In Hindsight: 1960s Cars of the Year

by James Kraus

The first European Car of the Year award

Fifty years ago: the first international European Car of the Year award

First presented in 1964, the European Car of the Year (COTY) prize was the premier attempt at an international automotive award for the best new car launched during the previous year. Nominees could be designed and manufactured anywhere in the world as long as they enjoyed at least limited distribution in Europe. The award is still in existence, the Peugeot 308 being the 2014 recipient.

Globalization in automotive markets was quite limited in the 1960s. Many European models were unavailable in America and little more than a handful of American cars were exported to Europe. Only a few select models of Japanese cars were exported and the models selected for sale in Europe were usually not the same models sold in the U.S. For these reasons, the COTY was the closest thing to a universal international automotive accolade. 

Keep in mind that a COTY winner is not necessarily a wonderful automobile in an absolute sense, merely the one judged to be the best of those introduced during the previous twelve months. Nevertheless, the 1960s were such a fertile period for automotive creativity that every year saw a crop of interesting and worthy candidates for COTY.

The winners of the decade illustrate the big shift toward front wheel drive that took place in the 1960s, with fully 57% of the winners and 43% of the top three sharing the increasingly popular configuration. As pricing and value for money are factors in the voting, high-end sporting or luxurious automobiles rarely topped the podium.

I thought it would be interesting to look back with the benefit of hindsight to review and second-guess the selections made by the judges during the original decade of competition.

Rover 2000

Rover 2000, COTY 1964

The very first award saw the Rover 2000 take the top spot for 1964, ahead of the Mercedes-Benz 600 and Hillman Imp. All three vehicles were technically interesting; the Rover having a front suspension featuring horizontal coil springs acting against the cowl, a de Dion rear suspension, all-disc brakes and an overhead-cam engine.

The Mercedes had every technological feature available at the time including an all-new 6.3-litre OHC fuel-injected V8, hydraulically adjustable, self-leveling air suspension, adjustable damping and ride-height, and all-disc brakes with dual front calipers. The passengers enjoyed silent hydraulically operated power seats, windows and sunroof, and vacuum-actuated door locks.

The Imp was one of the last 60s rear-engine designs to be introduced, with an aluminium OHC inline four slanted over 45-degrees to keep the centre of gravity low and allow for estate and panel-van versions. Its most unique feature was the understeer-inducing swing-axle-style front suspension, designed to offset the inherent oversteer stemming from the weight of the rear-mounted engine.

Mercedes-Benz 600

Mercedes-Benz 600

Looking back, my selection would be the massive (and massively impressive) 600 followed by the 2000 with the Imp remaining in third place.

Austin 1800

Austin 1800, COTY 1965

1965 saw the Austin 1800 claim victory over the Autobianchi Primula and Ford Mustang. My retrospective pick here would be the Primula.

Autobianchi Primula

Autobianchi Primula

The Primula pioneered the transverse-engine front-drive layout with the engine and gearbox mounted end-to-end (with separate oil supplies) and the differential behind. This is the driveline architecture of the majority of cars on the road today, fifty years later.

Second place is a harder call. The Austin 1800 or “Landcrab” as it was popularly dubbed, was basically an enlarged version of the Mini and ADO16 1100 Series; the Mustang technically a stylish Falcon coupé.

However, given that the Mustang sold in far larger numbers and had a much larger influence in both automotive and cultural spheres, I would slot the Mustang into second place.

Renault 16

Renault 16, COTY 1966

The Renault 16 took honours in 1966 ahead of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Oldsmobile Toronado. Fifty years later, I concur with the jury’s assessment. The Renault was what would later be called a category-killer. It was the first 5-door middle-class family hatchback, laying down the blueprint of the hatchbacks of today, complete down to the lifting parcel shelf. Early reviewers couldn’t decide whether to categorize it as a Berline (Sedan) or a Brake (Estate.) The 16 was the predecessor to cars as diverse as the Golf and the BMW 3-Series GT.

Choosing second place is again difficult. The Shadow introduced no real breakthroughs; it basically brought Rolls-Royce in line with the best current practice. Indeed, the firm incorporated the best technology and componentry it could obtain, including hydropneumatic suspension design from Citroën, and automatic gearboxes and air-conditioning compressors from General Motors.

Choosing second place is again difficult. I would go with the technically fascinating Toronado by a slight margin. The first postwar U.S. car with front wheel drive, it was the first FWD application with a huge V8 and automatic transmission. Despite its prodigious torque output, it exhibited no steering tug, torque-steer or other vices. If the standard front bench seat was specified, the completely flat floor allowed the transport of six passengers in a high degree of comfort.

Interestingly, the Renault 16 and the Silver Shadow both enjoyed identical 15-year life spans; far outliving their fellow 1965 debutantes.

Fiat 124

Fiat 124, COTY 1967

Fiat took home what would be the first of many COTY victories (still the most of any manufacturer to-date) in 1967 when the jury selected the Fiat 124 over the BMW 1600 and Jensen FF. This is in many ways a tough call, but from today’s perspective, the winner should have been the FF.

Jensen FF

Jensen FF

Here was a fast high-speed 2+2 GT with anti-lock brakes and all-wheel drive in 1966. This Jensen is the spiritual grandfather of the current 4-place all-wheel-drive Ferrari, ironically named the FF. Like the Renault 16, the Jensen was so far ahead of its time, no one knew quite what to make of it.

Picking second place is a challenge. The 124 set new standards for mid-size European cars. It excelled at nothing; yet did everything asked of it with extreme competence. It also formed the basis of the wonderful 124 Sport Coupé and Spider. The 124 represented the swan song of the small family sedan based on a conventional front engine/rear drive layout.

