What are the most influential cars ever built? Not the most famous, or the most impressive, or even the best. But the cars that actually made a difference to the motor car industry. Cars that changed the way things were done for decades.
I liked the concept. But the list changed once the research started, and the final list is dramatically different from my original thoughts.
So, without more ado, here is my list in chronological order.
The 1913 Sunbeam Brooklands V12.
Before Sunbeam developed their 9 litre, 200 hp engine for a motor vehicle the configuration had existed in marine usage since 1909. Here Renault developed a 12 litre V-12 for aircraft use. But in 1913, Sunbeam ran their car at Brooklands. It was the first time a car was powered by this configuration. Today, 100 years later, many cars are still using high performance 12 cylinder engines, based on the original configuration. Ferrari and Lamborghini being the two top proponents.
The 1923 Mercedes-Benz Tropfenwagen
The first “mid-engined car” produced. It’s basic layout was adopted by the first high performance, production sports car – the Lamborghini Miura in 1966. Today, most modern sports cars are still using this layout for optimum handling.
The 1934 Citroen Light 15 Sedan
This was the car that introduced the front-wheel-drive layout, to a mass market. It established an engine packaging trend, which is still with us today. In fact, the FWD layout has virtually replaced the traditional rear drive system in most mainstream cars.
The 1936 Fiat 500 Cinquecento (Topolino)
This first mass production, “authentic” city car. Built long before the Smart Car, the tiny, cute Fiat introduced the micro urban concept to the average motorist. A later model, would also put a post-war Italy on wheels.
The 1938 Volkswagen “Beetle”
Ferdinand Porsche and Hitler established a true “people’s car.” It was simple, cheap and uncomplicated and was sold around the world, for almost forty years.
1941 Nash 600 Sedan
The first “unitary construction” production car built. Without a traditional separate chassis, it was light and gave more than 30 mpg. Cars are still being built today… 73 years later… based o the original construction principles.
The 1942 General Purpose, 4WD Army “Jeep”
The vehicle that would generate millions of SUV’s – Sport Utility Vehicles – over the next 80 years. With no end in sight. The German Army in WW2, also had its own version of the workhouse off-roader, called the Horch Sdkfz 222. But it was never realized into mainstream commercial production. By 1970, Range Rover would have re-interpreted the concept again and developed a Luxury off road SUV, which would generate its own imitators.
The 1949 Mercedes-Benz 170d
The first full production, diesel powered motor car. Benz had actually introduced a limited series diesel car, the 260d in 1936. It would take until the 1980’s, before Audi made diesel cars trendy. They would go on to race hi-tech diesels at Le Mans.
Also in 1949 the Nash Airflyte
The first true production car, designed I the wind tunnel. Radical for its day, the Nash was smooth and rounded for optimum efficiency. Streamlining has been around since the mid-Thirties, but never became mainstream. In fact, it was Audi, with its 100 model that reshaped the modern motor car, with a Cd of 0.30.
The 1949 SAAB 92 Fastback
Accredited as the first production car, to come with a “safety cell” for its passengers. The strange, teardrop-shaped two door sedan, was obviously influenced in its construction and assembly, from the company’s aircraft manufacture.
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” Coupe
Whilst not the first fuel injected car, the Bosch direct injection established the new technology for road and race cars. The 3 liter, six cylinder engine doubled its power over the normal carburettored Mercedes engines, used at the 24 hours of Le Mans. Years later, fuel injection would replace carburettors on all production cars forever.
The 1955 American Motors Cars
With the takeover of Nash and Hudson, the new company had limited funds and had to adopt a “modular construction process.” All its new models sharing the same basic platform, to save development costs and time. A very new concept for Detroit at this time. Of course, today we call it “platform sharing” and is just good business– with the Volkswagen group being the greatest adherents to this efficiency of work process.
The 1956 Volkswagen (multi-seat) Microbus
Most people believe that Chrysler created the minivan, or MPV, in the seventies. But, the reality was that the Microbus had introduced the basic compact production car layout used today, in all but the engine location. Even the previously sold Volkswagen “transporter” version, came out first in Germany. In fact, Italy had introduced its Fiat 600 based Multipia 6-seater, at the same time. Even General Motors had introduced a Corvair-based, compact minivan, called the Greenbrier in 1961.
The 1959 Austin / Morris “Mini”
Created by the brilliant Alex Issigonis, the Mini was a packaging revolution. The tiny car could carry four passengers in a 10 foot overall length. It set the standard, for all modern small car interior space allocation. The secret was the transverse engine layout, still copied today by all manufacturers.
The 1962 AC Cobra V8 Sports Car
Whilst the would influence Chrysler to build a new interpretation of the Cobra, with the V10 Dodge Viper, this it not its true legacy. Only about 110 genuine V8 Cobras were built in England, yet it has generated a complete Replica Industry, which is now global in nature. In fact, more Cobra imitations are built every year, than there were originals. So, more than 50 years later, its impact still seen and felt worldwide.
The 1964 Pontiac LeMans 389 GTO
The definitive American “muscle car.” A clever marketing concept– of fitting big engine in a smaller car – thus generating greater performance. However, the GTO was the first so-called “muscle car.” That title belongs to the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Yet, it was the Pontiac burned its IMAGE and power into our subconscious , and created the whole genre. “Muscle Cars: are still being produced today in America, Germany and Australia.
The 1964 Ford Mustang.
The original Mustang was a clever concept. Adopt a cheap economy car platform (the Ford Falcon), but totally restyle it into another type of vehicle. Thus, appeared the new segment, known as the “pony car.” The long hood, short tailed coupe, was an instant success. Selling some half million vehicles in it’s first year. It was the original, with many European and Japanese imitators. After 50 years, it is now a global brand and still controls this performance segment.
The 1966 Jensen Interceptor FF 4WD
The FF introduced the four-wheel-drive to production road cars. The Ferguson system had come from the tractor industry. But the car was to expensive, heavy and complicated. It was not successful. However, it got the ball rolling and attracted Audi into making its Quattro models, affordable and trendy. Today, almost every manufacturer has 4WD models in their lineup, with more appearing all the time.
The 1973 BMW 2002 Turbo
The forced induction principle, was not new and had come from the aircraft industry. German aircraft had used turbocharging since the 1920s. The BMW was the first reliable production road car. It would get Saab to introduce a mainstream model, the Saab 900. Today nearly all manufacturers have numerous models with turbocharged engines.
The first turbocharged production cars were the GM Corvair, and the Oldsmobile F-85. They were problematic and not successful. It would take years, until BMW introduced their Turbo, for turbocharging to gain acceptance.
The performance advantage of turbo engines is well known. In the seventies, BMW ran its 2002TI four cylinder engine, in its Forumla One race car. It delivered 1200 hp in practice tune.
The 1974 Volkswagen Golf
The Giugiaro designed hatchback, created the definitive modern, global FWD car. It made hatchbacks trendy and cool. The car was and is a success story. It just had its fortieth birthday, and is in its seventh generation. The top selling brand in Europe and one of the most iconic cars today, it still sets trends in its segment.
The 2009 Tesla S EV
The brand and especially the car have created a new generation of vehicle that is already influencing other manufacturers. Because of the intrinsic high costs of development, batteries and the crucial infrastructure issue, Tesla has to succeed in a very young start-up industry.