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RETROTECH

If progress is so wonderful, why are we obsessed with the obsolete? Morgan-driving nostalgist Peter Dron explores our passion for antique, vintage, retro and repro.

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RETROTECH

What is this nostalgic yearning, this retro craze? Where did it come from? Is it here to stay? If it goes, will we yearn for it to come back?

Marcel Proust invented nostalgia in 1913, with the publication of ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ (‘Swann’s Way’), the first part of ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ (‘Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time’), an interminable series of yarns, interspersed with jokes that some readers find amusing. Until then, everyone had been content to be miserable, not suspecting that things had ever been better.

It was complete balderdash, but little did Proust or anyone else know that he was onto something: they were living in a golden age that would soon end with a bang. Imagining that things had been far nicer in the past was a clever new idea in 1913, but events resulting from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand the following year demonstrated what a visionary Proust was.

In the good old days, nostalgia was mainly about the decline of old customs and manners, plus a hankering for things that had never existed, such as an idyllic existence in the countryside. A yearning for obsolete mechanical objects did not catch on until much later.

The retro craze began in earnest with my generation, the so-called ’baby boomers’ born in the decade following the Second World War, though there had been stirrings beforehand.

People of my father’s generation (born 1910) were not nostalgic about outdated machinery. Machines of all types were constantly improving, so old stuff was not held in high esteem.

The cars of the late 1920s and the 1930s were so much better than those made before World War I, that only eccentrics were interested in ‘veterans’; it is surprising that so many of those early, primitive machines have survived. There was no nostalgia for steam locomotives, because they were still there, an unevolved source of smog and noise.

BACK TO THE FURNITURE

As far as furniture is concerned, the retro trend is strangely limited. Fine examples from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods are greatly sought after, but a lot of them still look modern. Anything made before 1800 is likely to be very expensive, but supply and demand are both limited and there are few modern reproductions.

Edwardian and Victorian furniture, attractively designed, of high quality and in perfect condition, with dovetail joints and proper hinges, is available at prices far lower than brand new, self-assembly flatpack junk, MDF and plastic held together with Allen bolts and grommets.

Jean des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 19th century novel ‘À rebours’ (‘Against Nature’) has had a wide influence. He intentionally designed his living space, using the most expensive materials available, to have the blandest possible appearance. That is what most people desire these days, but sturdy Victorian/Edwardian hardwood cupboards and sideboards will swing back into fashion someday.

The real culprit was le Comte de Montesquiou (1855-1921), supposedly the model for both Esseintes and Proust’s character Baron de Charlus. Montesquiou was a noted ‘aesthete’, the favoured non-judgmental euphemism of the period. But, as Proust never remarked, I digress…

CUTTING CARBS

Perhaps the first manifestation of motoring nostalgia was the reintroduction in 1927 of the London-Brighton Car Run, whose origin in 1896 had been to celebrate the Locomotives on the Highway Act, which ended all that red-flag waving. The foundation of the Vintage Sports Car Club in 1934 was another early sign, with its snooty disdain for cars built after 1931. But these were fringe groups.

In the 1960s, vintage Bentleys were available for the same price as an ordinary saloon car and you did not need to be a multi-millionaire to own a Bugatti.

This rapidly changed. A crucial moment was the introduction of electronics governing fuel injection and ignition. Before that point, anyone with a modicum of knowledge and imagination could keep any car going by fiddling with the carburettor or the electrics.

The retro craze began with the top end: Bugattis, Ferraris, Maseratis, Bentleys, Astons and so on, and gradually filtered down to humbler vehicles. Even Nash Metropolitans and Austin Allegros are considered ’collectable’ these days. Owners can keep them running, whereas in a modern car, roadside breakdowns generally necessitate a low-loader with a winch.

Car manufacturers constantly seek new ‘niches’, sniffing out the latest trends, then providing vehicles that entice buyers to pay a premium for something that promises to convert dreams into reality. Nobody actually needs tarted-up cross-country vehicles to do the school run, but that was what people were persuaded to believe that they needed, so that is what they got.

