I’ve been fortunate to have driven a large number of cars over the years (without doing serious harm to myself or others in the process). There are a number of favorites and a handful of dogs, some of which were terrible drivers, others terribly styled, and some afflicted with both bad traits. But there are six I have driven that I believe represent significant milestones in automotive history.
So, without further ado, here are the six in chronological order.
Ford Model T (1908 – 1927)
Driving the Model T is more than a trip back in time. It is like being deposited in an unknown universe where essentially everything you know about driving is irrelevant. The only carry over control operation is steering, throttle is on the steering column (as is spark advance), brakes are the far-right pedal, reverse is the middle pedal, and the high/neutral/low gear selector is the left pedal, the clutch is a left hand lever that also incorporates the parking brake actuator.
The transverse leaf springs and solid axles offer unbelievable ground clearance (and quite a hike up to get in the car). Instrumentation is limited and speeds, fortunately, are limited too. This is a driving experience that every car guy should do at least once. It is just so different than anything you can imagine. High seating, direct steering, fiddly controls (not as bad as contemporary steam cars though), and brakes that are brakes in name only. It is a handful – and can bite the unwary. Just the act of starting the car (with the hand crank) can be dangerous.
And the Model T came along at a time when the SAE had yet to work out standards, and roads were often no more than wagon tracks between farms. The Model T fit its environment perfectly. It was also technically quite advanced. But the important point of the Model T was not so much the car, but rather how it was built.
Henry Ford wanted to build an affordable car that could be purchased and used by farmers. He needed to find an efficient set of production processes to make that possible. Ford had observed the dis-assembly line in use at slaughterhouses in the mid-west and enlisted Frederick Taylor, of Scientific Management fame – an industrial efficiency expert, for the job of building an assembly line in Highland Park. Later that production process was writ large at the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI.
Ford put the country in motion with affordable personal transportation and in the process showed the way forward for mass production (with all its benefits and ills). The Ford Model T is genesis.
Volkswagen Type 1 ‘Beetle’ (1938 – 2003)
This car, brought about through the auspices of a criminal government prior to the start of World War II, was to be the German Model T – an equalizer for the classes. The savings program to purchase the car was a convenient piggy-bank robbed early and often by the National Socialists. The car survived into the post-war era thanks to the ministrations of the British occupation staff.
The basic Volkswagen Type 1 (in its multiple variations) can never be described as brilliant drivers car, but it was reliable, affordable transportation. It helped the West German economy blossom in the 1950s and ’60s. The exports of the Beetle to the US went a long way towards bringing hard currency into West Germany. It was marketed brilliantly in the US and set the stage for further German automotive exports.
I learned to drive a stick on a ’60s era VW Karmann Ghia; the overwhelming memory of that driving experience was the sloppy bushings linking the gearshift to the transmission. It was like rowing a butter churn – you knew there was a gear in there, you just had to stir a bit to find it. If you can learn to shift a VW with worn out shifter bushings you can probably learn to shift anything.
The VW broke no new ground (and the basic layout had been done before), but VW helped fuel the rebirth of West Germany and now VW is at, or very near the top of the heap of automobile manufacturers.
Austin/Morris Mini (1959 – 2000)
Front wheel drive had been done before – the Cord L29, Citroen Traction Avant, some odd-duck US one offs, and even DKW had developed front wheel drive cars prior to World War II. But none were best sellers, and front wheel drive never really gained traction until Leonard Lord told Alec Issigonis to develop a car to outdo the ‘bloody bubble cars’, like the BMW Isetta.
A mere 10 feet long, tiny 10” wheels, and an engine over gearbox drivetrain, mounted transversely, didn’t scream big car, but the interior space in the Mini was unbelievably huge. Four people with room to spare – this was a well thought out car. Overhangs were completely eliminated, the 10” wheels specified to minimize intrusion in the passenger space, and the clever mounting of the gearbox under the crankshaft of the under 1 L engine was brilliant.
And the Mini Cooper and Cooper S variants were true drivers cars. They were a delight – slide behind the wheel prod the throttle and the little car came alive. The handling of the Mini Cooper S was the gold standard for front drivers. A real delight. And this, for all practical purposes, was the genesis of all current front wheel drive cars.
Mazda Miata MX-5 (1989 – present)
It wasn’t quick, it had mediocre brakes, the engine was a cast iron lump – no great power, and yet the car transcended its shortcomings. The brilliant steering feedback and rifle bolt shifter were so engaging – and the road feel transmitted up through the seat of the pants was sublime.
