Groundbreakers: 39 cars that changed the motoring world
5 Août 2020 - autocar
Cars like the Austin Seven, Honda NSX and Porsche 911 made the world a better place - but they weren't alone...
Nothing changed the world like the car. A car is not just a convenience, a means of carrying people and things long distances in short periods of time.
For more people in more places around the world than anything else, the car is freedom. It is the most extraordinary device, man's greatest creation to date.
But there are cars and there are cars. Most simply try to improve on what's gone before. But a few have sought not merely to be better, but to be different. Sometimes it doesn't work – remarkably, Subaru's idea of a four-wheel drive system activated by the windscreen wipers failed to, ahem, gain traction – but just a tiny number have altered the course of automotive history for the better.
If cars changed the world, as they most assuredly did, below, then, are those that changed the world of the car.
Why have this as the earliest on our list, rather than the Benz Patent Motorwagen, the world's first car? Pedantically, you can't change a world that didn't exist prior to your arrival, but perhaps more persuasively, the Benz was so unsuited to doing distances that Carl Benz didn't even see fit to equip it with a fuel tank
The Silver Ghost, by contrast, was the first car with modern car reliability. It was officially called the 40/50hp model, but one was painted silver, given a name that would pass into motoring folklore and sent off to drive from London to Glasgow 27 times. It was 15,000 miles and, apart from a fuel tap shaking itself shut, not a thing went wrong. The reputation of what came to be regarded as the world's greatest car company was started here.
It took 22 years from the birth of the car until the Model T brought motoring to the masses. The car was awkward to drive even by the standards of the day, but the revolution was the way in which it was built: mass production on an assembly line of a single model in a single colour.
It went on sale in 1908 at a cost equivalent to around $20,000 today, a price that fell and fell as the efficiencies of the new production method became apparent. Soon, half of all cars sold in the US were Model Ts, and by 1923 it cost less than $300 – around $4200 in modern money. Built in 12 countries on four continents in unprecedented numbers, this was the car that did more than any other to put the world on wheels.
Cadillac Type 53 - 1916
Outwardly, the Type 53 deserves no special mention. But this was the first car to land upon the peculiarly intuitive arrangement of control surfaces that we now consider conventional. Previously, the automobile had been operated by levers and handles and pedals in (what now seem) bizarre configurations, but the Cadillac had a gearlever and handbrake in between the front seats and three pedals for the clutch, brake and throttle. Millions followed the trick.
Austin 7 - 1922
The Austin 7 enjoyed a 17-year production run totalling nearly 300,000 vehicles, and that could be enough to warrant inclusion here on its own. But the 'baby Austin' really finds its place on this list because of what it became. It was a packaging template, demonstrating how it was possible to make a car using so few materials that it was small and cheap like never before.
That's why BMW licensed it to make its first car, and although Nissan didn't license it, it used the 7 as an example when producing its first vehicle. They even sold Austins in the US, although American Austin, the company, is more significant for making the first prototype Jeep.
Matt Prior: "One more thing on the Austin 7: it's after the war, resources are scarce and airfields are functionless. Blokes like Colin Chapman want to start racing, so what do they do? They take an Austin 7 chassis, rip the body off and start modifying. The 7 spawned the birth of post-war British motorsport."
Lancia Lambda - 1922
We tend to think of independent suspension and monocoque construction among the innovations of the latter half of the car's life to date. Not so: this brilliant Lancia had both when almost every other car bolted a body to a ladder chassis and used steel leaves as a springing medium, the same technology used by the horse cart. The Lambda also had a V-formation engine. To fair, the Lambda didn't change the world – but it damned well should have done.
BMW 328 - 1936
Proof, if ever there was, that it's not the ingredients that matter but the cook putting them together. Attention to detail was the 328's speciality, which is how a pretty but apparently conventional roadster became one of the most revered pre-war cars of all. Clever cylinder head work, world-class aerodynamics and rigorous attention to weight saving created a car that was light, fun and capable of 100mph on just 2.0 litres of engine capacity. BMW built its reputation on the back of it and dines out on it to this day.
Volkswagen Type 1 - 1938
You know it better as the Beetle. It was ordered by Adolf Hitler, designed by Ferdinand Porsche and sneered at late in life for being slow, uncomfortable and terrible to drive. But it was the Model T of the post-war era, and when the last was built in 2003, 65 years after the first, more than 21 million had been made. If you stick to cars that remained directly related through their production runs and didn't just use the same name (like the VW Golf or Toyota Corolla), it is the best-selling car of all time.
