Uh, oh. They're back! Platform shoes. Polyester. John Travolta. The Brady Bunch. Plus every semi-talented rock band that ever had an album on 8-track. For some awful, inexplicable reason, the fashions, colors, art, television shows, movies, actors and music of the '70s are back in style -- with a vengeance.
And, to the horror of some, car and truck colors and interior fabrics are following the same trend as automotive stylists try to add new (new?) hues to an aging palette in 1997 and beyond.
Remember shiny polyester suits and shirts, avocado green and harvest gold washing machines and refrigerators? Brown suits and orange shirts? Busy, busy, fabric patterns. How about lime-green Chevy Vegas of the early '70s, and full-size vans lined with orange shag carpet? Vinyl roofs? Yuk!
Reviled by most baby boomers as "The Decade of Bad Taste," the '70s have become just plain "BAD." As in "cool." As in...well, you get the picture.
A few examples:
* John Travolta. A major television and movie star during most of the 1970s, his role as a disco dancer in the 1977 hit movie Saturday Night Fever turned him in his white leisure suit into one of the most memorable symbols of a tacky decade. He then became a cliche and barely worked during the 1980s. Now, once again, he is one of Hollywood's biggest box office draws. He reportedly receives as many as 17 movie offers per day. Oh, and the white disco suit? A collector recently paid six figures for the honor of owning it.
* Clothing and fashions. Open any current fashion magazine and you'll see an orgy of '70s regalia, from shag haircuts and polyester shirts and blouses, to lime greens, orange and brown everything, right down to the platform shoes.
* The Brady Bunch. Re-runs of this smarmy '70s sitcom are so popular they spawned an unnervingly popular Hollywood movie that showcases every ugly fashion of the era. The sequel hit theaters in August, just in time to influence back-to-school apparel sales.
* Rock Groups. Grand Funk Railroad? The Sex Pistols? Kiss? "In some kind of perverse Twilight Zone time warp, every rotten band that ever took the stage in that era is back now doing better than ever," reports Detroit Free Press reviewer Daniel Lyons. Spin magazine, which features the now paunchy members of Kiss on its August cover, reports the band's Detroit show sold out in 47 minutes. Front-row seats were scalped for $7,000, Spin reports, "which probably says more about Detroit than it does about Kiss," Mr. Lyons astutely notes.
But, don't start buying stock in companies that make shag carpet rakes quite yet. Automotive designers and color experts -- who think '70s styles and colors are just as ugly as most everyone else does -- insist they have no plans to copy the decade that closely.
"You might say there's an influence of the past, but we're not looking at any literal translations, only a directional influence," assures Margaret Hackstedde, chief designer of color and trim atCorp. "You're not going to see anything that directly reminds you of the 70s," she says.
Instead, color experts such as Marilyn A. White, manager of advanced styling at PPG Industries Inc., says new paint and textile technologies will provide a completely new look to the old '70s colors. Individual decades do become more influential during specific times, she says, but designers of automotive and industrial products do not follow high fashion as slavishly as some critics may think. "Some of us have lived through the '70s and say `Oh God, I never want to see it again,"' she says.
"No vinyl roofs" promises Harvey Hug, corporate color manager atCorp.'s Design Center.
To many engineers, the study of fashion and color trends may seem frivolous. But to those directly and indirectly involved, it is a deadly serious business with a crucial impact on vehicle sales, perceived quality, residual values and overall costs.
Industry studies show that more than 30% of prospective buyers actually will change brands if they can't get the colors they want when they go to a dealership.
"We feel color is one of the five most essential elements of the product the customer considers," says GM's Mr. Hug.
What's more, the right new color can resuscitate an older model dying on the vine. In 1990, for instance, a bright aquamarine shade called Cayman Blue prompted orders for the slow-selling '91 Escort GT to skyrocket. About 50% of all GTs ordered were that color, andreportedly picked up two points of market share just because of the new color.
More recently, an experimental paint called "mystic" helped perk up interest in the '96 Mustang (see WAW -- Sept. '95, p. 32). The paint uses totally new technology that causes the car's skin to look purple, then green, or myriad other colors depending on your viewing angle. The iridescent effect is similar to watching a drop of oil spread on the surface of a puddle, explains Jon R. Hall, chief designer at BASF Corp.'s Automotive Coatings unit.
The unusual paint created a small sensation and boosted dealer showroom traffic as the curious walked in to get a better look. Buyers happily paid $815 extra -- and sometimes much more -- for the 2,000 Cobra Mustangs offered with the special paint.and BASF insiders now say they could have sold thousands more if they had been available. Expect to see more of this paint in the future.
Color stylists and designers at automakers and suppliers such as PPG, BASF and DuPont Automotive not only conduct extensive research on their own, they also closely monitor apparel trends in the fashion capitals of Europe and attend numerous seminars and workshops to study color trends in the fashion industry, home interiors and industrial design.