Mazda, of course, didn’t invent the sports car – the original NA MX-5 Miata was inherently a reliable Lotus Elan. But combining reliability (a trait sorely missing from many Loti) with Lotus like nimbleness was a winning combination. The MX-5 Miata is the best selling sports car ever. Forget the BMW Z3/Z4 or Honda S2000 – the pokier, smaller, cheaper Miata was just better.
The Miata has always been a ‘momentum’ car, keep the speed up through corners – its low center of gravity and double wishbone (fore and aft) suspension providing cornering capabilities that were revelatory. Often derided as ‘girls cars’, take a doubter out in one through the twisty bits and they’d either get it or lose their lunch in the process.
The NA Miata was excellent – ’94 saw additional chassis stiffening and a bump in engine capacity. The NB Miata was a complete restyle and a very good chassis also, some thought it a bit less engaging than the NA, but its steering feel was gold class. The NC Miata was not as good as the other two, but, based on preliminary feedback, the ND appears to take the MX-5 back to its brilliant roots.
I owned an NB Miata for a number of years. It wasn’t the most reliable car I’ve owned (believe it or not the BMW 135i has been). But regardless of whatever else I had just finished driving I could get in the Miata and it would put a smile on my face.
Toyota Prius (1997 – present)
Not a drivers car, no way, no how. The most fun I’ve had in a Prius was launching it at a light and watching the face of the Cavalier driver as it scooted through the intersection a couple of car lengths ahead. Cornering?, no thanks. It is just another driving appliance. The Prius was not built to be a drivers car – it was built to be like Toyota’s Camrys and Corollas.
That Toyota was able to take what was at the time a very radical drivetrain and braking system and smooth all the rough edges off it was a masterpiece of engineering. The Prius ushered in the age of massive amounts of drivetrain software. It’s the software that seamlessly runs an electric motor, an IC engine, regenerative braking and friction brakes – while also managing the energy available to the drive wheels and NiMH battery pack.
The driving experience is, as mentioned before, not that different from driving any other high volume Toyota, but the sheer amount of bit-twiddling that takes place to make the Prius function like any other Toyota is amazing.
BMW i3 (2013 – present)
The i3 was a revelation – engaging from the moment drive is selected. The one pedal operation novel but surprisingly intuitive. Here was a driver’s electric runabout – four place, city car, high seating for good sightlines, decent range and yet peppy.
The i3 is important because of that seeming contradiction – decent range and peppy performance. Range and performance are the inverse of each other in electric vehicles. You can trade range for performance, or performance for range. The only way to have both is to seriously reduce weight.
BMW found, through much experimentation, how to mass produce carbon fibre reinforced plastic panels and how to ‘weld’ them into a space frame in a timely fashion. The problem with using CFRP for mass production had been the lengthy and energy intensive processes required to form the parts. By tailoring each individual component of the process (cloth, resin, layup, pressing, bonding) BMW has mastered the art of mass producing CFRP in timeframes that are similar to those needed to build a conventional car.
BMW appears to be at least five years ahead of any other manufacturer in the build-out of CFRP cars. It is amazing to think that BMW stole the march on CFRP from its larger rivals. And the reason it is included in this list are those pioneering CFRP production processes employed to make the i3.
- Lotus 7, a prefect minimalist sports car purely telepathic driving
- Citroen DS19* & Traction Avant* – France has to be represented here and these were spectacular cars – anyone have one they’ll let me drive?
- Cord 810/812* – gorgeous pre-war car, I want to drive it not for its interesting front wheel drive layout but for its pre-selector gearbox
- Saab 99 EMS, a wonderfully quirky Swedish jewel – mega space and decent sportiness
- Datsun 240Z, smooth inline 6 (shamelessly cobbed from Mercedes-Benz) and beautiful styling (shamelessly cobbed from the Ferrari Daytona) a poor man’s exotic
- Chevrolet C6 Corvette, a bargain-priced supercar with interesting engineering
- Porsche Cayman, a masterpiece of a mid-engined sports car that is (relatively) affordable
- BMW 2002 & 3.0 CS*, the 2002 made BMW’s bones in the US, the 3.0 CS was the epitome of a Grand Touring car, timeless styling
- Jaguar E-Type*, gorgeous – drop dead variety beautiful, wonderful inline six that sounds awesome at full chat
- Lancia Aurelia B20*, brilliant little car with extremely interesting technology, still looking for one to drive
- NSU Ro80*, ahead of its time (and ahead of the learning curve for Wankel engines), the shape of things to come two decades before
- Ford Mustang, the genesis of the Baby Boomers’ abiding affair with cars
- BMW E39 M5, a revelation of how good a mid-sized sedan could be, a drive of the E39 M5 re-awoke my passion for BMW
- Honda Civic CVCC, genesis for environmentally friendly automotive technology
* Cars that I have yet to drive