20 Revolutionary Automobiles That Shaped Our Modern World | By Peter Brock

Photography Credit: Brock Racing Enterprises

What makes an automobile an icon of its era? To be universally recognized as exceptional, it must have that indefinable combination of design, engineering and sheer presence that we feel simply as admiration. 

There’s also the matter of quantity. Wide availability can make certain designs instantly recognizable and influential. On the other hand, even great cars can be bogged down by high production numbers; after all, dismissing the ordinary is a common mistake of collective wisdom. 

And what about the very limited-production icons? Many of them were able to gain fame and acceptance because of their celebrated performance on the racing circuits of the world. Certain cars, like the legendary Ferrari 250 GTO or Daytona Cobra Coupe, were produced in such small quantities that even if you have the millions necessary to acquire one, you may have to wait years to make the purchase. 

These cars fall into a special category of rareness: They’re so valuable that they’re seldom driven for the pure sensual pleasure of experiencing the unique characteristics that made them so successful. In this sense, scarcity itself is part of their allure. They are unobtainable art, outside the realm of what most of us could ever own and enjoy.

To qualify on my personal list of the 21 “most,” a car must be beautiful, desirable, exciting or even cool, but it should also have been important enough to set new standards or somehow change history. For this reason, each of my picks has a total production of at least 3000 units. 

Anything less, and the car becomes too out of reach for those of us who simply want a great driver. Fortunately, that means every car listed here can be acquired for a relatively reasonable sum. Healthy quantities and availability have kept the prices within reason. 

Age is also an important factor. While some great cars were produced in the right quantities before World War II, they are still very difficult to track down. Sure, thousands—even millions—of Fiat Topolinos, Citroën 2CVs and early VW Beetles were made, and time has proven that they were three of the greatest examples of revolutionary engineering from Italy, France and Germany. However, no matter how special they were for their time, their availability today is virtually nonexistent. So for this list, we’ll stick loosely to the past 60 years. Let’s say 1950 through 2009.

There’s simply no comparison of “best” with these cars, so this is a list of the “most.” Each of these machines is special in its own unique way, and each will evoke a variety of feelings depending on our preferences for style or engineering excellence.

MG TC: The Sports Car America Loved First

Photography credit: Plain English Archive

Let’s start with the car that essentially created the appreciation and sport of driving for the pure fun of it here in America. Before World War II there were no modern “sports cars” west of England, so when the hostilities were over and GIs began returning home with their newly discovered English treasures, the sport took off. 

The then-ubiquitous TC possessed some of the fine classic lines of the best of the prewar era, the Squire and Jag SS. The success of the TC in America encouraged MG to produce the improved TD as well as the last of the series, the TF. Both were better-engineered cars, but they lacked the classic beauty of the TC.

Jaguar XK120: The Finest Car of Its Class in the World

It’s hard to explain the effect that the first XK had on the American public. It arrived soon after the MG TD and completely reversed the world’s perception of the sports car. Nothing like it had ever been seen here, and it sold out for months almost immediately after its release.

Even though the basic design is lifted from an earlier BMW, the XK120’s form and signature grille is so handsomely executed that its design theme has never really been improved upon. The last performance versions, known as 120Ms, emit a sound as distinctive and bewitching as any great classic ever produced. Later versions of the theme, the XK140s and 150s, feature improved engineering. However, these heavier, rather bloated examples never really matched the taut beauty of the original. Pity.

Porsche 356: An Exciting New Concept of Personal Motoring

Teutonic efficiency is written in every line of Ferry Porsche’s landmark 356 design. This was the car that introduced the Porsche name to the general public. The idea of aerodynamically efficient, air-cooled, rear-engined vehicles was revolutionary for its time, and the basic design is still revered.

In truth, the early 356 was simply a refined VW Beetle—swing axles and all—but what a marvelous car it became with the simple addition of Erwin Komenda’s new, aero-efficient body. The quality of the hand-built Reutter bodies is still impressive today, even in a world of precision-built competitors assembled by automated robots. 

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL: Because You Motor With Greater Confidence

Perhaps no car in history has such a mystique as the gull-winged coupes from Stuttgart. Introduced in late 1952 to run in events like the Carrera Panamericana, the 300 SL was, surprisingly, an engineering compromise. 

