Ten cars that changed the world

By David Linklater

The Beetle, the Model T Ford and the Mini - helped change the driving world.
The Beetle, the Model T Ford and the Mini - helped change the driving world.

True innovation is rare in the automotive world. But when it happens it's wonderful, creating cars that industry types and enthusiasts alike talk about for decades.

So let's celebrate 10 great cars that broke new ground, set a template for the future or simply inspired the rest of the industry to greater heights. Without them, the modern automotive world would be a much poorer place.

1. FORD MODEL T (1908)
The Model T was groundbreaking not so much for what kind of machine it was but how it was built. Until the Model T, cars were painstakingly made by hand and extremely expensive. Ford applied assembly-line theory to car production and made a vehicle that was reliable and relatively affordable.

When production began, it took 12 hours to make a single Model T. By 1914 this had improved to 90 minutes. In 1927, the last year of Model T production, the company was making a car every 24 seconds.

Virtually every modern car owes a debt to the Model T.

Swish! Hard to believe the Chrysler Airflow dates from 1934. It was the first production car to be designed in a wind tunnel using scale models and embraced a host of other now-common features: monocoque construction and the passenger compartment was moved as far forward as possible to make weight distribution close to 50/50.

The Airflow was innovative but it was not immediately influential. It was a sales disaster -- a combination of quality problems (the all-steel body was a new concept and hard to manufacture) and the radical look, which was so far out of step with (or so far beyond) contemporary styling that many thought it was ugly and potentially unsafe. Both untrue.

The Airflow was awesome but too far ahead of its time.

There's a lot to hate about the Beetle: it was commissioned by Hitler, it became a new-age icon in the 1960s despite being an emissions disaster area and it was always dreadful to drive.

But Beetle was a landmark machine, and not just because it lasted so long (until 2003).

It was a true people's car and designed to provide bulletproof transport -- able to run flat-out for long periods on Germany's then-new Autobahn network.

Designer Ferdinand Porsche is thought to have been heavily influenced by Czechoslovakian brand Tatra, which produced rear-engined cars of a similar shape and layout in the 1930s. Tatra even tried to sue Volkswagen over the Beetle; Hitler resolved the issue by invading Czechoslovakia.

4. MINI (1959)
Mini was far from the first front-drive production model: other famous cars that were pulled rather than pushed included the American Cord L-29 in 1930 and the legendary Citroen Traction Avant of 1934.

But Mini designer Alec Issigonis was the first to see the packaging potential in this layout. By turning the engine around to face east-west, around 80 per cent of the Mini's floorpan could be devoted to passenger space. This tiny car provided relatively spacious accommodation front and rear.

This same layout is used in virtually all modern front-drive cars, for much the same reason.

The Miura is so often referenced for its gorgeous styling, it's easy to forget it was also a landmark model in setting the template for the modern supercar. The low centre of gravity and mid-engined layout showed the way for virtually every serious super-sports car that followed.

Lamborghini did not even have a body to put on the car when it was shown at the 1965 Turin Motor Show; the rolling chassis was displayed and generated a huge response. Bertone styled the fashion-forward sheet metal in time for the same show in 1966.

The Miura has a notable Kiwi connection: as chief test driver, Bob Wallace was a key contributor to the development of the car's chassis.

The first-generation Honda Civic showed the world that the Japanese industry could compete in engineering and quality standards.

The American-market CVCC model of 1975 was particularly important in showing that Japan could also lead the way in creating innovative technical solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. The Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion engine was a stratified-injection powerplant that met stringent new American clean-air legislation without the need for a catalytic convertor -- the solution adopted by the rest of the industry.

Lack of a cat meant that the Civic CVCC could continue to run on leaded fuel when unleaded was not universally available. The CVCC represented the kind of clean-sheet thinking and environmental pragmatism that became typical of the Japanese industry.

You could consider it a forerunner to the likes of Toyota's Prius and Mazda's more recent SkyActiv technology.

7. AUDI A8 (1994)

This was Audi's first real foray into the world of the super-luxury sedan. But the 1994 first-generation model will be better remembered as the first mass-produced car to be constructed entirely from aluminium.

The all-alloy structure was the focal point of the car from the start: it was dubbed the Audi Space Frame (ASF). This, and aluminium body panels, enabled Audi to reduce the weight of the A8 by more than 200kg -- although it was not a light car thanks to its quattro four-wheel drive system and extensive luxury equipment.

8. TOYOTA PRIUS (1997)

Prius was the world's first series-production petrol-electric hybrid car. The first-generation model may have looked hideous and sold only in Japan, but Toyota's technology soon spread globally and the Prius model range has been hugely influential over the past 17 years.

Mercedes-Benz threw away the rulebook with the first-generation A-class. By using double-floor construction and a bespoke engine range that was angled to slide underneath the cabin in a crash, it proved that you could make a tiny car as safe as an E-class and as spacious inside. In fact, the later long-wheelbase version had more rear leg room than the S-class.

The A-class was a sales success despite serious problems: the first version famously failed an "elk test" lane-change manoeuvre in 1997 and Mercedes eventually recalled every car for modifications.

10. NISSAN LEAF (2010)
The Nissan Leaf (the name stands for Leading Environmentally friendly Affordable Family car) is not the world's first production electric vehicle (EV), but in years to come it will be the one that is remembered as bringing EVs into the mainstream. With global sales of more than 100,000 since 2010, it's the biggest-selling EV of all time.

Although it is accepted that EV growth has not lived up to initial projections, the fact remains that Leaf has sold twice as well in its first four years on the market as the Toyota Prius did in 1997-2001.

Nissan NZ slashed the price to $39,990 this month. Good news if you are thinking of buying one; not so good if you have just bought one. But at least we can take the "A" a bit more seriously now.

• Think we've missed a car out? Let us know at facebook.com/DrivenNZ or on Twitter @DrivenNZ

- NZ Herald

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