Car design needs to go backwards

opinion
Forget ground-breaking, game-changing and boundary-pushing – I want the good old days.
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The automotive industry is one heavily soaked in nostalgia.

While we can acknowledge the value of bold design and forward movement, we seem to be constantly reflecting backwards, whining about how things were better back in the relevant decade of your choice.

It’s why modern classics continue to rise in value, and why we tend to get more excited about a rusted-out barn find than we often do about a viable new model.

The question is: why keep fighting it?

Above: As BMW's grilles get larger, enthusiasts get more riled up.

Judging by recent divided reactions to BMW’s increasingly ginormous grilles, we’re not particularly fond of change (even if common sense tells me BMW is merely responding to customer demands, rather than trying to rewrite the design rules).

Still, with such an appetite for the 'good old days', why are car designers intent on pushing forward and never looking back?

This point became particularly salient to me after a reveal of a model I was particularly excited about this year: the Jeep Grand Wagoneer concept.

Above: The 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer.

I have a soft spot for wood-panelled, Americana-drenched holiday wagons. I blame it on a childhood partly spent in the US and a dad who was a big fan of the National Lampoon movies.

As such, I was holding out for the 2020 Wagoneer to deliver a ’70s and ’80s Yankee nostalgia hit so big it made me feel like I was biting into a soft pretzel while listening to Van Halen.

Instead, I saw an SUV difficult to differentiate from Jeep’s other products, or any of the raft of jazzy new SUVs arriving in droves from the US – the Hummer EV and Ford Bronco amongst them.

Above: The 2021 Jeep Grand Wagoneer concept.

Where was the trademark boxy shape? Where were the bold red and blue paint shades? And where, for the love of all things holy, was my beloved wood panelling?

Thankfully, CarAdvice contributor Alex Misoyannis went some way to satiating my desire for retro goodness with his rendering, but I was still left feeling swindled.

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In the age of electric cars and autonomous driving, it seems there are plenty of tuning shops churning out restomod classics with electrified powertrains, but barely any manufacturers cottoning on to the fact you can still have your digital instruments cluster without going full Avatar.

Nameplates are being revived left, right and centre – from the Ford Mach 1 to the Land Rover Defender – but they’re being completely transformed from nose to tail.

Under-the-bonnet overhauls and interior and technology tweaks are welcome, but why not retain some of the retro charm that made these nameplates popular in the first place?

Think classic cars with modern tech and safety that aren't one-off restomods or concepts, but rather fully fledged modern vehicles that just so happen to look like they're hot off the set of Bullitt.

I, for one, would kill for a car that offered the good looks of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing with the added bonus of Apple CarPlay and hybrid power.

On that note, here are the retro design features that I reckon need to return to modern cars:

Pop-up headlights

From the Porsche variety to the Toyota Celica variety and everything in between. I'm aware they were killed off for safety issues, but surely we can find a workaround in 2020?

Bubble-shaped wheel arches

I'll never get over the death of the Volkswagen Beetle in Australia (it was my childhood dream car) – so VW can at least appease would-be buyers by reviving its bubble-like styling on other vehicles.

Pastel paint shades

Bright colours are great, but where are my pale pink cars at?

Shrunken grilles

As exemplified by the 1978 BMW M1...

Exterior wood panelling

Wood panelling is becoming trendy for luxury car interiors, but I'd like to see it return to the exterior of cars (Jeep, I'm looking at you).

Extravagant doors

Statement doors are now purely the domain of futuristic concepts or big-dollar supercars from Koenigsegg, Lamborghini and the like, but I'd love to see a scissor door or gullwing set-up make its way onto a mid-market production sports car.

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Supersized sedans

Sales figures don't lie – sedans can't compete with SUVs. But what if we scaled up sedans (no, not like those coupe SUVs from BMW and Mercedes) so they once again possessed the perfectly balanced dimensions of a ’60s Lincoln Continental or Cadillac DeVille?

Statement spoilers

To me, spoilers have become associated with lads-y cars and ugly aftermarket kits, but when I see them well-executed, I can't help but fall in love.

Large tea-tray or whale-tail spoilers like those on classic Porsches or that are as architecturally impressive as they are aerodynamic add some much-needed dramatic flair (my personal favourite is on the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II).

Thin steering wheels

Sure, they're not the chunky, sporty, race-car inspired steering wheels that seem to feature on everything from SUVs to hot hatches these days, but those wagon wheels you'll likely spot on a classic Merc or BMW have a dainty elegance to them that transports you to an era where gentlemen wore hats and you got most of your news through the wireless (no, not the wireless internet).

And then I asked my colleague Kez, because I know he shares my passion for outlandish ’80s fashion and retro automotive design. Here are Kez's requests (all of which I wholeheartedly endorse):

Dashboards that aren't dominated by infotainment screens

Even if you have to make like Bentley and have your infotainment screen stow away...

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Ashtrays

Not for smokers, but as a neat place to tuck away coins and lip balm without too much rattling.

Velour seat trim

...and colours, like interior colours that aren't grey, charcoal or black. Honda stuck it out for a while with furry seat trims, and Toyota will still let you option a real wool in the Century in Japan.

That's great, but ’80s family cars came with bold burgundy, navy and olive green. Let's reboot the interior colour palette with a modern take on those, in plush fabrics – and banish nylon weaves and faux leather for good.

Physical instruments

I'm bored with virtual displays already, most are pointless.

Thin pillars

Okay, I will celebrate the fact that roof crush strength has come a long way. I wouldn't want to undo that, but since we've perfected the art of the 'floating' roof with strategically placed blackout banding, I think we could extend the side glazing into the pillars just a little, leaving the supporting structure intact.

A thin C-pillar sounds dangerously sexy, and though it may not aid visibility, a visually de-bulked pillar will reset design benchmarks.

Quarter vent windows

As flagpole-style mirrors become the norm (once again), the simple quarter vent is due to make a comeback. Drivers of a certain age will recall the amazing de-misting and anti-buffeting properties of a simple swivelling triangle of glass.

Some cars already have fixed glazing in, or just ahead of, the doors, but why stop there?

Four-door hardtops

Let's call a spade a spade here, in the ’80s and ’90s your four-door coupe would have been a hardtop with frameless windows but a usefully square roof line.

Above: The Honda Inspire.

Chrome

I don't hate it and there's an elegance to the abundance of chrome on old American cars.

Long, lean styling

Making cars look long and slim-roofed instead of morphing everything into a chunky 'faux-wheel drive'.

What classic car design tweaks would you like to see make a comeback? Feel free to add to my list via the comments section!