The test of time may well be the harshest test of all. Styles change and the public’s tastes and requirements change. Yet a cohesive, intelligent and functional design can sometimes overcome these obstacles. I have assembled a list of ten cars that enjoyed a lifespan of twenty years or more. The requirements were fairly simple; a candidate had to be mass-produced and sold as a passenger car for at least two decades by its original manufacturer in basically the same design configuration with no more than superficial changes.
In order of decreasing longevity, here are the survivors:
The Volkswagen is far and away the champion here, having still been offered to the public 65 years after the start of production. Initial manufacture was interrupted by World War II, but even starting the clock in 1946 leaves the VW with a legacy of over half a century. Inspired by Hans Ledwinka’s Tatra T77 and T97, designers Ferdinand Porsche, Erwin Komenda and Franz Reimspiess threw out the conventional rulebook and incorporated semi-monocoque construction, torsion bar suspension and a horizontally-opposed air-cooled rear-mounted engine constructed largely of lightweight aluminium and magnesium.
Conceived as mass transit for the German everyman, the VW set new standards for small cars and inspired many air-cooled and rear-engine designs that followed. Beloved by millions of drivers the world over, it remains the largest selling car of all time. During its life, thousands of detail refinements and changes were incorporated, the 1.0 litre engine eventually growing up to 1.6 litres. Being produced for such a long duration, many parts were revised several times over. The original split rear window for example, changed to a single oval in 1952, was expanded to a larger rectangle in 1957, enlarged in 1964, and again in 1971.
The Citroën 2CV, designed by André Lefébvre and Flaminio Bertoni as the ideal simple, low-priced and rugged transport for French farmers, was the most basic post-war automobile ever offered to the public. There was no conventional instrument panel, the speedometer was simply secured to the windscreen pillar. The wipers were driven by the speedometer cable. Windows neither wound up nor slid open, but rather the bottom half folded up and clipped to the top of the doorframe. The engine, like the VW, was air cooled and horizontally opposed, but in this case it was a two-cylinder unit of only 375 cc (eventually 602 cc.) To be able to be driven through fields, the car was designed with generous ground clearance and suspension travel. The suspension was interconnected front-to-rear and springing was very soft, a feature facilitated by the long wheel travel available. Despite the basic nature of the car, it became immensely popular with Parisians as well as paysans and became a worldwide symbol of bohemian joie de vivre.
The mission here was to build the smallest possible car that would hold four adults and a modicum of luggage. The solution involved a number of radical concepts and resulted in one of the most iconic vehicles of all time and an image emblematic of Britain in the 1960’s. Designed at BMC under the tutelage of Alec Issigonis along with Jack Daniels and Chris Kingham, the key feature of the Mini was the transversely mounted 850cc engine combined with front wheel drive. Though all but ubiquitous in small cars today (with the Smart and the BMW 1-Series notable exceptions), the Mini was the first to implement this space-saving driveline configuration. Rather than large and heavy metal springs, the suspension consisted of small, lightweight tapered rubber cones. Special ten-inch tires were developed by Dunlop, which enabled two inches more cabin space within the wheelbase as compared with twelve-inch tires and wheels, which until then were the smallest available.
The Mini was immediately popular with drivers who enjoyed its small size, amble space and responsive handling. One of the early adherents of the Mini was John Cooper, whose mid-engine racing cars (the first seen since the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union of the 1930’s) won the 1959 and 1960 Formula One world championships. John saw competition potential for the car and convinced Issigonis and BMC of the merits of creating sporting versions of the Mini. Work began straight away with Cooper and Issigonis developing two versions simultaneously. The first to arrive was the Mini-Cooper in 1961 with a twin-carburettor 1.0 liter engine and front disc brakes. The public reacted favourably, and in 1963 the Cooper S debuted with an even larger 1.1 litre (later 1.3) engine, power assisted brakes and dual fuel tanks.
The Coopers quickly began winning major international rallies assisted in no small measure by the left foot braking technique introduced by Finnish BMC Works driver Rauno Aaltonen, who used it to win a Coupe des Alpes in the 1963 Alpine Rally in his 1.1 litre Cooper S. Further triumphs, including multiple victories in Monte-Carlo, established the Mini as a legend in the annals of rallying.
