The 1994 VW Concept One Gave Us the Modern Retro Design Craze
When VW reinvented the Beetle, it also sparked a lasting fascination with retro designs.
In the early 1990s, two very different retro-themed concept cars hit the show circuit barely 12 months apart from each other. Both reached production nearly unchanged. One went on to spawn a styling revolution that sold millions of cars over the next two decades, while the other became a punchline that has only recently gained appreciation with enthusiasts and collectors alike.
The Volkswagen Concept One is the egg-shaped face that launched the tidal wave of neoclassic design, boomeranging from a California studio to German boardrooms across the ocean, and then back again to American dealerships where it kickstarted the industry's decade-long fascination with nostalgia. Not only did it birth more than 1.2 million New Beetles into the world, but its success also inspired sales stars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the reborn Mini Cooper and the S197 generation Ford Mustang—alongside equally ambitious but less popular takes including the Chevrolet SSR and HHR, the Fiat 500, and the final Ford Thunderbird model.
(Editor's note: It's easy to dismiss concept cars as marketing gimmicks and dead-end design exercises. But every once in a while, a company gives away the secret to its future without anyone noticing. With ever-grander promises about electrification, autonomy and material advances being made by today's concepts, I thought it'd be useful to take a look through the archives to see how and when the major engineering and design trends that define the present were actually seeded. This recurring column by the great Ben Hunting is called The Most Important Concept Cars You Forgot All About, and its aim is to give you the tools to understand what's really coming next. -- KC)
The fantastic success of the New Beetle normalized car buyers to proportions and styling language introduced by the Concept One, and its essence was quickly adopted by multiple OEMs as the blueprint for future retro designs. Beyond that, one of its fathers would go on to wield significant influence in an industry that had gone ga-ga for retrofuturism.
It's funny, though. Today, the Concept One is little more than a footnote, subsumed by its own success and forgotten by most. That other car? It was a failure—and an instant and enduring icon.
Retro With A Twist
Seeking to pull out of a sales tailspin in the 1990s, VW tapped its newly-opened Simi Valley design studio in California to come up with a solution. Eagerly awaiting the challenge were two Volkswagen Group stalwarts. J Mays began his tour of design duty at Audi in the early 80s, and after a brief detour to BMW he returned to a lead role under the Volkswagen umbrella by the end of the decade. Similarly steeped in Teutonic principles was fellow American Freeman Thomas, who had hopscotched from Porsche to Volkswagen along a similar timeframe.
It's no coincidence that the Concept One (or Concept 1 as it is sometimes written) shared part of its name with the iconic Volkswagen Type 1, better known as the Beetle. Early on, Mays and Thomas had their eyes set on reimagining the very vehicle that had served as VW's entry point into the popular consciousness. Mays was no stranger to mining the past to serve the present: he had just come off the Audi Avus project in 1991, which modernized the brand's championship-winning Silver Arrow race car. The iconic Beetle's proportions were perfect for stretching across a modern platform, and both Mays and Thomas were convinced the car's heritage could go a long way in helping VW recapture its early popularity in the American small car scene 30 years previous.
After presenting Volkswagen's design director, Hartmut Warkuss, with the initial look—which consisted of a near-symmetrical front and rear shape paired with a roofline bump that was unmistakably Beetle-esque—the two were given the green light to produce a concept based on their design sketches. The VW Concept One landed at the 1994 North American International Auto Show in Detroit where it was the unquestioned star of the event. Volkswagen had little choice but to fast-track the Simi Valley creation to production.
Almost Spitting Image
There were a few key differences between the Concept One and the New Beetle that would take over the world just a few years later. The concept car was based on the VW Polo platform, which wasn't deemed large enough for American tastes. Enter the Golf, which donated its chassis and much of its running gear to the Beetle's cause. The production car also lost the concept's bumper vents, rear-hinged doors and the valences built in front and rear, but almost all of the original character was maintained.
Under the hood of the front-engine concept (one detail not borrowed from the Type 1) were a trio of engines including a hybrid diesel, a conventional turbodiesel, and a full battery-electric drivetrain. Of these, only the TDI would eventually make it onto the order sheet.
A convertible version of the car was show just a few months after the Concept One's Detroit debut, and the following year the Concept Two had ironed out all of the above quirks into a shape that would be a match for the New Beetle that appeared as a 1998 model.
Future's Past Forever
The Concept One / New Beetle's effect on the auto industry was tectonic. On top of filling Volkswagen's coffers with serious small car numbers right out of the gate, it inspired a litany of copycat cars that lifted its marriage of cheap, compact underpinnings with whimsical, old-school styling. The most obvious analogs were the PT Cruiser, (built by Plymouth as a 2001 model to take advantage of an NHTSA loophole in corporate fuel economy regulations but transformed into a juggernaut by its panel wagon design) and the 2000 Mini Cooper (revitalized by BMW's recent purchase of Rover Group).
The PT, the Cooper, and the New Beetle were the harbingers of a fad that soon overtook giants like General Motors and Ford. Chevrolet whiffed twice with the SSR (a portly convertible pickup) and the HHR (a blatant replay of the Plymouth hatchback), but Ford had moderate success with the short-lived 2002-2005 Thunderbird and the smash hit that was the 2005-2014 Mustang. Like the Mini and the New Beetle, the S197 Mustang (and to a lesser extent the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro) represented the weaponization of nostalgia as a potent design driver, and it vaulted the pony car into the top ranks as buyers glommed on to its 60s-era outfit regardless of whether it had a V8 or a V6 in the mix.
The Blue Oval's better handle on the neoclassic look was due in no small part to the defection of VW's J Mays in 1997. Taking over as Ford's design director, Mays produced several more time capsule concepts in the early 2000s, including the Ford Fairlane (which kept much of its 60s surf wagon looks when it was built as the Flex crossover) and the Ford 427, as well as history-laden production models like the S197 and the Ford GT supercar. Mays' partner, Thomas, would eventually also end up at Ford as its North American strategic design director.
But what of that other same-era player referenced in the introduction? The Plymouth Prowler concept debuted one year before the Concept One, it's true, and it certainly played a role in the larger "what's old is new again" craze that followed. But you can't draw a direct line from the Prowler to the retro designs that followed, as the amount of attention heaped in the Prowler's direction today stems from its alienation over time. Few, if any automakers looked at Prowler sales numbers in the 1990s, or the limited market offered by its two-seat roadster segment and said, we need to do that, too.
Conversely, of the dozen or so retro designs that proliferated from the end of the 1990s right through to the mid-2000s, nearly all owe a debt to the Concept One. This is the vehicle that proved modern reinterpretations of past design periods could stand out from the crowd of same-same rivals across a variety of segments, as long as they were given similar levels of practicality, affordability, or performance to match their visual fun factor.
In stark contrast, the Plymouth Prowler concept's trajectory during the same period failed to bear similar fruit. Far more extroverted than the Concept One, the production model's lack of straight-line thunder to back up the hot rod promise of its open-wheel design failed to find critical mass among the more rarefied sports car crowd. The Plymouth attracts attention to this day because it was a genetic dead-end with no progeny to take up its cause further down the road. The Concept One's broad success may have erased its impact from the minds of motorists, but that doesn’t make it any less influential in deciding how the future would see the past when carving it out of sheet metal and glass.
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