Photos courtesy of manufacturers and by Brendan McAleer
When you shake things up, sometimes the consequences can be unintended. For most of the cars on this list, the future is bright, but some faded into obscurity and still others – while classic and collectible – withered on the vine.
Here’s a look at some of the best automotive gamechangers – how many are still playing the game?
1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen
While there were other contraptions that could claim to be the first car, Karl Benz’s invention was the first automobile in that it was designed from the ground up to be powered by an engine. The three-wheeled motorwagen boasted tiller steering, wagon-style wheels, and a single-cylinder four-stroke engine that produced anywhere from two-thirds of a horsepower to nine-tenths of a horsepower. The burnout was clearly yet to be invented.
Benz’s wife Bertha is often overlooked in the story of the automobile, but she was the first to travel any distance in her husband’s invention (which her money had backed), as well as coming up with brake linings and fuel stops along the way. The automobile was here, and the first road trip had happened almost immediately.
We’ve come a long way, Bertha. Geez, make that Big Bertha: the Mercedes-Maybach super-limo isn’t just partially named after a Zeppelin engine manufacturer, it’s the size of a dirigible too.
From that original, single-cylinder vehicle to a massive opulent palace on wheels, Mercedes continues to be at the highest echelons of what’s available in an automobile. Nowadays, though, you can get somebody to drive for you.
Ford Model T
Well, obviously. Ford’s Tin Lizzie put the world on wheels, and championed mass-manufacturing, inspiring a whole new industrial age. There’s also the argument to be made that the Ford company’s wage structure helped establish the middle classes.
Leaving the socioeconomic repercussions aside, the Model T changed the way people thought about mobility. Millions of them were produced, and while they are slow and tricky to drive by modern standards, it’s not really that difficult to take one out on the road today. If people once dreamed about owning a car, the Model T was the first step towards making that dream a reality.
Ford Escape Titanium
It’s tempting to throw the Ford GT in here as an example of just how far Henry Ford’s company has come, but let’s instead show off a machine that embodies more of the Tin Lizzy’s ideals. The Ford Escape is a compact crossover that’s right-sized for most Canadian families and does the job of getting people around; it fills needs.
But let’s talk about wants, because the average family vehicle has come a long way since the single-door days of the Model T. These days, a blue-oval people-mover offers you satellite navigation, an automatic power-opening rear hatch, heated seats, a punchy turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive, and even a torque-vectoring front differential.
Willys MB “Jeep”
While the Wrangler Rubicon you can buy today is a luxury ride compared to the buckboard feel of its original ancestor, that go-anywhere, do-anything spirit is still there. Originally developed to replace the US Army’s ageing fleet of light vehicles (including not a few Model Ts), prototype vehicles came from Ford, Willys Overland, and the American Bantam Car Company. It was a bit of a mess at first, with all three building their own idea of what a general-purpose vehicle should be, but Willys would eventually emerge triumphant, thanks in no small part to their strong engine.
Dubbed the “Jeep” after the GP designation the early Ford models used, the scrappy little Willys became a symbol of the Allied Forces, and soon spread to all corners of the globe. When the war ended they became, and remain, probably the ultimate dual-purpose off-road machine.
Oh dear – a cute ute. Still, even if the Jeep brand needs to fill a bigger role these days than just sticking it to the Wehrmacht, some things remain pretty constant.
Even if it’s built in partnership with Fiat, the Jeep Renegade still comes with some signature Jeep features – that grille, for instance – and is also crammed with little Willys Jeep “Easter Eggs” all over the place. It’s also decent off-road in the Trailhawk package, still capable of getting most places a Jeep should.
Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle
Meanwhile, in post-war Europe, a decimated population needed transportation: transportation that was cheap, efficient, and durable. Happily, there was just such a car on hand, the small and cheerful Volkswagen Beetle. Conceived by Hitler as a people’s car for his imaginary Third Reich, somehow the factory and the prototype cars survived the war.
Even if it was the brainchild of a madman, the Beetle transcended its shadowy origins to become one of the best-loved automobiles ever. Its cheery, air-cooled flatulence was heard everywhere, particularly in Mexico, where it was built right up until 2003.
Volkswagen Beetle Cabrio
If the original was a cheap, cheerful, and innovative machine, the current Beetle is more a marketing gimmick than anything else. It looks at least similar to the original Volkswagen, but is, in reality, just a Golf underneath.
What’s more, it’s a previous-generation Golf, and that means this Beetle’s an endangered species. VW keeps mentioning plans to kill off all two-door compact cars, meaning the Beetle is likely bound for the crusher.
If the Beetle changed the game for what a people’s car could be, then the BMC Mini showed us what it was going to be. Compact, yet spacious, with a front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout, it was the forerunner of the modern runabout.
