By on September 25, 2018

Image: PSA Group

There’s no debating the fact that I draw far more inspiration from older, classic designs than futuristic ones. Hardly progressive of me, I know. While some want nothing more than to gaze upon an autonomous egg and envision a life where the act of driving gives way to the act of commuting, face buried in smartphone, to me that sounds like a vision of Hell.

That’s why last week’s Peugeot e-Legend concept — an unabashed nod to an attainable French coupe of the 1970s — grabbed my attention. It absolutely looked the part, yet incorporated all of the things we’re supposed to lust after in 2018: autonomy, electric propulsion, etc. Compare the e-Legend to Mercedes-Benz’s Vision URBANETIC. Two takes on the future; one desireable, the other terrifying.

What Peugeot and its “Unboring the future” tagline attempted to do was show we needn’t abandon our emotional connection to a car just because it doesn’t burn gas. Just because it drives itself some of the time. But can anyone trust this rosy vision?

It’s too good to be true. Retro design and technology and two doors? There’s two things wrong with this vision of our electric, autonomous future, and it’s not the one in the middle. Maybe there’s a niche to be filled by small, personal sport/luxury coupes in the future, but most of our driving — autonomous or not — will take place in rolling people movers. Think of a Dodge Journey in Minority Report.

And in this era, like today, we’ll most likely be presented with two-and three-row crossovers, perhaps a bit more pod-like, that eschew classic or (tasteful) retro design in favor of bland, inoffensive exteriors designed to please as many people as possible. With the exception of the still-unseen Ford Bronco and the Jeep Wrangler, what contemporary utility vehicle pulls off a retro look? What vehicle even attempts it? When coupes and sedans vacate the room, it’s hard to transfer those styling sensibilities to a two-box vehicle.

That’s not to say retro should be applied in a broad, haphazard fashion. Far from it. It’s a dangerous tool capable of backfiring on the user. I don’t know anyone who longs for the return of the PT Cruiser or HHR, though, to be fair, people shouldn’t malign the latter vehicle to the same degree as the former.

Maybe the future of retro is just made up of small nods, here and there, to the past. One flourish, one cue, one tiny Easter egg. The pony car trio will soldier on until their respective OEMs can’t justify the nuisance of keeping them in production, while luxury sedans — which seem more likely to adopt heritage styling cues — dwindle in number. Small sports coupes and roadsters? These vehicles like showing off their DNA, but the market’s shrinking for that crowd, too.

Let’s close with this question: In your vision of the future — say, a period 10 to 20 years from now — do you see any embracing of the past in the automotive realm, or is it a landscape filled with cold, sterile people pods?

[Image: PSA Group]

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55 Comments on “QOTD: What’s Left for Retro?...”


  • avatar

    With modern construction techniques, Jaguar could produce a replica of the E-Type, Ferrari could do a 250 GT SWB, Aston Martin could do a DB-5, etc. — all with the required safety & emissions equipment and decent aerodynamics for economy.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Where is the Bill Mitchell? Alec Issigonis? Why do we only look backward for great designs?

  • avatar
    ajla

    The future is going to be a mixture of transportation pods and HD trucks.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    6.2L Corvair. The bow tie needs this car.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Retro is dead and lazy. If you’re gonna go retro, go all the way and dust off the old dies. Otherwise, come up with something new. “Retro” is like one step away from Audi’s design paralysis at this point.

  • avatar
    jeoff

    Actually, with everything going SUV, a PT Cruiser makes even more sense now, than when they first came out.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Virgil Exner. Use electric motors so that CAFE requirements don’t restrict the design to ‘wind tunnel’, and weight requirements. The front ends would have to be redesigned for pedestrian safety. However the rest of the vehicle could emulate the most decadent styles from his catalogue. 2 tone pastel colours. Fins. Lots of chrome. Make American Cars Great Again.

    • 0 avatar

      Hear hear! Much of what makes retro appealing is it’s inefficiency and imperfection. It’s the art of intention compared to the perfection of engineering. Pedestrians should just not stand in the road.

      • 0 avatar
        R Henry

        Take a 1971 Buick Riviera. About the most inefficient vehicle one could imagine….but sooo distinctive…and uniquely brash and AMERICAN!

        • 0 avatar
          SilverCoupe

          I would be happy to take a ’71 (or ’72 or ’73) Riviera! Just not a ’70. They were so ugly in ’70 that we bought a Toronado instead (though the ’70 Toronado was not as nice as the ’69).