With insufficient funds to design and build a new chassis and engine, Mercedes designers were forced to use the basic 300 sedan’s rather pedestrian inline six. The issue of whether drivers could see over the tall engine was solved by laying the engine at a slant and equipping it with fuel injection. 

Few expected this radical racer to ever appear as a real production car, but the factory’s perfectly executed street versions were introduced at the New York show in 1954. They sold out immediately, and production ran until the launch of the slightly larger, heavier, more conservative 300 SL Roadster featuring conventional doors. Both are killer designs that will never fade.

Austin-Healey 100: The Sports Car of Sportsmen

Photography credit: Plain English Archive

The 100 prototype was an aesthetic masterpiece that immediately caught the sporting public’s fancy when it debuted at the 1952 London Motor Show. Although it featured rather compromised internals, its price and availability made it every man’s dream sports car. 

It might have lacked the performance of a Jaguar XK120, but the price undercut the Jag’s popularity. The Austin-Healey 100, like the MG TC and XK120, was eventually redesigned to emerge as the larger, better-performing Healey 3000. However, like the later MGs and Jags, the 3000 never really matched the spare, graceful lines of the original. 

The 100 wasn’t really a great engineering feat, as it was pretty much a selection of existing components from the Austin factory’s parts bins. However, it remains a good-looking car that’s great fun to drive—especially thanks to its lay-down windscreen.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta: Italians Build Such Exciting Cars

Slide into the seat of this appealing Alfa, and within seconds you’ll understand how it feels to drive like Tazio Nuvolari. Few cars capture the heart as quickly as this dazzling little roadster, and the driving position is just one of its merits. 

Think of all the great old road test clichés: the transmission’s feel, the engine’s sound, the great handling as you carve up your favorite back road. Well, the Giulietta embodies them all. Few cars possess all the alluring attributes of this Italian icon: style, engineering, comfort, history and, most of all, fun.

Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce Coupe: For Handling, There’s Alfa Romeo

Bertone, one of the hallowed names of Italian design, penned the lines of this sweet little coupe. The Alfa production line kept feeding the public’s desire for years, so these cars have remained attainable. 

Everything said about the Giulietta applies to the coupe, except having a roof makes it an even better long-distance tourer. You probably won’t ever find one in the used car section of your local paper, as Alfa enthusiasts seem to hoard these gems. Plus, many offer to buy these cars from their owners long before they’re ready to sell. After owning a real Bertone-designed Alfa, what else could you find for equal outlay? Slim pickings.

Chevrolet Corvette: A Loveseat You’ll Never Want to Leave

It’s easy to recognize the Corvette as an icon of design. The tough part is figuring out just where to start—early, late or somewhere in between? Each iteration of this American classic has its adherents, but be careful you don’t get sucked into the “everything perfect and original” game.

Each model reflects an era, from the parts-bin specials of the early years to the exquisitely engineered exclusivity of what is currently available. Considering GM’s current status, it could well be that we’ll never again see the mass production of a really high-performance automobile. Trust me: There isn’t a better long-term investment than a modern Z06. 

If finances require looking at an older model, a good dividing line may be the Corvette’s introduction of disc brakes. Remember that great cars are meant to be driven, not placed on a pedestal in the garage surrounded by votive candles. The American V8 produces one of the loveliest mechanical concertos ever conceived. Use it.

Mini Cooper: Motoring at Your Mostest

Originally created by Alec Issigonis in 1959, the Austin Mini Minor shocked the world with its space-saving layout, transverse-mounted engine and front-wheel drive—features that are still the basis for almost every minimalist sedan produced today. World Champion F1 constructor John Cooper introduced his modified version of the Mini soon after, and the car’s incredible performance on the race track soon made it a legend. 

More than 5.5 million original Minis were produced before production ceased in 2000. Since so many Mini variants were made all over the world in its four-decade production run, it’s impossible to select a favorite. However, this is the one car that will probably hold the title of  “world’s most influential design since the introduction of the Model T Ford.”

The name may still be with us, but modern BMW-built MINIs aren’t really mini when compared to the originals; they’ll never have the cachet and presence of an original either. A really spiff Mini Cooper is as cool today—in any setting—as it was in London in the swingin’ ’60s. 

