Retro. Futro. Heritage. Whatever you call it, it's starting to cause a commotion in mainstream automotive design.

Once strictly reserved for low-volume niche cars and quirky experiments, the cues and shapes of the past are starting to show up on much higher volume cars, and promise to become major elements of many future bread-and-butter vehicles. The goal is to escape a sea of sameness and renew a passion and brand awareness that long since has disappeared on the American scene.

The aerodynamic "jellybean" look served its purpose well for more than 10 years. But now automakers all over the world seem to have acknowledged that the search for efficient, slippery new designs has evolved into distressingly similar looks, and it's time to move on.

That doesn't mean vehicles will become less aerodynamic. They'll just start to look more distinct.

John E. Herlitz, Chrysler Corp.'s vice president of product design, explains the new design initiatives as a means of getting away from today's mass-production mentality and making people feel more like their vehicle was handcrafted just for them.

"We all are going to be held accountable for aerodynamic performance in all our vehicles," emphasizes Jerry Palmer, General Motors Corp.'s executive design director. "I think there are going to be a variety of looks out there. The smooth organic look - I don't think it's dead or inappropriate - but I think there's a global look-alike problem and everybody is trying to get away from it."

"Birds are very aerodynamic, but they don't all look alike. You can tell the difference between an eagle and a canary," adds John J. Telnack, Ford Motor Co.'s design chief. "We will still have that kind of variety, and unique personalities."

So in some cases - particularly at Ford - designers now are adding sharp edges and creases to familiar curves. And increasingly they are dipping into history for cues from past winners to give new designs some panache that has been sadly lacking.

Most automotive designers hate it when you call such work"retro" It makes them sound like they're going backward - like they can't think up any new ideas on their own. But there's no denying good design themes have lasting qualities worth perpetuating in the name of brand identity.

"We're not going backwards at all," says GM's Mr. Palmer. "We're continuing to push the design envelope, to express our brand character in a way that defines the eight different brands for GM. We're not focusing on Ford, Fiat, or Chrysler. We're focusing on where we want to be to support strategies for future cars and trucks."

Chrysler, which by most measures has stolen the march on U.S. automotive design - with a string of brisk-selling new models to prove it - in particular is out floating new terms such as heritage and futro, a coined word combining "future" and "retro." But imperfect as it is, retro still probably is the best way to describe what may be the most exciting trend in automotive design in the past 10 years - and maybe the past 20 or 30.

There are other styling philosophies coming down the road - such as Ford Motor Co.'s "New Edge," and GM's increasing focus on "brand character," which will probably have a broader, more subtle impact on mass-market cars (see WAW - Nov.'95. But "retro," "futro" or "heritage" styling is what is promising to really grab consumers' hearts and minds in the next few years, and it's being incorporated to various degrees on some of the most interesting new vehicles. Among them: the new Jaguar XK8, the '97 Plymouth Prowler, the new-generation Chevrolet Corvette, the upcoming Volkswagen "new Beetle," the '98 Ford Thunderbird and some versions of Chrysler's redesigned L-H sedans.

Most of the new retro designs - with the exception of VW's Beetle - won't be as literal as Larry Shinoda's '97 interpretation of a '55 Chevy on our cover. It was commissioned exclusively as a magazine illustration.

But increasingly automakers are adopting more dramatic design cues from historic vehicles and eras to lend a sense of style and pedigree to cars and trucks that have otherwise become too bland and functional looking. The recently redone Plymouth and Chrysler vehicle badges are perfect examples, but they are only a hint of what's to come.

GM's Mr. Palmer and Ford's Mr. Telnack won't confirm that the new Corvette or T-bird, respectively, will feature retro styling, but both emphasize that there won't be any mistaking these new cars for any others, and that strongly suggests they will incorprorate strong design cues from the past.

Brand management at GM and other automakers is having an impact, too. Dramatic styling increasingly is being looked upon as a key means of building brand identity and differentiating yourself from the competition. It's also being looked at as a strategic weapon against Japanese automakers, who traditionally favor very conservative styling.

