Like smallpox, gaudy automotive chrome was pretty much eradicated by the early 1980s. But unlike the deadly virus, chrome is coming back with a vengeance: on wheels, exterior trim - even interiors.
Gregory J. Janicki, an analyst who tracks the components industry for CSM Corp., says in recent months he's been flooded with requests by companies looking for information on chrome-plating technology and suppliers of chrome-plated parts - especially plastic wheel covers.
Chrome's resurgence isn't just an American phenomenon. Normally conservative, Japanese and European stylists are adding more shiny trim to new designs as well.
The new '98 Volks-wagen Passat, for instance, sports a big chromed bezel around the automatic shift lever. The Lincoln Navigator has an imposing chrome grille, and lots of chrome accents, as do the Town Car and Continental.
A few years ago the great arbiters of taste in Southern California determined that chromed wheels were classy, not crass, so they now are an expensive and highly desired option.
Automakers quickly fell in love with chromed aluminum wheels, with customers willing to pay $1,000 to $1,500 extra for the option. Analysts say the wheels can add $800 in profit per vehicle.
Baby boomers who associate chrome with such automotive styling atrocities of the '70s as vinyl roofs, opera windows and orange shag carpeting may be horrified by this trend, but most designers assure chrome will be handled responsibly this time around.
Designers also suggest that some new "bright work" will actually have a more subtle brushed look, which even hard-core chrome haters find interesting and attractive. Porsche AG is using such a brushed "satin" chrome finish on some details of its new 911 model; Ford uses a similar treatment on several concept vehicles such as the Mercury MC4 sedan and Tremor truck.
Jeff Hands, executive director of Transportation Design at Designworks/USA, Inc., BMW's U.S. design subsidiary, says chrome got a bad reputation in the '70s because it was lumped in with an overall design theme that included padded vinyl roofs, gaudy hood ornaments and wheel covers with fake spokes.
As U.S. automakers worked to improve their quality and handling image in the late '70s and early '80s, they discarded traditional U.S. ornamentation and opted for monochromatic styling themes suggesting European or Japanese handling and build quality. Mr. Hands says they kind of threw the baby out with the bath water.
"When chrome is beautifully designed it can be a finishing touch, kind of like jewelry on an elegantly dressed woman," Mr. Hands says.
Other designers remind that heavy chrome also can lend a very macho, solid look. It always has been popular with buyers of full-size pickup trucks. That styling theme clearly has been expanded to pickup-based sport/utility vehicles, and in turn may be pulling more chrome styling cues into the car marketplace.
"Chrome is a touch of jewelry," agrees Trevor Creed, director of Interior and Jeep/Truck Design at Chrysler Corp. He lauds Porsche for the satin chrome details on the new Porsche 911. Nevertheless, he's keenly aware of past abuses.
"We will use it (in the future) as jewelry," he says, possibly for door handles, and small touches around grille openings and badging, promising it all will be tasteful. Mr. Creed cites the new Dodge Durango as a good example. Despite its burly appearance and roots as a pickup truck, it is not loaded with chrome.
Unfortunately, the growing interest in high-volume chromed plastic parts is an ominous sign that "good taste" could become as elusive as it was in the '70s.
If competitors choose to go crazy with chrome, that's okay with Chrysler's Mr. Creed. "I would suggest they start laying it on with a trowel," he says.