Willys MB - 1941
The Willys Military model B may have been produced for just four years and others assisted in the trail-blazing of the large segment that followed, but the 'Jeep' was world famous in its own right and an icon before others embellished it. It possessed both the spartan purpose of a war machine and the uncanny car-like qualities of cheeriness and freedom of expression. Like the GIs who rode it into battle, only America could have produced it – and together they can justly claim a starring role in making the world in which we live.
Land Rover - 1948
A car of the purest expedience, built with an aluminium body because there was so much scrap after the war and shaped to have as few curves as possible to save on tooling costs, it was a stop-gap designed to last a few years. In fact, and as we all know, the light and rot-free bodies and the iconic shape would help it to achieve a lifespan of almost 70 years. Not the first, but the definitive off-roader and one that, incidentally, probably did more to save lives in far-off and inaccessible places around the planet than any other car.
Jaguar XK120 - 1948
It's 1948 and Britain is broke, its people mired in post-war austerity. Rationing still exists. Then, out of nowhere, comes a new car from a company with a new name. It is the most beautiful thing you have seen. It has a new twin-cam straight six and promises 120mph when most cars struggle to reach half that. What's more, it's almost affordable. That was the XK120's proposition in 1948 and it was arguably the most desirable car this or any country had yet produced.
Mercedes-Benz 300SL - 1954
People will dispute forever the identity of the world's first supercar, but the 300SL, with its gullwing doors, has as good a claim as any. It was light and beautiful and its aerodynamics and direct-injected 220bhp 3.0-litre engine were literally decades ahead of their time, its 140mph top speed seemingly straight from science fiction. How quick was it at the time? Well, put it this way: a near-showroom-standard car was entered in the 1955 Mille Miglia and, among all the purpose-built prototypes, it came home fifth...
Citroën DS - 1955
What if the DS had been rubbish? With a name that phonetically made it sound like its creators thought it was a god, it's doubtful that Citroën's reputation would have survived the hubris and ignominy. But it wasn't rubbish. It was brilliant, with its revolutionary hydropneumatic suspension, and sufficiently beautiful to be considered a work of art in its own right. It was so good, indeed, that 60 years after it was born, Citroën turned the name into a brand of its own. Time alone will tell how that one works out.
Trabant - 1957
The Trabant, for all its stupendous warts, provided concrete evidence that personal mobility was no less valued beyond the Iron Curtain than it was in Milan, London, Paris or New York. The 'spark plug with a roof' was dirty, turgid, ugly and notoriously uncomfortable. But it was very hard-wearing – the Duroplast body parts made it a recycling ground-breaker – and highly sought after by East Germans. Around 3.7 million were built – proof enough that the car was to be undeniably the 20th century's definitive chosen mode of transport.
Toyota Toyopet Crown - 1957
The Toyopet Crown's fame is that it was the first Japanese car to be sold in the US. It sold well in Japan, but it proved too small, slow and unreliable for the US, where Toyota sold only a couple of thousand before suspending passenger car sales in 1960. But sensing compact cars like the Crown were part of America's future, US car makers began producing their own, with which, having learnt its lesson, Toyota returned to compete in 1964. By 1966 it had 600 dealers, and today the Camry is often the best-selling car in the US.
Fiat 500 - 1957
If the Mini that followed it was a small-car revolution, the 500 was the ultimate evolution of accepted small-car wisdom of the day. Tiny and cheap it may have been, but it had Italy's best brains behind it: that iconic shape was the work of Dante Giacosa and its tiny two-cylinder engine that of Ferrari Formula 1 engine designer Aurelio Lampredi. To this day, for sheer inner-city chic plus park-andturn-anywhere effectiveness, we haven't seen its equal.
Morris Mini Minor - 1959
Constant velocity joints. It's bizarre to think that had its engineers not adapted these joints to eliminate unwelcome steering interference, Alec Issigonis might have canned the car altogether. In the event, he came up with a packaging solution that made better use of limited space than any car in history. It was not the first front-wheel-drive car, but it was the first to perfect the technology, starting a revolution that changed the way almost all affordable cars would be designed.