  • avatar
    Maymar

    I don’t think it’s an accurate prediction that just because cars stop being meatsack-controlled, they’ll turn into anodyne transport pods, because who cares? A house isn’t much more than basic shelter, but the McMansion still prevails (there are modern subdivisions filled with houses adorned with useless columns because it looks classy, I guess? You’ll confuse visitors into thinking they’re visiting the guest cottage of the Versailles or something?). Cell phones are incredibly commonplace, and most do more than anyone tends to require, and yet Apple’s carved out a rabid fanbase who absolutely have to be the first to get the next one (regardless of how well its predecessor already works). There will absolutely be a group of users who want their transport pod to signal that they’re superior to the users of other transport pods.

    In the two-box SUV space, Land Rover is already inadvertently retro-esque, with most of their current lineup being a vague reimagining of the original Spen King-designed Range Rover. They’ve just retained that same basic design for 48 years, so it’s not “retro.” I also think there could be a decent reimagining of the Brooks Stevens Wagoneer (certainly, FCA’s been hinting at something to that effect about as long as FCA’s been a going concern). Sticking domestic, the Blazer/Suburban of the ’70’s and ’80’s (and frankly, the generation before that as well), is a tasteful design that’s aged well, but is simple enough that a modern interpretation wouldn’t go full PT Cruiser.

    Separately, in plenty of larger cities, the act of commuting has been chosen for us already – sometimes, burying my face in a smartphone sounds at least less likely to give me an aneurism than having to account for the braindead road users surrounding me.

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      I thought of the Range Rover as being somewhat retro too, but the more obvious retro SUV is the new Mercedes G-wagen which looks just like the old one – ’80s retro. I’m guessing the next LR Defender will be retro as well. Though recently discontinued, there was also Toyota’s FJ Cruiser, so retro is clearly a thing with SUVs too. There aren’t many other iconic old SUVs out there though.

  • avatar
    Goatshadow

    Instead of retro, give us retro-future. Scifi manga artists like Masamune Shirow came up with better, cooler mechanical and auto designs decades ago, things that would have been dead easy to build by now.

    • 0 avatar
      Blackcloud_9

      Umm…Interesting to say the least because when I did a quick Google Image search for Masamune Shirow, not a single car came up. Lots of scantily clad women however. I had to close the page quickly since several of the thumbnails were NSFW

  • avatar
    Blackcloud_9

    One of the problems with going retro is once you introduce the car, you’re trapped inside the design.
    VW “New” Beetle
    PT Cruiser
    Chevy HHR
    All fascinating cars when introduced but all were hobbled by their design and retro look.
    Even the three “pony” cars are constrained by their traditional design look. Mustang and Camaro have been able to do some interesting refreshes but the only thing Dodge has been able to do with the Challenger is stuff more HP under the hood.
    And while a retro design can become staid, doing a total redesign can be risky. The Corvette faithful nearly lost their collective minds when Chevy dropped the round taillights for the C-7

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      “One of the problems with going retro is once you introduce the car, you’re trapped inside the design.”

      Mustang seems to have been able to evolve, yet still hang on to its, uh, Mustang-y-ness.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @Blackcloud_9 – I agree that going “retro” has its risks. Harley Davidson is the best example of being trapped by a successful “retro” formula.
      On the flip side, we see designers being trapped by styles that are seen by the public as representative of a segment. CUV’s would be an example. There isn’t much in the way of variation in shape or style. Adventure bikes are a motorcycle example of style trapping a segment with that ugly duck bill snout.
      Socially and psychologically, humans search for the familiar. Familiar equals safe.

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      “One of the problems with going retro is once you introduce the car, you’re trapped inside the design.”

      Mini really suffers from this.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “What’s left for retro?”

    Keep evolving. ENOUGH GEN 1 CAMARO! Give me a modern interpretation of a GEN 2 Camaro – much sexier design.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      “What’s left for retro?”

      Pickups?

      The benchmarks for “retro” changes by generation. As we babyboomers go off into the sunset the whole 60’s retro “thing” will fade and die with us. The current “retro” trend is one last kick at the cat demographically or more specifically, one last kick at the cat’s wallet.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        https://www.hardworkingtrucks.com/retro-big-10-chevy-option-offered-on-2018-silverado/

        Already being done.

        ;-)

      • 0 avatar
        1500cc

        @ Lou_BC

        I like the idea of retro pickups. I’ve never like retro on cars (as someone said earlier, it’s lazy and uninspired). But I really don’t like the recent pickup styling trends with huge oversized grilles, and way too may slats and creases and curves in the body work. A nice throwback to the square-body or GMT-400s would be welcome.

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      “Keep evolving. ENOUGH GEN 1 CAMARO! Give me a modern interpretation of a GEN 2 Camaro – much sexier design.”

      The Gen 3 Camaro was already this. But it was a modern interpretation of the late-period Gen 2, not the better-looking original Gen 2 with the big grille (itself a throwback to the ’55 Chevy), round lights, and tiny split bumpers.

