The most iconic car shapes and what makes them truly stand out

Distinguishable by their features and outlines alone, these cars need no introduction. Here we discuss what it is that makes them so instantly recognisable.

What do two Brits, two Germans and one Italian have in common? The answer: individuality on the grandest scale. There are countless thousands of cars that look undistinguishable from one another. Without wanting to name names, the list of hot hatches, cheerful compacts and sports saloons that could all pass for one another is never-ending, a giant pool of substance over style.

And then there are those examples of automotive excellence that combine style and substance to great effect, the ones that blazed a trail and spawned waves of imitators in their wake. The ones made famous and paid tribute to throughout all forms of popular culture.

So iconic are these examples that the vast majority of people with even a passing interest in cars can recognise them simply by viewing a silhouette or rough sketch of them. Be it their entire shape or specific parts such as a wheel arch, headlights, front grille or spoiler that make you say, ‘ah yes it’s a…’, these cars are true icons that will always be remembered for being unmistakably unique.

Ferrari F40

Ferrrai F40

Years of production: 1987-1992
Number produced: 1315

Considered by many to be the greatest road-going Ferrari of all time, the F40 is also arguably the most instantly recognisable. Whereas the (equally iconic) 250GT shares a lot in common with other sports cars of the time, the F40’s unique star-shaped alloys, effortlessly curved front end and retro spoiler could belong to no other. Just over 1000 were made, making them not only extremely rare but also extremely valuable. Depending on the condition, their price can vary quite drastically. This one , for example, can be yours for a little less than £370,000.

Porsche 911

Porsche 911

Years of production: 1963-present
Number produced (to 2013): 820,000

Throughout its 50-year history, this is one car that has changed relatively little in terms of the basic design concept. It came fifth in a 1999 poll for Car of the Century and was only one of two in that five that remained in continuous production. Rear-engined and air-cooled (until 1998), there is none like it. Its design is perhaps the sleekest and most natural of all sports cars, the models of the 1980s and ’90s in particular. From the raised tubular wings culminating in simply spherical headlamps, to the angular rear windows and ducktail spoiler that rose when travelling above a certain speed; the 911’s features have been frequently copied but seldom bettered.

Jaguar E-type

Jaguar E-type

Years of production: 1961-1975
Number produced: 70,000

Voted the most beautiful car of all time by The Daily Telegraph in 2008, not to mention top sports car of the 1960s by Sports Car International in 2004, the E-type is an iconic example of British car manufacturing. Even Enzo Ferrari considered it to be the most beautiful of all time. It was successful not just for the way it looked but also due to the fact that it offered high performance at a relatively competitive price. Its most distinguishing feature is unquestionably the elongated front end. The design of the aforementioned Porsche 911 certainly borrowed from the E-type and it looks just as beautiful in convertible form as it does as a hard top.



Years of production: 1959-2000
Number produced: 5,505,887

More gatherings, conventions and rallies have been dedicated to the humble Mini than perhaps any other car throughout history. Voted the second most influential car of the 20th century, the distinctive two-door machine was originally designed for the British Motor Corporation. A space-saving front-wheel drive layout influenced a generation of car makers and the sheer individuality of its shape has meant that manufacturers dare not copy it. While Porsche undoubtedly once again borrowed from the design of the headlights for its 911, the Mini’s truncated rear, flattened windscreen and overall box-like shape mark it out from any other automobile.

Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle

Years of production: 1938-2003
Number produced: 21,529,464

The original bug may have looked a little like a pram but it’s always been a respected and revered car. Flared wheel arches, perfectly curved front end and that distinctive engine rumble notify those nearby of its presence, with its shape being second only to the Mini in terms of recognisability. Immortalised throughout the Herbie film series, the real life car had just as much character and life as its onscreen cousin. Even the new Beetle has retained the style and sophistication of the original.

Honourable Mentions

  • Ford GT40
  • Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
  • Lamborghini Diablo
  • Ford Mustang
  • Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
  • Cadillac Coupe de Ville


Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)


  1. Good article and spot on with the five.

    Here’s some more:

    1. Citroen DS. No-one has ever done a better 4 door saloon
    2. Citroen 2CV. I was incredibly disappointed when I eventually went in one fo these, but perfect “form following function.

    Now for something else that is “form following function”:

    3. Volvo 240 estate! Yeah I know, and they’ve been trying to live this down for nearly 40 years, but it’s a dshape designed to do a job which it did better than most others for years.

