Style. U.S. automakers had it to spare in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Then they lost it. Now they want it back. Bad. Along with every other car company.

It has little to do with a new aesthetic sense growing at automakers worldwide, although that indeed is a trend. Rather it is a dollars and cents issue. Suddenly styling – not just sound design – is separating winners from losers in the marketplace. That means cars and trucks with real style rake in big profits and raise the stock price, while those that are merely reliable appliances do not.

One other key factor in an era of rampant cost cutting: sexy styling doesn’t cost any more than the bland stuff.

The PT Cruiser, Volks-wagen New Beetle and Audi TT aren’t home runs because they earned good quality ratings in Consumer Reports. Buyers wait in line to buy them – at full sticker price or higher – because they like the way they look. They like the way those cars make them feel while they’re driving.

These cars push special buttons buried in a driver’s psyche that haven’t been touched in a long time. They have style, like the original ’55 Thunderbird and the ’57 Chevy or the original VW Beetle. And, darn it, all those baby boomer consumers out there are good enough, and smart enough, and rich enough to afford to pay extra for that thrill!

This seismic shift in consumer demand was sensed by automakers a few years ago, and now it’s déjà vu all over again in their respective corporate design centers. A new Thunderbird modeled after the original ’55 classic is due in showrooms in June. BMW AG’s Mini Cooper, modeled after the original but loaded with air bags and other technology, also is due out soon. General Motors Corp.’s retro styled SSR pickup is scheduled to go into production next year. And the Chrysler Group continues to mine retro themes with not only the PT Cruiser, Prowler and new Jeep Liberty, but several new concept cars as well.

Numerous older cars also have made generous use of retro cues. Designers of the Jaguar XK8 very deliberately tried to capture some of the style and emotion of the classic XKE from the ’60s, and the current generation Mustang also draws numerous cues from the classic ’64 model.

Designers are trying to tap into emotions any way they can, but retro cues currently seem to be the easiest way to get to those warm and fuzzy memories from days long gone. "Retro mania" reigned supreme at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The most obvious examples were the Forty-Nine Ford featured on our cover and the Volkswagen AG Microbus, but there were dozens of other examples, including DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep Willys, Crossfire and Dodge Super 8 Hemi. Retro trends also were apparent in more subtle design details such as the grille on General Motors Corp.’s Buick Bengal.

Hollywood has been doing the same for years, recycling old TV shows like Batman, the Brady Bunch and Lost in Space into feature films. However, as J. Mays, Ford Motor Co.’s chief of design, points out, everyone is hoping automakers are smart enough to stop before they do the automotive equivalent of retreading The Beverly Hillbillies, which arguably wasn’t that good the first time around.

The idea, after all, is not to just rehash an old design, but to make something new and interesting out of an item that earned enough favor to become a collectible item.

"When we’re talking innovation now within Ford, we don’t sit down and say: ‘Let’s do some wacky design concept that will blow everybody away,’" says Mr. Mays. "We say: ‘What are you going to do that’s going to improve someone’s quality of life or give them a thrill?’"

So far, so good. Although the superheated sales pace of the New Beetle (designed by Mr. Mays) has cooled recently in the U.S., and its nostalgia value didn’t catch on much in Europe, it still looks fresh after a couple of years in the marketplace and a couple more as a concept.

In part, that’s because designers are trying to carefully mix retro, nostalgic design cues with modern design. The New Beetle looks both new and old at the same time, as does the Forty-Nine Ford Concept. That’s because the idea was more to capture the spirit of the hot rodders who have been chopping, channeling and modernizing the car for the past 50 years, Mr. Mays says. It also pays homage to the ’54 Skyliner (glass top), the ’55 Crown Victoria (roofline) and numerous Ghia concepts from the ’50s.

"I hope this vehicle in particular (the Forty-Nine concept) will call into question current design trends that are less about sustainable, beautiful objects, and more about shock value," Mr. Mays says.