RETROCEPTION

Nissan spotted that it was not necessary for these vehicles to be functional off-roaders. Thus the ‘crossover’ Qashqai was born.

The big players were slow to identify and exploit the retro craze. Volkswagen is widely considered to have been the pioneer but it was Nissan in this also, with the creation of its weird Pike Factory division (where job applicants had to be either women or male homosexuals). The Pike Factory produced the Be-1, the S-Cargo van, the Pao… and especially the Figaro.

The Micra-based Figaro, quintessential hairdresser’s car, initiated the trend and was perhaps the cleverest of all automotive retro designs because it did not specifically recreate any particular model from the past. It was generic auto retro, the 1950s on wheels.

Volkswagen unveiled Concept One, the prototype New Beetle, at the 1994 Detroit Show (five years after the limited-edition Figaro). It was not intended for production but as a ‘halo-effect’ come-on to get publicity and sell Golfs and Polos.

The reception was so wildly enthusiastic that VW felt obliged to go further. Turning the one-off show car into a road-legal production model demanded considerable design and engineering time.

The resulting New Beetle, introduced in 1997, necessarily ended up less cute-looking than Concept One, but it achieved more than a million sales worldwide until production ceased in 2010. The redesigned version is selling well, despite the German corporation’s recent difficulties.

BANDWAGONS

After the new Beetle, the deluge. In 2001, BMW produced the new Mini, differing from other retro autos in not using the platform of an existing model. Then Fiat came in with the 500, which has also exceeded one million sales and been redesigned.

Renault has produced both the most handsome and the ugliest of these retro exercises. The superb 1996 Fiftie, celebrating the half century since the launch of the 4CV, was merely a show-stopper. The recent 4L, supposedly heading for production, is almost ingeniously hideous. If you look hard you can see that it is ‘inspired’ by the old utilitarian Renault 4. Will it be possible to recapture that ‘horrible to drive’ quality that the original did so well?

Even when well executed, these efforts by the big players are ersatz retro, simply a ruse to persuade the gullible public to pay a premium to buy, for example, a new Beetle instead of a Golf, which is far more practical and better to drive, though that does not apparently bother the fashion-conscious purchasers.

Until recent years, car manufacturers, except for Morgan of course, did not intentionally make cars that looked as if they were 50 years old. There are several different categories of automobile retro, apart from the ersatz variety. There is the full immersion in elderly machines, requiring either a well-stacked bank balance or considerable mechanical skill, and preferably both, though if you already have the former, you can hire someone in possession of the latter.

courtesy of Morgan Motor Company

FROZEN IN TIME

Then there is what might be termed continuation retro, as in the old joke: only 45 examples of Car X were made, of which 53 survive. New Morgans are in a category of their own. The 4/4, in production for almost 80 years, still has the same wheelbase as in 1936 and although it has evolved considerably, having had numerous different engines, gearboxes and other components over the years, the concept and construction remain essentially unchanged. It still has aluminium body panels mounted on an ash frame, attached to the steel chassis.

The idea with a new Morgan is to have your cake and eat it. It looks like a 1930s car, in some ways it is like a 1930s car to drive, but it has modern mechanical components and, touch the ash frame, it is as reliable as a normal car.

I had an outing recently with some English friends who all live in Provence and own interesting cars. The NG TC (MGB-based special) failed to make the rendezvous due to an electrical problem and its owner arrived in the passenger seat of the ersatz Bugatti (also based on MGB parts). I followed this for a while and its back axle, recently reconditioned, was emitting horrible grinding noises when cornering.

Almost immediately, the XJS convertible had to be abandoned at the roadside with brake failure. The MGC’s clutch was evidently on the way out.

There were two Morgans, my 4/4 and a 2013 Morgan 3 Wheeler, whose young owner was worried about several potential problems, chiefly a recent increase in bevel box whine and the possibility that his second compensator (a device that attempts to absorb the violent torque pulses of the lumpy S&S vee-twin) might also be on Death Row. Only my car was running perfectly.

