In the late nineties and early noughties there was a rash of mostly luxury brands reasserting themselves by holding up their heritage with designs that took themes from the fifties and sixties and re-imagined them as contemporary visions: the Aston Martin DB7, the Maserati 3200GT, the Jaguar XK8, the Ford T-Bird, the New Mini, the Bentley Continental, the Rolls Royce Silver Seraph, the Alfa Romeo 156, even the Porsche 996 and Lotus Elise. These ‘heritage designs’ — designs that made conscious reference to cars from the past — were the first time that new car designs transcended being the future facing freeze-frame of ‘now’, and stretched to become a continuum from past to present. Instead of standing at the abyss of the present looking to the future with the past unseen behind, these new car designs were a narrative reaching from yesterday to today — a cinematic journey not just a snap-shot destination.
We have been looking recently at car designs that have long lineages, or that consciously use their design heritage to create a narrative that stretches over decades, and something dawned on us: with rare exception these designs connect back to cars designed in the 1950s or the 1960s. For some reason, despite car designs looking over their shoulder for the last twenty years, this fifties and sixties reference point hasn’t moved forwards. But it looks like this is on the cusp of changing.
Beyond car brands seeking to redefine themselves fuelled by the booming economies and the wider luxury market of the 1990s, this emergence of heritage design was also born of car design having reached a level of maturity that meant that it stopping needing to focus on expressing better functional performance. The era of a Merecedes looking like it was reliable, a Volvo looking safe, or an Audi looking aerodynamic, was drawing to a close; all cars were reliable and safe and aerodynamic so design didn’t need to tell these stories. For the first time the advancement and novelty customers sought in a new car design (the central reason behind a customer buying a new car and not keeping their old one) no longer needed to be born of being better in a tangible, functional way.
So the idea of reaching back to the past to realise a new design uncorked the latent value of brands’ heritages, created inherently richer design narratives, and stepped into the void where design used to express function. Referencing designs from the fifties and sixties was attractive as this was a period remembered for fast growing prosperity and related cultural regeneration and optimism, particularly when viewed nostalgically. Twenty years ago it also made sense to reference designs from this period because they were just old enough to be classic and not just out-of-date, whilst still being in the memory of many of the (typically older) luxury car customers. But why hasn’t this evolved over time, how come the fifties and sixties are still the central period referenced twenty years after the first heritage designs? From this year’s super-car specials of the P72 DeTomaso and Ecurie Ecosse LM69, through the ever-green and ever growing range of Mini and Fiat 500 designs, through sports cars like the Alpine A110, Jaguar F-Type, Porsche 992 and Ford Mustang sixties design is still the central point of re ference. It is less explicit but arguably more pervasive in the luxury car sector where Rolls Royce and Bentley and Bugatti and even Maserati designs coyly refer to car design idioms and details of the fifties and sixties.
Beyond the Golf, which has an unbroken lineage but perhaps no longer much seventies identity, and the Dodge Challenger, the rich period of automotive design from 1970 - 1985 has been little mined, despite this being a Generation X nostalgia peak. Meantime, in the film, music and fashion industries, we see a litany of references to the seventies and eighties. So why not in car design? Is it because the period was conceptually lead by a more democratic and inherently less premium aesthetic that would be a challenge to reimagine in today’s luxury obsessed market? That designs of that period was less brand specific and more period specific in their execution and so hard to ‘own’ for a brand’s new design? That the stark representation of modernity of many seventies designs jars with the sensibilities of today?
But then maybe we are just beginning to see the emergence of a trend for car design to connect to the seventies, if not yet the eighties. The limited edition Porsche 935 and the one-off Ferrari SP12 EC show how this can happen at the top-end of the market. The BMW ‘Homage’ concept cars, Peugeot’s e-Legend concept, and the Nissan IDX concepts have collectively shown a way to realise a compelling premium level of seventies identity over the last few years also, riffing off designs renowned from this period (even if some of them were introduced in the late sixties). The Honda e-Concept arguably nods to the seventies as does the tiny Suzuki Jimny, and at the other end of the SUV scale the Mercedes G (nee G-wagon) is a hugely successful seventies anachronism. And there’s scope for a lot more potentially; designs that could step from existing platforms to be compelling in their own right, but also galvanise new audiences with richer narratives from brands they otherwise overlook:
An Aston that riffs-off the William Towns V8 Vantage; to put a fist back in the velvet glove that Aston has become — a bit like a posh Dodge Challenger. A Rolls that reinvents a Camargue for the 2020s; something both delicate and massive and a little abstruse (surely the ultimate luxury quality?). BMW pressing ‘print’ on one of their Homage designs; with the high value of old M-cars and a low price ceiling for the brand waiting to be punched through, surely this would be an easy win and usefully bolster the brand? A son-of-Espada (a sixties design, but one with its heart in the seventies…) Lamborghini might be the classy antithesis to the Urus. A reborn seventies Capri really could deliver an emotional hit for Ford with the post-hipster generation. Maserati perhaps have an opportunity to show how Khamsin could inspire a 2020s front-engine super car. Range Rover could give us something no-one else could with a compact, upright, and classy SUV that steps closely from their original. Toyota could take the Celica to a premium coupe place, and Nissan could remind us how the Cherry pioneered the small four door coupe fifty years ago — indeed most of the Japanese brands have particularly strong opportunity to reach back to the seventies. Maybe Lotus could take Polestar 1 ingredients and make a modern day Elite type 75, and surely Mercedes could reach back to the seventies R107 SL in a similar way that it has done with the G?
The list could well go on; and whilst many likely may not make easy commercial sense, they would all offer an added-value propositions that would sell for more than their nearest sibling product, and offer a design narrative many of these brands would be otherwise unable to realise without a design heritage or customer base that can reach back to the sixties, yet alone the fifties. By offering a continuum from past to present they would mine the value of their longevity and assert a new level of brand authenticity, as well as realising cinematic journeys for their customers instead of Instagram moments.
And beyond the ‘reimagining’ of individual classic designs from the past, there is a broader aesthetic and set of values from the seventies and eighties that might be re-visited and reinterpreted into car designs for the twenties (just as other creative mediums have done) to attain an otherwise exceedingly hard to realise level of emotive engagement with brands’ audiences — a super precious commodity.
We are not often champions of taking inspiration from the past, but seventies car design is an unusually untapped seam of gold, and with a market ripe for this, and many brands able to uniquely win with this also, we think the next big thing in heritage car design might just be the seventies.