Martyn Kelham chooses his Top Five great cars that changed the world. You’re going to be surprised by some of his choices!
Enjoy the feature, read on for the list of those that nearly made the cut, and the illustrations, which are all Martyn’s work.
The Innovators – cars that changed the world
Cars that were made in the BC period – Before Computers – only had scientific data from wind tunnels. As can be seen from decades of car styling, this information was treated with scant disregard by many stylists. This gave them a lot more scope than the rigid ‘best aerodynamic shape’ dictated by the computer today. For decades, aerodynamics and fuel-saving properties were not even on the radar – so the stylist could play to his heart’s content.
Today, of course, we are hugely environmentally conscious, and this dictates the shape and weight of our ‘velocipedes’ – but there is another significant factor that ‘shapes’ our modern motor car; and that is ‘acceptability’. We can see this in everything from television sets, through washing machines and men’s fashion to car styling. Some of us can remember when TVs were all different styles – now they are all the same black rectangles. Designers and buyers today, particularly in the car world, do not generally put their head above the parapet, preferring to follow the fashion rather than lead it. But this is not new. We had a previous period like this in the UK; it was called ‘the utility period’ and came immediately following WW2.
The revolution of the 1960s broke down the walls of blandness and mediocrity – and nothing expressed this better than the cars, fashion and music of the time. It is clear that, over time, designs get honed almost to perfection, which is why all our current SUVs look so similar.
As time moves on, human beings mould and fashion their future designs, based on ‘relative values’. The average buyer today can only judge the shape of their car when compared to the shape of other cars being sold. They might all be from different manufacturers but, if they all look roughly the same, that is the benchmark. For some, this is all they have ever known and indeed they might think that an Alfa Romeo SUV is ‘totally different’ from a Hyundai SUV – (stylewise I’m talking here, obviously). But this will be because they have never known the individuality and extremes of earlier periods.
Broadly speaking, SUVs from Alfa Romeo, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, MG, Peugeot, Skoda, Volkswagen etc. all look very similar in side profile. No matter how much of a modern car enthusiast you are, I think that’s fairly incontrovertible. There is no Citroën DS anymore. No Renault 16, 2CV, Bristol or Jowett Javelin. Other than the MINI – itself a re-incarnation of a unique British design – we just have an international style of SUVs in various sizes – and four manufacturers producing bland three-box saloons which essentially haven’t changed for 30 years – and numerous 4x4s – all loosely based on the British 1970s Range Rover.
But don’t let’s run away with the idea that is a new phenomenon! In the 1930s, we had a similar effect – if not worse! The Ford Model Y, Morris Eight, Wolseley Nine and offerings from BSA, Rover, Standard, Singer and Triumph, all models of around eight RAC horse power and all of which looked remarkably similar. As now, the frontal treatment (the grille specifically) identified the manufacturer. Many cars looked the same because they used the same basic bodyshell. My Wolseley 9 uses the same basic shell as a Standard and a Triumph although there was no connection – apart from the ‘bought-in’ body from a limited number of suppliers.
Before the 1930s, cars were in their infancy and most were quite distinctive due to styling ‘cues’ – or mechanical features. However, although there was individuality, the generally accepted ‘car shape’ was beginning gain ground by the late-1920s – and a 1926 Austin was getting to be the typical ‘car shape’ by the end of that decade.
Discounting the very early days, the only outstanding period in history for styling individuality was the 1960s. This is the only period when a Ford looked nothing like a Hillman, which looked nothing like a Vauxhall. (This is well covered in my Blog on the 1960s so I’m not going to go over the ground here). Yet, throughout the post-war years, there has been some ground breaking models – models that have defied the contemporary trend – either in engineering or styling, and sometimes both.
Specifically, I’m talking about a model ‘which has either mechanically or stylistically (or both) been radically different from anything that had gone before.’ I have deliberately not added the phrase, ‘and have demonstrably influenced others that followed.’ That proviso would rule out some models that were extraordinary – yet no other manufacturer subsequently ‘trod those boards’.
I have also limited the core selection to five. So, having got all that out of the way, which five cars have mechanically or stylistically (or both) forged ahead and was radically different from anything that had gone before?