Automotive color stylists, however, face unique problems. New cars and trucks have to look fresh and be in step with modern fashion, but long product-development lead times, and the high cost and length of ownership of vehicles, make it dangerous to be too trendy. Many fashion trends can come and go during the normal two- or three-year cycle from when colors and fabrics are selected to the time they show up on a vehicle.
The growing popularity of short-term leases adds another conundrum. Consumers leasing a vehicle for only two years might be eager to experiment with wild and trendy interior and exterior colors, but choices that don't age well could make it difficult to sell or lease the vehicle again and cause resale values to plummet.
One would expect that offering a wide variety of interior and exterior colors and special-effect paints would become mandatory as automakers push to differentiate segments, establish "brand character" and add spice and distinctiveness to otherwise bland models.
But painting is the most expensive part of the vehicle manufacturing process. Paint itself can cost from $50 to more than $1,000 per gallon.
In an effort to control costs and manufacturing complexity, automakers are actually reducing the number of color choices. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, automakers typically offered 16 colors per model line. Now they are offering about 10. Interior color choices are even more limited.
"I don't know if 10 is too few, but it had better be the right 10," emphasizes Robert S. Daily, color marketing manager for DuPont Automotive. "It puts a lot of pressure on us to make sure we're offering the designers the right selections for those 10 choices per car line."
Globalization adds yet another twist. Automakers are trying to limit manufacturing complexity while they market more products worldwide, but some color preferences differ dramatically according to geography and climate. PPG's Ms. White points out that white, the most popular exterior color in the U.S., is synonymous with death in China.
Very yellow greens now are considered hideous in the U.S., but are well-liked in Germany, adds Ford color and trim designer Shareen Rapaport.
Another concern: a paint job that has technical flaws or doesn't weather well can have catastrophic results. A durable, shiny finish is crucial to long-term customer satisfaction. Problems with peeling paint -- which have plagued numerous automakers to varying degrees -- can turn into warranty nightmares. Peeling paint on 1985-'91 Ford F-Series pickups, for instance, reportedly cost Ford more than $1 billion in warranty costs.
"I've never seen so much research being done," says Al Calfin, primary design specialist in corporate design color and trim at Ford. He says paint suppliers don't even bother to present new colors for consideration that aren't already proven to be bullet-proof.
But all of this may be little solace to anyone whose eyes recently have been assaulted by a red '97M3 with an orange interior, a lime green Neon, a blazing "tangerine" Ford Mustang -- or busy interior upholstery with checkerboard patterns.
A glimpse behind the scenes at automotive paint and textile suppliers reveals that the experts are serious when they say most of the new colors and fabrics destined for the next three model years won't make the typical baby boomer gag. Those that will are aimed at younger car buyers who haven't seen them before -- or European consumers with different tastes.
Most shades -- even the yellowish greens and oranges -- look fresh and new without being obnoxious. Even increasingly popular green interior fabrics manage to be inoffensive.
Shinier polyester interior upholstery fabrics are gaining popularity, as are '70s-like geometric fabric patterns, and vinyl and suede inserts, Ms. Rapaport says. However, she insists that these materials are more likely to evoke impressions of high technology and durability than, say, the Bee Gees' 1977 World Tour.
After all, if the '70s nostalgia craze runs out of steam quickly, automakers don't want to be stuck with two or three years worth of the automotive equivalent of mood rings.
Meanwhile, white and black are expected to remain favorites. White traditionally is the most popular color because it appeals to a broad base of consumers and is the main choice for commercial fleet vans and trucks. Black remains a strong power color.
But preferences for other car colors are changing as the colors used in art, clothing fashions, industrial design and home furnishings change around us.
North American consumer preferences for '70s-like earth tones and "colors of nature" -- such as green, light brown and beige -- have been growing in recent years, says DuPont Automotive's Mr. Daily.
"In all aspects of our lives, we will see shades of beige, gold, coral, copper and purple that are reminiscent of the '70s interest in earth tones, only interpreted in lighter and brighter hues and shades," says Mr. Daily.
Most boomers grimace at the mention of yellowish "avocado green," but some coming versions of that old hue are deeper and richer and promise to be quite appealing. An example is the 1968 Pontiac GTO on our cover. "Verdoro" green was an enormous success when it first appeared on the car, and it still looks good today. Back then, Verdoro was selected by 25% of all GTO buyers. "That's a big number," says Mr. Daily, who is a big fan of the color -- and the car. Most popular colors, other than white, claim order ratings in the 10% or 15% range.
So what happens after the '70s craze runs its course? The experts -- who currently are working on colors for the 2000 model year -- are reluctant to provide clues.
BASF's Mr. Hall, however, ventures that silvery grays might become more popular after everyone's eyeballs have been seared for a few years by the bright colors of the late '90s.
What does that mean in terms of fashion and popular culture? Does Bo Derek, braided hair and the term "Super Freak" mean anything to you?