Greatest Hits: How nostalgia is shaping car design
With more legacy carmakers dipping into their archives, we look into what the nostalgia resurgence means for design (and coachbuilding) of the future, and will it work?
In the past two years, a million articles have been written about the healing power and longing for nostalgia. The rise of hobby crafts, decades-old TV sitcoms and even the return of old music on the charts etc. For car enthusiasts, that yearning is nothing new —car companies have been playing on our warm and fuzzies for the machines of yore for years. But we are now finding ourselves in an interesting intersection where, in times of uncertainty, where technology is moving so fast, the pull to the familiar is stronger. Nostalgia is a new mode of play car companies can use to draw attention to the design possibilities in the very technology many have pushed against for old times' sake.
On these pages, we've discussed retro-mod or retro-reissues, but two new concepts from Hyundai recently emerged showed the retro-future design language isn't going away. The Hyundai Pony and Grandeur EV concepts fused iconic '80s elements with modern materials to create concepts that were futuristic, aspirational and familiar. The two prototypes even resonated with both automotive-media consumers and the general public.
"A lot of these new designs play on that psychology of people wanting what feels familiar," says Bryan Young, an industry veteran, ex-GM and Ford designer and independent design consultant. "Right now with EVs, the early adopters —the Rivian and Lucid people —are in, but they're small a minority. So what we're starting to see, and will see more of, are the ways companies are using familiarity or comfort to get the majority who want what they know."
The ubiquity of the skateboard platforms that underpin EVs allow more ways to play with design ideas—look at the hundreds of concepts emerging from China, India and wider Asia using this exact strategy. "It reminds me of the early days of the automobile, where you bought the rolling chassis and took it to a carrossier, like Figoni et Falaschi, and they created your car," says Young. "That's where I see real exciting potential for great design houses or teams to just go to town. You could put anything on the skateboard and make it personal." Making it, however, is a different story.
The new players (and some of the failed heritage design projects) however are missing that one thing, points out Young: X factor. "Think about any family recipe from your childhood that is unique and you get handed down the recipe to replicate it," Young says. "You try to make it you follow it to letter but it doesn't taste the same. Because there is an X-factor that is missing, that unquantifiable ingredient not on the recipe, that's what we often see happen in car design." Young indicts that X factor happens at the very base level when students are learning about art, design and history, and that education is priceless he says. "I can tell you, all the market research brands do doesn't matter. At the end of the day, pulling on that emotion somehow, especially when we talk about this upcoming EV future we're facing, it works."
As brands move from a crawl to running with EVs, they have to be savvy with how they incorporate their archives. "What we're seeing right now, this nostalgic design, it's just the beginning," says Young. "I can tell you that and moving forward we'll see legacy brands really push it" With every new legacy model that throws to the past comes a familiar feeling that plays on a 'have your cake and eat it too' psychology, but too much of a good thing could prove a failure.
"Nostalgia is a dangerous and addictive drug," warns Young. "You can have a little bit of wine, and let's say that could be the Hyundai Pony or Honda E —and you think, oh! this is nice! It's a good feeling! Then you have a little bit more, and the next minute, you're shitfaced on the floor." Or, you're Lamborghini looking up at Marcello Gandini denouncing the new Countach LPI 800-4. "Exactly. If you're going to pull from history, you, you better kick ass, make it fresh and move the needle." He adds, "When you get out of that car, you lock the door and you're walking away. If it doesn't tug at you to turn around and take another look at it. The designer has failed. At the end of the day, it's gotta be hot. Period."