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Car styles: Heritage, not retro

April 26, 2006

Classic auto styling cues Pony car proportions
  • When Ford Motor Co. redesigned the Mustang, the goal wasn't to produce an exact copy of the original Pony car, said Kevin George, a Ford design manager.

    The designers were interested in proportions: the relationship between the cabin and axle, the balance between the front overhang and back overhang, the angle of the A-pillar running along the front windshield.

    These proportions create a classic, George said. It's not about simply reinventing old designs with new materials, he said.

    "The foundation of it is proportions," George said. "It's the basis for deciding what happens on top of it."
Camaro 101: GM designers go back to muscle car's roots
  • General Motors Corp. designers intentionally went all the way back to 1969 when they were developing the new Chevy Camaro concept car, said Bob Boniface, GM director of advanced design.

    The Camaro, discontinued in 2002, admittedly took some unfortunate twists and turns as it evolved, Boniface said. The car started to look more and more like a big rocket ship, he said.

    As they developed the concept Camaro for this year's North American International Auto Show, GM designers went back to the roots: the 1969 Camaro, a true muscle car.

    "I don't think that going for the rocket ship, one more turn of that crank, is the right way to go," Boniface said. "We figured we would go back to the icon, assume the Camaro had never gone out of production. What would that car look like today?"
Preserving an icon
  • Sometimes, retro means staying with a design that works.

    The Porsche 911 and Jeep Wrangler are examples of designs that worked decades ago and still work today, said Mark Allen, a senior designer for DaimlerChrysler.

    In fact, customers have complained about what seemed like minor changes. Remember the square headlights on the Wrangler? They didn't go over well with loyalists. As a result, Jeep returned to the trademark round shape of the original headlights several years ago.

    "Some vehicles always have been right -- inspired from the beginning," Allen said.
Japanese retro?
  • This year, Toyota released the FJ Cruiser, a throwback to off-road vehicles of the 1950s and '60s, but the retro trend really hasn't taken hold with Japanese automakers, said Bill Chergosky, a chief designer with Toyota Motor Co.'s Calty Design Research.

    For the most part, Japanese design is less retro and more futuristic, pushing the envelope as far as possible from a technology standpoint, Chergosky said. The "J-factor" is about being on the cutting edge, he said. It's about standing out.

    "Toyota doesn't look back," Chergosky said. "They try to look forward."
Auto design slang
  • Auto designers speak in their own language about cars and trucks. Here's a sampling of terms and phrases shared by some of the industry's leading designers.

    The J.C. Whitney look: A design element that looks added on or out of place; named after the J.C. Whitney catalog for add-on parts and accessories.

    Craptastic: An auto design that's fundamentally awful despite being well-presented.

    It looks like an RV: A common derogatory phrase used to describe a design with awkward trim or molding.

    GoDaddy styling: A form of expressive design that seeks to excite real people, not just impress other designers.
ON 5E: Auto designers discuss their craft
  • Ford: The Mustang is not an exact copy of the original but borrows its classic proportions.
  • DaimlerChrysler: Jeep returned to the trademark round shape of the original headlights.
  • General Motors: Designers went back to 1969 when they were developing the Chevy Camaro concept car.
  • Japanese automakers: For the most part, Japanese design is less retro and more futuristic.
A group of leading auto designers agreed Tuesday the term "retro" makes them cringe.
"It's one of those evil words in design," said Ralph Gilles, Chrysler Group vice president of Jeep, truck and component design. Gilles was part of a panel assembled in downtown Detroit by the Automotive Press Association.
Retro sounds as though designers are borrowing from the past because they can't come up with anything new, Gilles and the other designers said. That's not true, they said. They're focusing more than ever on timeless designs.
But yes, if consumers and the media insist on using the term, retro will continue, the designers said.
The Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger concepts unveiled this year at the North American International Auto Show were inspired by '60s muscle cars.
Instead of retro, please call it "heritage," said Pat Schiavone, director of design for Ford North America. Automakers are returning with great American style, designs that connect with customers and stir emotions, he said.
"It's not just boomers having a midlife crisis," Schiavone said. "This is something important. It's not a fad that's going away."
Contact JOE GUY COLLIER at 313-222-6512 or [email protected].
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