The Renault 4 was probably the most practical vehicle ever designed. It was quite a departure in its day, nearly as far from the mainstream as the VW and the 2VC. Even Frenchmen that were loyal owners of its predecessor, the 4CV, did not know quite what to make of it. Renault salesman took to driving around Paris to entice random passers-by into impromptu test drives to demonstrate the advantages of the drastic redesign.
The Renault 4 was a precursor of the cars that most Europeans drive today: front wheel drive, four doors, a rear hatch and folding rear seat. Unlike today’s crop of front wheel drive cars, the 4 (along with the Citroën DS) enjoyed the balance and dynamic superiority of a front mid-engine layout. The 747cc (eventually up to 1.1 and in some markets, 1.3 litre) engine was located completely to the rear of the front axle.
The rear seat double-folded against the back of the front seat so that the complete rear section was available for loading vast amounts of cargo. Like the 2CV, the Renault was built to be able to cope with rural conditions and was likewise endowed with ample ground clearance and soft long-travel springing. The 4 remains the largest selling French car to date.
The Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider was based on the Giulia Berlina platform with a two-seat roadster body designed and manufactured by Pininfarina. The powertrain actually dated back to the origins of the Alfa Giulietta range of the mid-fifties including the classic Orazio Satta Puliga-designed aluminium twin-cam engine. In the Spider, this motor was initially 1.6 litres, and by the end, it grew to 2.0 litres.
Although some Alfaisti failed to immediately embrace the flamboyant styling and found the handling not quite as sharp as the Giulietta Spider, the car was popular with the public. Pinin Farina himself was involved in the avant-garde design which incorporated the tapered ends and bulbous flanks of the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante and the recessed side scallops and low grille of the Pininfarina-designed Alfa Superflow I and II prototypes. Besides the storied Alfa twin-cam engine, the Spider featured a five-speed gearbox and four-wheel disc brakes, still rare commodities in 1966.
The Porsche 911 was conceived as an upmarket successor to the 356 (which itself lasted 18 years.) An all-new six-cylinder engine was created of 2.0 litre capacity (eventually stretched to 3.2 litres); horizontally-opposed and air-cooled in the Porsche tradition, with single overhead camshafts. It had a full dry-sump oiling system with a capacity of nine litres. A five-speed transaxle and four-wheel disc brakes were included. The suspension was again by torsion bars all around, with front struts and rear semi-trailing arms providing improved kinematics. The styling retained the unadorned functionality and fastback shape of the 356, but the bulbous sides were put on a diet, the windows enlarged and the tracks widened to push the wheels out flush with the body. The instrument panel had a new five-dial gauge cluster incorporating the traditional Porsche central tachometer. The design of the integral body-coloured steel bumpers (forming the lower halves of the front and rear ends of the car) would, rendered in deformable plastic, become standard industry practice decades later.
There remains some controversy over how much of the body design was the work of F. A. ‘Butzi’ Porsche and how much should be credited to Erwin Komenda (body designer of the VW Beetle, Kübelwagen, Schwimmwagen and Porsche 356 and 550 Spyder.) Looking at the body of work of both men, I believe that the overall design more strongly reflects the hand of Komenda.
The earliest 911 was as much a grand tourer as a sports car, offering little more performance than the 356 Carrera 2. However, this began to change when the first 911S was introduced in 1966 with a highly tuned engine, much-needed front and rear anti-roll bars, ventilated brake rotors and the distinctive Fuchs forged aluminium wheels that would become a 911 trademark. Following the traditional Porsche policy of continuous detail improvement, the 911 was kept in the forefront of technology, receiving fuel injection and electronic ignition beginning in 1968, and gaining a turbocharged variant in 1975. It amassed an unparalleled motorsport record in events as diverse as the 24 Hueres du Mans, Rallye Monte-Carlo, Paris-Dakar, Tour de France and Targa Florio.
The exact placement of the 911 on this list was subject to some consideration. In the end I chose to leave out the 993 version (which would have added six years and moved it above the Alfa and Renault) since I feel that by that time the 911 had veered too far from the original, with little more than the doors and windows remaining unaltered.
