Driving back to the past

As we rush headlong towards the new millennium Hugh Pearman bemoans the state of car design where nostalgia seems to be the ultimate driving force.

Cute car or retro car? There is very little other choice to be had, if you take note of the offerings at the latest British Motor Show – or for that matter any other motor show, car magazine or TV programme.

Two different chemicals are surely being put into the tea of car designers. A couple of drops of the pink fluid and, shazam! The cute cars come rolling off the computer screens. Cuddly, lovable little things, they are, in Teletubby colours, with appealing faces, soft contours and Wendy house seat fabrics.

The other designers are having their tea laced with the blue fluid. And, karaboom! Off their screens come the cars with those Fifties and Sixties styling cues, design references to a supposedly golden age of motoring.

Already, the cute car hegemony is well established. We’ve long had the bubble-car aesthetic of the Nissan Micra and the Opel Corsa. We’ve had the kittenish Renault Twingo, the Manga-heroine wide-eyed girlish looks of the Ford Ka and, now, the new Volkswagen Beetle and Mercedes A-class. Baby Spice would be absolutely at home in any of these.

Non-macho, non-threatening, they are aimed at women. And in the 98 per cent male world of car designers, cars for women apparently have to be the automotive equivalent of dolls. Next thing you know, they’ll be giving them My Little Pony manes and tails for their owners to brush.

Actually, that’s already been done. When Peugeot got in a couple of young designers as a promotional gimmick to make over its new small 206, it got a foretaste of its own medicine – a furry car that responds aurally and ecstatically to being stroked. It was meant ironically – or was it? Watch out – it’ll be in limited edition production before you know it.

The new VW Beetle scores a double-whammy by being both cute AND retro. It looks more appealing, less sinister than the old Hitler-sanctioned Beetle but it has none of its predecessor’s Porsche-designed rear-engined engineering integrity. It is, in fact, just a Volkswagen Golf wearing a different set of clothes. Just as its rival cutesy, the Ford Ka, is really an ordinary old Fiesta under the skin.

Re-bodying is a hoary old marketing tradition going back to the dawn of the motor business. Facelift engineering – usually to make ageing cars look more “modern” – has affected even canonic “pure” cars like the Citro&#235ns DS and 2CV. In most cases, facelifting cars makes sense, keeps tooling costs down, extends the marketing life of the product. But none of this prepares you for the intense paradox of the all-new retro car.

You may have seen them – the new big Rover and the new medium-sized Jaguar. Shamelessly, they try to capture the glamour of the past, as if they were mid-Sixties Japanese car companies trying to rip off the “English” look. Both companies have a tradition which is now being comprehensively rifled in an attempt to cash in on the global market for nostalgia.

It’s like finding the airport outlets of long-established tea rooms or victuallers or wine merchants – all the references are there, but nobody is fooled. At Terminal Three, you are not in Berry Bros, St James’s. At Stansted, you are not in Bewley’s oriental tea room, Grafton Street, Dublin. An airport

Harrods is not the same as the real Harrods. In all cases, you are in simulacra of these places, and you know it. And the same is true of the latest crop of retro cars.

The marketing men – they must again be mostly men, I think – clearly cannot distinguish innovation from tradition, or be capable of absorbing the fact that perhaps you can have a tradition of innovation.

The old Jags and Rovers were styled to suit the circumstances of the day. They can be reproduced in replica, perhaps, but to appropriate their styling details and morph them into new cars that will be in production for the millennium is just daft. It shows that car designers have learned no lessons from architecture’s brief and deadly Post-modern flirtation of the Eighties. Or our car designers haven’t, anyway. In Germany, they continue to evolve Mercs and BMWs and Audis on the basis of technology rather than historicism.

Which reminds me: today I saw one of those new London taxis, the TX1. It has been a big success. It too is a retro car (with touches of cutesiness), designed in every visual aspect to remind you of its rattly old Fifties-designed predecessor, the FX4. But the one I saw had, proudly emblazoned all over its paunchy bodywork, the fact that the TX1 is a Millennium Product. How profoundly depressing this is. Despite all the brave “creative nation” talk about repositioning UK PLC as a global brand, Britain is still selling the world nostalgia on wheels.

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