As the original Fiat 500 celebrates its 60th anniversary, we take a look back at the cars that took the automobile from expensive curiosity, well and truly into the mainstream. Some cars have been more innovative, some more popular and many have been better looking, but when it comes to bringing mobility to the people and to cementing the automobile’s place in our shared cultural history, the cars that follow are in a league of their own.
Ford Model T – 1908
The car itself may have been comfortably into its second decade of existence, but the Ford Model T is the vehicle that kick-started the automotive revolution. The first car was built on an automated assembly line to continually save costs, which were then passed onto potential byuers through smaller and smaller price tags. In production for 19 years, the car was built around the world and became owned by over half of all American drivers. By the time it was replaced by the Model A, Ford had built 14.68 million.
Austin 7 1922
The Cadillac Type 53 (1916) may have been the first car to hit upon the idea of a three-pedal box and gear lever, but the Austin Seven is the car that made the clutch, brake, accelerator pedal and handbrake positions the global standard. And that’s because even though it didn’t sell in particularly huge quantities, the design was licensed and replicated around the world. It also set the template for compact car packaging (it was just 1.9 meters long and 1.06 meters wide) that would persist until the Mini (also built by Austin) came along in 1959.
Volkswagen Beetle 1938
The Beetle was to Europe what the Ford Model T was to the US. An affordable, practical car for the masses. It was so good that even its connections with Hitler couldn’t stop it from being a hit. Its rear-mounted air-cooled engine layout would inspire the Fiat 500 and of course, provide the foundation on which the equally iconic Porsche 911 would be built. The car was built around the world and stayed in production until 2003 when example number 21,529,464 rolled off the production line in Mexico.
Citroen 2CV 1948
The story behind this car is almost as well known as the car itself. Designed specifically to meet the needs of rural France, the Citroen 2CV had to offer enough headroom so that it could be driven while wearing a hat. It had to accommodate a medium-sized farm animal in the rear and had to be able to offer a ride smooth enough as to not break a single egg, even when negotiating a freshly ploughed field. It also had to be simple enough to run so that it could be maintained with the typical tools found on a farmyard. The result was a French automotive icon that stayed in production with minor changes until 1990 and solidified Citroen‘s reputation as the world’s most innovative company when it comes to suspension systems.
Fiat 500 1957
Essentially the world’s first city car, the original Fiat 500 was built to compete with motorcycles and scooters and so had to be priced accordingly. Yet it was equal parts ingenious and affordable. Sticking a tiny air-cooled engine in the trunk meant that the car could actually seat four even though it was just 2.97 meters from nose to tail. That little 479cc two-cylinder engine was also extremely reliable because it was extremely simple and extremely familiar to many of its owners who were upgrading from two to four wheels.
It can’t claim to be the world’s first city car, nor the first with front-wheel drive. But it was the first car to feature a transversely mounted engine to save space and to come with the gearbox mounted under the engine. The Mini could carry four passengers plus luggage and was incredibly fun to drive. It was the final nail in the UK’s motorcycle industry which, until that point had been the world’s best, and was one of the first “classless” cars, just as likely to be driven by movie stars and singers as by people working on the factory floor.
Ford Mustang 1964
No list of cars that brought mobility to the masses would be complete without the original Ford Mustang. The first car to be marketed directly to teenagers as much as their parents, this car was so sensational upon its launch that Ford sold over a million within 18 months. No car has ever come close to bettering that record, even one available in more than one country.