During the last decade of the 20th century a wave of retro cars were shown as concept cars or sold as production cars.
These vehicles re-used details and characteristics of designs from the 1950s and 1960s or perhaps ideas of these times. I will not discuss the reasons for this trend but rather retro design itself, and the two alternatives, modernism and classicism. I take the view that the best industrial design is impersonal.
That is to say, the designer acts as a channel that collects observations about what the user wants and syntheses them with the other demands such as production and marketing. A car is a product which must satisfy the needs of the producer to make a return on investment within the limits of social responsibility (quite broadly defined) and meet the needs of the user.
The car is a personal possession and therefore first must satisfy the emotional and functional expectations of the consumer. It is closer to an item of apparel than to a building in this sense. It is a temporary feature of the environment rather than a contribution to the public space. Buildings are long lived and exist in a site specific context. Cars drive off or just rust away. I mention this because often the ideas of architectural modernism often bleed into discussion of automotive design. I will come back to this later.
A little bit of history.
After the initial phase where vehicles obviously inherited much from the form language of the horse-drawn carriage, designers developed their own visual norms. This period was one of inherent modernism in that vehicles’ forms evolved with a sense of direction: lower and smoother were the primary parameters. Secondary to that were technical changes driven by safety, economy and production efficiency. For a period which is conventionally started by the advent of the 1947 Cisitalia 202 until the early 1990s, one can say all cars were modern by default. They eschewed the conscious re-use of stylistic characteristics from previous decades while deploying small features in the name of brand identity: the Hofmeister kink (BMW), aerodynamic cues (Citroen), ventiports (Buick).
In building design, starting in the 1970s, there was a revolt against the norms of Modernism (established by the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier among others). Architects such as Robert Venturi led the way. It was realised that Modernism was not an objective attempt to design the most efficient buildings but another style, one which failed to respect the social as opposed to physical needs of people. The orthodoxy of functionalism, narrowly defined, was called into question. A new approach to architecture had arrived. Landmark works in what came to be called Post-Modernism include Philip Johnson’s 1978 ATT building and the 1991 Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London by Robert Venturi. Post Modernism can be defined as the return of “wit, ornament and reference”. These buildings used decoration overtly and they also responded to their surroundings. In product design, Ettore Sotsass formed the Memphis design group to bring “Po-Mo” to the world of furniture and consumer goods.
Car design eventually began a Post-Modern movement of its own, Retro. Notable examples would be the the 1989 Nissan Figaro and its cousins; the 1994 VW Concept 1; the 1995 Ford Scorpio; 1998 Rover 75; 1998 Audi TT; 2000 Plymouth PT cruiser; 2001 Jaguar X-type and 2001 Lancia Thesis. (The new Mini of 2001 has become so normal I didn’t even think of it until I had put away the first draft of this for a few hours.) The appearance of these cars made it apparent that in car design there were now three paths to choose from when selecting a form language for a car. I will come to those below.
No to Retro
The objection to Retro is best expressed by Patrick Le Quement, former senior designer at Renault, who said that one does not move forward by looking in the rear view mirror. Other objections to retro design are borrowed from an architectural standpoint. They are, put various ways, that we should design objects that are “of their time”. This is the zeitgeist approach: there is a spirit or character of our times that the designer should respect and cleave to. From this view point it is wrong to design a building in the manner of the 1870s as this is out of keeping with the spirit of the period (say, 2015). Such buildings are called insincere, pastiche and kitsch. Both critiques are underlain by what I consider to be an idea that itself is outmoded: Modernism.
Modernism is the idea that design makes artistic progress and that form is dictated by function. But only engineers make progress. Function is often too narrowly defined. The other aspect of this is that cars are not buildings – architecture is the home of the functionalist ethos. Cars are personal objects. The existence of a retro car (say, the Rover 75) does not limit the choice of the consumer or impose upon them if they do not prefer this style. A building imposes in a way a car doesn’t. It takes the place of other possible buildings. The car market, on the other hand, is broad and the choice large (among which is the choice not to buy anything at all).