"I think we’ve got to act as curators for this industry, in a way. I don’t just mean by keeping old stuff around, but we’ve got to have respect for everyone that’s worked in this industry for the past 100 years. A lot has been learned over that 100 years, and we need to be able to build on that and not just throw it away, thinking we can come up with something better. That takes a light touch and a lot of restraint. I hope cars like the F-type (Jaguar concept) or the T-bird or this car (the Forty-Nine) show that automobile design is about line and shape and proportion and not about the newest trickiest theme to emerge every year. That’s the big message for this car from me," Mr. Mays says.

"I don’t mean that every beautiful car has to be looking over its shoulder, but I think cars have to be executed correctly, and I think that in the frenetic computer-generated world we live in, that isn’t happening in automotive design," he adds.

But retro clearly doesn’t work for everyone. When it decided to develop a new "Z" sports car, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. showed off a concept car in 1999 that borrowed heavily from the design of its famous 240Z introduced in 1970. Potential buyers and critics alike panned the idea, so Nissan designers went back to the drawing board and showed off a much more contemporary concept at this year’s NAIAS. "The design represents the Z brought into the 21st century," says Shiro Nakamura, Nissan’s design director. "Our desire was to honor its ‘Z-ness,’ which is something no other company has, yet not be retro."

But that doesn’t mean retro styling hasn’t had a powerful impact in Japan. In the late ’80s and early ’90s there actually was a retro car boom in Japan, and Nissan 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. But when it came to the new Z, potential customers said "no" to retro.

Instead, designers for the latest concept say they were guided only by the basic product features that made the original a strong design: a front engine/rear-drive layout, two seats, a hatchback body and an affordable price. Other than these basic design features, the concept bears no resemblance to the original. Even so, Nissan marketers try to connect the new with the old whenever they can, hoping that buyers will be as infatuated with "Z DNA" as they were with the original hit.

It may sound like a reach, but in today’s increasingly competitive market, automakers need every edge they can find, because the world – and how consumers look at it – is changing rapidly.

Now, it seems, just about everything we buy has to be highly "styled" from cheap pens and wristwatches to expensive stereo systems and personal digital assistants. Pure functionality isn’t understood or appreciated anymore. And those big dumb tailfins that not long ago were ridiculed as being frivolous and a symbol of all of Detroit’s wretched excesses? They’re cool again, along with Sinatra, the Rat Pack and straight-up martinis. At least among Gen X consumers.

And some of the newest designs are just plain difficult to understand for traditionalists.

Former Chrysler Corp. Vice Chairman Robert Lutz, now a founding investor in the Cunningham Motor Co., summed it up when he said during the unveiling of the new Cunningham C-7 grand touring coupe: "After spending time upstairs I feel I have to apologize. The Cunningham C-7 doesn’t look like a toaster. It doesn’t look like a trash compactor or a snow plow crossed with some car you’ve never seen before. It is designed to look like a car. If that’s currently out of style, then I apologize."

But if you can’t make it look like a trash compactor or a snow plow, how in the world can you make a minivan attractive to anyone these days?

Well, if you’re Volkswagen AG, you conjure images of a utility vehicle that once symbolized anything but wholesome family values – the old VW hippie van. Sure, you’re hauling around the soccer team now, but little do those rascals know that you used to be a Dead Head.

"We will continue to love people, cherish their emotions, their honesty and their loyalty. We will stay true to ourselves while we change to become better," VW board member Jens Neumann tells journalists at the unveiling of the Microbus. "The Microbus was no van, no MPV, no SUV, no hybrid. The Microbus was a personal space, with that most elusive of qualities – a soul."

Even more than one-time hippies, VW wants to sell the new Microbus to their children, who now are the thrill-seekers looking for freedom, space – and style.

"We looked at nomads, surfers, entrepreneurs of modern times; we looked at younger families with their kids," Mr. Neumann says. "They all have one thing in common: They need lots of space – space for their friends, for bikes and snowboards, kayaks and coolers, beach chairs and strollers, hockey sticks and football gear." Not surprisingly, Mr. Neumann makes no mention of soccer moms.