BMW 2002: The Giant-Killer

This is the car that saved BMW from extinction. Had it not been for the German public’s immediate acceptance back in 1962 of this now-popular sedan, we would have never seen any of the great BMWs that followed. The 2002’s immediate success made it an instant classic, so it’s a no-brainer in this collection. 

The real importance of the 2002 was its influence on the rest of the automotive world, especially the Japanese manufacturers. Look at what was being produced in Japan at that time: really bad, licensed copies of French and English rubbish. 

Jaguar E-Type: Grace…Space…Pace

Sir William Lyons proved he had an exceptional eye for design with the introduction of the original XK 120. This was a pretty rare quality for the chief executive in charge of an English automobile company. 

The E-type would make him even more famous. Nothing produced in quantity anywhere in the world has ever matched the stunning visual impact of the Series 1 E-type. While unusual for a good roadster design, Sir William’s coupe version was just as impressive—and luxuriously comfortable, too! 

A handful of exquisite D- and E-type production racing variants gave Jaguar a still-impressive racing history at Le Mans. Somehow Jaguar’s planners and decision makers never learned from others’ past mistakes. Good as the later E-types and V12s were, none ever quite matched the svelte beauty of the original.

Porsche 911: The Instant Legend

Evolution is a constant theme in Stuttgart. The now-iconic 911 coupe was a radical successor to the tradition-breaking 356 when it was first introduced in 1963. 

Surprisingly, it was initially rejected by hardcore 356 owners who refused to accept the new look. However, as quantities of 911s increased, a new Porsche cult was formed. 

The rear-engined 911 design has been carefully refined and reengineered through the years under the guises of various type numbers—there are literally dozens of variants. However, the factory still keeps the 911 name for its flagship and principal production GT racer. 

While Porsche has produced some equally well-engineered front- and mid-engined cars through the years, few are really accepted as “true Porsches” by the 911 cognoscenti. Some, like the mid-engined 914s and beautiful front-engined 944s, are real sleepers in the collectible category. 

Ford Mustang: Presenting the Unexpected

America’s first pony car, introduced in New York in 1964, changed the American automotive world as we knew it. The car’s shape, chosen by Lee Iacocca because he said it was the only design that “looked like it was moving,” has evolved through the years. It hit sales highs and lows based more on our emotional responses to its changing outward appearance than its consistently conservative engineering. 

Names like Shelby and McQueen seem to have more cachet than specific model years. In truth, the Mustang’s simple mechanical formula hasn’t changed all that much since its inception. 

Availability is seldom an issue. That’s a real advantage, as it’s never a big deal to restore a desirable year to finished driver status. What’s really important is what happens when you turn the ignition key.

Datsun 240Z: Join a Minority Group

Photography credit: Brock Racing Enterprises

When Yutaka “Mr. K” Katayama, then-president of Datsun USA, ordered the creation of the Z-car in the mid-’60s for introduction to the world in 1969, few in America had much respect for Japanese cars. In this one magic move, however, he transformed dreams into reality for thousands of enthusiastic early adopters. 

Most had never considered owning a vehicle made in the Orient, but the cool-looking 240Z proved that sophisticated engineering and handsome design were possible at minimal cost. Later, a legend was born when a BRE-prepared 240Z won two SCCA national championships in a row—beating the best from Porsche and Triumph.

Some owners still treasure their original investments, which are now climbing rapidly. Even today, a clean 240Z stops traffic with its timeless lines. Those unfamiliar with the car’s history tend to think it’s a contemporary design. 

Fortunately, Katayama’s design team was wise enough to keep the same lines through 1974; they used improved internal engineering and larger engines to make the car even better. When the early Z’s basic lines were changed in ’75, the edge was lost and the car got heavier and less appealing.

Datsun 510: Drive a Datsun, Then Decide

Ask any ex-510 owner today what it was like to own this “rather plain” little sedan, and they’ll almost cry. They now realize their loss and wish they could get their cars back!

For less than its original purchase price of $4000, a 510 could be easily converted to a road rocket with a few choice parts. This elegantly engineered little shoebox was at the fore of the American tuner revolution. 

