VOLKSWAGEN HAS been praised for trying to recreate the old Beetle shape with modern packaging. But not everybody likes retrospective design for modern cars, or even agrees on what it is.
One of the most noticeable retro design trends recently was when Japanese carmakers brought out cars like the Nissan Figaro in the late 1980s.
'Those cars were a reaction to futuristic concepts,' said Audi Design Chief Peter Schreyer, who worked on the VW Concept 1 study that became the Beetle. 'Now it is a strong movement.'
Schreyer said he does not believe in simply repeating old shapes.
'Modern retro design is an interpretation of the past on an intellectual level,' he said. 'You use the traditional design themes like headlamp shapes or window openings. But you should not repeat details like chrome ornamentation. Applied as such, retro is more than reviving sentiments.'
Another designer, BMW's Andreas Zapatinas, describes it this way: 'Retro bridges sentiments of the past with modern times.'
Fight against rectangles
Zapatinas said that the first signs of retro design elements appeared after the 1973 oil crisis.
'Cars had become square and unemotional during the austere late 1970s and early 1980s,' he said. 'In reaction to these cold vehicles, design students began thinking of warm human elements to regain the romantic spirit of the 1950s and 1960s.'
Harm Lagaay, director of styling at Porsche, said that some Italian and US manufacturers made too big a jump with functional rectangular styling during the 1970s.
'They are now trying to restore cultural links with their own past,' he said.
But Lagaay, who led the creation of Porsche's 1993 Boxster concept car, added that retro design can be a refreshing way to achieve something new.
Ron Hill, chairman of the transportation design department at the Pasadena Art Center in the USA, likes retro.
'It allows classical style and proportions to be combined with modern technology and packaging,' he said. 'And because of the nature of retro design, there is no need to compromise.'
Hill said the Beetle is a clever example of retro by virtue of its simplicity.
'But modern safety requirements can restrict its application,' he said.
Safety legislation, said Schreyer, means that 'a new Mini cannot be as compact as the original.'
Fabrizio Giugiaro, son of Italdesign founder and director Giorgetto Giugiaro, said that repeating classic design themes is not always smart.
'You can use classic themes but they must be developed,' he said.
Giugiaro likes the Beetle.
'It has a strong retro feeling, but it is well thought out,' he said. 'But there is a lot of politics in its packaging relative to the Golf.'
Retro yes, retro no
Designers hold strong views about retro.
Schreyer thinks the retro look of the BMW Z07, a concept study with links to the BMW 507 of the 1950s, doesn't explore enough new areas, but BMW's Zapatinas defends the car.
'This is not a copy of the old 507, but is a classic experience of the past,' he said. 'Retro design allows an application of classic elements with advanced design.'
Retro design preserves the best elements of the past, said Anne Asensio, chief designer of small-car platforms at Renault.
'But for the client it is not the right approach since it speaks no conviction for the future,' Asensio said.
The Beetle, she said, 'is not new, just nostalgic. I hope retro will not become a trend because it will reduce our creativity and vision.'
Beetle no, Beetle yes
Paolo Caccamo, managing director of Carrozzeria Bertone, said he prefers advanced design.
'To be elegant you have to follow fashion and look into the future,' he said. 'But the Beetle might be the exception to the rule, because what matters is if it sells.'
Caccamo said he considers the Beetle's retro appearance more a matter of clever marketing than design philosophy.
Rover Design Director Geoff Upex, who is working on the coming Mini, doesn't like the word 'retro.'
'To apply it, you need a certain heritage,' he said. 'Even wood and leather should be applied with conviction. Therefore these materials do not fit a Peugeot or Fiat.'
Upex said something can be retro-inspired, yet be modern. He considers the Beetle a modern piece of design.
Carl Olssen, director of the Center of Creative Studies in Detroit, does not believe retro is a trend.
'Talking to design students has made me aware that the images of the computer world are stronger than retrospective thoughts. And just like post-modern architecture, retro is likely to disappear in car design.'
But like others, Olssen said the Beetle is the exception to the rule.
'It will re-establish VW's image,' he said, 'probably even more than expected.'