The rise and fall (and rise again) of retro car design
Odds are you probably never liked the Chrysler PT Cruiser, a retro-style five-door hatchback sold from 2001 through 2010. In fact, you might even hate it. Most people do. Just ask Tom Gale, Chrysler Corporation’s former vice-president of design.
“The PT Cruiser gets hammered by a lot of people,” Gale said. “But it really hit a spot. You know, we sold 1.3 million of those things.”
Today, it’s easy to forget how outrageously popular this compact car was when it was launched. Credit the PT Cruiser’s success to its retro look, which was a relatively new automotive design trend that was growing in popularity at the time. The PT Cruiser would ultimately be but one of many retro-style vehicles created by automakers. Others include the 1989 Nissan S-Cargo, 1991 Nissan Figaro, 1992 Dodge Viper, 1993 BMW Z8, 1994 Dodge Ram, 1994 Ford Mustang, 1997 Jaguar XK-8, 1998 Plymouth Prowler, 1999 Jaguar S-Type, 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle, 2001 Mini Cooper, 2002 Ford Thunderbird, 2002 Jaguar X-Type, 2004 Chevrolet SSR, 2004 Chrysler Crossfire, 2004 Ford GT, 2004 Jaguar XJ-8, 2006 Chevrolet HHR, 2008 Dodge Challenger, 2009 Chevrolet Camaro, 2011 Fiat 500, 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, and, most recently, the forthcoming 2022 Ford Bronco.
What’s retro design, you ask? Simply put, retro design takes a famous car design and reintroduces it using as many of the original car’s styling cues, but updated with contemporary surfacing and contemporary technology. The idea proved crucial to Chrysler Corporation, where Gale and his colleagues used it to their great advantage as a way to offer a look and feel that was a little bit different from the competition in a particular market segment.
From the start, Gale understood retro design in a way few others did, and automotive designers are only now beginning to understand what Gale knew then: retro design brings with it not just a recognizable look, but also an essential understanding of what a new model should be.
How the past became the present
An early example of retro design dates to 1988, when Bob Lutz, Chrysler’s president of operations, proposed building a sports car not unlike the original Shelby Cobra. The result was the Dodge Viper Concept, which debuted at the 1989 Detroit auto show and reached production three years later. “Some people call it retro, but I really don’t see it that way, even though we made no bones about the fact that it was inspired by the Shelby Cobra,” Gale told Ars. “We tried to do something that was a different take on it, but yet it was something that would be instantly recognized.”
While production figures were never large, the Viper helped change consumer perception of Dodge and Chrysler Corporation. As such, Gale would go on to exploit retro design in a series of concept cars, some meant for production, others not.
“Some of them were pretty literal to what we were thinking or where we were pointing and then others were really pretty far-fetched,” he said. “And part of it was just testing the waters to see how much was too much and how much was too little.”
What many competitors didn’t realize was that Gale used retro-styling for inspiration, not imitation. “We were obviously looking at our own heritage as a company and then sometimes we borrowed heritage that might not have been ours,” Gale continued. “But if you did a concept car, pretty soon it becomes ours. You’re out there showing it and now you own it. And so that was an important consideration and an important strategy with what we did with those 50 or 60-odd concepts.”
Borrowing other companies’ heritage was notably successful on the 1994 Dodge Ram, which channeled the language of Kenworth and Peterbilt. “It was a pretty big leap, but we had nothing to lose,” Gale admits. “Market share for the Ram at the time was six percent or something like that. And after doing the Ram, it wasn’t long before we were in the 20s.”
Or consider the 1995 Chrysler Atlantic concept car, a design study that recalled 1936’s Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. While Chrysler never built a production version, many of the Atlantic’s smaller cues were used on the Chrysler Chronos and Citadel, allowing the surfacing to become more familiar. This led to Gale lifting these classic elements, such as grille textures or fender flourishes and integrating them into aggressively modern production cars, giving them a timeless quality. The result can be seen on the C-pillar on the Chrysler LHS, or the grille on the Chrysler Concorde. It’s something that designers who followed in Chrysler’s retro wake would miss.
Even Gale’s most decidedly retro design, the Plymouth Prowler, had an ulterior motive. “As a company, we didn’t have resources for a lot of research,” Gale said. “We had no idea about forming and standing and extruding and welding and bonding aluminum itself. So Prowler really was all about that as a testbed.”
As a hot rod enthusiast himself, Gale knew most of the hot rod community was not going to accept the car. “Their whole reason for life is to change something that someone else came out with. To me, it was always more about gaining the research through the suppliers that we have working with us on that.”