Monday, July 28, 2008

Retro - Before Retro was Cool

The word "retro" derives from the Latin prefix retro, meaning "backwards" or "in past times" - particularly as seen in the words retrograde, implying a movement toward the past instead of a progress toward the future, and retrospective, referring to a nostalgic (or critical) eye toward the past.

Chrysler has sold over 1,000,000 retro-styled PT Cruisers

Over the last several years, the automobile industry has found success looking to the past. The PT Cruiser, Prowler, Chevrolet SSR, Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, T-bird and Beetle all look to past design trends with mostly positive results.

It took three years to sell about 40,000 retro T-birds

The New Beetle was launched in 1998

But like many things in the car business, what some people think is a new idea has already been tried... even retro. Some of my favorite examples are found on the cars of the 1955-1961 Forward Look era at Chrysler Corporation. Imagine creating a state of the art design - styling that would win Motor Trend Car of the Year for the entire corporate line up - while still incorporating motifs from 25 years in the past. The designers in Highland Park pulled it off!

The Flite Sweep decklid was offered on many Chrysler products from 1957 - 1961

Retro free-standing headlamps were on 1961-63 Imperials

When Chrysler styling VP Virgil Exner started his own company with son Virgil Jr., one of their first projects was creating a modern look for the great classic marques of the 1930's. The results were published in the December 1963 Esquire magazine where readers were treated to contempary visions of a Stutz, Packard, Duesenberg and Mercer.

Original illustration of the Esquire Duesenberg

This "retro" exercise led to a number of projects for the Exners. The Mercer design was used to build the Mercer Cobra show car for the Copper Development Association. The Duesenberg illustration convinced investors that Exner was the right choice for designing their revival attempt of the classic luxury car. The Renwal model company made a very sucessful line of 1/25th scale model cars with the Exners. Virgil Sr. even had a retro Bugatti made for himself and later designed the 1970 Stutz Blackhawk.

Copper Development Association's Mercer Cobra

1966 Duesenberg

One of 7 Revival models made by Renwal

Virgil Exner's Bugatti 101C

1971 Stutz sales photo

Although retro styling can have mass market appeal or help a wealthy few stand out from the crowd, it can evetually lead to a dead end. How do you move forward while still looking back?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Trash & Treasure

Everyone's heard the expression one man's trash is another man's treasure. Well, whoever said that may have seen the garbage bins behind Detroit's styling studios and advertising agencies.

Carl Renner - Corvette Concept - May 5, 1955

In the course of its daily business, the automotive creative industry churned out thousands upon thousands of sketches, drawings and full color illustrations. Once the art had served it's purpose - as part of the design process, executive presentations or advertising - it was discarded or stuffed into a storage closet - only to be trashed at a later date. What survives today was either tucked away by an artist or literally pulled from a dumpster.

Carl Cameron - Dodge Hemi Charger - March 12, 1966

In my conversations with car designers, I learned it was common to have a box under your drafting table where you'd keep some of your favorite work and trade pieces with colleagues. By the time a box was full, the styling projects were done and many supervisors would let you take things home. Most of the art in my collection comes from designers' basements and attics.

Two of the most valuable pieces in the gallery were literally pulled from the trash. These illustrations by Syd Mead were created as part of his legendary work for US Steel.

Syd Mead - LeMans Street Coupe

Syd Mead - Fender Blended Sports Car

When the company was cleaning out storage rooms, an alert employee spotted the artwork in a dumpster and grabbed it. The art was kept in his family for a number of years before finding its way into collectors' hands. These images are published on pp. 84-86 in Mead's 1979 book Sentinal.