  • avatar
    sco

    “the future of retro is just made up of small nods, here and there, to the past”
    Probably true, an A pillar here, a little kink there. And occasionally an entire car like this beautiful Peugeot 504 Coupe tribute. And even if they made this Peugeot for just three years then called it quits without evolving, that would be fine by me.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    Eugh

    Making something with this shape and giving it a silent electric powertrain and having it drive itself is completely pointless. A car that looks like this needs some crunch like a big N/A engine and a manual transmission. Let the electric autonomous cars become suppositories and keep the envious stuff fun.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Getting rid of auto glass, hydraulics, and electronic ignition might spur a retro revival. Motoring was more “hands on” back then.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Here’s the thing: With electric drives, we simply don’t need to be AS concerned about MPGe as we are with gasoline or diesel as the cost of the “fuel” is a fraction of that for those liquid fuels. Even with late -50s, early -60s styles, we could still see 40MPGe and have cars with truly unique looks instead of everything being egg-shaped or as tall and boxy as a pickup truck. We could even see a reasonable return of the El Camino/Ranchero-style of sedan trucks.

    So the idea of something like the above Renault is actually a good one.

    Oh, and it has come to my attention that there is a group out there converting those old -40s and -50s cars into electrics, while leaving them looking like the ‘survivors’ they were.

  • avatar
    doublechili

    Retro? I could see something based on Fuller’s Dymaxion car.

  • avatar
    la834

    It’s more fun to dream up the cars that will NEVER be reissued in a new retro version:
    Vega
    Pinto
    Edsel
    Cimarron
    Datsun F-10
    ’61 Plymouth Fury
    Maserati Biturbo or Chrysler TC
    etc., etc.

    I’m still hoping though that FCA will someday give us a new, retro AMC Pacer.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    The pony cars are the most retro. Challenger, a clean tasteful homage they’ve been smart enough to leave alone; Camaro, a cartoonish poorly interpreted vision (or lack thereof out the side windows) that owes more to the Transformers movie than actual history. The looks like it just kept evolving, and that’s why it sells so well worldwide. I can’t see myself buying anything newer than about 2005, modern car design is no longer an art, it’s an exercise is pleasing focus groups of people who don’t like cars.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    I think there can be good things ahead for us car enthusiasts if we can allow ourself to coexist with the autonomous tech and electronic nannies.
    It’s even possible to keep using older cars (or even build new interesting cars) if we add the tech that hinders them from crashing, so that we can still enjoy driving until we hit a certain limit (or enter certain areas), when the tech takes over. Maybe it will even be possible to gain skill levels that let people drive more if they can prove they are actually good at it.
    More or less letting us keep all the fun, but with no risk. This will also make it easier to use the older cars alongside the autonomous ones. And we can possibly even say good bye to the passive safety systems when cars no longer crash.
    And when cars stop polluting (locally at least) maybe we won’t need too much aerodynamics either.
    There’s no need for massive steel beams where you want the A-pillar to be, or huge airbags in the steering wheel if the car can’t crash in the first place.
    Offcourse the smell and the sound may be gone, but at least theres a possibility that we can enjoy a lightweight classic sportscar even in the future.
    I also believe that when the basics of cars eventually become more standardized, the outside and personal details of cars will be easier to produce, and I have no doubt there will be a market for it.
    (Imay be hopelessly optimistic but, I’ve already seen a whole lot of classic cars retrofitted with electric drivetrains. It’s not just for royal weddings)

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Retro? Get a left and right Cadillac exterior mirror. Ya know, the brushed metal ones with “Cadillac” in cursive strip. Tell the design studio to build a car worthy of these mirrors.

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    The problem is that a lot of retro designs were designed for a big engine up front, whereas our realistic future lies in small engined hybrids, or pure EVs.

    Jaguar iPace is the future, but the stubby bonnet wouldn’t suit a remade XJ or E-type. Jaguar’s retro dabbling with the S- and X-types didn’t go down well, it was the modern XF and the styling direction thereafter that saved them.

    Cars like the Beetle that didn’t rely on a big engine up front could actually turn out quite well as a retro remake.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      You can go retro without trying to make an exact duplicate; the idea is to adopt the general look and downsize it to modern proportions. That custom ’57/8/9 Chevy is a terrible example of how to do the hood but the body side and tail actually work. ”57 hood, ’58 side and ’59 tail, which is the only part of it I really like. It would have been SOOO easy to put the ’58 or ’59 nose on it instead, and the ’59 nose was MUCH lower than the 58’s. But then you couldn’t put that big V8 under that former-Camaro’s nose if you did.

      The idea is to bring back the general style, not copy the original inch for inch. It takes an artist, not an engineer, to do it right.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    My guess? 10 years from now the big retro thing will be throwback digital dashes that use chunky LED fonts.

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