Unlike every other car on this list, the Morris Minor was a thoroughly conventional design based on the accepted styling and engineering practices of the time. However, it is the execution that matters and Alec Issigonis and his team managed to get it right. The Minor began with a 918cc four cylinder flathead and eventually received a 1.1 litre OHV engine. The car proved immensely popular from the start and went on to become the first British car to sell over one million units.
The Fiat 126 was essentially a re-bodied version of Dante Giacosa’s brilliant rear-engined Nuova 500, but ended up actually outlasting (albeit not outselling) its illustrious and fondly remembered predecessor. While originally using a 594cc version of the classic air-cooled two-cylinder in-line engine of the 500, later models utilized a larger 704cc water-cooled in-line twin. The well-drawn body, designed by Paolo Boano was in the square-edge style of Fiat products of the period, but with more character than most of them.
Citroën caused a sensation when it unveiled the DS19 at the Paris Salon in October of 1955. Never before or since has a new car been introduced with so many new technical innovations. The car was developed under unusually high security, with few individuals inside the company being allowed access to the entire drawings or complete prototypes. André Lefébvre headed the design team, Flaminio Bertoni styled the body and interior and Paul Magès designed the ground-breaking hydraulic system.
The aerodynamically designed DS was ostensibly of monocoque construction, except that none of the outer panels were stressed. The rear quarter panels were each removable with a single bolt, the engine and trunk lids were aluminium and the roof was fibreglass. The door glass was unframed, the edges of the glass simply ground to a smooth matt finish.
A high-pressure 150 bar (2175 psi) central hydraulic system powered the steering, clutch, gearshift, brakes and suspension. There were no springs or shock dampers. The car was supported at all four wheels by nitrogen gas enclosed in metal spheres. Between the spheres and suspension arms were small cylinders fed with oil by the hydraulic pump, continuously maintaining proper ride height. In addition, vehicle height could be manually adjusted while driving. The dual-circuit brakes featured discs in the front, the first mass-produced car to receive them, and the high-pressure hydraulic system allowed their operation to be controlled by a floor-mounted button with only one centimetre of travel.
If that were not enough, the DS was the first road car to have staggered tire widths, in this case wider in the front than at the rear. In the fall of 1967, new adaptive self-levelling headlamp assemblies were fitted, featuring beams that swivelled with the front wheels.
The car was to have been fitted with a new horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine, but development funds ran out. In its place, the 1.9 litre inline four from the Traction Avant was updated with an aluminium cross-flow cylinder head and drafted into service, eventually expanded to 2.3 litres.
The big Citroën enjoyed a illustrious rally career, in no small part due to the efforts of Citroën competition director René Cotton, who was the first to systematically set up well-stocked pre-staged service points along rally routes. The sophisticated hydropneumatic suspension of the DS gave the Citroëns a sizable advantage on the most difficult and challenging terrain, and they claimed multiple victories from the 1950’s through the 1970’s in the Rallye Monte-Carlo, the Liège-Sofia-Liège and the Rally of Morocco.
The Saab 96 was essentially an update of the aerodynamic front-wheel drive 92 and 93 models conceived by aircraft designer Sixten Sason. Nevertheless, it became the definitive Saab. Equipped with either a 750 or 850cc three cylinder 2-stroke or later, a German Ford-sourced 1.5 litre 4-stroke V4, it was the 2-stroke engines that powered the 96 to wins in the Monte-Carlo and RAC rallies in the early 1960’s, piloted by the renowned Erik Carlsson that garnered worldwide notice. Erik would occasionally roll his 96, and after having it righted with help from spectators, continue on to victory. These rally successes forged the reputation of the 96 as a rugged and sporting small sedan.
All of these cars had strong personalities with a good dose of character, and in most cases, differentiated themselves substantially from other cars in the marketplace. It is interesting to note that six of the ten cars were designed under the influence of three men: Ferdinand Porsche, Alec Issigonis and André Lefébvre.
Given the pace of change today, it is unlikely that we will again see a passenger car design last ten years, much less twenty.