My five personal choices are:
The car was introduced to an incredulous reception in October 1955 at the Paris Motor Show. However, it was not a ‘French shape’ – it was styled by an Italian sculptor and designer, one Flaminio Bertoni. It was engineered by a French aeronautical engineer called André Lefèbvre. To put the thing in perspective, take a look at what was on offer in the UK that same year. Stylistically, the popular Standard 10 – and, in the upper echelons, the Vauxhall Cresta.
The shape of the Citroën was like nothing seen before except in ‘Dan Dare’ type comics and illustrations in ‘space age’ books. Hydropneumatics controlled the self-levelling suspension, clutch, power steering and brakes. One could adjust the ride height from inside the car whilst in motion. These innovations weren’t just ‘because they could’ – like so many of our current gimmicks.
These advances (mostly attached to its high pressure system) were used to great effect – and made the driving experience a real bonus. All this space-age thinking over-shadowed the somewhat ancient engine design – but, it was a design that had suffered no horrendous failures and it was a reliable unit of around 2.0-litres capacity.
It was almost a shame that Citroën kind of relented a little and produced the cost-conscious ID19 shortly after the DS was announced. It could be argued that ‘normal’ brakes and steering brought the price down for the less ‘monied’ – or that Citroën were hedging its bets, not quite sure that the expensive DS would sell so well. The latter argument doesn’t hold up though, as over 80,000 deposits were taken for the DS in the first ten days of its release! And, this car was 60% more expensive than the outgoing Light 15 range!
Much later in its life, the DS23 Pallas came along with a 2.3 fuel-injected engine for the years 1973 to 1975 and this was a powerful upgrade. In addition to the shape, suspension, brakes, power steering and the whole hydropneumatics’ thing – there was the interior! Again, just looking at that swooping dashboard with a single spoke wheel – and, comparing that to the ‘standard UK fare’, quite literally puts the DS in another world.
Another aspect often overlooked was the fact that Citroën was owned by Michelin and cars designed by the company were designed ‘with the tyres’ – and these were radial of course even in 1948 – they weren’t just round black things bought in from a third party for the car to sit on. The car featured a button instead of a brake pedal. A really odd thing in 1955 and still almost unique. The slightest touch brought the car to a standstill. (I had this on my BX – it was absolutely brilliant!)
The clutchless automatic may not have had universal acceptance and I have heard folk complain that the manual box’s clutch was not the best or the smoothest. The ones I have driven I could not fault – but they may not have been representative of the one and a half million cars produced.
To the driver, the softly sprung and beautifully shaped seats together with the advanced suspension allowed them and the passengers to experience something completely new. Indeed, I don’t think there is a normal passenger car out there today that could match it – and, unless you have actually experienced one, you cannot appreciate the truly amazing sensation. The DS also had a self-levelling and variable ground clearance system designed by Citroën – or, more accurately, one Paul Mage’s. From memory, I think CAR magazine found a fault in the suspension performance. They said that hump-back bridges taken at speed confused the system – and there was a bit of a ‘hard landing’ the other side. Don’t care – it’s still a great car!
Oh, yes – and it had a fibreglass roof! The greatest exponents of this material at the time were (mostly) the British ‘specials’ industry – and all this was pre-Daimler and Jensen using this material for their cars.
I was a young driver in the mid-1960s and the Mini had been around for six years. I had only ever driven a Ford 100E, Austin A40 Farina, Austin A30 and 35, a Morris Minor and a Ford Zephyr. The experience of driving a Mini for the first time might be compared to the first time you experience stereo headphones or… some other similarly wonderful ‘first time’ experiences, but this is ‘family’ website so we’ll move on!
In our current age of super-safe front-wheel-drive cars, many have not experienced the joy (and it was!) of piloting an Austin A35 in the wet on cross ply tyres – and they will struggle with the concept. And rightly so…
The first Mini I ever drove was a ‘company-owned’ red saloon. We were used to dashboards being ‘in our face’ or at least in front of our chest – not somewhere down nearer the floor. We were used to steering wheels at a near vertical position – not nearly horizontal like a bus. Interestingly, the Mini was actually second in line from the BMC stable to feature these ideas – the Morris Cowley and Oxford (pre-Farina) sported both of those concepts to some extent. The difference with the Mini was that miniscule size – and, being so near the ground, the ‘weirdness’ was accentuated.
