After considerable reflection and deliberation, I have at long last assembled a list of cars whose design best visually expressed the adventuresome sprit, flair and excitement of the Jet Age 1960s.
The decade provided a clean break from the more bulbous shapes and often over-decorated designs of the 1950s. The new look generally emphasized leaner forms with airy, large-windowed cabins, open wheel wells, wide grilles, low-mounted headlamps and a profusion of fastback rooflines. Compared to both the preceding and following decades, the more noteworthy designs of the 1960s were characterized by elegance and restraint.
This is not meant to necessarily be a list of the best-looking cars of the period (although a number of the selections certainly qualify), but a list of those most stylishly emblematic of their era.
The selected automobiles were not only shaped by their time period, but were produced in enough numbers to affect and help define the 1960s visual environment.
BMC Mini MkI
It wouldn’t be the sixties without numerous examples of Alec Issigonis’s masterpiece scattered about. Like the Volkswagen Beetle and most ‘60s Fiats, the Mini was designed by engineers without the aid of stylists, yet deservedly became an icon of handsome, functional yet cheeky design.
1960-1964 Chevrolet Corvair
The Chevrolet showroom of 1960 could be a disorienting tableau. There was the Impala and Corvette, both decidedly holdover designs from the previous decade; but front and centre was the all-new Corvair, making its siblings look like escapees from an automotive museum. The rear-engine Chevrolet sported a sleek, unadorned profile, quad headlamps set into a grille-less front end, all highlighted by a sharply creased character line encircling the entire body; a feature that would be emulated around the world, including on Chevrolet’s own upcoming Sting Ray.
1961 Cadillac Coupes and Four-Window Sedans
For 1961, Cadillac finally ridded itself of its fifties overly-fabulous flamboyance and came out with what would prove to be the most dynamic-looking Cadillacs of the nascent decade, particularly the Bubbletop-esque Coupes and the Four-Window Flattop Sedans with their enormous wrap-around rear windows.
1961-1968 Lincoln Continental
Rarely in the post-war history of motoring have there been such a stylistic turnaround in design as occurred at Lincoln in the fall of 1960. The baroque, oversized Mark V was put out to pasture and a svelte new Continental took its place as crown jewel of the Ford Motor Company.
The new Lincoln, with its unadorned sides, simple lines and distinctive rear suicide doors represented a major departure from its predecessor. It was a resounding success, garnering a bronze medal from the Industrial Design Institute and increasing Lincoln’s U.S. market share by 60%. Except for minor detail alterations, the new body design remained basically unchanged until a slight refresh for the 1966 models.
1960-1961 Ford Starliner
For 1960, Ford introduced a glamorous new member of the Galaxie family, the semi-fastback Starliner. Marketed as Ford’s performance model, most left the factory powered by 352 and 390 Thunderbird Special V8s. The 1961 version shown featured exterior door handles cleverly integrated into the upper chrome side trim strips. The Space Age allure of this premium Galaxie was accentuated by trios of stars adorning the slender, curved C-pillars of its sleek roofline.
Jaguar E-Type Series 1
Enzo Ferrari, whose firm had already produced numerous gorgeous automobiles called the original E-Type “The most beautiful car ever made.” It didn’t take Hollywood long to realize that the Jaguar vied with Sean Connery for sexiest sixties British export and thus by decade’s end the E-Type had received supporting roles in the 10th Victim, Casino Royale, Diabolik, How to Steal a Million, The Avengers and I Spy, portraying an esteemed component of the sweet life, swinging-sixties style.
1961-1962 General Motors Bubbletops
GM revamped its full-size models for 1961 and in the process replaced their wrap-around knee-knocker fifties-style windshields with a flattened design framed by a pair of stylishly curved A-pillars. These were complimented at the rear of two-door hardtops by narrow, elegantly tapering C-pillars, epitomizing the large open greenhouse that was a key sixties design motif.
1961-1962 Ford Thunderbird
The third-generation Thunderbird Bullet Bird was a major break with its Square Bird antecedent with low-set headlamps and clean uninterrupted tapering flanks crowned by a simple bead of moulding starting at the front bumper and terminating just above large jet exhaust-style circular taillights. Contributing to its uncluttered surfaces were the exterior door handles which were incorporated into the side moulding. Note: Landau versions are excluded and should not be discussed in polite company.
