Ten for Twenty: 10 Automotive Designs that Withstood the Test of Time

James Kraus

VW 1200 and BMC Mini

VW 1200 and BMC Mini

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: >

Volkswagen 1938-2003

Volkswagen 1938-2003

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.>

Citroën 2CV 1948-1990

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.>

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BMC Mini 1959-2000

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.>

Renault 4 1961-1994

Renault 4 1961-1994

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.>

Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider 1966-1993

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.>

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Original Porsche 911 1964-1992

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.

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Morris Minor 1948-1971

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.>

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Fiat 126 1972-1993

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.>

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Citroën DS/ID 1955-1975

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.>

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Saab 96 1960-1980

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.

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15 thoughts on “Ten for Twenty: 10 Automotive Designs that Withstood the Test of Time

  1. Fascinating piece.

    All of these were interesting cars and another thing they all shared was that they were all (in one way or another) entertaining to drive. I would like to think that contributed to their longevity.

    I would have thought the Fiat Topolino or 600 would make the cut, but indeed, they fell just short. How about the Austin Healey Sprite/MG Midget (as they were essentially the same car?) The Sprite (designed by Donald Healey) was introduced in 1958 and the MG Midget version soldiered on until 1979.

  2. I would hesitate to declare the Spridget as meeting the 20-year criteria. The Sprite’s restyling in 1961 constituted a materially adverse change in that the complete restyling of the front obliterated what had been the cars most distinguishing styling features.

    The change was tantamount to the Beetle receiving a squared-off front or Porsche changing the 911 to a notchback shape.

    • On top of that, if you’re counting the Spridget you might as well count the Panther-platform Ford Crown Victoria (1979-2011 with a major restyling in 1992, facelift in 1988, chassis redesign 2003 and heavy reliance on fleet sales from the mid 90s onward)

  3. I agree with Aurick. To me the real Austin Healey Sprite died in 1961 with the release of the Mark II. With the Mark II, the Spridget became a junior MGB and the Sprite a poor, badge-engineered relative.

    Plus, the redesign, which changed everything from the windscreen forward as well as the complete rear section was so involved as to almost constitute a new car on the old platform.

  4. Wonderful post!

    Such a quantitative approach is a refreshing alternative to the typically subjective “10 Best” sort of piece.

    A captivatingly diverse collection of cars, all well deserving of their longevity.

    It is interesting to note that in the same time period, while Porsche got rid of the “‘bulbous sides” when moving from the 356 to the 911 (indeed, the 911 was actually narrower than the 356), Alfa did the opposite when transitioning from the Giulietta Spider to the Duetto.

  5. A great article.

    Luckily, most of these cars made it through their long production runs relatively unscathed. However, it was unfortunate that the Renault 4 and Fiat 126 both suffered the ignominy of being “updated” by stylists in the late seventies and early eighties through generous helpings of black and gray plastic, including the dreaded lower body side cladding so popular at the time.

  6. Nice piece Mr. K.

    Ford Model T missed it my 1 year 4 months and 6 days. (Oct 1st 1908 to May 26th 1927.)
    Lada Riva series is still in production after 25 years and is a lightly re-thought VAZ2101.

  7. Mustang ?
    Although the “look” has changed over the past 40 years, the basic formula: sporty 2 plus 2, moderately priced with decent to great performance, hasn’t changed.

  8. The MGB missed the cut by about a year and a half (5/62 to 10/80). Some were carryovers sold and registered as 1982’s. Close.
    The same platform and engine- only the interior, smog, rear ends, and the ’74+ bumper/right height changed.

    The Mustang changed platforms several times- the most radical was the Mustang II / Pinto. It’d be the same as the Spridget.

  9. It wasn’t only the Renault 4 and Fiat 126 that suffered from styling ‘updates’ later in their lives.

    When the Mini evolved to Series II in late 1967, it gained a carbuncle-like coffin-shaped protruding front grille that featured more chrome than a jukebox. It threw the classically simple and balanced design of the Mark I (as is shown in the post) totally off kilter. The vast cross-section of the grille surround itself was scaled more to a Daimler Sovereign than the 10-foot long Mini.

    I have owed three Mark I Coopers and have never considered a later version.

  10. There is one more very worthy car that should get honorable mention alongside this illustrious group: the Citroën Traction Avant.

    It went into production in 1934 until manufacture was interrupted by World War II in November of 1941. After the war, production resumed in June of 1945 and continued through July of 1957. Altogether; 19 years.

    The Traction was the world’s first car to have a unitized monocoque structure and first successful mass-produced front wheel drive car.

  11. The list is dominated (only two exceptions) by cars with engines over the drive wheels. Versatility seems to be the hallmark of the cars in this list. Very enjoyable read.

  12. J Kraus rightly mentions the Hindustan in another post; could the Checker Marathon also qualify? The VAZ and Lada Riva may have been restyled, but then so did the Mini and tribute should be paid to the original Fiat 124 concept. Comparatively changes to the Renault 4 were minor. Even the 2cv with its third side window and restyled tail did not escape. The Peugeot 404 pick-up was produced until 1989, but this may be a little out of bounds and too exotic. In the nearly-made-it category, it is worth citing another minimal car, the Fiat Panda, produced for 19 years if you include the SEAT guise for the last part of its life.

    The Fiat 600 and its different variations around the world should definitely be considered as a hallmark of success in automobile production – which introduces another interesting criterion, i.e. not just the lifespan, but also the number of countries in which a car was produced for the local market. One oft-forgotten car that was only produced in France, but that qualifies in terms of duration is the Renault Juvaquatre, born in 1937, three years after the Traction. It remained into production until 1959, using the Dauphine’s engine in later years, hence the name Dauphinoise it was then given. The car is said to having been copied by Opel with its pre-war Olympia.

    Speaking of the Traction, Citroen’s H Van using the Traction’s mechanicals lasted for more than 20 years. Not sure whether Renault’s’competing Estafette quite made it, but Peugeot’s J7 restyled into the J9 van is a possible contender, subject to debate. In the same line of thinking, could the Citroen C5 small van qualify? It derived from the late 1970s Visa and lived on into the 2000s, even passing crash tests, only failing later emission tests. The Visa by the way used the twin-cylinder engine first sported by the 2cv, then the Dyane, Ami6 and Mehari, and the Peugeot 104 platform, later used by the Romanian Oltcit and, in its short-base 104 coupe version, by the Talbot Samba: succesful cobbling.

    What about the Morgan, in its own niche?

  13. Many interesting and well-considered observations!

    I decided to limit the candidates to those that were still available in Western markets 20 years or more after initial production; that would confirm that they were still competitive in the most discerning marketplace.

    The Checker was designed and built as a taxicab; very few were ever sold for civilian service.

    The Juvaquatre would have qualified if it were not for the interruption of production during the war years.

    I concentrated on passenger cars only, which disqualifies commercial vehicles and vans.

    The Morgan was never mass produced; if it was, the 4/4 would easily be at the top of the list!

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