The 510 was another brilliant “Mr. K” invention: a low-cost sedan that could serve any purpose. Basic econobox transportation was the car’s initial function when it was introduced in late 1968, but by 1971 Trans-Am racers and SCCA weekend warriors had discovered its hidden potential. 

Anyone could take the 510 racing—and win. They just needed to borrow some production parts from the Z-car or Datsun’s proven 1600 and 2000 sports roadsters, then mount a set of wider American Racing mag wheels and some Goodyear tires. The famed BRE Datsun 510s won two 2.5 Trans-Am championships in 1971 and 1972, boasting an impressive record of victories over previously dominant BMWs and Alfas. 

The 510 was produced in such quantities that few people ever thought a used one would be hard to find. Today, however, the supply is rapidly drying up as savvy collectors begin to understand the true value of these cars. Even so, costs are still reasonable compared to others on this list, and the dollar-to-fun ratio is hard to beat. Hurry! 

Honda Civic CRX: Just Point and Shoot

Honda has probably produced more personally satisfying designs than any other car company in the world. It’s easy to take their sheer volume of good design for granted. I could fill a small warehouse with Honda favorites, but no matter how common, I’m always attracted to this astonishingly fine example of bold, efficient design from the mid-1980s. 

Years from now, the CRX will probably be as revered as the ’32 Ford was by early hotrodders. The CRX can become anything its owner desires: an aero-cool cruiser, an autocross killer, or just a perfectly restored design statement of its time. Ten, 20 or even 50 years from now, a pristine CRX will still turn heads.

Mazda Miata: Roadster Is a Road Star

Amazingly, Mazda has cornered the market on modern, small, fun-to-drive sports cars. While the rest of the automotive world searches blindly for a niche market with expensive exotics, Mazda consistently keeps producing one of the best values in the world. 

Now 20 years old and in its third generation, the constantly evolving Miata still hasn’t lost sight of the design team’s original concept and purpose. Each iteration’s engineering has been a marked improvement on the last thanks to constant feedback from the factory’s well-organized competition support group. 

Competition provenance? This car has it. The Spec Miata class is today’s best entry-level racing game. No matter what your experience, talent, or level of preparation, you’ll always find a whole gaggle of racers running as fast as you can go. You’ll laugh yourself silly, it’s so much fun. 

Subaru SVX: What to Drive

Fuji Heavy Industries is reported to have lost about $75 million introducing this amazing Tokyo Show concept car to the world. The svelte coupe featured a Giugiaro-designed body, Subaru’s advanced all-wheel-drive engineering, and a new, silky smooth flat-six. Fuji believed it was worth the investment, and they were right: Every yen spent to upgrade the status of the Subaru name worldwide was well spent. 

But even industrial giants like Fuji can’t afford to lose $3000 per car forever. Eventually this bold “loss leader” program was curtailed, but you can still benefit from their largesse. 

Pick up one of these really rare and wonderful machines—sold from model years 1992 through 1997—and you’ll find worldwide kinship in a bunch of loyal, enthusiastic owners. The SVX’s unique glass-to-glass “window within a window” design created a beautiful greenhouse. Its compound curved side glass is usually only seen on limited-production supercars costing far more. 

Acura NSX: This One Makes a Statement About the People Who Build It

This is one of the finest automobiles to ever emerge from Honda’s engineering department. The quality that has gone into this underappreciated gem is now paying off for those who’ve done their homework and picked one up for a reasonable price. 

The car’s only failing was a soulless perfection that left it without character. Its silky smooth, too-quiet V6 engine never really appealed to performance-minded buyers who could choose any number of raucous, V8-powered American pony cars for thousands less. As a result, the NSX has languished on the secondary market. If you have the chance, don’t miss the opportunity to own one of Honda’s finest.

Honda Insight: It’s an Environmental Movement All by Itself

It won’t be too long before the first-generation Honda Insight will be “discovered” and appreciated for the revolutionary design that it is. Another “loss leader” built to test the emerging environmentally conscious American market, the 2000 Insight was, and still is, literally years ahead of its time. 

As “green” becomes part of our daily lexicon, any cool-looking car that can easily deliver 50 miles per gallon suddenly becomes pretty valuable. The overall design of this aerodynamically astute cruiser is gaining more respect by the day. The time will come when owning an early Insight will be considered super cool. 

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