I knew someone in the late 1960s who bought a 1932 Aston Martin Le Mans for a few hundred pounds. He used to leave it parked in the side road he lived in, just off the King’s Road, Chelsea. It was a good runner but, as Bonham’s the auctioneers would describe it, it had an “authentic patina”.

SHABBY CHIC

In the 1980s I travelled from Sussex to Le Mans in a 1930 Bentley Speed Six, a former team car, then owned by a chap who had lost most of his fortune but who had clung to his prize possession. He skilfully drifted the big beast through sweeping bends at 70mph in the rain.

Like that Aston, the Bentley was in perfect running order but also had the tatty patina factor. The owner died, his family sold the car and I saw it, some years later, restored at massive cost, to the point that it looked brand new. I found that deeply upsetting.

There are some bizarre tendencies at the extreme end of the manic-obsessive taste for retro. There are people who would be horrified at the suggestion that they should put ink in their retro-style fountain pens and write with them. They would sneer at the condition of the nib of my much-used Caran d’Ache Ecridor Retro (yes, it really is called that). Professor Freud would have classified them as “anal retentive”.

Ron Kimball Studios. Used by permission of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

The automotive equivalent of this attitude is the concours d’élégance. This has its origins in the late 17th century, when wealthy aristocrats with nothing better to do would parade fine horses hauling swanky carriages. This was not an early manifestation of retro, quite the contrary: the carriages were brand new rather than meticulously restored antiques. Their owners were the equivalent of modern purchasers of McLaren 650s or Bugatti Veyrons, swanking about their latest transportation, blipping the throttle ostentatiously while negotiating the King’s Road at walking pace.

Also, in those days, the wealthy swankers did not transport their carriages in covered wagons to take part in contests. These days, there are people who own rather nice cars that are maintained in immaculate condition at considerable expense but that travel under their own power only when being driven at low speeds off their trailers, past the judges and then back onto the trailers. I expect that the owners would prefer to avoid the messy business of putting petrol in the tank and instead have their prized possessions pushed past the judges by liveried lackeys wearing white cotton gloves.

Automotive retro will eventually be killed, along with what is left of personal freedom and numerous other things that people once took for granted, with the introduction of autonomous cars. Now that will be a good reason for nostalgia.

VINYL AND VALVES

You might be able to store your entire record collection in a digital watch and listen on tiny ear buds but vinyl is selling like topsy and people pay small fortunes for record players and valve amps to play them through.

WIRELESS

Most people think wireless is a digital data transfer system but to many it still means an old fashioned radio and one of the most traditional manufacturers, Roberts, has earned a fortune making receivers with the visual style of a bygone era.

RETRO FURNITURE

Office designers recreate sixties Mad Men reception areas. Shaker kitchens abound and bedrooms across the nation pay homage to the Arts and Crafts movement. So everyone from Ikea to Heals jump over themselves to meet the demand.

AMERICAN MUSCLE

In a desperate attempt to regain the US car market from the Germans and Japs, Detroit revived one of the most wasteful and ostentatious periods of its history and, guess what? It worked.

CLOTHING

The real style icons of today buy secondhand from chic clothing recyclers like Rellick or GoneRetro.co.uk.

DECK THE WALLS

Pugin, Morris, MacKintosh, Liberty: what you paste on your walls says much about your taste, and Arts and Crafts Home (achome.co.uk) can put your interior décor firmly in the early 20th century.

HIPSTERS

Why would young, intelligent kids deliberately emulate their grandparents? But the hipster movement has been making a trend out of living in the past round the streets of Shoreditch, London and Austin TX for several years and sees little sign of diminishing.

BEACH HUTS

The fashionistas of the various English resorts co-dubbed Chelsea-on-Sea wouldn’t be seen dead on the beach without a £200,000 shed just like their Auntie Ethel used to have.

OLD BOATS

Modern sailing technology has made boating more like space travel, so the market in old wooden boats, or copies of them is stronger than ever.

GUITARS

One might vainly hope that paying £2m for Lennon’s Gibson might transfer some talent to your fingers but the guitar industry has been milking brand new reproductions of their early guitars for years. So why did they change them?

TO TOP
TO TOP

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