MOTOR MOUTH: Dragging up nostalgia

MOTOR MOUTH: Dragging up nostalgia - When do civilisations begin to ape themselves? In ancient Greece it was two centuries after the peak when Hellenistic sculptors did mannered derivatives of austerely beautiful classical statuary. Now the loop is shorte

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When do civilisations begin to ape themselves? In ancient Greece it was two centuries after the peak when Hellenistic sculptors did mannered derivatives of austerely beautiful classical statuary. Now the loop is shorter: about 50 or 60 years. It's clear that, as manufacturers search for a point of difference in a tired and over-supplied global market, a significant trend in car design is the self-conscious revival of the past.

First there was Volkswagen's Beetle. The man responsible for that phenomenon, J Mays, is now vice-president of design at Ford. Soon we will be able to buy a Thunderbird that evokes the original (fun fun fun) T'bird of 1955. BMW will soon be selling a Mini whose commercial credibility depends on the public's affection for a car first manufactured in Birmingham in 1959. And so it goes on: Nissan made a big hit at the recent US auto show in Los Angeles by promising to reincarnate its classic '60s sportscar, the two forty zee. Right now, you can buy a Chrysler PT Cruiser, a more-or-less conscious take on Carl Breer's glorious Airflow of 1935.

Hmmmm. There's a big question mark over the PT ('Personal Transport').

I am not sure how much cuteness the customer can take. In my case, not much. The PT threatens to cover the standing quarter mile between 'Gosh!

Isn't that brave and interesting' to 'Eek! How toe-curlingly embarrassing!' in very short order. I drove one of the first on the roads, and it turned heads even in sophisticated Chelsea. The novelty value was enjoyable, but when you feel the need to explain that 'it's not my own car, it's on loan honest', Detroit, we have a problem. Nothing dates like novelty.

The PT is brassy or, rather, chromy. That huge openwork grille, the explicit mudguards, the stance that derives some of its apparent nose-down attitude from the rites of drag-racing or hot-rodding down California strips: these are all powerful motifs, but, handled with less finesse than the exquisitely judged Volkswagen second coming, the effect is to clamour for attention rather than excite historical reference. People will get bored with the look of the PT.

It is in other ways not a bad car. The '30s architecture provides an enormous cabin, so driver and passengers enjoy an unusual sit-up-and-beg attitude: up front there are real armchairs and it is spacious and comfortable.

The driving characteristics are nothing special (the engine is notably unrefined), but it stops and steers like a good, average contemporary car. The PT's worst technical attribute is its slowness. There is something absurd in a car whose iconography derives in part from the visual language of ethanol burning, supercharged, hemi-powered dragsters having difficulty keeping up with elderly pedestrians toting six Waitrose carrier bags.

The lack of power at least means you don't get ugly front-wheel drive wriggling, although the inherent puniness undermines the Cruiser proposition that suggests lazy power on tap.

The other big question is the PT's status in the Larger Scheme of Things.

A joke in Detroit goes like this: Q: 'How do you pronounce DaimlerChrysler?' A: 'The Chrysler is silent.'

The Germano-American merger has been a disaster. Know-all Germans, greedy for Chrysler's distribution network and market share, sacked all the Americans.

Two years later, no-one wants to buy a Chrysler sedan and signs are that demand for even the successful trucks and Jeeps has matured. As a result, the merged company is worth less than Mercedes-Benz was by itself.

The reality is that the Germans inherited the PT after the takeover - I'm sorry, I mean merger - and kept it alive because it appealed to their famous sense of humour. Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler have irreconcilable engineering and marketing philosophies. The PT exhausts the one asset Chrysler had: image capital.

Unless Mercedes-Benz plans to dump all its patiently acquired DNA and abandon Forschung for knee-slapping Swabian frivolity, it is hard to see how the PT can survive into a second generation. Potential for development is an unnegotiable component of good design and the PT does not have it.

Yet there's something rather touching about the car, a lonely mutation of something lost and gone forever. Perhaps there's more to this revival business than we first thought, a sort of mystical connection: the original Airflow was a flop too.

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