1963-1965 Buick Riviera
Rightly considered one of the handsomest cars of the sixties, the knife edges and subtle curves penned by Ned Nickles at GM Styling pointed at a new direction for General Motors styling that would reach its full flowering in 1965 and 1966.
1963-1967 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray
Exuberant and futuristic, the striking second-generation Corvette was largely defined and completely encircled by a sharply-creased character line (similar to the one Chevrolet introduced on the Corvair three years prior) topped with voluptuous bulges above each wheel. Quad headlights electrically swivelled 180-degrees to face rearward into the body, leaving the main character line uninterrupted during daylight. The Sting Ray’s futuristic barely-restrained flamboyance managed to simultaneously embody a subtle grace and elegance lacking in both its predecessor and successors.
Mercedes-Benz W113 SL
Tasked with replacing both the 190 and 300 SLs, the new 230 SL was a masterpiece of Paul Bracq’s design department at Mercedes-Benz. It’s taut lines, open wheel arches, classic Mercedes bubble-lamp vertical front lamp clusters and huge greenhouse amounted to a textbook on ’60 design currents, topped off by a unique concave roof which bestowed the car with its affectionate honorific, the Pagoda.
1963-1/2 Ford Galaxie Sports Hardtop
The gracefully sloping new roof Ford created for the Galaxie 500 two-door hardtop in mid-1963 marked the beginning of the end for the Boxtop roof that had been a hallmark of Galaxies since 1959 and foreshadowed the dawning fastback era.
1964 and 1966 Ford Thunderbirds
The ’64 Thunderbird Jet Bird was a worthy successor to its forebearer. The low front grille was retained, while the smooth convex sides were replaced by deep longitudinal creases forming a coke-bottle-like side profile. The interior was even more futuristic with cocktail lounge-like wraparound banquette seating, aircraft thruster-style controls and secondary gauges designed as fixed drums with needles pivoting around a vertical axis, each set into a hemisphere floating inside a circular chrome housing. Note: Landau versions (which expressed the ‘30s as much as the ‘60s) and models with optional side moulding are excluded with extreme prejudice.
1965 Ford Mustang
One of the seminal cars of the decade, its side view borrowed the long-hood, short rear deck proportions of European sporting cars, while adding a deeply drawn side cove ending in the suggestion of a rear-brake cooling duct. At the front was a modestly-sized grille of black honeycomb, topped by an exquisitely unadorned naked-edged bonnet that merged with a pair of headlight eyebrows to form a full-width character line across the front, adding visual width and heft. At the stern, make and model lettering that cluttered the rear of most U.S. cars was artfully (and nearly invisibly) incorporated into the decorative exposed fuel filler cap. The stylish Mustang was just what 680,000 buyers had been looking for.
1965 Chevrolet Impala SS Sport Coupe
GM introduced an all-new line of full-size cars for 1965, featuring coke-bottle shapes, curved side-glass and minimal trim. Oldsmobile and Pontiac had some fine-looking versions of this new platform, but the most dramatic was the Chevrolet Impala SS Sport Coupe. The SS featured a fully-encircling 360-degree character line inherited from the first-generation Corvair, a sextet of taillamps mounted high on the tail, and simply sculptured body sides accented solely by bright wheel arch mouldings.
Lancia Fulvia Coupé
Designed in-house by Piero Castagnero, the Fulvia Coupé was one of a number of three-box notchback sporting coupés that eschewed the fastback trend of the 1960s, and one of only a few that looked good doing it. Its immense window area, slim pillars, large wheel arches, crisp lines and Kamm tail earn it a place in the sixty’s pantheon.
Following the sixties playbook, Porsche designers Erwin Komenda and Ferry Porsche took the 356 design, trimmed the fat, opened the rear wheel arches, integrated the bumpers, enlarged the windows and widened the track, creating one of motordom’s icons. Endlessly revised and upgraded, the 911 remained in production for 34 years. Its name and basic design continue to live on in the current 992 series.
1965-1969 Chevrolet Corvair
The graceful and elegant second-generation Corvair was a masterly successor to the original. In the fall of 1964, David E. Davis of Car & Driver (and later Automobile) magazine decreed that the newly-styled air-cooled Chevrolet coupé “The most beautiful car to appear in this country since before World War II.”
