Forget the 1970s-chic Beetle debut at the 1998 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Automakers are stepping back another 20 years when the economy wasn't in the tank, automotive design wasn't an oxymoron and “Happy Days” was a mood not a television show. Welcome to the 1950s, with a 90s spin.

Although Ford Motor Co. is careful not to call its Thunderbird concept “retro,” there's no mistaking the heritage of the car. Classic design elements such as the afterburner tail lamps, fender vents, hood scoop and opera windows scream '55-'57 Thunderbird. Some inspiration for the concept also was gleaned from the '61-'62 T-bird.

Built on the same DEW98 platform that the Lincoln LS will ride on, the T-bird also will share a version of the LS 3.9L V-8, albeit a 240 hp version and not the Lincoln's 252 hp.

The car is a true 2-seater and will come with a removable fiberglass hardtop to cover the cloth convertible top. Ford considered doing a retractable hardtop, similar to the Mercedes SLK, but decided against it for cost and space reasons. The concept sits on 18-in. wheels, a size that likely won't make production.

Volumes for the new car, which isn't likely to see production before the '01 model year, aren't locked in yet, but Ford President and Chief Executive Jac Nasser says they'll likely be in the 20,000- to 25,000-unit range. Look for the vehicle to be priced between $30,000-$35,000 with minimal options, he says.

Joining T'bird in the retro brigade is the Chevrolet Nomad, which borrows cues from the 1955 car with the same name. General Motors Corp. says the Nomad combines the performance and handling of a sports car with the spirited functionality of a sport/utility vehicle. “It's like putting the Blazer and a Corvette in a blender,” simplifies one Nomad designer. The rear gate slips under a false floor for easier loading or unloading. The LS1 V-8 is mated with shift-by-wire transmission.

Mercedes-Benz also turns back the clock, with its SLR concept that combines elements from the Silver Arrow Formula 1 racecar with the famous SL gull-wing of the 1950s. Sources say the design provides a glimpse of the next SL, due out March 2001.

The Buick Cielo, meanwhile, revives the GM division's hallmark portholes. Cielo also features a retractable hardtop and borrows cues from the now-defunct Riviera, including the supercharged 3.8L V-6.

Other concepts at the Detroit show are more progressive.

The Pontiac Aztek is a front-drive crossover concept that combines features of a midsize sedan, a van and SUV — giving the car-only nameplate a Utilitarian vehicle to test with its young buyers.

The Oldsmobile Recon compact SUV continues to push a techno cool design for the rebounding division. Recon passengers can reconfigure the SUVs interior in several ways, including repositioning readouts in the IP display pod.

Cadillac shows off its Evoq roadster concept, expected to make it into production around 2002. The concept boasts GM's first rear-drive application of its Northstar V-8.

DaimlerChrysler Corp. (DCC) takes a strong alternative powerplant position with its 1999 concepts. Leading the effort is the Citadel, a cross between a 300M and an SUV. A performance hybrid, Citadel's rear wheels are powered by a 253-hp 3.5L V-6. Up front, Siemens Automotive electric motors can add another 70 hp.

The Dodge Charger R/T concept is fitted with a CNG-powered 4.7L supercharged V-8 that offers 25% lower carbon dioxide emissions and meets California's Ultra Low Emission Vehicle standard while it pumps out 325 hp. The CNG fuel tank is a flat space-saving design made of high-density polyurethane with a carbon fiber-based liner.

The Dodge Power Wagon borrows some retro styling cues from the full-size pickup first introduced in 1946. Under the hood sits a 7.2L direct-injection I-6 diesel crafted by Caterpillar that burns a sulfur-free “designer fuel” that DCC is jointly developing with Syntroleum. Also bowing is the Jeep Commander, an upscale SUV concept powered by a fuel cell.

Non-existent at last year's show, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. executives say their “coming out” will be in Detroit with their new compact SUV, which will be built at Nissan's Smyrna, TN, plant on the same line as the Frontier pickup. The '00 Xterra will go on sale in June. The vehicle will be available with a V-6, and will be priced just under $20,000.

American Honda Motor Co. Inc. will unveil the V V hybrid concept, powered by a 1L 3-cyl. engine with the VTEC variable valve timing system that is “assisted” by an electric motor during acceleration. It is linked to a 5-speed manual transmission and produces performance equivalent to a 1.5L 4-cyl. while doubling fuel economy, Honda says.