November 14, 2012—Since styling and design became a concern to the auto industry, design trends have been cyclical (think organic as opposed to geometric) and tended to influence, as well as mimic the overarching fashions in global industrial design. The latest design movement is called “geo-mod” from geometric and modeled (think Apple iPod). But it’s not new (around since the early 1990’s) and can be found in auto design as well (the first generation Audi TT is a shining example). Just as every movement has sub-genres, one of Geo-Mod’s subgenres is Retro-Futurism. While Retro-Futuristic cars can be Geo-Mod, this is not a strict requirement (there are always exceptions).

Retro-Futurism is rooted in the late 1970’s and 1980’s at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. If one had to speculate, it seems a response to the severity and absurd formality of American cars of the 1970’s. Retro-Futurism was heavily inspired by California culture: surf wagons, hot rods, and small European weekend racers all had a place in the collective imagination of Art Center’s Transportation Design program those days. Some of the era’s graduates that would bring this design language to us were: Chip Foose, J Mays, Bryan Nesbitt, Frank Stephenson and Freeman Thomas.

When discussing Retro-Futurism the obvious starting point is the VW Concept One/ New Beetle (1994/1998 respectively). Designed by Freeman Thomas and J Mays, it captured the world’s imagination and in the US, where baby-boomers remembered Woodstock (and all of its VW Microbus and Beetle connections) it reminded us of a [supposedly] simpler time. Fortunately for the New Beetle, its Geo-Mod and Retro-Futurist leanings happened to overlap with the design trends (organic) that were prevalent at the time and allowed auto design to make a smooth transition from organic back to geometric.

Other Retro-Futurist vehicles released simultaneously (or before) were the Plymouth Prowler (1997) influenced specifically by the 1932/1933/1934 Ford, but more by hot rods in general. But the Prowler was a niche vehicle, which only sold about 11,000 models throughout its five-year run (for comparison, the New Beetle sold nearly 10 times that amount in its first year of production alone).

Audi TT

Audi TT concept sketch (photo: Audi AG)

From the same parent company as the VW New Beetle came the Audi TT, released almost simultaneously. Designed by the same team as the New Beetle, the Audi TT wasn’t based on any specific car, but was a sort of amalgam of German heritage, borrowing from the Auto Union racecars and the upside-down bathtub aesthetic of early Porsches.

Camilo Pardo Ford GT

Ford GT concept sketch (photo: Ford Motor Co.)

While the Europeans pioneered Retro-Futurism via their American designers, those designers were quickly plucked away from VW/Audi by Ford. The results of this move were obvious: the GT, Mustang, and Thunderbird were all a result of J Mays stewardship over Ford design.  But by this point Retro-Futurism was a global automotive design trend. Mini was reintroduced by BMW, Chrysler built the PT Cruiser and a slew of nostalgic show cars. GM sold the HHR and SSR. And today, Fiat has resurrected the 500, GM has brought back the Camaro styled to look the first generation, and Chrysler’s lineup includes Retro-Futurist cars such as the Challenger and Charger.

Unfortunately, the packaging is often better on the original car than on the Retro-Futurist one. But today’s cars are far safer than their predecessors. However, the real concern from a design perspective is how the design will develop once it needs to be restyled post-Retro. Will the next Ford Mustang look like the Mustang II? Doubtful. How about the Fiat Cinquecento? 

It seems that many of these cars will require a radical restyling or they will go the way of the Porsche 911. Obviously, Geo-Mod and Retro-Futurism will eventually fall out of favor and be replaced by The Next Big Thing. Perhaps rather than looking to the past for answers the next wave of design will look to the future, emerging markets or materials engineering for inspiration. [kiWO]