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Carmakers look back for inspiration

New line of cars evokes a desire for a quieter, simpler time inAmerica.

Old is in. The past is back. And "retro" is the wave of the future for cars that will soon be plying the country's highways.

At a time when Americans are again wearing platform shoes, watching Hollywood Squares, and reviving everything 70s but the leisure suit, Detroit too is looking backward.

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That means drivers could soon be behind the wheel of a flashy two-seater Thunderbird convertible. Or a brand new Nissan 240Z. Or a Chrysler PT Cruiser with bulbous fenders and a rounded hood like a 1930s hot rod.

Many social observers say retro is back because Americans are longing for simpler, quieter, slower times.

In the auto world, there are other reasons. Manufacturers are competing for customers' attention by building up their brand names. They do that by focusing on the historical strengths of the nameplate. And for lots of reasons, those strengths - especially among US automakers - hail from the past.

It's good news for consumers with a taste for retro, as carmakers produce more eye-catching new models than perhaps ever before. Volkswagen's New Beetle the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster, Plymouth Prowler, and Jaguar XK8 are among dozens of cars on American roads that spring from the retro trend.

They're cars that inspire passion in a world where regular business models dictate more look-alike sedans and minivans. Expensive, impractical cars such as the new Thunderbird and Chevrolet Corvette cast a halo over all the other models at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

If Ford builds a car as legendary as the Thunderbird, its designers must have put some of that same passion into the latest Contour, Taurus, Explorer, or what have you.

SUCH retro themes may amount to just a flash in the pan. But top designer J Mays, who created the T-bird as well as Volkwagen's New Beetle, doesn't think so. These cars provide a solid foundation on which designers can build the future, he says.

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Certainly, building the future off such lackluster forebears as the recent four-seat T-bird coupe or the Chevy Lumina sedan sounds less exciting.

Nissan's US design chief Jerry Hirshberg puts a different spin on it. He calls Nissan's new Z car "a fresh riff on an old tune."

More than half of the cars at the Detroit show reflected a retro theme, foreshadowing what will rumble onto America's streets in the near future.

Chrysler led the way, as it has with most of its Detroit show cars this decade. Chrysler's vice president of design, Tom Gale, spends his weekends building hot rods from rusty cars, and is well versed in making old ideas seem new.

Three of its five show cars this year look back as much as forward. Besides the PT Cruizer, Chrysler showed a rakish four-door street rod called Charger, reminiscent of the muscle car made famous in "The Dukes of Hazzard."

It's Power Wagon show truck conjured images of its purposeful, rugged namesake from the forties, despite its luxurious interior.

Chrysler also has a history of producing cars very close to those it shows here.

Mercedes-Benz showed a concept Vision SLR, with gull-wing doors, long flowing lines, and a bulbous top that harks back to its most famous 300SL luxury sports car of the 1950s.

And Chevrolet recast its mid-50s nomad two-door station wagon, hunkered down to the road like a hot rod.

Critics decry the retro trend as lacking originality, looking back for inspiration rather than creating something new.

In response, designers like Mr. Mays often deny their cars are remakes of the original, emphasizing their modern mechanics, creature comfort and updated lines.

The Thunderbird "is not retro," Mays says. "While [it] is loaded with heritage cues, it is a decidedly modern machine." Such cars couldn't be successful if they were just like the old ones, they argue.

In any case, the trend extends beyond cars made to mimic earlier versions of the same models.

Audi's TT coupe, to drive into dealers this spring, has the bullet-like appearance of 1930s European race cars built by Audi's predecessor, Auto Union.

TT stands for the Tourist Trophy race an early Auto Union won.

And many everyday cars on American streets show retro details - the side scoops on a Ford Mustang, the corrugated lower sides of the Pontiac Grand Am, the low fenders of Dodge trucks. Several details even come from classics of other brands, such as the rounded rear window on a Chrysler LHS, and the oval "mouth" grille on the Chevrolet Camaro. Given production cycles in the auto industry, the historical themes in today's show cars look set to last at least another five or 10 years.

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