It also beat up on plenty of larger vehicles with a combination of nimble handling and excellent front-wheel-drive grip. The Cooper versions were particularly successful at rallying, dashing through the snow like an eager Corgi puppy.
Forget the Countryman. Forget the even-more-silly Paceman. Despite BMW’s attempts to turn the Mini ethos into the all-caps MINI brand, the original Cooper is still a pretty good car.
In fact, it might be the most-fun BMW you can buy, despite the pint-sized three-cylinder turbocharged engine. Steering and handling are light and lively, and the interior cabin space is more useful than you’d think. Reliability isn’t quite there – but hey, that’s authentically British too.
In all likelihood, Ferrucio Lamborghini would have hated to drive his company’s most famous creation. The Miura was low, uncomfortable, and extremely dangerous: all things that Lamborghini had complained about to Enzo Ferrari, spurring a feud that would see the rampant bull become its own company.
However, the Miura is almost certainly the most beautiful car ever made, and probably the first proper supercar. The formula is strong stuff: mid-engine V12, two seats, insanely low roof height. The whole catching-on-fire ethos seems to be something that both Ferrari and Lamborghini are still occasionally building into their cars.
Lamborghini Aventador SV
Somewhere along the way, Lamborghini exchanged beautiful for shocking. Actually, you can pinpoint the moment: right when the sheets came off the first LP400 and Nuccio Bertone shouted “Countach!”
The Lamborghini Aventador SV has blistering pace to go with its outlandish looks, and is both a genuine menace and a bit more fun than some of Ferrari’s offerings. Even so, there is the slight wish that Lamborghini might look back to their roots and put together a design that’s more curvaceous than blade-edged rocketship.
However, hardly anybody could afford a car like the Miura, and the same is true today. But fret not, if you were a well-to-do businessman in the 1960s that wanted a sports car but needed to still carry a kid or two from time-to-time, Porsche had you covered.
The 911 provided deft (if quirky) handling, strong and durable flat-six power, and 2+2 seating. You could commute to work, drop the kids off at school, or blitz around a racetrack and take the podium. While it grows ever more complicated in an attempt to refine the experience, the original concept remains the same: it is the everyday sports car.
Porsche Carrera S
Incremental change is the 911 catchphrase, the honing of an original ideal over and over again until it’s better: more efficient, faster, easier to drive. Somewhere in the 1970s, turbocharged power became the best way to get 911s to go quickly (in a straight line anyway). Now, the Porsche turbo era has fully arrived.
Starting with the just-announced facelifted version of the 991-chassis Porsche 911, all Carreras will be turbocharged. The base engine is a 367-hp twin-turbo 3.0L flat-six, the S models get 414-hp version, and then of course there are the full Turbo and Turbo S at the top end. Expect the GT3 to remain the last unboosted 911.
It’s a simple recipe: take a big engine and stuff it into a smaller car. Not particularly complicated engineering really, apart from the gargantuan shoehorn required, but it almost always pays dividends.
In the case of the Pontiac GTO, the result was, if not the very first muscle car, then at least the machine that started the whole ground-pounding horsepower wars of the 1960s. The story of how it all got started is classic car guy vs bean-counters stuff, with Pontiac’s performance-oriented crew sneaking the 6.4L V8 out of the bigger Catalina into the engine bay of the mid-sized Tempest past the bosses noses (no larger than a 5.4L engine was officially allowed).
The Cadillac ATS isn’t so much the descendant of the GTO as where the trail goes cold. Take a good look at the underpinnings of GM’s Alpha platform, and you just know a V8 would fit. Instead, they’ve moved things upmarket and put in a twin-turbo V6.
That’s no bad thing for Cadillac’s brand, but it is a bit sad that the best-Pontiac-ever never really happened. Imagine a 400+ hp, rear-drive compact American sport sedan, a budget-priced counterthrust to the M3 and C63 with cloth Recaros and either an eight-speed paddle-shifted automatic or genuine manual. It’d have been a Corvette for the family-man.
Not unlike the 911, the Ford Mustang is America’s idea of the everyday sports car. However, it started off as a fun little ride for the youth market, debuting the pony car segment.
The original 2+2 would see Shelby racing versions, high-horsepower dragstrip specials, and other hoonery, but you can still buy one today with an efficient V6 that’s still plenty of fun to drive without breaking the bank. The new upcoming Ecoboost version looks like it could change the game all over again.
Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
Currently Ford’s high horse is the GT350, any mention of which must legally include the phrase “flat-plane crank.” Basically, this thing’s got muscle-car displacement with an engine design more commonly seen in Ferraris.
