Retro: Yes or No?

During the last decade of the 20th century a wave of retro cars were shown as concept cars or sold as production cars.

1989 Nissan Figaro
1989 Nissan Figaro

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.

1947 Cisitalia 202. Image from Bonhams. Auction your goods with them and not eBay.
1947 Cisitalia 202. Image from Bonhams. Auction your goods with them and not eBay.

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.

Is that Hofmeister kink retro?
Is that Hofmeister kink retro?

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).

ATT Building by Philip Johnson.
ATT Building by Philip Johnson.


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.

1981: dresser by Memphis Design group.
1981: dresser by Memphis Design group.
1991 National Gallery extension. Image: wikipedia. Give them some money now.
1991 National Gallery extension. Image: wikipedia. Give them some money now.

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.

1994 VW Concept One.
1994 VW Concept One.

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).

Jaguar-X-type_2794124bHow 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).

1997 Plymouth Prowler
1997 Plymouth Prowler

Retro’s revelation

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:

2015 Nissan Sport Sedan concept. Is this Modern?
2015 Nissan Sport Sedan concept. Is this Modern?

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?”.

2004 Nissan Cube: is that modern, Modern or Post-Modern?
2004 Nissan Cube: is that modern, Modern or Post-Modern?

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.

Rover’s rationalism

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.

207 Fiat 500: a very retro design indeed. Image: That´s a site about the F1 key on the Qwerty keyboard.
2007 Fiat 500: a very retro design indeed. Image: That’s a site about the F1 key on the Qwerty keyboard.

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).

1998 Rover 75
1998 Rover 75: actually quite good and perfectly legitimate. There are other cars to buy if you don’t like this one.

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.

2001 Mini: aw retro as New Beetle but nobody objects. Image: I wonder what that site is about.
2001 Mini: as retro as New Beetle but nobody objects. Image: I wonder what that site is about.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

15 thoughts on “Retro: Yes or No?”

  1. ‘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.’

    I’d argue that this particular argument didn’t actually exist at the time – or if it did, only insofar as there might have been a fear that car makers would see it as an exit route out of whatever design rut they had got themselves stuck into throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
    But mostly in these two examples I think criticisms were emitted out of concern that Rover and Jaguar had nowhere to go design-wise, and were being reduced by their then-owners to mere pastiche of ‘Merrie Olde England’.

  2. I’ll need to review the original articles to see what was said. My text used the woolley phrase “as if” precisely to obviate the need for any such diligence. If things had gone well for Rover they may very well have moved on from Retro by now. That would have been interesting to see. I suppose Jaguar has made that move.

  3. Rover and Jaguar’s problems were that they were both re-invented in the 90s as ‘traditionalist’ brands. But, until the XJ4 entered its 20+ year lockdown, that wasn’t the case at all with Jaguar. Equally, despite the ‘Auntie’ Rover jibes, the P4 was thought of as advanced on release, Rover spearheaded gas turbines, and the P6 was very modern.

    It’s interesting that revisiting another company’s designs (Nissan) seems more acceptable to me than revisiting your own (VW). Also, you can’t simulate evolution. The 911 is acceptable because it has always been in production – if that path had been interrupted by a series of wedge shaped and blobby coupes, today’s 911 would be viewed as eccentric. The New Beetle imagined how the original would have changed, whilst removing the elements that made it that way – ironic that a car whose main market had been those people with no interest at all in automotive fashion should be presented as something hip.

    A defence of retro could be that you are completing unfinished business. Taking something that was inherently right, was killed before it had been thoroughly exploited, so worthy of reviving. Are there any real examples of this? Hypothetically, if Fiat were to ditch their ghastly 500L and bring back the Multipla idea and shape and develop it further, ditto Renault with the Avantime, I’d be happy, but others would doubtless accuse them of going retro.

    Incidentally, Richard, you repeat the accepted wisdom that the Multipla was a sales failure. Certainly it wasn’t the huge critical success and game-changer that Fiat had hoped for, but the fact that it remained in production for 12 years has always suggested that it was earning reasonable money for Fiat. However, the truth is that, despite peaking at 50,000 pa in its original form, for most of the remaining years it average 20,000 units a year. Compare that with the 94,000 for last year of the awful, but hugely successful, 500L. So, yes, accepted wisdom is right, retro sells like hot cakes and the market is stupid. Or I am.

