Carmakers Tap Memories of Childhood and Glory Days

It's big, it's yellow, and it looks just like that toy truck you used to steer through sandboxes years ago with a crumpled action figure in the driver's seat.

Ford Motor Co.'s larger-than-life-sized take on Hasbro's TONKA truck is one of many models unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that tap into the current wave of childhood memories and 1950s American nostalgia. 

Built for the power-hungry driver, the canary-yellow Mighty F-350 "concept'' or prototype pickup has seats and switches inspired by semi trucks, aircraft and power tools. 

"What grown-up doesn't want the ultimate TONKA (toy)?'' Ford Vice President of Design J Mays asked. "This is not just a concept -- in fact, it's far from it.'' 

The sturdy little metal Tonka trucks, first sold in 1947, were one of the most popular toys for American kids during the 1950s and 1960s, and are still sold by Hasbro Inc. 

One feature of Ford's grown-up version brought a gasp from the auto show crowd. The F-350 TONKA kneels down nearly half a foot when its doors are opened -- thanks to air suspension springs. 

With the threat of weaker sales on the horizon, U.S. automakers were also busy recalling the happy days of the 1950s and 1960s by unveiling modern versions of some of their most illustrious vehicles of the past. 

General Motors Corp., the world's largest automaker, resurrected the Chevrolet Bel Air, a 1950s icon seen in many movies about the era, as inspiration for a new two-door convertible "concept'' vehicle. 

Like other concept cars, which automakers exhibit at auto shows to test public reaction for possible future models, the Bel Air may never go on sale. But it is the latest offering from American automakers that recalls the glory days when they dominated the market and the United States seemed immune to foreign threats such as the Sept. 11 attacks. 

"We have so much heritage at brands like Buick, Pontiac, Chevrolet and Cadillac, that why try to be like the foreigners?'' said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the former Chrysler executive hired last year to try to revive GM's vehicle designs. 

"We have such a rich automotive heritage. It's such a gold mine of heritage that can be reached into and updated. It's a very legitimate design direction and one we are actively contemplating,'' Lutz said. 

Similar to the classic ``tri-5s'' -- the 1955, '56 and '57 Chevrolets -- the rear-wheel-drive Bel Air prototype has a front bench seat for three people, a wrap-around windshield, side-vent windows and the familiar swoop up over the rear wheels. 

Ford also recalled better times by unveiling an update of the Ford GT40 supercar which won the prestigious Le Mans endurance race twice in the 1960s. 

The low-slung GT40, with a powerful 5.4 liter V-8 engine mounted behind the passenger compartment, joins Ford's ``Living Legends'' lineup of concept and production vehicles inspired by brands from the past. 

In an effort to show that it has shed its massive bureaucracy and can move fast, GM showed a coupe and convertible version of the Pontiac Solstice concept vehicle, which went from an idea to a working vehicle in three months. 

The sleek-looking Pontiac Solstice, which sheds the so-called side cladding that gives many current Pontiacs a cluttered look, is the first fruit of Lutz's efforts to shake up GM's lengthy design process. 

But behind the celebrations of new and revisited models, the picture for automakers remains bleak. 

Ford, which has been plagued by eroding sales, questions about vehicle quality and the ongoing Firestone tire crisis, is expected to unveil a massive restructuring plan on Friday in a meeting with Wall Street analysts at the company's Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters. Ford already has cut about 5,000 salaried positions.

In the third quarter ended Sept. 30, Ford lost $692 million versus a profit of $888 million in the same quarter a year earlier.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.