Geez, that’s really got to tick off Enzo. Expect the GT350 (and its racing version, the GT350R) to start showing up at racetracks soon, proving that the Mustang still knows how to run.
Probably the least-successful car on this list, the AMC Eagle was nonetheless a harbinger of a coming trend. Combining four-wheel-drive, station wagon space, and car-like ride and handling, it was the original crossover vehicle.
In fact, the Eagle was so ahead of its time, it was the only car to use full-time four-wheel-drive. You have to wonder if it isn’t going to become collectible one of these days.
Well, the Eagle has landed, died, and been buried. In fact, the entirety of AMC is long gone, the only memory some reflection in the current Jeep brand. But as for the vehicles that the AMC Eagle foretold…
The Subaru Outback‘s lifted wagon shape is pure 1970s throwback, but it works even better in 2015. Off-road prowess is good enough for most folks, the cargo space is great, and it handles and drives like a car. Looks like the Eagle was just ahead of its time.
While the Japanese car industry is now highly regarded, in its early days it was known for small, cheap, semi-disposable cars. The Toyota 2000GT changed that perception a little, appearing on-screen with James Bond in glamourous white, but it was very rare, and little known.
However, in 1970, here came the Datsun 240Z to prove that the Japanese could make a properly desirable car. With a powerful straight-six engine and European styling, the Z was an instant classic. It still is – watch for values to rise on these.
Chalk this one up to a dying breed. While the new, cheaper 370Z Nissan Canada recently made available is closer to the original everyman concept of the 240Z, it’s still a much heavier and more complicated machine than it needs to be. Something like a BRZ with a 1.6L turbo would be a more faithful tribute.
However, the rumour mill is that a compact crossover might be next to wear the Z badge. Given how sprightly the Juke is to drive, a new machine would surely be sporty and fun. But worthy of the iconic Z badge? No way.
Saab 99 Turbo
General Motors was first to the punch with turbocharged technology, but they whiffed it with the slightly slow Oldsmobile Jetfire and complex Corvair Monza. Instead, decades later, a car company that shared bloodlines with a manufacturer of fighter jets would bring the boost in a big way.
Their first turbocharged car was the Saab 99 turbo, and while Porsche and BMW would have early turbo models as well, the 99 was far more accessible and drivable than those early tail-happy hooligans. With turbos showing up in everything from scrappy hatchbacks to the pickup trucks, this Saab was at the head of a forced-induction revolution.
Saab 9-3 NEVS
Saab is another company that never recovered from its GM ownership, although you could also lay the blame at Subaru’s feet as Fuji Heavy Industries simply outcompeted the Swedes. Saab’s turbos have spooled their last.
However, in a quirky, Frankenstein’s monster rise from the grave, an electrified Saab seems like it might happen. National Electric Vehicle of Sweden plans to produce an all-electric version of the 9-3; while it’s unlikely to hit our shores any time soon, green-conscious Scandinavia might make perfect sense for such a car.
When the rules of rally-racing changed to allow four-wheel-drive vehicles to participate, Audi was first to respond. Their car, sometimes known as the Ur-Quattro (Ur for first or original), simply dominated right out of the gate, beating up on the competition with turbocharged power and excellent traction.
Other manufacturers were quick to respond, but Audi enjoyed two full years at the top thanks to their technological leap. Even today “Quattro” is still proudly emblazoned on the best and fastest machines they make.
Quattro’s been such a big hit for the Audi range that you can’t walk four feet into a showroom without being assaulted by pamphlets telling you how great all-wheel drive is. It’s not just for bad weather either – Quattro is an excellent performance boon for tackling a twisty road.
Enter the Audi RS3, bound for Canadian markets sometime soon. This 367-hp high-performance compact sedan has all the turbocharged nuttery of the original Ur-Quattro, plus a healthy topping of luxurious niceties. You can still hit the gravel if you want, but now Quattro’s even better for the urban commute.
There’s not much glamour to be had with a minivan, but Dodge’s Caravan defined a generation in the same way that the giant station wagons of the 1960s did. Built on the bones of Chrysler’s K platform, they were the first minivans.
Everybody’s been in a Caravan at least once, whether as a kid carpooling to soccer practice, or just borrowing one to move. In many ways, they’re even more useful than a pickup truck, and while they’re not much in the eye candy department, for many families, they’re the dependable workhorse.
Dodge Caravan Canadian Value Package
Still the workhorse of choice for Canadian families, the Dodge Grand Caravan absolutely crushes every other minivan in sales volume. It’s cheap, it’s functional, and it gets the job done better than any crossover.
However, it’s also deeply uncool, and that means Chrysler is going to put all its minivan eggs in one Town and Country branded basket. Still, even if the minivan market is shrinking, you still can’t deny that sometimes sliding doors are best.
