After The Bug, The Bird: Detroit Goes Retro

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Gone are the bullet head lamps, the big chrome bumpers and the whitewalls. But it hasn't lost those signature portholes, the oval grille or, most important, the silver badge with the turquoise inlay. Make no mistake: the T-Bird is back. Rolled out last week to a roaring crowd at the North American International Auto Show, the 2001 model is more muted than the 1955 original, but it's still very Beach Boys. The original Thunderbird, after all, was the car that virtually defined America's postwar enthusiasm--an age of relative innocence. Says J Mays, Ford Motor Co. vice president for design: "We're trying to communicate traditional optimism, confidence, relaxed sportiness and American fun."

The 2001 T-Bird, which Ford expects to launch next year for between $30,000 and $40,000, is the leader of a pack of retromobiles. The current obsession with throwbacks traces to the early 1990s with Dodge trucks, but the movement got a power boost from Viper and Prowler roadsters. Then came the wildly popular "new" Volkswagen Beetle. Last week the floodgates opened, as automakers unveiled models like a revived Chevy Impala, a new Dodge Charger and even a Nissan Z concept, modeled after the sporty Datsun 240Z of the 1970s.

Re-creating the T-Bird required some auto archaeology for the designers, several of whom weren't even concepts when the original was born. They collected vintage models on which to base the new version. The result is a silky interpretation of the original, built on ultramodern innards.

Detroit's wheels see the past as prologue. "We went through this period where you couldn't tell products apart," says Tom Gale, DaimlerChrysler's design chief, whose latest offering is the snazzy Chrysler PT Cruiser, a cross between a minivan and a 1930s roadster. "Now we're finally starting to see a little more identity." Isn't it nice?