How do we draw the line in what is and is not allowed by strict Modernism anyway? In clothing people still wear ties even if this garment has its roots in the 19th century or further back. Jeans are derived from 19th century workwear. Is it retro to wear jeans? Le Quement wore a tie. Lastly, the zeitgeist argument is a fallacy. The spirit of the times is not an objective thing but whatever designers or anyone else chooses to make of it. It is whatever happens now. If one of those occurrences is that a man in 2015 wears 1750s clothes, the “2015 zeitgeist” includes a man who wears old-style clothes along with all the other styles worn by every one else at the same time. The zeitgeist idea asks the designer to second-guess the “style of the times” and to shape something that she thinks corresponds to that. That is not artistic freedom (another calling card of architects).
The alternatives to retro design are classicism and Modernism. Classicism can be understood as an attempt at design neutrality, to use existing forms and current production techniques along with moderately to slightly expressive forms. Audi and BMW currently take this approach. Modernism is harder to spot as it can be for post-Modernism (or is that vice versa) and retro. The Audi TT was inspired by the Bauhaus movement, a defined architectural style of the 20s and 30s – its retro Modern. The Citroen C4 Cactus could be interpreted as a Modern car though a further examination of it shows that its styling has aspects that are purely decorative (the c-pillar inverts the glass/bodywork relationship). Actually, it’s hard to find a modern car these days. I think this is Modern, the 2015 Nissan sport sedan concept:
Classicism shades into what one can call “contemporary design” such as is found on Fords, Opels and Renaults. Here the designers have apparently tried to create moderately distinctive forms that are at or near the limits of what has already gone before. If anyone is trying to second-guess the zeitgeist, it is the purveyors of unobjectionable consumer design such as these. They seem to be asking “What should we be doing now?” rather than “How could the future look?”.
What is function anyway?
Returning to my opening remarks, I see designers are craftspeople not artists. And I see their job as being to find the most appropriate form to meet a given “need”: your new car. It could be that the target market expects or might like a boldly Modern design which pushes the boundaries of what is expected and prioritises pure functionality. The 1998 Fiat Multipla is one such car. But if one function of the car is to sell and make a profit for its manufacturer, the Multipla is not a very functional car at all.
The Rover 75 very clearly drew from its brand’s roots, as did the Jaguar S-type. These cars were met with strong criticism as if they stopped other makers from doing exactly as they wished. They didn’t. They had something in common with the Multipla. They were offered upon the basis that, after a careful examination of the conditions pertaining, customers might like this kind of styling. As it happened, this analysis was wrong but in themselves, the cars were as valid as those offered by other makers who had used identical methods to determine what the market wanted from them.
My contention is that there is no approach to form language that is objectively right. You can with certainty say you do not like a given design but you can’t say that this means it is wrong or unacceptable. Correct design is another matter: it is about whether the design is resolved in such a way that it is internally consistent and accords with general principles of proportion and detail solutions. I need to stress that my argument about correctness and subjectivity here is not one that can be imported into architecture, the most political and public of the crafts. Architectural objects are part of a long and slow dialogue. Intersubjective matters of taste do have a bearing just as we, as a society agree what is and is not acceptable (which has public and private aspects).
Three design paths
My feeling is that each retro car (or any other car) should be taken on its individual merits. I have room to admire the archly retro Nissan Figaro and Rover 75. I see them as extremely interesting examples of how to re-use forms and details from earlier times and thereby to try to satisfy the customer’s emotional needs as well as the simple need to get from here to there.
At the same time, I can respect the classicist approach of Audi which shows how to maintain the long-term value of the brand, communicate quality and, finally, to produce design objects worthy of scrutiny. The same is true for the professional and practical approaches used by Ford, Renault, Peugeot, Nissan and Opel and others. Each design can be assessed in terms of whether it meets the needs of the buyer and whether the final shape is correctly resolved. That allows room for Rover 75s, Fiat Multiplas and even Nissan Pulsars.