15 February 2009

Green Machines

Recycling is a time-honored practice in the design world. Take for example the rediscovery and subsequent incorporation of classical Roman architecture in the US and UK in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, known as Federal architecture in the US, or the unfortunate recent rerun of hippy fashion. These borrowings or revisitings potently evoke nostalgia, either for times experienced first-hand or imagined.

Nostalgia has clearly been a major driving (I apologize in advance for this...) factor in the recent reinterpretation of several cars. In the US, there was the PT Cruiser, which kind of generically referenced a whole genre of cars from the heydays of US's automobile industry. The more recent Dodge Charger more directly recalls its namesake series of muscle cars of the 1960s.

More specific references to cult car hits have come from Germany. The New Beetle was a wildly successful reinterpretation of a car that virtually everybody who graduated from high school between 1955 and 1985 has at least one memorable personal experience in or with (I have 3 of our 1969 bug). It's hard to figure out how much of the new car's appeal derives from nostalgia as compared to its current design, but it's certain that BMW's modern Mini is succeeding primarily based on its form, since although it was a cult favorite, the original never achieved the ubiquitouness (ubiquitosity?) of the bug.

Minis are hugely popular in Paris, where parking spaces are both fleeting and tiny. But if early trends are any indication, the Mini will soon be supplanted by the new Fiat 500. If Ferraris and Lamborghinis are the Anne Hatheway of wet dreams involving Italian cars, the Fiat 500 is the Italian Maureen Stapleton. Like the stock beetles and Minis, the original 500s had squirrels-in-running-wheels for engines. Or, if you've driven or biked behind one grinding up one of Italy's abundant steep slopes, you know they were powered more specifically by squirrels-with-digestive-problems.

So in 2007 and about 30 years after the original 500 series was discontinued, Fiat rolled out a reinterpretation of the car, and in Paris, the car is everywhere. The car is undeniably cute; no word yet on whether it joins the New Beetle, Mini, and even (surprisingly, to me) the PT Cruiser as a major chick-car.

Regardless, one has to wonder, with French Nationalism waxing in response to non-European immigration and augmented further by the economic downturn, when the French will get into the act and release a reinterpretation of the iconic Citroen 2CV. I might just buy one of those. As long as it came with a can opener.


  1. Yo dude, no knocking the original Fiat 500! Many of those cars are still running as everyday comuter vehicles here in Italy and only a modern miracle will ever allow the new version to come anywhere close to becoming the success story of the original one. As for the French, they've chosen to forego on the re-make of the 2CV for another Citroen model, the inimitable DS, probably the most beautiful car ever manufactured. Their timing is a little off though, new car sales by the time the DS is scheduled for release will have ceased all together here in Europe.

  2. No (real) malice intended toward the original 500; it was the car on which modern Italy was built. 'Nuff said. And though the new one is a phenomenon in Paris, it'll be supplanted by the next cute city car that comes along-- there's no real love, there. You might be optimistic on the timing of the DS release. My impression is that French industry works like I played soccer-- my high school soccer coach used to joke that the only reason I was a good defender is that my reaction times were so slow that I couldn't respond to the fakes the offensive players were using. Between strikes and French efficiency, maybe Europe will be in its next phase of consumerism by the time the DS is actually released ...

    Since 2 wheels are more fun than 4, who do you think is making lust-worthy bikes today, from a design standpoint? Can't imagine you dig the gigantic headtube look.