In Defense Of Retro Design

Last week, we ran an excellent article by one of our extended Jalop family called 5 Reasons Why Retro Needs To Die. Intellectually, I can't say that I really disagree with any particular point, and the arguments are cogent and well-considered. So why do I love some retro designs so much?

In some ways, this reminds me of my undying love of hot dogs. I know they're pretty bad for me, and a relatively low-brow, unsophisticated culinary option, but I think the day a good hot dog doesn't put a smile on my stuffed, masticating face will be the day they tell my widow my donated organs are too full of nitrates to be of any use to anyone else.

Retro cars are the same way. I have a background in graphic design, and intellectually I understand the regressive tendencies of a retro design, the need for design to always be breaking new ground, the fundamental silliness of being stuck with outmoded details. I find non-functional shutters on houses to be a silly, throwback affectation — why don't I have the same contempt for a Nissan Figaro?

This point was driven home to me the other day when I came across pictures of the Toyota Origin, and found myself really taken by the car. I could see it was a retro design, deliberately crafted to play into my car-design emotions. I know what it's up to. But I still really liked it.

In Defense Of Retro Design

I think part of the issue is that Retro automotive design's detractors have been oversimplifying what Retro auto design is. It's not one big, uniform aesthetic. In fact, I think you can break Retro car design down into three distinct types: Translational, Synthetic General, and Synthetic Comprehensive.

I'll explain what all those overblown titles actually describe next, but first I want to address something from the original article, the role of "evolved" designs like the Porsche 911 or Morgan Plus 4. These I think are separate from Retro designs, in that Retro implies a very deliberate bringing back of older design, while cars like the 911 are a clear, unbroken, organic development of design — in the Porsche's case, that means one line tracing back to the VW Beetle to the Type 64 race car to the 356 and then on to the 911's evolution. So, since there was never a break in the line, Evolved is not Retro.

Okay, so let's see what Retro is, then:

In Defense Of Retro Design

1. Translational: In some ways, this is what most people think of when they think of Retro cars: the New Beetle, the New MINI, the nuova Fiat 500, the discontinued Ford Thunderbird, the latest Camaros and Mustangs. Most anything with "new" in the name. These are cars that are designed based on the look of a previous, usually iconic, model from the past. Almost all of the cars in this category use "source" cars from the 1950s and 1960s.

These designs are made by "translating" the older, iconic design into a modern design vocabulary. The basic look and feel of the car is retained as much as possible, and key details (lights, pillar shapes, body panels) are rendered in a modern aesthetic.

These designs can stray significantly from their source in terms of technical details (all the rear-engined source cars are now front-engine/FWD) and scale (everything is bigger). These designs have a mixed record of success, with some managing to capture the original car's spirit, and some ending up as cloying attempts to cash in on former glory.

In general, the design vocabulary for these vehicles is modern, and the overall form is the throwback.

In Defense Of Retro Design

2. Synthetic General: The "synthetic" part of the name here refers to the fact that these designs aren't based on any one particular vehicle from the past, but more an overall sort of generalized idea of what a type of car from the past looked like. The best known cars in this category are probably the PT Cruiser and Chevy HHR.

These cars use past-inspired designs for their overall look and shape, while maintaining common modern design vocabulary for all the details: lighting, bumpers, window treatments, etc. They're the most closely related to the Translational cars, but without the historical precedence to ground the design.

I think this is the least successful of the types of Retro designs, being inherently a half-way approach and never fully committing to either modernity or tradition. That's also probably why this type of Retro design has been most influentuial in mainstream car design, making things like defined fender swoops and other retro-feeling elements common for many cars.

In Defense Of Retro Design

3. Synthetic Comprehensive: In the US at least, this is the least common style of Retro design, but I think overall the most successful, aesthetically. It's still Synthetic, in that the retro designs are just based on more abstract ideas about how cars once looked than it is on any one specific type of car, but differs from Synthetic General in that it takes that next step and updates and translates the design vocabulary of older cars — the details, the materials, the finishes, the methods, the fittings, fasteners, etc. into a modern context.

For some reason, the Japanese seem to have a special knack for this type of car, as I'd classify the Toyota Origin, Nissan's Figaro and Pao, and cars like the Daihatsu Mira Gino in this category. We Americans have one here, too, though, in the Chrysler 300 (I think — not 100% on this one). Mitsuoka builds cars that technically fit into this category as well, though they often tend to end up looking like caricatures.

This is a hard sort of design to pull off properly, but when done well, I find the results to be really satisfying. It's not really the same sense you get from looking at a genuinely vintage car, but I think maybe we're wrong to always compare these cars to real old cars. They're not really trying for the same thing. These retro designs are aware of what they are, and as such are inherently a bit less serious. There's an understanding between the viewer of the car and the car itself. It feels vintage but it's clearly not, and, unlike something like a replica Cobra, it's not interested in fooling you. It's just referencing associations known to evoke certain feelings.

I think there's several key differences here between the Synthetic Comprehensive types and the others. First, the car isn't trying to recreate some long-gone archetype, and is free of specific tradition. Also, unlike the Synthetic General, the goal is not to take an old style design and recast it with a modern design vocabulary; rather, there's a wholesale updating of the old design vocabulary into something that feels more modern, but stays true to its vintage inspirations.

In Defense Of Retro Design

There's lots of forms it can take; sometimes it's in chrome ornament and outmoded approaches to pillar shapes and windows (see the trim, reverse-rake C-pillar, and suicide doors on the Origin), sometimes it's exposed hinges and corrugated panels like on the Pao, and sometimes its in the body's basic proportions, like on the Chrysler 300. The details are all clearly inspired by the past, but they're knowingly updated.

More modern cars become much more about overall form and less about the details. Cars have been moving in a direction from assemblages of parts (think cars of the 1920s) to the sleek, highly integrated cars of today. For example, you could take a chrome bumper from a 1965 Aston Martin and appreciate it as an independent object. That's much more unlikely on a modern car.

There's lots of technical reasons for that as well as aesthetic, but part of what Retro design is doing, especially Synthetic Comprehensive, is taking a step back and re-emphasizing the value of the details along with the whole form.

In Defense Of Retro Design

In some ways, it reminds me of the work of one of my favorite comic artists, Chris Ware. He often employs a style in his work that borrows heavily from early 20th century graphic design and from things like old Ragtime album art. But he employs these elements with a crisp, modern-feeling line and a use of color that's wildly different than his source inspiration.

Sure, you can identify what he's borrowing from, but the end result is artwork that is new, fresh and interesting. And I think that's what good Retro design has the potential to achieve. It's something that acknowledges the past, and selectively pulls details and features that are evocative. This doesn't even have to be genuinely nostalgic, since most of the Retro design cars reference cars we've never owned.

In Defense Of Retro Design

I don't think Retro designed cars, even the best ones, are going to be breaking radical new ground, design-wise. They're inherently not about that. But I think auto design, much like furniture design, fashion design, and architecture, should be free to pull, repurpose, update, and play with the aesthetics of the past. Why the hell not?

In the end, it just comes down to the fact that when I see a Nissan Figaro, I smile. And that I'd much rather drive a Diahatsu Gino than a Versa. I don't think it's a rational reaction, but it is visceral and real. And, if we're honest, there's so much in the car world that works that way — 500 HP cars used for a 30 MPH commute, for example — that I don't see any reason why good Retro designs can't get a little respect.

Then again, all of this could just be a long-winded justification for why I like certain cars I should be more embarrassed about liking.