"There are certain things that each of the car lines own," says Mr. Palmer. "Look at the grille on the Buick, the wide-track Pontiac which came out in 1959, the split grilleofthe Pontiac. Only we could do those things. There are certain cues that you see, that let you know it's a Buick, a Chevy, and they will evolve. But that doesn't mean we're not looking forward."

For the past 10 years at least, American automakers have devoted the lion's share of their efforts to competing with the Japanese by trying to match their car quality and offering a better selection of trucks and sport/utilities. But as the quality gap has closed - and the Japanese are starting to make some darn nice trucks - American executives say the new battleground increasingly will be waged on the design front.

Automakers such as GM are literally tearing down their old design studios and gearing up for a bold new era of in-your-face styling that they think conservative foreign competitors will be unable to match.

Just how effective they will be still remains to be seen. Most major Japanese automakers - and Europeans - after all, do have elaborate design studios in California staffed with some of the finest designers in the world. Most were created specifically to keep current with the latest North American trends. Granted, the new Toyota Camry is as bland as cars come nowadays. But other Japanese designs such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda's CR-V clearly are on the cutting edge.

The Japanese aren't strangers to retro styling, either. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there actually was a retro car boom in Japan. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., for example, introduced a series of stylish low-volume minicars, including the Figaro, Be-1 and Pao, that became so popular that eager customers were picked by lottery. Nissan booked 57,000 orders for the Pao, for instance, but the automaker could only produce 30,000.

But with the introduction of the wild new Prowler retro street rod due this spring - which already is sold out - Chrysler has earned the right to brag. Chrysler in particular has latched onto the retro concept, which it officially calls "heritage styling," and some of its brightest design interns refer to it as "futro"design. The automaker apparently intends to bottle the concept and put a Chrysler label on it. much like it did with cab-forward design,

There's even an official company definition: "Heritage design is the ability to capture design elements which were once adored in the past, contemporize them and then incorporate them into future design strategy. The challenge isn't necessarily to recognize them but to garner the inspiration necessary to contemporize them and incorporate them into future design strategy," explains a Chrysler spokesman.

Chrysler's Atlantic concept car - which is based on a classic Bugatti design - embodies this vision, with its voluptuous lines and big clock-like gauges. Those who've peeked at the automaker's new-generation L-H cars, due out next year, say numerous design elements of the Atlantic can be seen in some versions.

For the past several years Chrysler has encouraged design students and interns to develop more retro-type concept cars. Last year it sponsored a program at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies in which students were asked to develop modern versions of '60-style Chrysler muscle cars.

More recently, several talented Chrysler interns showed off design concepts for the year 2005 with very strong retro themes. One luxury car study called the Chrysler Mille, features cues from the classic 300SL gull wing Mercedes. Another student design features a rumble seat.

Certainly automakers all over the world have used design cues from the past for years. The large chromed grilles of M e r c e d e s - Benzes and Rolls Royces, and the split grilles of BMW's and Pontiacs come immediately to mind and have identified those marques for decades. But this new focus on heritage is much clearer, far more focused, and has as much to do with marketing as it does design.

Jaguar's new XK8, for instance, very deliberately tries to evoke emotions associated with the famous XKE. The new Mercedes SLK directly refers to the famous 1958 190SL roadster. And one of the market's biggest hits, the full-size Dodge Ram pickup introduced in 1994 borrowed its macho front-end look from the 1949 Dodge Power Wagon - a civilian version of the World War II workhorse.

The most obvious example is VW's upcoming new Beetle. It will have all the features you'd expect from a modern subcompact, but it will also have THE LOOK of the famous old beetle. It will probably do more for re-planting the VW image in the American psyche than a Nissan-like $200 million brand-awareness advertising campaign. That's certainly the role the $75 million Prowler program is expected to play for Chrysler's Plymouth brand.

Hints of retro designs have been cropping up everywhere for the past several years as automakers have searched to re-awaken an interest and passion for vehicles and brands that the car-buying public has forgotten. Ford's Mr. Telnack points out that after Ford purchaseed the British luxury carmaker, many Jaguar aficionados were worried that Jaguars would start looking like Fords. Instead he said, Ford's focus on the styling heritage of the cars has actually made the newest cars look more like Jaguars than ever.

