Like the humans that build and buy them, most cars fade into oblivion – history remembers only a select few. So what are the cars that will be remembered, and why? As with humans, what counts is impact – provoking change, showing an inventive way forward, and reflecting the spirit of an age.
Here are some of the vehicles that have changed the world.
Ford Model T
The Model T wasn’t just a car – it was a social force that reshaped the world, ushering in the age of personal mobility and mass consumption. Until the Model T came along, cars were playthings for the rich, but Henry Ford envisioned his new machine as a low-cost device for Everyman.
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” he said. “No man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
When it came to the market in 1908, the Model T cost $850. By 1924, Ford had cut the price to $260 through economies of scale and relentless efficiency gains (Ford pioneered the moving assembly line, and eventually cut the time it took to assemble a Model T down to 93 minutes).
Ford sold more than 16.5 million Model Ts, and the car’s ubiquity drove sweeping cultural changes – suburbs rose, family farms declined, and workers flocked to manufacturing centres to snap up jobs that would enable them to buy a car. Henry Ford’s humble little machine spelled the end for the buggy whip maker and the dirt road – as the Model T pushed aside the horse, paved highways became a way of life, and the world moved inexorably toward its looming future of shift work, commuting, and big box malls.
When it hit the market in the late 1990s, the Prius flew in the face of both popular taste and marketing orthodoxy. For decades, consumers had demanded power and speed, and advertising gurus had been driven by a long-standing Madison Avenue maxim: sex sells.
The Prius wasn’t fast, and its looks were determined by aerodynamics and space efficiency, not the fickle winds of fashion. Against all odds, the Prius proved to be a home run, demonstrating the value of efficiency, and becoming a status symbol among the Hollywood in-crowd. (George Clooney and Leonard DiCaprio both bought Priuses, and comic superstar Larry David featured his Prius on his hit show Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
The Prius represents a new automotive paradigm: an ultra-efficient car that uses software to control and co-ordinate a complex powertrain that includes an internal combustion engine, electric motors, storage batteries, and brakes that recapture kinetic energy by acting as electrical generators. By popularizing the green car and showing its benefits to a mass market that had been conditioned to buy sexualized ornaments, the Prius has helped change the world.
Although the pickup truck was originally designed to haul lumber and bales of hay, it morphed into something else again – a status symbol that produced fat profits for the companies that made it. And the Ford F-series led the way on this strange cultural odyssey.
The first Ford F-series pickup came to the market in 1948. It was an unglamorous working tool, typically purchased by farmers and tradesmen. By 1978, the Ford F-series pickup became the best-selling vehicle in America, and few buyers were using the truck for work. Instead, it was a toy-hauler and personal expression, freighted with distinctly American cultural meaning, much like a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
For a certain buyer, a truck is an essential lifestyle accessory (one marketer dubbed the Ford F-series “the Texas Mustang”). And the F is a key moneymaker for Ford, with profit margins many times higher than its smaller, lower-priced cars. The F is a vehicle that changed things – whether that’s for better or worse is a matter of opinion.
If you stand by the side of almost any road, you will notice that the vast majority of the cars that go by conform to a single mechanical standard – they are front-wheel-drive, with a sideways-mounted engine. And it all goes back to the original Mini, a brilliant little car designed by Sir Alex Issigonis (an engineer who was nicknamed “The Greek God”).
Although there had been previous cars with front-wheel drive, Issigonis added a clever twist by turning the engine sideways so it would take up less space – the Mini’s tightly packaged mechanicals allowed four adults to fit into a car that was just three metres long. The layout would become an industry standard, dictating the form of millions of cars to come, including the best-selling Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
Although it was built from the same mechanical components as the supremely dull Ford Falcon, the 1964 Mustang became an automotive legend, launching the pony car era and serving as an object lesson in the mysterious arts of marketing and design.
With its long hood, short trunk and evocative name, the Mustang captured the spirit of America as it headed into an age of economic prosperity and free love. The Mustang was a sales sensation and a halo car for Ford, establishing it as a leader in the all-important matter of divining consumer tastes. Songs were written about it, and it was seen as a four-wheeled aphrodisiac.
The Mustang became a design template for other manufacturers eager to leap on to the youth marketing bandwagon (squint, and you will see the Mustang’s profile in competitors like the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger). Even though the Mustang wasn’t a particularly great car in terms of mechanical specifications, it was a game-changer, because it demonstrated the sheer commercial power of inspired design and clever packaging.
Commissioned by Adolf Hitler as part of his vast plans to remake the European continent, the VW Beetle succeeded in ways that the Fuhrer could never have imagined: it changed the face of advertising, became a hippie icon, and provided low-cost transportation for millions (that last part, Hitler did envision).
The Beetle’s tough, minimalist design made it a hit in post-war Germany, but when the company tried to expand into America, starting in 1960, sales were slow at first (one magazine called it “Hitler’s Flivver”).
In an age dominated by giant, chrome-bedecked Detroit land yachts, the tiny, unadorned Beetle was an oddity, but smart marketing and shifting cultural forces soon turned things around. A series of brilliant ads by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency presented the car as an antidote to conspicuous consumption, and the Beetle became an enduring counterculture touchstone.
Produced in a state-owned factory in the former East Germany, the Trabant was a rolling symbol of the vast gulf between communism and capitalism.
Although it was relatively advanced when it came out in 1958, the Trabant soon fell behind the cars of the West thanks to communist bureaucrats who messed up supply chains and vetoed design. Inefficient manufacturing meant that citizens had to wait years to get a car, and the Trabant used a soot-spewing two-stroke motor like those used on weed-trimmers (Trabant drivers carried cans of oil to mix with their gasoline when they filled up).
Despite the communist regime’s efforts to suppress information, East Germans gradually realized that the citizens of the West had better cars (among other things). When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the humble Trabant could take at least some of the credit.
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