Fifty years on - cars that survived the hard road

Driven selects its favourite cars from 50 years ago.

Alfa_Romeo_giulia_tz2_1965 NZH 02Sep10 - CHIC ITALIAN: Giulia from 1965.
Alfa_Romeo_giulia_tz2_1965 NZH 02Sep10 - CHIC ITALIAN: Giulia from 1965.

Peter Snell breaks the world record for the mile and 800m; two members of the Soviet Legation in Wellington are expelled for spying; folk hero-criminal George Wilder makes the first of his three breaks from prison; and the speed limit is raised to 55mph (just over 88km/h).

They were interesting times 50 years ago. And for cars.

Back in 1962 the auto industry introduced some classics that live on in hearts as well as on roads: Ford's Cortina, the Lotus Elan, MG-B, Renault 8 and the Triumph Spitfire.

There were others, too, such as Studebaker's stunning Avanti, the svelte Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan, Daimler's mean SP250 fibreglass-bodied sports car, the Chevy II, the Pontiac Grand Prix and Simca's rear-engined 1200S.

Here's a 10-gun salute to some of Driven's favourite blasts from that past. It's in alphabetical order; there's no way we'd be brave enough to rank them.

Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan

Light and lithe, the Guilia shook up the staid world of sedans with performance and handling better than many sports cars of its era. True, the car was boxy and nowhere near as drop-dead gorgeous as the Spider and Sprint Speciale versions, but it had something compelling and enduring about its looks. And its drag co-efficient was said to be lower than the original Porsche 911. The sedan was built until 1978.

Chevrolet Chevy II and Nova

The "little" Chevy was one of the most enduring of America's take on the compact car, and it served a wide range of masters from police departments, to pensioners, stay-at-home mums, performance car and drag-strip enthusiasts. It really was the little Chevy that could - and did.

Nitpickers will point out the car was unveiled in 1961, but it was for the '62 model year with four- and six-cylinder engine options, and later a V8. Nova was originally the top model, but took over as the vehicle's name in 1969.

It lasted until 1980. RIP.

Facel Vega Facel II

Sacre bleu, what a gorgeous car. The Paris-based maker of luxury performance cars was almost broke when, in a last grasp at survival, it produced what it billed as the world's fastest four-seat coupe, powered by a 6.3 litre Chrysler V8. In a straight line it could whip contemporaries such as the Aston DB4, Mercedes 300SL and Ferrari 250GT. But the car was large, heavy and not particularly good on corners. It was also hugely expensive. So many of the 180 built went to the rich and famous. They are collectors' items.

Ford Cortina
Fact: Every New Zealander born before 1985 has owned, driven, or ridden in a Ford Cortina. Actually, Driven made that up, but wouldn't be surprised if it were true. Launched in 1962, the British Ford became the Commonwealth's family car and did well in other parts of the world, too. Beyond family and fleet duties, it was hugely successful in motorsport, particularly the exciting but troublesome Lotus Cortinas. It enjoyed a 20-year production run.

Jeep Gladiator

Full-sized Jeep utes were once popular in Australia and to a lesser extent in New Zealand.

Annabel Langbein drove a yellow one in her Free Range Cook TV series a couple of years ago.

It all started in 1962, when Willys owned the company, and lasted until 1988 - with relatively few changes over the years. The Gladiator was available in several wheelbases, 4WD or rear-drive, manual or auto and, over the years, with engines up to a 6.6 litre V8.

Tough, uncomplicated and dependable, Gladiators were used from the Arctic to the jungles of South America. Not even the Peace Corps got to such remote places.

Lotus Elan

Brittle, always breaking down ... but utterly captivating, you could either buy an Elan from a dealer or order a kit and assemble it yourself.

First to be built around the Lotus signature steel-backbone sub-frame, the fibreglass-bodied Elan's handling was outstanding, its performance from the Ford-based 1.6 litre engine invigorating. The basic convertible design was joined by a fixed-head, and later a two-plus-two. More than 17,000 were built before production ended 13 years later. Were it not for the commercial success of the Elan, Lotus would almost certainly have been no more than a footnote in automotive history.

MGB

The Elan may have been exciting, but the MGB was ubiquitous - and quite a thrill in its own way, back in the early 1960s.

The 1.8 litre 'B took over from the successful MGA, introducing more creature comforts and a slightly better ride, handling and performance, although now, as back in the day, advocates of the MGA will argue the point.

The roadster was joined in 1965 by a gorgeous coupe, the MGB GT.

From 1967 it branched out to be fitted with a straight six as the MGC and, in 1973, the Rover V8 (the MGB GT V8).

Sadly, the MGB got worse as it got older, due to emissions and safety requirements, and the corporate woes of British Leyland.

Studebaker Avanti

Regarded by some as one of the most gracious of American cars, the Studebaker "personal luxury coupe" was made until the company failed, less than two years later. Fortunately, two dealers bought rights to the design and put it back into production. It lasted, under a succession of owners and with progressive improvements, until 2006. A feature was a fibreglass body made by the same company that, a year later, did the panels for the early Corvette. Despite early problems with the body, the Avanti received many accolades, not just as a car but as a significant milestone in American industry.

Triumph Spitfire

MGB, Elan AND Spitfire ... the Poms were on a roll 50 years ago. The Triumph was based on the Herald saloon, had modest performance and dodgy handling, thanks to the rear suspension in the original model. Nevertheless, it was a huge success and did well in club racing. The Italian Michelotti studio penned its smooth lines. More and better features than the rival MG Midget/Austin Healey Sprite just added to its appeal. Gradually improved, the Spitfire lasted until 1980 and, along the way, spawned the six-cylinder GT6 coupe.

Wolseley 24/80

There's nothing particularly outstanding about this car and it was built only until 1965, but it represents the dying days of the big, stately British saloon, whose general lines dated back to the 1930s. The twist, of course, is that it wasn't built in Britain, but Australia.

The big, heavy car had a 2.4 litre straight six of 80hp (hence the designation) known as the Blue Streak. This was coupled to a "three on the tree" gearbox modified from the one in Nash's Metropolitan. It was the last Wolseley sold in Australia and, with hindsight, we can add, "just as well".

- NZ Herald

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