The Retro Vroom

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The latest chapter in America's love affair with the automobile seems like an installment of Back to the Future. This time, though, Christopher Lloyd is not at the wheel of a time-traveling DeLorean. The car is neither a Porsche nor a Ferrari. No, this object of desire is... a Chrysler!

Detroit designers spent a postwar lifetime refining the low, long, rectangular shape once ubiquitous on American highways. Now they are finding that many car buyers want something different. What emerged from DaimlerChrysler's designers this year is an anachronism: a sleek, small, tall car with broad hints of pre-World War II models and a whiff of hot rods from the '50s and '60s. They christened it the PT (for personal transportation) Cruiser.

What is it about this car? It is comfortable to ride in, surefooted to drive and stable in the wind. Heads turn as you pull into the mall parking lot. From its sloe-eyed headlights and undershot bulldog snout of a grille to its almost vertical rear, the PT Cruiser is a swooping wedge of sleek and subtle computer-designed curves. Classy touches of chrome and leather adorn the car, and its 2.4-liter engine gives it pep without neck-snapping acceleration.

It's also practical. Passengers in the back sit higher than the driver--and can actually see the road. Both rear seats fold down but can also be removed. Turn down the front seat, and voila!--a cargo space big enough to haul an 8-ft. ladder, a pile of 2-by-4s or your basic surfboard. Plus, there is pleasure without guilt. Unlike gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, the PT Cruiser averages 20 miles to the gallon in the city and 26 on the highway.

Though SUVs still dominate the sales charts, "concept cars" on display at recent auto shows reveal every major manufacturer is working on small and innovative models, some with nostalgic cues. Volkswagen's New Beetle, a curvy, luxury-lined version of its original people's car ("Think Small," advised VW's ads in the '60s), sold briskly to young and old when it reappeared in 1998.

The success of the New Beetle helped pave the way for the work of DaimlerChrysler designers. Senior design manager Jeffrey Godshall and principal designer Bryan Nesbitt say that during the PT Cruiser's development, it was hard to categorize just what they were doing. A tall car is a problem from an appearance standpoint. "We didn't want it to look like a box on wheels," explains Godshall. "The reason we ended up with so-called retro styling is that this is the form the cars had when they were tall."

Chrysler thought the PT Cruiser would be an inexpensive car for young people, but according to JD Power and Associates, the premier automotive research and ratings firm, only 1 in 20 Cruiser buyers is under 30; two-thirds are in their 40s and 50s. The PT Cruiser is the darling of middle-aged men.

The car was an instant success, with eager customers soon bidding up the $17,000 to $20,000 sticker price, ordering all the extras and often paying in cash. Sales manager Steve Goldman of Moothart Chrysler Plymouth in Cerritos, Calif., says he has heard "horror stories" of dealers who have reneged on original orders to sell to buyers willing to pay even more.

It is an old auto-industry axiom that the problem is not selling 'em, it's making 'em. The PT Cruiser is assembled in Toluca, Mexico, where about half the car parts, including the engine, are made. The Mexican plant has an eventual capacity of 180,000 cars but will only make 120,000 this year.

Even as Chrysler hurries to increase supply, another entry in the nostalgia sweepstakes is on the way. Next summer an incarnation of the classic 1955 Ford Thunderbird will appear. The Thunderbird (so named by a young Ford stylist who was rewarded with a $95 bonus and a pair of trousers from Saks Fifth Avenue) started out as a snazzy two-seater weighing 3,000 lbs. and costing $2,695. It eventually evolved into a giant sedan weighing more than 5,000 lbs. that was finally discontinued in 1997. The new model, slimmed down to roadster size and fitted with familiar curves and modern appointments, will emerge in the luxury $30,000 category.

Will car buyers love this throwback to the '50s as much as they do the New Beetle and the PT Cruiser? Here's a hint: the Dallas retailer Neiman Marcus has just offered a special edition of 200 T-Birds for sale in its 2000 Christmas catalog. When the phone lines opened in September, all 200 cars, priced at $41,999 each, were sold in 2 hrs. 15 min. That's more like a love bite than a mere peck on the cheek.