In addition to this, there was phenomenal roadholding. Drivers took a little time to get used to the idea but it soon became evident that, at a roundabout, one slowed down (a bit) and then simply drove round it.
There was no oversteer, understeer, bump steer, role or drama – you simply went round. From this moment on – once the front-wheel-drive thing had caught on and influenced the world – driving skills could be reduced significantly and speeds could go up. Of course, people still had accidents because eventually a Mini will be unable to do the impossible – and a lot of driver’s tried the impossible!
It’s an old cliché, but the Mini was a revolution. My No 1 car – the Citroën DS – came to the market four years before the Mini but its impact on the world (hence my ‘proviso I spoke of earlier’) was much less than the Mini. The Mini was attacking – and later significantly influenced – the lowest end of the market. Within a year it had killed the Micro Car market. Who would buy an Isetta Microcar for slightly less money than a full four-seater car with a proper four-cylinder engine and a boot?
The development story of the Mini has been well covered on this website so I don’t intend to drone on about Issigonis, Alex Moulton and all the well-known stuff here. This site has pages and pages of Mini history to explore. To not count it in my Top Five would ignore the ‘revolution’ – and that would be irresponsible. Don’t let’s forget that there were other front-drive cars before the Mini – even Alvis had a front-wheel-drive sports car in the 1930s – but, at the time of its release, nothing was as revolutionary or handled like a Mini in this market sector.
The car was styled almost 60 years ago – look at it for goodness sake! Apart from some minor details like bumpers and lights, the basic shape is incredible – inspired. No, it’s not in the latest ‘idiom’ – the screen pillars are not as wide as a bus and the windows are not poky little holes and there is no aggressive ‘stance’. But, it is still somehow more modern than any 60 year-old design has a right to be.
The car famously used the 995 cc two-rotor Wankel engine, connected to the round rubbery things via a three-speed Fichte & Sachs all-synchromesh manual gearbox with an automatic clutch and F & S torque converter. So there was no clutch pedal – just touching the gear lever knob operated an electric switch that operated a vacuum system which then disengaged the clutch. The gear lever moved through a normal “H pattern” gate.
During a ten-year production run (1967 to 1977), just under 38,000 cars were made – but, it has to be said, the very early years were the ‘boom period’. Most enthusiasts know the story of why production went down to a trickle for most of those ten years. But let’s concentrate on the positive for a minute! The styling was by Claus Luthe and the Ro80 was voted ‘Car of the Year’ in 1968.
The shape earned deep respect at the time and, to this day, still holds up well with a with a drag coefficient of 0.355 (which was very, very low for the era). It wasn’t just the revolutionary engine that grabbed our enthusiasm either. It was front-wheel drive when most things, apart from some BMC and Citroën cars, were not. It had four-wheel ATE Dunlop disc brakes, when only really expensive sports or luxury saloon cars had them. The front ones were mounted inboard, thus reducing unsprung weight. MacPherson strut suspension at the front and trailing arms at the rear resulted in independence for all four wheels. Power rack and pinion steering by ZF pointed things in the right direction.
The interior – particularly the dash design was so simple, yet so right! It just oozed Germanic quality and functionality. So let’s get to the ‘nightmare bit’. Yes, the Wankel engine did have some problems and many UK cars landed up with Ford V4s – which was strange really because the car went from having a ‘super smooth’ engine to a very ‘thumpy’ one. The original engine had a real willingness to rev – and therein lay the problem because, when it was taken into high revolutions, the rotor tip seals – particularly the centre one of the three – gave up. Later cars were fitted with an audible warning to reduce the risk.
The company’s limited resources focused on improving the reliability of the rotary engine, with much attention given to the material used for the three rotor tips (apex seals). All Ro80s came with a rev counter, but cars produced after 1971 also came with an ‘acoustic signal’ that warned the driver when the engine was rotating too fast. The rotor tip seals were not the only problem with the engine unfortunately – there were ‘construction’ faults that required a complete rebuild at very low mileages – in some cases as low as 31,000 miles! It is recorded that some cars had serious issues at 15,000 miles – which is probably not want you want – having spent a lot of money on a new car.
One inherent problem with the rotary engine was poor fuel consumption and, in the Fuel Crisis Europe of the 1970s, that didn’t help either. The warranty claims were heading off the scale and the new generation of more conventional Audis were on their way, so our poor old Ro80 (and indeed the NSU brand) had to go. Still a gorgeous shape though!