  4. A good retro car has to be like a younger and a bit better looking version of your mother – with all the good and practical characteristics of her too.
    That was or still is the problem of cars like the New Beetle, Chevrolet SSR, Ford Thunderbird or the Plymouth Prowler – they are more like a lazy, posh, arrogant and too self-convinced younger sister of your mother.
    So i do not like many real retro cars. Nissan Figaro, Nissan Pao, Fiat 500 and some versions of the Mini. Not because they are retro, but because they have real nice interiors, nice colours, big sunroofs and their ” i am not aiming to look like a big car” style. The first Twingo is such a car too – without having retro-style.

    My opinion concerning the lighter retro-philosophy of the Golf, Audi, Porsche etc. :
    I don´t want my new car looking like a twin of my old car, so I would never spend a lot of money to replace a Golf VI by a Golf VII. But lot of people do this.
    So i understand the reasons for this light-retro-style. It is a good way to avoid risky design experiments and to stabilize resale prices. And a lot of customers do not want design experiments – i am thinking again at some kind of mother-emotions.

    Are there any examples of retro styling at airplanes or trains? I don´t think so. Retro-style has only a chance on emotional things like a private car.

  5. My personal gripe with retro car design is that too often it’s a creative cul de sac. Once you go retro, what then? BMW have struggled with Mini. VW have made something of a mess with the Beetle. Fiat are trapped with the 500. Surely the best way to evolve retro is to abandon it?

    Is the 1995 Ford Scorpio retro? I’m curious to understand how you reached that conclusion.

    1. My first idea: It can be accepted as a modern interpretation of the 1964 Ford Corsair.
      My second idea: Ford was returning to a more american way of car-design, a way they left at the ´78 Granada and the ´84 Scorpio/Granada.
      The used-bar-soap-design of the rear with the Las Vegas light-strip is typical for american cars of the 90-ies – and some alloy-wheel-designs are americanised too. The front is not really american but it has lost its serious european character.

  6. Ford designers explicitly referred to older car design. I think Rover’s chrome-grille 800 inspired them.
    The point I hoped to make was that if Retro works try it; when it doesn’t do something else. BMW could try a new Mini concept if they wanted. Nobody is stopping them.

  7. Rover’s de-evolution to retro is interesting. You would probably call SD1 modern (unless you consider it a retro-pastiche of a Ferrari Daytona of a few years previous). The first 800, especially in fastback form, took a lot of SD1 cues and pasted them over a Honda base and still seemed to be moving their styling forward. Then came the 800 facelift, with a chrome grille, which seemed a harmless enough conceit at the time and certainly improved sales. Finally both 600 and 800 morphed into the 75 which was truly retro in concept (though it didn’t really refer to any actual past Rovers) if agreeably so.

  8. The 75 had a number of retro elements. The lower parts of the doors echoed the P5. I think the general uprightness drew from the P4. The Aston Martin Vignale influenced the boot. The chrome generally harked back to the 60s generally. And the grille suggested the P4 and P6.

  9. My inner conservative likes the 75, especially the estate (I don’t like sedans in general). And the good thing is they’re bloody cheap to come by now.

  10. Time has been kind to the Rover 75. Both the estate and saloon still look good and they appear to weather well. The estate is an especially handsome car. They waited too long to bring it to market but I suppose there were not enough resources to hurry development. You can see a few estates still hanging around here. Some Danes have a thing about English style and when they try Anglophilia tend to gently overdo it but also do it an a way the English never do.

  11. I would agree that retro should be well done, even more so than modern designs. Unfortunately, most retro designs end up completely botched, be it a product of different engineering and laws (the broken-egg-shaped 500, the “over-bumpered” New Beetle) or just a kitschy, superficial overall idea.
    I’d argue though, that the Concept One by Mays and Thomas was quite a successful exercise in retro, marrying a very unusual stance with the strictly circular theme that didn’t try to mimic the old car as hard as the current generation does. It’s still an exception, along with a couple of other examples (the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Prowler being one, in my opinion).

    1. The Concept One is a odd case. It has the gross form of a Beetle but every other scale has modern treatment. It’s geometrical while the original is quite organic. Our old friend the Rover 75 has retro detailing as well as a hell of a lot of surface richness. Both approaches are valid; what matters is the integrity of the resolution.

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