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Retro Fever : Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe it's hesitant designers. But everything old is cool again--especially in transportation.

November 13, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a cop hurt on the job but damaged deeper by the harshness of his city. So he moved from Los Angeles to Port Angeles, to find softness and more of himself at the oars of a new Whitehall rowboat reproduced from an 1820 design.

* A public relations executive suffers travels and clients that are national, incessant and debilitating. He fights meltdown aboard a 1995 British motorcycle that's a replica of a 1956 Triumph Thunderbird.

* Overhead, most weekends, getting a crow's-eye close-up of the Hollywood sign, is a corporate pilot who earns clemency from fully automated, over-regulated flying in the engine songs of a biplane reborn from Smithsonian blueprints for a 1935 Waco.

In a buzzword: Retro fever.

In tighter context: Cop, publicist and pilot are players in an enormous resurrection of things of yesteryear. It's a mass advance to the past that designers, manufacturers and consumers say is much more complex than attempts to dilute modern pressures with symbols of simpler times.

Could be, believes one expert, today's designers are intimidated by fresh, risky ideas. So they pander to a safe sense that if an item was, it must have been good.

Others speculate that the rebirth of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, mahogany launches, electric boats, leather aviator jackets and chunky Waring blenders reflect a subconscious appreciation of quintessential design. Or maybe we're petrified by the looming millennium and are clinging desperately to the known, the secure, the past.

"In the year 2000, we will start looking forward," says Greg Bagni, a vice president for Colorado-based Schwinn Cycling. "But right now there's a new century coming and people are looking back. Because we know what was there, and we don't know what is ahead."

With that in the corporate thinking--plus this year's centennial of the opening of Ignaz Schwinn's first bicycle factory in Chicago--Schwinn recently launched a line of cruisers remanufactured from '50s plans with springer forks and "big old daddy fenders, sofa saddles and balloon tires with blinding whitewalls."

Early demand for the $450 bicycle, says Bagni, outstripped production by more than 50%. Last month, Schwinn announced it will reintroduce its classic Black Phantom that was every newsboy's plea to Santa for Christmas, 1949.

"It's a piece of jewelry," Bagni adds. "We'll make 5,000 to retail for $3,000 apiece. They're all sold."

*

Retro designs are visible wherever adult toys are us. From Sharper Image stores and Hammacher Schlemmer catalogues to the Smithsonian gift shop.

The going price of grandpa's days is as low as $129.95 for a Benrus repro of its original World War II hack watch. Or as high as $250,000 for that reborn, wooden-winged Waco built by Classic Aircraft Corp. of Lansing, Mich.

Making retro hot rods and accessories is huge business for Boyd Coddington of Stanton, founder of Hot Rods by Boyd. Ten years ago, sales of his replica Deuces and Woodies totaled $2 million. Last year the take was $20 million.

"Maybe people are losing their identity and all modern cars do look alike," suggests Coddington. "So to be different you lower a new Camaro and put on different wheels. Or people get tattoos and pierce their chins."

Or they pay $100,000 for a 1995 Coddington that's a copy of a chopped and channeled 1932 Ford.

There are replica Wurlitzer jukeboxes undetectable from originals except they play CDs. One company is remanufacturing hickory-shafted putters mimicking 18th-Century Scottish golf clubs; another is building a 1920 field telephone fully updated with a 10-number speed dial.

But the richest neighborhood down this memory lane seems to be around big-buck personal transportation--boats, planes, cars, bikes and motorcycles.

When its bare-knuckle, $56,000 Viper sports car was introduced in 1994, nobody at Chrysler claimed it was anything but a '90s variant of the '60s Shelby Cobra. Chrysler continues in full pursuit of the past with a two-seat Prowler styled after Mel's Drive-in hot rods, and a bosom-fendered Atlantic concept car that plagiarizes shapes from Bugattis of the '30s.

Jack Crain is a Chrysler design chief. He is a parent of the Viper, which has been built, the Prowler that might go into production and the Atlantic that probably will remain a styling exercise.

These vehicles, Crain says, represent a return to days when motoring meant romance and adrenaline pumping at 30 psi.

"People are estranged by today's automobile technology," he says. "But on these niche vehicles, there's more [parts] exposed, you see shapes that are familiar, not something that came from a wind tunnel."

From Honda through Kawasaki to Yamaha, Japanese motorcycle manufacturers are building fat, powerful, heavy cruisers that clearly knock off the straight-pipe exhausts, fenders and yards of chrome that are Harley-Davidson's American heritage.

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