As new cars come out every year, it’s easy to forget that many models went into production before we were even born. We chart the history of five of the most iconic cars that are still being produced today, with a glimpse of what they look like then and now.
The first Fiat 500 was released in 1957 and was known as the “Cinquecento” (Italian for five-hundred). This pocket-sized vehicle was the original “city car”. It was small enough to negotiate ancient streets and park in the tiniest of spots. The first model started life as a 9-foot long two-seater, with rear-hinged “suicide doors” and a canvas fold-back roof. In the late 1950s the fabric roof was replaced with an all-metal fixed roof. It also had better fuel economy. Fiat also added of-the-era upgrades like ashtrays and a widescreen-washer pump.
Sadly, Fiat stopped production in 1975, but later realised that old was the new… new! In 2007 the Fiat 500 was back. It's now available in full metal or with a fold-back leather roof reminiscent of the original. Today’s edition is still considered a small city car, but it panders more to the market that wants fun, customisable fashion cars.
The British Motor Company (BMC) produced the first Mini in 1961 and it is still one of the best selling cars in British history. The original Mini was the first vehicle to come with front-wheel drive. It became well-known for its tiny body, funky colours and customisable interiors. The Mini was also immensely successful in world rallies during the 1960s. It dominated the infamous Monte Carlo rally for four years straight and still claims to be one of the best rally cars in the world. It also became the getaway car of choice for 1969 British film, The Italian Job, which further secured the Mini’s place in Britain’s hearts.
Although the Mini has been well-loved by the public, it has had a turbulent upbringing. The Mini was created by BMC, but later became its own brand in the Austin Mini. By the 90s it was purchased by The Rover Group, but this was subsequently bought out by BMW in 1994. BMW later sold the Rover Group in 2000, but chose to keep the rights to the Mini name. In 2001 BMW launched its own take on the Mini. BMW kept the theme of customisable colourways, but the car is almost twice as big. They later released the Clubman, a nod to the earlier estate, and the Mini Cooper, a nod to John Cooper, who tuned the original Mini for rally racing. John’s son has since founded John Cooper Works and they now tune parts for the BMW Mini Cooper of today.
The Land Rover was originally produced by the Rover Company 1948, sold as a pick-up truck for a whopping £450. They added the Land Rover Station Wagon later that year, but prices were extortionate and only 641 were built. By 1949 The British Army began trialling orders, so too did the Royal family. By the 1960s, 500,000 Land Rovers had been produced. Land Rover began swapping army-surplus colours for greater safety features to increase demand from the general public. The change worked, and by the early 70s they had sold over a million units. Then, the iconic Land Rover Defender was released in the 1990s, which became the vehicle of choice for farming and recreational off-roading.
In 2016, Land Rover ceased production due to the vehicle not meeting European laws on fuel emissions. To the relief of many fans, Land Rover have since announced that the Defender will return for 2020. The new Defender is a far cry from its near 70-year-old predecessor, but it still echoes the function and boxy form of the original Series 1. Today, it is still the go-to car for the British Army, the Royal family, farmers and 4x4 off-road enthusiasts.
Known for its bubbly bug-like appearance, the VW Beetle made its first appearance in 1938 with its air-cooled rear engine and rear wheel drive. Lesser known to the public is that this was originally commissioned by Adolf Hitler and designed by the founder of Porsche to be the “people’s car” (or Volks Wagen, in German) due to it being affordable and reliable. The Mk 1 is very typical of its era, but the second 1960s design is arguably the most famous, thanks to films like “the Love Bug” which literally brought the car to life with “Herbie” and cemented the car with 60s iconic status.
In 1998, VW revamped the car with a curvy flashback to the 60s favourite, complete with typical pastel colourways, curves and a flower holder on every dash board. Sadly, Volkswagen announced that the Beetle will no longer be produced after 2019, but they’re sending it off with two celebratory specials named “the Final Edition”, both being convertibles. Today’s modern “bug” comes with all the gadgetry the 60s Bug-lovers wouldn’t have even dreamed about; including blind-spot monitoring, parking sensors, and Rear Traffic Alert.
The new ‘people’s car’ made its debut in 1974, coming in at a time when the little hatchback was just coming into demand. The little VW has managed to outlive the competitors of its day: the Austin Allegro and the Vauxhall Viva. Unlike the Beetle, the Golf featured a water-cooled engine and was front-wheel drive. The new looks and sporty feel sold over one million cars in the first two years, (compared to the Bug which took a decade to sell that many), so the “cabriolet” convertible and the higher-performing GTI were introduced.
Through the years the Golf continued to keep up with popular trends. In the 90s, safety was paramount to buyers, and the 1992 Golf was one of the first models to get front airbags and anti-lock braking system (ABS). Later, the Golf Estate was added for families, and VW's marketing focused on the Golf’s reliability. Today, the Golf Mk7 still offers the practical estate, as well as the high-performing “hot hatch”, the Golf R32, complete with all-wheel drive. The focus these days is more on reducing weight and improving fuel consumption, but the marketing has a quiet confidence that is very fitting of a 40yr-old leader; anything else is just not a Golf.