My wife Annie’s favourite Designer was responsible for this and several other cars, notably from the BMC stable – including the gorgeous MG ZA and ZB. Gerald Palmer also famously had a hand in the FB Victor from Vauxhall – that ‘fall-away’ boot gives the game away. Why is it worthy of being here? Because to the motoring public in 1947, this car was almost as ‘space age’ as the DS was a few years later. For a start, we have that beautiful shape – US influenced maybe – but somehow more Italianesque. It has been said that the Javelin was the nearest thing the UK came to building a Lancia. Like that company’s cars, the Javelin was advanced on so many levels.
We can start with the flat-four engine – Jowett’s own design. Of aluminium construction with wet liners, the 1485cc engine was linked to a four-speed column gear change. The engine was mounted ahead of the front wheels whilst the radiator was behind the block. There were five different versions during the production run, including models which used two Zenith carburettors and hydraulic tappets.
A contemporary road tester was impressed with the model’s good performance and noted the very original design. The car accelerated briskly to its maximum speed and was a full six-seater. Part of the reason for this lively performance was the light weight and excellent streamlining of the body. Drivers appreciated the light controls and the flat ride provided by the torsion bar suspension – the front being independent.
I guess the car was a sort of BMW 3 Series of its day and was no sluggard, with a maximum of around 80-plus mph and a 0 to 60 dash of around 20 seconds. This compares favourably with other cars in the market place – for example, the MG ZB and Wolseley 4/44, both of which appeared at the end of the Javelin’s life and were designed by the same brilliant Gerald Palmer.
Although the swooping streamlined style is obvious, less obvious as a ‘new’ design feature in 1947 was the very ‘sloping windscreen’ – when most cars screens were still vertical or near vertical. All this style was made by Briggs Bodies – part of the downfall of the car as Ford took over this company and clearly didn’t want to be helping to fuel a rival (or so legend has it).
There were also some warranty issues which didn’t help although the problems were sorted and 70-year-old Javelins are still every evident in the classic car scene. Just a few months ago, we went to buy one – but Annie has a real love affair with the MG ZB, so it didn’t happen. At £819 at its launch the Javelin was competing against cars such as the Jaguar 1½ litre (a very traditional classic British shape from Billy Lyons at £953 – and another car I owned in my youth), the Lanchester LD10 at £927 and the larger Riley RM 1½ litre at £863.
In the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally a Javelin won its class, and another won the touring car class for 2.0-litre cars at the Spa 24-Hour race that same year. In 1952, another Javelin won its class in the RAC Rally and another got the “Best Closed Car” award. A great achievement was a private entry in 1953, winning the International Tulip Rally outright! The car spawned the Jupiter sports car- and that again performed very well in competition – and at least one book has been dedicated to such ‘sporting’ Jowetts.
The what? Yes, I know, it’s a bit obscure but, when this car was being developed by one Anthony Howarth in the early-1980s, I did so want it to succeed! The world may have moved on and we don’t need it now – but then we did! Anthony was convinced that the vehicles we were using in Africa and other countries – with extreme weather and road conditions – could be improved upon. In early trials, his Africar was able to pull a stuck Series 2 Land Rover through a mudded track – only because the Africar had no back axel to hit the ridge in the middle! A core value was that the car could be mended in a crude workshop somewhere in the Arctic, Australian Bush or the Sahara.
Interestingly, for AROnline folk, a lot of the trials work – in the late 1960s – was done in a BMC 1100! Ultimately, the Africar was going to be available in short, medium or long (six-wheel) versions. The power plant was intended to be a composite solar electric diesel or a twin-cam, opposed piston, two stroke – but, as far as I know, all the cars in development used the ubiquitous Citroën GS power plant and drive train. Having said that, the basic short chassis two-wheel drive was capable of performing well in company with more traditional wheel drive machines in extreme conditions.
The body was made from plywood, the suspension was a mix of Hydragas and 2CV and Anthony wanted the engine to be of a radical design that allowed a very low bonnet line so that visibility of the road surface was good. This is very important in some parts of the world.