  2. Even though it was obviously an amalgam of Jim O’Neill/ Don Hayter’s oh-so-rounded MGB roadster and a crisp-edged sharply-tailored Italian roof, how about the MGB GT – Sergio Pininfarina himself told me he thought it was the best resolved of all the BMC shapes for which his company was responsible…

  3. I must be missing something, but blowed if I can see any of the E types grace & elegance in the 911.

    I’ve always thought the 911 plain at best, and vastly over rated.

    I’d also add that the 1965 Chevrolet Impala range deserves iconic status. That single model sold more than many other makers entire range.

    Obviously different countries will have different icons

  4. Out of the 74 cars I have owned , the 911 was, unquestionably , the lemon of them all . Towed away at 1200 miles from new ; broken down at 2500 miles ; persistent brake problems ( anyone who converts their car to Brembo brakes e.g. Audi TT wants their bumps feeling ) . It was expensive – very expensive – rubbish , and as someone else has said , not very beautiful compared with my E types. Whoever wrote in the article that the convertible 911 was just as beautiful as the closed car should get his eyes tested

  5. 1958 Plymouth Belvedere two door hardtop.

    Virgil Exner’s ‘Forward Look’ cars from 1955 to 1958 were great looking cars

    • The 1958 Chrysler cars including Plymouths were all slightly face lifted 1957’s, just enough so people could tell the difference. This was important in the 50’s, when cars were expected to look different every year. The 1959’s were a more thorough facelift. But I agree the ’57-’58’s were iconic. The Imperials are amazing.

      • The 300-C and other ’57 two door Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge/Imperial cars are sculpted works of art compared to road going Ferraris of the late ’50s. Sadly they were too popular; the rush to fill customer orders led to shortcuts in production that led to the ’57 being prone to rust. This, plus the end of fashion (the Fins!) caused low resale values and turned customers to other marques at trade in time.

  6. In no particular order:

    Lotus Elite 1958-63
    Citroen DS
    Ferrari Dino 246GT
    Talbot ‘water-drop’ coupe

  7. Thanks for a thought provoking article.

    More honorable mentions I would nominate: Ford Model T and FIAT 500

  8. I really agree with Mike Bushell on this, the 2CV and DS should be in that list. No idea why the F40 is mentioned to be hounest, and why is the Beetle mentioned twice, both as VW and Porsche?

  9. 1955 or 1957 Chevrolet – The classic Tailfins look started in 1955 & probably was perfect by 1957.

    Ferrari Daytona

    Ferrari Testrossa

  10. Nice car’s but the article was about iconic shapes.
    Certainly agree with most listed and the 2CV or DS Citroens ought to be there…. but as iconic and noticeable car shapes, my vote goes to the humble Morris minor and the original Fiat 500

  11. Boiling the worlds car shapes down to the 5 most iconic is a near impossible task.

    I am surprised the E-Type, Mini and Beetle aren’t at 1,2 and 3 – they were Iconic of an era too!

    As for the Ferrari F40, very pretty but I bet most people a) would never of heard of it, b) be umable to sketch the shape even if they had!

  12. The last time I looked at one of those “World Cars” bookazines (I’ve struggled to find a weblink and my copies are obscured by dog cages – don’t ask – ) there were four cars that stood out as being the most influential or copied. The measure here is not total number produced, rather number of different manufacturers, geographical spread etc. Also you must allow for a lot of bias in that having noticed this phenomenon I probably over-noticed it, if you see what I mean. Anyway,

    In no particular order:
    Mini – just look at whatever the current crop of K-cars is up to. The influence is always there somewhere – or it’s being quoted. Has been for ages – think of the rear lights on a mark one Civic, par example

    Lotus / Caterham 7 – Even Iran makes a copy

    AC Cobra and Ford GT40

    obviously these will change over time – as they’re hardly young designs, any of these; when I finally gain access to those shelves I’ll flesh out my comments with actual examples!!

  13. “that the vast majority of people with even a passing interest in cars can recognise them simply by viewing a silhouette or rough sketch of them. Be it their entire shape or specific parts such as a wheel arch, headlights, front grille or spoiler that make you say, ‘ah yes it’s a…’,”

    OK, five cars that fit that bill that aren’t on this euro-centric list:

    1949 Cadillac (the one with the embryonic fins).

    Any Corvette.

    The original Landcruiser.

    The first RX7.

    Checker Taxi Cab.

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