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BMW's Chris Bangle (top right), no stranger to controversy because of his company's non-symmetric vehicle designs, questions whether looking for inspiration in designs from the past meets the needs of today's consumer in terms of style, capability, and authenticity. Olivier Boulay of Mitsubishi (bottom left) believes heritage is a necessary part of good design, but denounces the tendency to use past designs as a measure for the future.

Coventry University designer Leon Comben's 2015 Land Rover combines heritage, utility, and new technology.

The Great Retro Debate

When is a design considered "retro" and when is it a homage to a company's heritage? That's a question even the world's top automotive designers have trouble answering.

"If we think the great designers of the past have done the best of the designs of the future, we're not taking care of the needs of our future." – Chris Bangle, director, BMW Group Design.

The panel discussion at the fourth annual Canadian International Auto Show Design Forum revolved around the school of automotive design alternately referred to as "retro" or "heritage." Which lead to a definition of each. Definitions that were violated a number of times, proving the design community is just as confused as anyone else when it comes to this topic. It was almost funny, even to the participants, except for the fact that their careers depend on whether the public wants vehicles with no ties to the past, or that blatantly copy a vehicle from the past.

But first, the definitions. Retro, the panel agreed, is best applied to vehicles that are resurrections of previous models, or mimic the look of a particular vehicle from an automaker's past. Heritage, on the other hand, is based on a feeling associated with a particular time or vehicle. (Retrofuturism, a made-up word no one on the panel wanted to define, wasn't mentioned in order to prevent mass confusion.) There are, however, two exceptions to these rules: the Mini Cooper–an update of a car that didn't change for more than 40 years–and Ford's Mustang, though not everyone agreed on the latter. On the pro-Mustang side was Olivier Boulay, chief designer at Mitsubishi. "The 2005 Mustang finally reestablishes the lineage of the Mustang line," he claimed. Why? "Because everything in-between the first two generations and the 2005 was crap that didn't evolve naturally." On the anti-Mustang side sat Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president and director of Design at Nissan. As one whose company resurrected the spirit of the original 240Z in a new package, making it a heritage vehicle by definition, Nakamura took a dim view of the next Mustang. "You can tell immediately which model it was based on," he says. "Therefore, it's retro."

None of which, of course, answered what is driving the retro/heritage trend in automotive design. It was suggested–by more than one designer–that refining winning designs from the past is a safe way for a company to produce vehicles with a built-in market advantage. Others, however, saw it as something akin to cheating on a final exam. According to David Lyon, executive director of Design at GM, this school of design does nothing more than "write a check on history," and chided his peers for the looking back to the future. "The boomers are driving this," he said only part in jest, "because it's the most nostalgia-driven generation ever." And he praised the designers of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s for "swinging for the fences every time they got up to bat."

However, Ed Golden, director of Ford's North American Car Studio, defended the move, saying that customers "are asking for vehicles that have a familiarity with which they can identify." At some level, it was suggested, this desire arises from a feeling of insecurity, just the opposite of what happened in the decades after World War II. And though some vehicles look backward today, the sheer number of new models means there is still room for experimentation. "The U.S. is the automotive design cowboy, and always has been," says David McKinnon, vice president, Large Car, Small Car and Minivan Design, DaimlerChrysler. "We've always felt that the more choices that are available, the better it is for everyone. This supports the ability to produce some vehicles that are very modern, and others that look like something from the past."

Mitsubishi's Boulay, however, countered that the choices are shrinking, not growing, and they have broken down in to "retro-heritage" and "mainstream" offerings. "Retro has a lot to do with nostalgia, and the frustration against the limits we have in the form of regulation today," he says. But the frustration does not end there. "I sometimes wonder if the public is too conservative, or whether marketing people have become too involved in the design process." Wonder no more. Boulay is convinced the marketing staffs at the various automakers have moved from discerning customer needs and selling them on the finished product, to determining how a vehicle will look, act, sound, and feel. "Instead of selling the vehicle as it is given to them, they produce tremendous amounts of paper outlining every aspect of the vehicle and what is acceptable to the buyer." This leads to a built-in barrier against change.

Though no one on the panel refuted Boulay's claims, Chris Bangle, director, BMW Group Design, suggested the largest obstacle to change was the cost associated with producing a new design. "When you change the formula between money and product," he says, "it's no longer a 'knot-in-the-throat' decision. People will naturally become bolder when this changes." Ed Golden–who was Bangle's college roommate–agreed with the Wisconsin native, and added: "It will take a technological breakthrough, something like pushing material through an ink jet printer, to make this change in affordability happen. Otherwise a company can afford only one set of tools." And this, he reiterated, increases the pressure to design a vehicle the buying public will immediately accept.

What gets lost in this process, claims Bangle, is authenticity. "Is heritage a form of authenticity, or is it even authentic?" he asks. Operating in the premium luxury market requires authenticity, he claims, and this characteristic "will become even more important in the future" as premium items have a greater effect on the design of less-lofty products. He likened the new-versus-old conundrum designers face to putting on a production of Hamlet. "You know what it is and how it ends, and you want to see it again. But if it's all that is available, you begin to wonder where the playwrights have all gone."

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One To Watch

Remember this name: leon comben. He is destined to make a mark on automotive design in the future. A third-year Transportation Design student at Britain's School of Art & Design at Coventry University, Comben took the grand prize of $10,000 in the Canadian International Auto Show's World Automotive Design Competition. Competing against students from around the world–other prize winners were from Seoul, South Korea, and Beijing, China – Comben's rendition of a 2015 Land Rover impressed the judges with its flexibility and ruggedness.

The vehicle packages a diesel engine up front, and a hybrid-electric powertrain under the floor. The motor is mounted longitudinally, and sends power to the front and rear axles. In addition, a rear power take-off unit is available to drive machinery modules such as a forklift, excavator, and pump. Comben used drive-by-wire technology as a design enabler. He envisions the interior (floor, seat mounts, instrument panel, etc.) molded in a single piece out of lightweight polymers, and locked to the floor. By opening the diagonally interchangeable, center-opening doors, two people can slide different interior modules in and out as their needs, or tastes, change. Keep an eye on this young designer.