One of the best domestic examples is probably the '94 Mustang. Designers originally considered redesigning the Mustang with a more muscular or modern design, but extensive interviews with potential customers revealed that they wanted a vehicle that more accurately reflected the most famous - and loved - original '64 Mustang. That's what Ford Chairman Alex Trotman insisted upon in any case.

However, Chrysler's Mr. Herlitz says creating cars that generate a strong emotional response often is based more on gut feel than market research. "Nobody came forward and said, `Gee, do a Viper.' But at the 1989 auto show it was so passionately embraced that it was like casting a lure into the water and hooking a tuna," he says.

But such gambles seldom pay off. That's why it's often considered a better bet to go with a known quantity from the past. Mention the name VW Beetle to the typical baby boomer and there almost always is an instant connection: a memory, a funny story. The same is true for many other classic or semiclassic cars like the '55 Chevy, or Ford Thunderbird, or maybe even a gull-wing Mercedes coupe. You might inspire even more powerful feelings by mentioning the '64 Mustang, or muscle cars such as the '67 Pontiac GTO or Dodge Hemi-Barracuda.

Hit songs were written not only about cars like these - but even their engine displacements and technical features. Remember the Beach Boys, "409" and "Little Deuce Coupe" and others thatsangthe praises of special camshafts, dual four-barrel carburetors and specially geared differentials?

But between these rich, colorful memories and the present is a vast, barren, over-regulated wasteland of nameless mass-produced, politically correct blobs. Does anyone get mist-eyed talking about their '83 Plymouth Reliant or Datsan 210? Have you heard any songs on the radio lately singing about the dual overhead cams and plastic intake manifold of GM's Northstar engine? Is anyone swooning over the lines of the new Toyota Camry?

Not yet in any case. But wait a few years ...

Women, suppliers have growing impact on vehicle design

Automakers devote great effort explaining how they bend over backwards to design vehicles with a woman's needs in mind. Besides hiring more female engineers and designers, automakers are eager to talk about how male engineers do such things as tape paper clips to their fingers to simulate women's longer fingernails to test the practicality of knobs and buttons.

The report card from women so far: There's still a long way to go. For instance, any woman will tell you one key shortcoming of most current vehicle interior designs is there is no place to put a purse, a real-size purse. That's probably because most male designers - who still dominate the industry - don't know diddly about purses.

United Technologies Automotive, a major Tier 1 supplier of electrical, electronic and interior trim systems, is trying to change this.

It's no secret automotive suppliers are getting more involved in the design of the products they provide OEMs, but UT Automotive is joining a growing number of suppliers that actually are getting consumer input so they can create better designs.

Johnson Controls Inc. conducts consumer research on how to make more comfortable seats, for instance. Now UT Automotive is trying to develop special bins and pockets on interior trim where a woman can put her bulky purse - among other things.

"We are developing a variety of new storage and convenience features for vehicle interiors that consumers really want," says Ed Northern, UT Automotive's vice president and general manager.

"By actively seeking out consumer preferences ourselves, rather than waiting for marketplace feedback, our designers get better input sooner," he says. "We are able to eliminate the filters and delays, speed the new product development process and even gain insights that can help us to anticipate trends."

Aside from the usual focus groups, questionnaires and interviews, UT Automotive has formed a Womens Advisory Committee to discuss women's special concerns about vehicle interiors.

Composed of a diverse group of 30 female employees - including managers, secretaries, technicians, financial analysts and sales and purchasing personnel - the group meets monthly to discuss what they like and don't like about current and future designs.

The group was formed by Gloria Lara, strategic marketing & planning manager of UT Automotive's interior group, who was involved with a similar women's committee at Chrysler Corp. during the late 1980s; she was part of a team that advocated driverside sliding doors on minivans, which since have become a key feature (see related story, p.50).

"We go after unspoken and unobserved needs such as vanity mirrors that are inadequately lit and the lack of storage compartments suitable for cellular phones, purses, shoes or baby bottles," she says. The process is very casual and relaxed. A designer with a sketch pad often works directly with the group in a conference room. "We discuss these ideas and then let our designers come up with solutions," she says.

Another key benefit of the Women's Advisory Committee, she says, is that the group can quickly spot bad or marginal ideas - so expensive focus groups are used to judge only the best innovations.