The Past is Back in Cars

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"I want one of those." The well-dressed woman in her 40s pointed at the striking, low-slung, gold car with the long hood, rounded fenders, and grand chrome grill of a car out of the 1950s. She wasn't alone. The luxury-class Chrysler Chronos, based on the 1953 Chrysler D'Elegance, has been one of the hits of the auto show circuit.

Unfortunately for her and others who have crowded around to get a glimpse of the car, the Chronos is only a concept car at this time. But don't be surprised if elements of the Chronos, if not the car itself, start appearing in showrooms over the next few years.

The warm welcome for the resurrected Volkswagen Beetle is not an anomaly. The past is back in cars. Chrome is making a comeback. Classic sports car design is having a revival via the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, and Mercedes SLK. Chrysler throwbacks, like the hot-roddish Plymouth Prowler, have been hailed by car enthusiasts. Car collectors are passionately snapping up 1968 Corvettes, 1964 Mustangs, and jet-wing finned cars of the 1950s. In automotive circles, a small but growing number of voices have begun the battle cry: "Bring back the American car!"

There's reason to believe that elements of the past will continue to make their way into car designs. As virtually every story on the Beetle has said, consumers are in a nostalgic mood. According to our Roper Starch data, the majority of Americans agree that "the good old days of the past" were better than the present-a reversal from the 1970s, when the majority said the present was better than the past. Classic American cars speak to a time when America had a strong self-image and was on top of the world, strains that have both parallels and contrasts to the America of the late 1990s.

But nostalgia is only part of the story. There are common-sense business reasons for automakers to put more emphasis on design. Design is increasingly a differentiating factor in cars. Being well made is not the decisive factor that it was in the 1980s.

The reputation of American vehicles has rebounded. Three in four (76 percent) of the public now say that the quality of the vehicles produced by domestic auto companies is good or excellent, up 18 percentage points from 1989.

Quality is now an expectation rather than a desire. In turn (as noted last month in this space), consumers are putting more emphasis on other factors beyond quality, such as warranties, maintenance and repairs, price, and the style and look of the brand. There's good reason for designers to look to the '50s and '60s for design cues. The 1950s and '60s-before the energy crisis and utilitarianism took hold-was arguably the most exciting period in car design.

Emotions also seem to be playing a role. There appears to be something of a disconnect in Americans' attitudes toward cars and driving. The lure of getting behind the wheel and hitting the road is still strong. The broad majority of Americans (82 percent) say they "enjoy the experience of driving." Only about half (52 percent) take the utilitarian view that a car is "nothing more than transportation to get me where I need to go" (and agreement with the statement has declined).

However, while the emotional connection between Americans and driving is still going strong, the emotional relationship of Americans and their cars is not particularly vibrant: Only 41 percent of Americans say the car they drive "says a lot about who I am," down 8 points from three years ago. More appealing design could restore some of that emotional relationship.

Emotions already play a part in car-buying decisions-just look at the success of sport-utility vehicles. While SUV owners may talk up safety, a big reason that SUVs have displaced minivans as the family vehicle of choice is that they're perceived to be cooler. In research, SUV owners are much more likely than the total public to identify with vehicles that are "fun," "sporty," and "rugged." Indeed, while pragmatic considerations, like being "well-made," "safe," "economical," "family-oriented" and "practical" are important, fairly large numbers of vehicle owners overall describe the vehicle of their aspirations in emotional terms, like "powerful," "sporty," "fun," "classic," "large," and "rugged."

Demographics likely will put more emphasis on design in the years to come. At present, the car market is dominated by the baby boomers. The boomers are in their family years-the years when family vehicles like SUVs and minivans make sense. But the kids are going to move out. And the boomers are going to face other changes as well-some retiring, some starting new careers, some experiencing mid-life crises, etc. The former "thirtysomethings" are going to become "fiftyanythings"-splintering into new markets as they follow diverse paths. The vehicle market likely will splinter with them.

Meanwhile, the boomers' kids-a demographic group as large as the boomers themselves-will create critical mass for cars that suit their needs. That could open up a whole new vein of design influences. Star Wars. Batman. Super Mario. For the car industry, the design revolution may have only just begun.

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