Unfortunately, none of this came to fruition. The romantic dream of building a wooden car for the Third World came crashing down in 1988 when Anthony Howarth pleaded guilty to six charges of theft and fraudulent trading. Years later he insisted that he had had been advised to plead guilty to fraud – but, as anyone with a grain of sense will agree, you wouldn’t go through all the heartache and stress of designing, developing and starting car production just to swindle some investors! There have got to be simpler ways of fleecing people. No, Anthony’s Africar dream was real!
The Lancaster-based company had many investors and it appears that all lost considerable sums of money. The failure left creditors to lose around £1.5m, many of whom had been impressed by a Channel 4 series in 1987, which featured Anthony driving one of the developments cars on a 6,200 mile trek across the Arctic.
The dream included a factory to produce 5000 cars a year and a further 20 plants to be built around the world. But, in my mind, nothing can take away the genius of the idea. Three of the cars still exist in a UK motor museum. The Channel Four programme can be seen on video and the website below is one of the best at explaining the full story. I still read Anthony’s book ‘Africar’ about every five years, just to remind myself of what we missed out on – real British innovation showing the world ‘how to do it’.
And just missing out on the Top Five?
Ahh, that’s where it gets difficult – really difficult. Let’s have a look:
- The Renault 16: the first wholly successful ‘hatchback’ car with a silky smooth ride, outstanding column change ‘box’ and lots of style led the way for our Maxi a few years later – but, maybe we got lost somewhere?;
- Various Lancias with their narrow angle V4 engines, early five-speed gearboxs, simple but super-efficient suspension and streamlined shapes. Lancia were one of the most innovative companies in the history of the motor car. Today, all anyone remembers was the rusting Beta – but that conveniently ignores the brilliance of Aprilias, Ardeas, and Lambdas to name but three;
- The original Austin 7: bringing together lots of ‘big car’ ideas reduced down to a tiny four- seater that, in its way, revolutionised the motor car as much as the Mini did 40 years later
- The Ford Model T: it was probably the first ‘world car’. It went everywhere and did everything and got converted into everything from a sports car to an ambulance.
- Oldsmobile Toronado: a front-wheel drive masterpiece from across the pond.
- the Daimler Dart (250) and Jensen 541: for using fibreglass in quality motor cars – a material normally used by kit car manufacturers. Both these manufacturers, together with Ashley, knew how to do work with fibreglass properly when others were producing awful lumpy and ‘wavy’ bodies;
- The Austin Atlantic: for its extreme and original shape – drawn, we are told by Lenny Lord, on a ‘fag packet in a café’;
- Almost any Bristol because of its aeroplane learnings, including its shape and construction;
- The Ford Capri for re-inventing a market sector and then leading that sector for years;
- The Jaguar XK120 series and the E-type – I don’t need to explain do I? They essentially made super-cars at ordinary car prices.
- The Lamborghini Marzel four-door supercar, the shape of which was so ‘far out’ there that no one has ever copied it (but I love it!)
- The original Land Rover for just being the original Land Rover and the Range Rover for answering a question no one had ever asked – but very successfully
- The first Lotus Europa for being such a 1970s iconic shape
- The Reliant Regal for being the first proper ‘little car’ on three wheels, rather than some sort of ‘contraption’ – I’m talking way before Del Boy’s 3/25 Regal!
- The early Saab for its shape and the three-cylinder two-stroke engine’s performance and charm;
- Suzuki for pioneering the small 4x4s that were so good – and that were a force to be reckoned with ‘off-road’ (before they got too plasticky!)
- The VW Beetle for obvious reasons (previously discussed on this site)
- The Mk1 Sprite, for re-inventing the 1930s MG idea of a sports car for the ‘lower order’ when it was unfashionable – and then made it fashionable
- The DeLorean DMC-12 for being made of material usually reserved for kitchen sinks, designed by a man who saved a major part of GM from going under – and then made some major mistakes
- The Ford Sierra which changed the shape of the motor car because it didn’t have corners (and I hated it ‘cos I couldn’t draw it!)
- The Citroën Light 15 for its suspension, wheel at each corner, low riding shape
- …and the Wolseley company for being at the forefront of over-head cam engine design when Robin Hood was still roaming Sherwood Forest. Well, I’ve got to mention them at some point!
And then there is your choice! If none of the cars above are in your list, I’m in real trouble, although I have deliberately left out one BL car to give you a head start! Now I just sit back and wait for the first comment – ‘I can’t believe you didn’t include the…’
The Wolseley Man