The BMW 1600 should need no introduction: a smaller 2-door version of the BMW 1800/2000, the 1600 and the later 2-litre variant, the 2002, became an icon of automotive enthusiasts the world over. While I may have chosen the 124 back in 1967; in retrospect the 1600, like the Mustang before it, had an outsize impact on the automotive cultural space that could not have been foreseen at its introduction. Thus I would keep the 1600 in second place.

NSU Ro80, COTY 1968

NSU Ro 80, COTY 1968

Germany garnered its first win in 1968 when the NSU Ro 80 took home the award over the Fiat 125 and Simca 1100. This was a good call; the rotary-powered Ro 80 was a pace-setter in many ways beyond its futuristic powerplant, particularly in its advanced exterior design, which still looked contemporary decades later.

I would slot the Simca into second place. A clean-sheet design and the firm’s first front-drive offering, the 1100 combined the FWD layout of the Primula, a roomy hatchback body and classically French soft, long-travel suspension. The Fiat 125, although a worthy design, was a parts-bin project, basically a 124 body stretched by 8 cm (3”) mounted to a lengthened 1300 floor pan.

Peugeot 504

Peugeot 504, COTY 1969

In the final year of the decade, France took back the trophy for 1969 with a win by the Peugeot 504 over the BMW E3 2500/2800 and Alfa Romeo 1750. Although I have a soft spot for the 504 and consider it to be the last classic Peugeot, in retrospect, I would give the nod to the BMW.

BMW 2800

BMW 2800

The E3 was a very good car in all respects but what makes it truly memorable is that it gave birth to the silky smooth BMW M30 inline six-cylinder engine that immediately became the standard by which other six-cylinder engines would be judged. The M30, BMW’s first post war “six,” won the firm several European Touring Car Championships installed in the 3.0 CSL in the 1970s and continued to power BMWs through 1992. In 2000 it was named one of the 10 Best Engines of the Twentieth Century.

I would place the very capable 504 in second position. In addition to its mechanical qualities, the 504 was noteworthy for its avant-garde Pininfarina-designed bodywork featuring a kinked rear deck and the industry’s first postwar freeform no-parallel-edges headlamps.

JK - 1 (52)

Fiat 128, COTY 1970

For 1970, Fiat returned to the podium to claim victory with the 128 being chosen as the best design released in the final year of the 1960s, besting Fiat’s own Autobianchi A112 and the Renault 12.

Debuting in March of 1969, the 128 was the first front-wheel-drive model to be sold under the Fiat banner. It utilised the transverse end-to-end drivetrain layout from the Autobianchi Primula as well as the hydraulic brake-pressure limiter attached to the rear suspension to prevent rear-wheel lock-up under light loads.

The new design incorporated a few changes to the Primula formula. The 128 rear suspension was independent with a transverse leaf spring mounted to the body with rubber bushings at two positions rather than a single centre-mount which caused the leaf spring to function not only as a springing media, but an anti-roll bar as well. Fiat also took advantage of the compact drive train to store the spare wheel in the engine compartment.

To top it all off, the 128 was powered by an all-new delightful-sounding free-revving 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine with a single belt-driven overhead camshaft designed by ex-Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi.

Here the judges clearly reached the right decision. The 128 went on to gain many accolades, and its basic architecture sired the Fiat 128 SL Coupé, 127 and mid-engine X1/9 as well as the Autobianchi A111 and COTY runner-up A112. Second place was also well chosen, with the A112 soon attaining a cultish status among automotive enthusiasts, especially in Abarth form.

3 thoughts on “In Hindsight: 1960s Cars of the Year

  1. Of course the Mercedes Benz 600 should have been the 1964 winner after all it was THE car to have for ruthless dictators. The likes of Tito, Ceauşescu, Pol Pot, Papa Doc Duvalier, Ferdinand Marcos and many others enjoyed this Mercedes fine engineering – perhaps it was the hydraulically adjustable air suspension that let them drive over their citizens without worry?

    Seriously, another fine article, but you did leave out the coolest feature of the Imp: it’s Coventry Climax-derived engine.

  2. You are right in placing the boxy Fiat 128 on top, like the COTY jury many years before! Its pleasant lines made up for a Cx of 0.48, compared to the Fiat 125’s Cx of 0.41, the Peugeot 504’s Cx of 0.39 (albeit equivalent to that of the Renault 4!) and the NSU Ro80’s Cx of 0.33. The 128 was a great car that remained modern for many years. In spirit, by making clever use of the space and surface available and by pushing its wheels into corners, it is a direct forebearer of today’s cars.

    With hindsight, I would regard the NSU Ro80’s shape as being the direct inspiration for the Audi 100 C3 (Typ-44) of 1982, also a COTY. It may not be obvious since the Audi’s lines are straight, but I would say that the plunging front deck and slightly raised rear-end are an hommage to the NSU’s design by the great Claus Luthe.

    With hindsight also, I consider the Peugeot 504’s rear-end quite clever. Many people think that it was botched and prefer the later, straight rear-end of the 604; perhaps this is what they would have liked to see on the 504. But do consider that this sloping, slightly rounded rear end was not too different from that of Bertone’s Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Special Coupe. Indeed, the 504 echoes the afore-mentioned Simca 1100, and in some ways the Austin A40 and Autobianchi Primula’s embryonic rear ends. I would even say that these cars launched the transition between postwar ‘3-volumes’ and today’s hatchbacks, which are a synthesis of the Airflow line and those first attempts in the 1960s to create more aerodynamic bodies.

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