Lotus Seven - 1959
It was so simple that you could assemble it in your garden shed yet ultimately so quick that it got banned from various race series to let the others stand a chance. Even more than the Elan (see below), this is the apotheosis of Colin Chapman's minimalist philosophy and the car upon which two companies – first Lotus and then (from 1973) Caterham – built their reputations.
Jaguar E-Type - 1961
Oh, to have been at the Geneva show when the wraps came off this. It would have seemed scarcely possible that a car this beautiful could be all ready for production, let alone as fast as it looked. Yet it was all this and one more crucial thing besides: it was affordable. For people shopping in the real world, it's probably the greatest single advancement of the sports car art there has been.
Lotus Elan - 1963
That the Elan was light, beautiful and quick was almost incidental. It was the fact that no road car up until that time had handled so well that ensured the Elan its place in history. The surprise today is how few have got even close to it since.
Ford Mustang - 1964
The original Pony Car and a greater influence on the American muscle car scene than even the Corvette. It was achingly cool, better to drive than any US car built up to that time and, crucially, dirt cheap. A proper legend.
Mark Tisshaw: "Making cheap cars go fast did not begin with the Mustang, but it was the genesis of the complete package. It was a car that brought not only speed to the masses, but also exclusive-looking style and presence."
Lamborghini Miura - 1966
Because the matter is so subjective, no one can categorically state that the Lamborghini Miura is the best-looking car ever to go into production. But we can perhaps agree that no other has a substantially better claim. It was more than just a pretty face, too. By placing its 4.0-litre V12 engine behind the driver, it began a revolution that transformed the way supercars would be designed.
Range Rover - 1970
The pedants will tell you that the Range Rover wasn't the first true luxury SUV – it was the Jeep Wagoneer – and therefore it can't have invented the category. Ignore them. In terms of influence, there had been no SUV of greater significance since the original Land Rover. Until the Range Rover, the simple ability to go off road was considered all any SUV had to exhibit. The Range Rover showed that not only was it possible to be devastatingly effective in mud, snow and sand, but also that its occupants could be comfortable.
Porsche 911 Turbo - 1974
Even in 1974, turbocharging was an old and dark art. Aircraft had used it, racing cars had used it (most improbably, a Cummins turbo diesel engine had powered a car to pole position at the 1952 Indy 500) and even the odd American street car had used it. But it was Porsche that first perfected it as a road-going technology. How? Through years of racing turbocharged cars in the Can-Am series in North America, culminating in the 1100bhp Porsche 917/30 that, in 1973, won every race it contested. The 911 Turbo was seen that autumn and put on sale the following year, pioneering a technology whose relevance, more than 40 years later, is greater than ever.
Volkswagen Golf GTI - 1975
No, it wasn't the first hot hatch any more than the Range Rover was the first luxury SUV or the Renault Espace the first MPV. But like these others, it was the Golf that caught the public's imagination and turned an interesting curio into a class and then an entire movement within the car industry. And it was so simple: a slightly larger engine, some better suspension and a mildly tweaked appearance. All the clear thought required to give birth to a true legend.
Audi Quattro - 1980
The first car to prove that four-wheel drive could be used for something other than going off road. The Quattro showed that it could also broaden the ability of cars only ever intended stay on road by providing levels of traction in a performance car that not even Porsche 911 drivers could imagine. Put simply, it made more of the car's performance available more of the time and, at the same time, created a legend upon which Audi trades to this day.
Renault Espace - 1984
One of the most clearly realised cars yet conceived. It was light and mechanically unremarkable yet so spacious and full of common-sense storage and packaging ideas that it immediately seemed extraordinary that the car had existed for nearly 100 years without anything like it being invented. If a car's place in the annals of automotive history can be defined by its ability to do the job for which it was designed, then few have done better in their own time than this.
Ferrari F40 - 1987
To this day, there are journalists who will tell you that, for sheer visceral excitement, the F40 remains unmatched, at least among production cars, and I'm one of them. Everything has moved on in the 30 years since the F40 was revealed – everything except the thrill. One more thing: this was Enzo Ferrari's last car and, of his street machines, certainly his greatest hit.
What did the ailing and ancient Enzo think of it? Happily, we know the answer, thanks to a reply he gave to precisely this question in 1987. With undisguised glee, he simply said: "This car is so fast it'll make you shit your pants." And although I am pleased to report he was not literally correct, he was, figuratively speaking, right on the money.
