DETROIT –When Chrysler Group launched the PT Cruiser in 2000, it inadvertently started a retro styling trend that has yet to subside, as automotive designers and consumers continue to embrace new vehicles that incorporate design cues from past icons.

“It’s (retro) one of those evil words in design,” says Ralph Gilles, Chrysler vice president-Jeep, truck and component design, at an Automotive Press Assn. event here where top designers discussed the retro trend and its effect on the industry.

“Some guys don’t mind having their designs labeled as retro,” Gilles says. “Others take offense to it. But it’s not so simple. The whole idea of retro is a very precarious subject. Because you work very hard to make something contemporary and someone walks along and says, ‘Oh, it’s retro design.’ It kind of deflates the design a little bit.”

Despite his dislike for the moniker, Gilles admits retro plays an important role in the world of automotive design, although he says it’s a difficult concept to define.

“There are many layers to retro. It can be about proportions, it can be about detail, and it can be about tradition,” Gilles says. “It’s a very popular design tool. Some use it in an abstract way, some use it in a literal way, and some don’t use it at all.”

Pat Schiavone, Ford Motor Co. director of design-North America, says the word retro is rarely used at Ford. The auto maker prefers the term “heritage design.”

“We have a storied past, and I think our heritage is so strong that’s really what we’re trying to get to. But I don’t believe all designs will be heritage,” Schiavone says. “I don’t believe we’ll see one trend go across the whole industry.”

Ford employed heritage design in the development of the ’05 Ford Mustang, which debuted last year to much fanfare. Sales of the Mustang remain strong, suggesting retro, or heritage design, is a trend that is not going away anytime soon.

“I think heritage design is going to be very important, especially for American companies,” Schiavone says. “Everyone felt that this was going to be something that came along, and was a fad, and was going to go out. But the exact opposite is happening. I think it is going to grow.”

Much like its Big Three brethren, General Motors Corp. also has enjoyed some success with retro-styled products, most notably the Chevrolet HHR, which took design cues from the ’49 Chevrolet Suburban.

GM also showcased a remake of the iconic Chevy Camaro pony car at the 2006 North American International Auto Show that left the public clamoring for a production version.

Like Gilles, Bob Boniface, GM director-advanced design, says the term retro carries negative connotations, implying, “you just couldn’t think of anything better to do, so you just revisited some of the hits from the past.”

From a business perspective, Boniface defines retro as “a tactical move that contrasts the present with the past to satisfy strategic goals.”

Boniface says when his team began work on the Camaro Concept, they carefully examined the car’s origins and how it evolved, stopped production, returned in 1992 and ceased again.

“What we tried to do is ‘Return of the King,’” Boniface says of the attempt to bring back the roots of the car.

“The ’69 Camaro to most people was the king of pony cars,” Boniface says. “It wasn’t the first, but it had the best handling, it was the best built and had the best brakes.”

“The ’69 Camaro was a hugely successful automobile, it resonated well with the population. So when we were reaching back to which Camaro to go for, we figured we would go back to the icon.”

Designers for Japanese auto makers have a different take on retro, largely due to the fact their companies don’t date back as far as the American makers.

According to Bill Chergosky, a chief designer with Toyota Motor Corp.'s California design studio, Calty Design Research Inc., the auto maker prefers to look forward.

“From our perspective, the way to recreate the future is to reimagine it. To reimagine the icon, opposed to reissuing it,” Chergosky says.

“Try to evoke the past, but don’t be a slave to it,” he says, of the need to resist the temptation “to get caught up in the dreamy-eyed nostalgia for an icon. What that does is push you toward creating a reissue of the original.”

bpope@wardsauto.com