Wow, man, the folks at Volkswagen have fired up the bong again and developed another far-out marketing plan.

The Chrysler Group also heavily explored retro themes with its concepts, including vehicles from the ’50s and the World War II era. Perhaps to counter growing awareness that it is a foreign-owned company, Chrysler Group designers heavily stressed American design themes.

The Jeep Willys concept grabs design cues from the original World War II Jeep, for instance. The seven-slot grille, uniquely executed wheel arches and extremely short rear are "confidence inspiring shapes" that "maintain true Jeep character," DaimlerChrysler says. The Dodge Super8 Hemi concept interior pays homage to ’50s vehicles with its brushed and painted aluminum gages and trim. The interior "conveys a certain nostalgic optimism expressed in modern purposeful design," says interior designer Bill Chergosky. "I not only borrowed cues from the cars of the ’50s, but other evocative aspects from that era, such as jukeboxes and diners."

Adding emphasis to the retro look, the front and rear cabins feature bench seats, anchored to the floor at the ends and slide independently along a custom rail system. "At first glance, the seats appear to be floating in air," says Mr. Chergosky.

Like so many other concepts at NAIAS this year, though, retro design elements were juxtaposed and combined with very modern design. Unfortunately for the Chrysler concepts, it often seemed jarring and discombobulated.

GM also explored some retro themes with its concepts this year, but not nearly as heavily as Ford or the Chrysler Group.

It is ironic, given that it has suffered so much criticism for its styling in recent years, that GM actually invented automotive styling – at least in the U.S. And it is perhaps even more ironic that one of the sexiest, most stylish concept cars ever conceived was a Buick, but that indeed is the case.

Harley J. Earl established the first styling studio in the mid-1920s, and the first concept car – now an industry staple – didn’t appear until 1939. Until then, basic vehicle architecture and customer needs dictated how a car would look. Early models were built like carriages and had lots of ground clearance to accommodate poor, muddy roads. Engines were packaged directly over the rear axle, for the "horseless carriage" look.

Then engines were moved forward, and engine compartments and hoods appeared. Consumers wanted more protection from the weather, and the enclosed body style evolved.

Then in the late ’20s, Mr. Earl joined GM and brought the idea of smooth flowing lines – using full size clay models for the first time – to Detroit. The first "styled" U.S. car was the 1927 LaSalle, which borrowed from the sleek, flowing lines of European cars of the era. Smooth lines then began to take hold in the 1930s.

But the public didn’t always accept the gorgeous offerings the stylists were conjuring up in their studios. The 1934 DeSoto Airflow featured an extremely innovative aerodynamic shape that was so far ahead of its time it was considered odd looking, and it bombed in the marketplace, along with some truly classic designs like the Cord.

Automakers soon learned that public acceptance of styling changes had to be cultivated and manipulated long before they hit showrooms, so they started developing "dream cars" that were shown to the public to test out new ideas.

The classic one-off Buick Y-job, built in 1939, was essentially the first concept car. By 1940, engineers started shifting the passenger compartment ahead of the rear axle, which provided improved ride and handling, and stylists continued to pursue a rounded, massive look. But as fenders and other traditional vehicle contours disappeared into a smooth "slab sided" look at the end of the decade, designers started to look for new ways to decorate these vast expanses of flat sheet metal.

As the ’50s arrived, big became synonymous with better, and automakers competed to get ever longer, lower and wider. The ’50s also are described as the "Baroque" period of automotive design because stylists piled on tons of purely ornamental details such as chrome trim, tailfins and huge grilles as they tried to develop new styling cues in the absence of real fenders and body contours.

This also was the era of planned obsolescence. In 1934, the average length of car ownership was five years, but by 1954, the average had fallen to two years, thanks to annual styling changes that quickly made older models look out-of-date. The strategy boosted car sales, but by the end of the 1950s, stylists had painted themselves into a corner and had nowhere else to go. Buyers were tired of chrome and cars pretending to be airplanes.

Imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle won increasing favor with consumers because they featured simple, functional design. At the same time, fuel economy, safety and air pollution became big issues. A powerful anti-car and anti-Detroit lobby developed in Washington. These forces, plus factors such as the assassination of President Kennedy, led to a much more restrained and conservative attitude among car buyers by the mid-’60s, with sharp, square lines that gave cars the look of appliances.

But some designers still managed to have a little fun. Ford Styling Director
Eugene Bordinat sketched out a sporty new car that featured new proportions. Its long hood and short deck set the styling world on fire. The Mustang was born.

Then two fuel crises in the 1970s sucked the life out of styling again as designers struggled to retain interior room while they downsized and chopped vehicle length.

The Audi 5000 and the new Ford Taurus ushered in the soft and rounded aerodynamic look during the mid-1980s. They both had a profound influence on vehicle styling for more than a decade.

And then came Chrysler with its highly influential "cab forward" design.

But consumers now have grown tired of the aerodynamic "jellybean" and are demanding cars that have more personality and attention to detail, and that has led to retro or "heritage" design, which some automakers like to call it.

While GM isn’t pushing as hard in this area as some automakers, Ed Welburn, director of GM’s Corporate Brand Character Center, still is cherry picking some famous cues from GM’s rich past to distinguish future models. One key example is the shape of the grille on some classic Buicks. Just like the Ford Forty-Nine, the Buick Bengal is an interesting blend of old and new. While ultra-modern in many aspects, its grille can be traced right back to the Buick Y-job.

Will this new strategy work?

The success of the New Beetle and PT Cruiser – and the buzz surrounding Ford’s upcoming Thunderbird – suggest it will.

"We’re trying to create a design language that has a sustainability about it," says Ford’s Mr. Mays. "If you think about the amount of time people own their car, this is not a purchase that is immediately disposed of. You have a relationship with the product. It’s one thing to have something that says ‘Bang, I’m impressed!’ and then three days later you can’t stand it. That’s a lot different from a design that has sustainability about it. Those are ultimately the ones that people collect, that people cherish. I think collectibility, the fact that the product has meaning, has a great story around it, it somehow is what makes cars exciting," Mr. Mays says. "Everything else is just bent sheetmetal."

But this new breed of cars also sends a subtle, but very important message to the employees of U.S. automakers. As they once again appear poised to endure another major assault by foreign brands, these new vehicles do not meekly try to imitate European or Japanese style. Instead they celebrate their American heritage, and hearken back to a day when American cars proudly ruled the road.

In this area, again, the Forty-Nine has huge significance to Ford insiders. The first ’49 – the real one – saved the company from disaster. In 1945 the company was a "tottering shambles." Henry Ford was 80 years old, senile, and still officially running the company. After a battle, his grandson, Henry "The Deuce," finally took over – even though he was only 28 years old.

Once in control, he engineered what has been described as "the most dramatic comeback in industrial history." A key part of the comeback plan was developing a brand-new car for the 1949 model year, which would become the first popularly priced postwar car to be produced.

It doesn’t look that dramatic now, but that’s because it is the archetype of the modern passenger car. It was the first vehicle design that eliminated the pronounced bulges that separated the wheels and fenders from the rest of the car’s lines. Its basic size, weight and powertrain aren’t dramatically different from today’s family car. It became a major hit and is considered one of the most important vehicles the automaker ever manufactured. If it had failed, there likely would be no Ford Motor Co. today.

So when you talk about passion and emotional content in automotive styling, there’s plenty of material to draw from.

How long this trend will last – and if it really will produce some modern-day classics – still remains to be seen. Today’s PT Cruiser could conceivably become tomorrow’s AMC Gremlin. But from the looks of it now, we’ve got a ways to go before we get to the Beverly Hillbillies. o

— with Tom Murphy