Mazda MX-5 - 1989
You could argue that the MX-5, aka the world's most successful sports car, is actually too good for inclusion here. You might suggest that a car so good that it deterred almost all manufacturers from making a rival can, by definition, have hardly changed the world. Then again, if you were around when the MX-5 came out and thought you knew what a fun and affordable sports car was like, it would have blown your mind into a thousand pieces. It changed the game so much that it has played pretty much by itself ever since.
Lexus LS400 - 1989
When Toyota dispatched a group of engineers and managers to the US in 1984 to learn about luxury cars, they discovered several things, most of them unsurprising, including that when people upgraded from a Toyota, they bought a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz. If you want to join them, beat them, Toyota decided. The Lexus LS400 that appeared in 1989 set such high standards that industry engineers were still calling it an NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) benchmark seven years later.
Honda NSX - 1990
You have to remember the context. Mazda's MX-5 had appeared from nowhere and become the best affordable sports car in the world. The Lexus LS400 had done something similar in the luxury car arena. Nissan's new Micra was as good a small car as could be built. And then Honda pulled the NSX out of the hat. It was better to drive than a Ferrari 348 (much), as good to live with as a Porsche 911 and as easy to drive as a Ford Fiesta. Japan's rise looked unstoppable. And the NSX did change things, just not for Honda or Japan. Its real influence has been felt elsewhere: Ferrari, in particular, hasn't built a complacent car since.
Toyota Prius - 1999
You may like the Toyota Prius or you may think it an abomination on wheels, but you cannot deny its claim to have changed the automotive world. And remember its influence is felt most keenly not in Europe, where the proliferation of diesel has held it back, but in its native Japan and, particularly, the US. However you view the prospect of our increasingly hybridised future, it all started here.
BMW X5 - 1999
BMW called it an 'SAV', or sports activity vehicle, but really it was the first off-roader anyone might choose to drive for fun. And when fitted with a 4.8-litre V8, fun it was. With Porsche Cayennes, Jaguar F-Paces, Bentley Bentaygas, Maserati Levantes and, soon, Aston Martin and Lamborghini SUVs, the idea of the entertaining SUV is now well established. In the 20th century, it was a revolution.
Rolls-Royce Phantom - 2003
After its disaster with Rover, many feared a BMW-engineered Rolls-Royce could spell the end for our most blue-blooded brand. In the end, nothing could have been further from the truth: the Phantom was the finest-riding car yet built and offered one of the most tasteful yet opulent interiors anyone could imagine. It redefined luxury travel and regained Rolls-Royce its reputation.
Audi R8 - 2006
You might have backed BMW to be the first finally to produce a viable alternative to a Porsche 911. Or even Mercedes-Benz. But Audi, creator of sporting cars renown the world over for their aversion to apexes? None other. The R8 was a sweet-sounding, fine-handling, great-looking thunderbolt from the blue and the most accessible mid-engined supercar since the NSX.
Tesla Model S - 2012
Probably the most influential large saloon of the decade. If it had been made by Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Audi, it would have been hailed as an all-electric revolution. In fact, it was the work of a company that, five years before the birth of the Model S, did not even exist. If you want the single biggest reason why all mainstream premium car makers, including Jaguar, now regard allelectric cars as integral to their future plans, you're looking right at it.
BMW i3 - 2013
Perhaps this should be the Nissan Leaf, the first affordable, purposebuilt, all-electric car from a major manufacturer, but BMW's commitment and innovation were on a different level, resulting in a carbonfibre-constructed, lightweight, fun and fast electric car that in no way betrayed the promise of the BMW propeller on its nose.
Porsche 918 Spyder - 2013
This could have been Ferrari's LaFerrari or the McLaren P1 but, as the first to be announced and shown, Porsche's claim to have ushered in the era of the hybrid hypercar is indisputable. Even now, it is probably the most sophisticated car of its type to come to market, offering an envelope of performance, technology and usability never before conceived, let alone achieved.
Matt Saunders: "The Porsche 918 Spyder smashed our dry handling track lap record at MIRA when we road tested it — and was even sufficiently forgiving and easy to drive to do so with me at the wheel. It's still my favourite hypercar, and I'd bet it always will be."
Ariel Nomad - 2015
It's not every day that an entirely new kind of car is invented, but that's what the Nomad is: a sports car that works in all environments, from road to track, from sand dune to forest track. It may be the first such car, but it will emphatically not be the last.