Like aging rockers, car designers fell into the habit of trotting out their greatest hits, producing faithful copies of beloved classics, including the Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Mustang and Mini Cooper. Now that movement, called retro design, is giving way to a forward-looking approach.
“We shelved the retro to bring these cars into the 21st century,” said Moray Callum, the vice president for design at Ford, who oversees the looks of Fords and Lincolns. “Now we pay homage to them without mimicking them.”
The 2015 Ford Mustang, while unmistakably a Mustang, represents a significant departure from the car’s most recent major redesign.
In the decade before Mr. Callum’s reworking of the car, its appearance was straight out of the 1968 Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt.” But the retro look, Mr. Callum said, “probably signified that we were running out of ideas.”
Ford’s newly redesigned GT supercar, unveiled in January, is further evidence of the company’s move away from nostalgia. Like its progenitor, this is a model made for long-distance racing and highway heroics. The original GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race each year from 1966 to 1969 and made its return in 2005 as a virtual mirror image of the first model. Initially priced from $140,000, that retro GT has become the rare late-model exotic whose resale value has appreciated sharply.
Now, the third-generation GT seems to leap decades forward in one gorgeous, warp-speed swoop. Part of that update is practical: Ford plans to return the car to Le Mans in 2016, followed by a 2017 showroom version, which is likely to cost more than $300,000. Making the car racetrack ready requires the latest technology, from a featherweight carbon fiber structure to a downsized twin-turbo V-6 engine that will top 600 horsepower.
“It’s the designer’s job to communicate what the car does, so you understand this is a new way of powering modern supercars,” Mr. Callum said.
Its futuristic look is a U-turn from the retro craze, which began in the 1990s. The auto designer J Mays, who is now retired, was a big part of that movement. He brought the Volkswagen Beetle to something close to its original look in 1998, with the New Beetle; in 2005, after moving on to Ford, he pulled the same trick with the Mustang.
Now, at long last, the passion for ’60s stylings seems to have fizzled. Still, the retro period may have been a necessary phase.
“If you look through 50 years of Mustang history, it really is the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Mr. Callum, who succeeded Mays as Ford’s design leader. “But we didn’t realize how much of an icon we had, and it was important to remind people of that in the early 2000s.”
Marek Reichman, a former design chief at Ford who is now the director of design at the luxury British carmaker Aston Martin, said that reprising past hits was a natural reaction among Detroit automakers. “If you’ve gone off track, you reinvent your icons to re-establish your identity,” Mr. Reichman said.
At Aston Martin, Mr. Reichman has been unafraid to forge a modern path with models like the One-77 supercar and the Rapide sedan. His latest vehicle, the $2.3 million Vulcan, is a track-only car whose production will be limited to 24 vehicles. But its styling will inform future Aston Martins.
“We’ve always had a view that design is about tomorrow and not yesterday,” Mr. Reichman said. “Yet we have a really strong DNA, so there’s always a hint of that in our products.”
He drew an analogy with the fashion houses Chanel and Valentino, whose designs manage to be timeless and modern. “At the end of the day, if it’s beautiful and pushes the boundaries, you’ll always get a good reaction,” Mr. Reichman said. “Beauty is still at the core of what we do.”
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