What's Love Got To Do With It?

Everything, says Adrian van Hooydonk, head of Designworks USA, BMW's California design studio. Though he sees retro design as a response to passionless vehicles and an uncertain future, he is convinced automakers can recapture the spirit and emotion that make a design resonate with buyers, without having to lean too hard on past vehicles.

Is "retro design" (a.k.a. heritage design), moving us forward as a society, or is it a full-throttle trip in reverse we can expect to continue?

Adrian van Hooydonk, president of Designworks USA (Newbury Park, CA.) thinks he has the answer. It's this: As a society, we are both fearful and uninspired. Until we feel otherwise, this trend is likely to continue.

"The 1950s and 1960s were a time of big change," says van Hooydonk. Air travel, television, and space flight captured the imagination, and society—especially American society, which didn't have to rebuild from the rubble of World War II—had a sense of purpose, direction, and acceleration.

Today, information technology has made it possible for a person to stay in touch with the world from the safety of his home or cubicle. Virtual reality games let players experience distilled thrills without the danger. People have moved from the cities to the suburbs in search of a better—and ironically, less congested—existence, but the wide-open spaces don't feel so open. Together these forces have had a corrosive effect on the modern psyche. "Life just doesn't seem fun, special, or romantic anymore," claims van Hooydonk, "so we are drawn to times when the future wasn't something to be feared."

And there's more. The auto industry's embrace of new assembly technologies in the 1970s and 1980s, believes van Hooydonk, shifted designers from their traditional roles as creators to a new role as problem solvers. This caused cars to lose their soul. "We lost sight of the importance of form," he says, "because designers were asked to draw cars that helped the engineers improve build speed, quality, crash performance, and fuel economy," he asserts. "The results were cold, calculating, and emotionless." And not always attractive.

Further, he points to the boom in the roadster and motorcycle markets over the past few years as proof of his basic theory. This shift toward more exciting, non-primary modes of transportation, he says proves that. "People still want to escape. They want to have real emotions, feelings and sensations, and they want to control a complex vehicle." It is the secondary transportation market where buyers are reconnecting to romance, though this market only points to the potential windfall awaiting a savvy OEM.

"Large segments of the driving population are unable to afford—or rationalize—a roadster or motorcycle," van Hooydonk says, "but they still have the desire to love their vehicle." Which, he points out, means there is a ready market for everyday vehicles imbued with personality waiting to be tapped. Just don't depend on retro to be the long-term answer to this unmet need.

"If you do a lot of remakes," warns van Hooydonk, "the consumer will see it as a formula designed to manipulate his emotions, and there will be a backlash." The auto industry hasn't yet reached this point, he says, though it's closer to this flashpoint than the fast-moving fashion industry. "Fashion design moves at high speed," he says, "so clothing can change before a fad has run its course. Car design can't." So while retro is safe—a design is already proven—designers can't hide behind it. The fad will pass. The future will come. Van Hooydonk wouldn't want it any other way.

"A designer—a company—can't be afraid of customer reaction. The vehicles have to evoke emotion, good or bad, and the company must be ready to change the look of its products at the moment of their greatest success." To do anything less risks falling behind the curve.