MG MGB GT
The E-Type finally convinced British motoring enthusiasts that a closed coupé could be a real sports car. Previous iterations; including XK and MGA coupés, had failed to attract the sporting crowd and saw limited sales. After a few years of watching the success of the E-Type, MG commissioned Pininfarina to design a fixed-roof version of the MGB. The result; a 2+2 with a top-hinged rear hatch, was a successful and handsome design that could well be considered the quintessential sixties-modern British Sportscar.
Offering a level of comfort that buyers were increasingly demanding, a budding rock musician could drive one at speed without mussing his hair and have plenty of room for an enchanting groupie, an Ice Blue Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall Bluesbreaker.
Fiat 850 Coupé
Both the 850 (designed by father-and-son team Mario and Gian Paolo Boano) and 124 Coupés (penned by Mario Boano working solo) were very au currant sixties designs, but here I will give the nod to the 850 as its fastback styling was a key design trend during the decade. Road & Track dubbed the 850 Coupé “One of the handsomest, best-balanced designs ever seen on a small car.”
1965-1969 Volkswagen Big Window Beetle
What? Wasn’t this stalwart design finalized back in 1938? Well; yes but…
VW management were not unaware of current design trends and decided, possibly after a few rounds of schnapps, to endow their evergreen Beetle with a bit of sixties spirit by increasing all its windows about 15% in size and reducing the thickness of the previously rather substantial window frames. As a final flourish they gave the vent window posts a rakish rearward slant.
It was the most dramatic and expensive revision to the Beetle in its twenty-five years of civilian history. Through its popularity and ubiquity throughout the globe, the updated Beetle was instrumental in defining the 1960s visual environment right through the final year of the decade when it starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and graced the cover of Abbey Road.
Mercedes-Benz W108/109 S
The penultimate Mercedes-Benz to feature the design language developed at Daimler under the direction of Paul Bracq, the discretely aristocratic new S-Klasse promptly became a fixture at country clubs, marinas, embassies and Michelin three-star restaurants.
Opel Kadett Kiemencoupé
Several manufacturers grafted sloping rear windows onto sometimes rather plebeian sedans in response to the fastback fashion that took hold mid-decade. One of the most successful was the Kadett B Kiemencoupé. The Kadett LS Fastback was a more polished design, but the Kiemen (“Gills”) Coupé had more character. The Kiemen’s triangular gilled C-pillars recalled those of the Ferrari 250 Tour de France three-louver and predated similar designs later seen on the OSI-Ford 20 M TS, Aston Martin DBS and Audi 100 Coupé S.
When the 16 appeared with its novel fastback-esque 4-door shape, even automotive journalists were stymied. Was it a saloon, or an estate; a sedan or wagon?
With the flexibility afforded by its rear hatch, multi-folding rear seat and luggage-concealing removable package shelf, the mid-range Renault created its own category. The simultaneous sixties embrace of fastback shapes aided consumer acceptance of its unusual profile, and a decade later it would be the standard form factor for European family cars.
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
Wrapping the Toronado’s innovative drivetrain was one of the most attractive 1960s automobile designs. Its smooth, sleek sides were punctuated by large dramatically sculpted wheel arches and a C-pillar sharing the same vertical plane as the lower body. Up front was a broad grille composed of horizontal bars echoing the prow of America’s last FWD car, the prewar Cord 810.
Dispensing with pivoting front vent windows, which had been a feature of GM cars since 1933, the Toronado (and its E-body sister the Buick Riviera) introduced GM’s first windows-up passive flow-through ventilation system with cabin air-extraction outlets located beneath the rear window. The clean look and improved outward visibility of the ventless door glass would soon spread throughout the industry.
1966-1967 Buick Riviera
Sharing GMs E-body with the Toronado, the second-generation Riviera had a big pair of boots to fill, and it didn’t disappoint. The new Buick traded in some of its sleek feminine grace in favour of a heavier, brawnier look, but still brought home the bacon. It shared the fastback roofline of the Toronado, but retained inset C-pillars over a broadly sculpted Coke-bottle shoulder line.
A shortened, lightened and simplified two-door version of the Neue Klasse sedan, the 1600 distilled the developing BMW house style to its essence. Following in the footsteps of the year-earlier 2000 CS, the 1600’s single character-line lower body combined with prodigious glass area and the signature kinked C-pillar would set the trend for following BMWs through the end of the decade. The high performance two-litre 2002 ti iteration remains the most iconic of BMW road cars.
If I were making a movie set in the sixties, these are the cars I would seek to cast. Then I would try and sprinkle in some rarities like a Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato 1.3…