology everywhere else?

This is the mistake Ford amde with their recent failed Thunderbird. It didn't have the look of the original. It looked more like the first Corvette.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on December 11, 2006 3:25 PM

I'll bet visibility in both cars is very poor. Nice looking, though.

Posted by: Bob Grier on December 11, 2006 3:39 PM

Great post indeed. The retro-styling thing is an interesting phenomenon, isn't it? I like the fact that there are some retro-ish cars out there. It livens up the usual mix of teardrop cars and minivans and Hummer-ish vehicles and such. Thanks to the retro-ish thing, in other words, there's more visual variety on the road. Fun!

It doesn't even bug me if they aren't particularly good or bad cars, or even if the designs themselves are well-done or not. Maybe I'm wrong to do so, but I like the looks of the recent Tbird, for instance. I get a little blast of visual/cultural pleasure when one drives by. But like I say, mostly I like the new Tbird for the way it affects my general on-the-road experience.

Yet I run into some people who really hate the whole retro thing. I'm puzzled by this. What isn't cool about having more visual variety on the road?

(This aversion-to-retro attitude seems to be especially common among designers. Could it be because they feel it's an insult directed towards them?)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2006 10:34 AM

On a formal level, stylistic preferences and associations aside, there's no question that the TT, the New Bug, and some recent Jags are very well designed. The original Miata / Lotus too. Personally, I don't like all the Batmobile / hot rod cars, liking just the opposite: simple geometries, lots of glass, etc. You know, like BMWs used to look before American Steven Bangle became their head designer. Now they look like Oldsmobiles.

Posted by: john on December 12, 2006 1:28 PM

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