BMW 3 Series
The sport sedan was invented by the Italians, but it was perfected by BMW. In particular, the E30 of the 1980s enjoys a cult following even today, with prices for a clean example beggaring belief.
Why? Well, the 3 Series does pretty much everything you need it to in terms of family practicality, but it also goes like stink when you want it to. When initially introduced, it doubled BMWs sales nearly instantly, and has been the backbone of the brand ever since.
Having a target painted on your back for thirty-odd years keeps you nimble. The 3 Series is much bigger than it used to be, but it still performs extremely well, and never more so than when there’s an M-badge on the trunk.
The BMW M3 (coupe versions are now called the M4) is the ultimate 3 Series, and presents a mix of old-school favourites and new-school techno. It’s a straight-six again, but a turbocharged one. You can still get a manual, but the seven-speed dual-clutch is faster. At least it’s still rear-wheel drive, and a willing go-fast partner on a backroad.
It came seemingly out of nowhere, snapping Ferrari out of complacency and putting the world on notice. The mid-engined Acura NSX looked heart-stopping and drove like a dream, but it was about as complicated to own as a Honda Civic.
Famously tuned in the chassis department by Ayrton Senna, the NSX proved that Japan could build a supercar, and make it capable of everyday life too. The new upcoming version has some pretty big boots to fill.
Initially rumoured to be coming to market with a V6-hybrid powertrain, the NSX seemed to take forever to go from concept to reality. That’s because they swapped out the humble six-cylinder powertrain for a real screamer: a longitudinally-mounted twin-turbo V6 making something north of 550 hp.
That’s Ferrari-fighting territory, once again. Good news for Acura fans, and good news for the performance car industry in general, as there are rumours some of Honda’s top-level technology could start trickling down to other go-fast Acuras and Hondas.
Mazda Miata (First generation)
Released at the same 1989 auto show in Chicago as the NSX, the Mazda Miata was less about easier supercar ownership, and more about reinventing the roadster segment. Did it break new ground? Not really, but then again, it didn’t break.
Easily the most popular roadster ever made, all three generations of Miata have a huge following, ranging between hardcore racing enthusiasts and folks who like to drive slow with the top down. It’s one of the happiest-feeling cars to drive in the world, and the next-generation version is sure to be wonderful too.
Mazda MX-5 (Fourth generation)
Every year, every single car seems to get bigger and fatter. Blame safety regulations, blame our ever-increasing thirst for passing power – heck, blame Justin Bieber if you want, it won’t make much difference.
But wait! Here’s Mazda with a new version of their best-selling roadster that’s actually shorter than the original, as well as weighing within 10 kg. That’s amazing, and a call to the rest of the industry to stop with the model bloat.
Sure, the Lexus LS400 shook things up by introducing a new take on luxury to challenge the German brands, but it was the RX300 that really defined the segment. Simply put, the RX luxury crossover has been a bestseller since birth.
It’s not very exciting to drive, but it is as smooth as oiled silk, and as polished as lacquered bamboo. As far as luxury crossovers go, it set the standard.
Lexus RX350 F-Sport
Well. They’ve certainly dialled up the aggression levels, haven’t they? I think we’re at maximum cowbell, people.
Under its shocking skin, the new generation of the Lexus RX is the same carefully managed driving experience as before. It’s very quiet, extremely compliant, and sure to be solid in both reliability and resale – two core Lexus values.
It’s not a driver’s choice, that’s for sure. The Prius isn’t all that slow, but it’s not built to hustle. Instead, it simply does its job, which is to not burn gas.
Hybrid technology can be found in nearly every manufacturer’s offerings these days, up to and including Ferrari. The Prius was the first to herald the coming green revolution, and it remains almost a brand unto itself.
2016 Toyota Prius
“What if you have to change out the battery?” The Toyota Prius had it tough for a while, but no other hybrid vehicle sells as well. It’s spawned a whole trio of Prii, from small to large.
A new one is on the way, with higher fuel economy than ever, and a bit more of a sporty look (a bit too sporty, if we’re honest). Most of that quirky hybrid nature is still there, and even with gas prices at an all-time low, expect the Prius to sell well and save on fuel. It’s what it does.
Tesla Model S
It’s not so much what the Tesla Model S can do, it’s how it does it. Sure, a spacious passenger car with reasonable electric-only range sounds good, but it’s not really appealing except in a logical sense. So what if it looks beautiful and can blow the doors off a BMW M5? Hello!
The Model S is expensive, but it’s also wonderful to drive, easy to own, and provides a driving experience like no other. It’s not the only electric car on the market, but it’s possibly the only one people might dream about owning.
Tesla Model X
It’s nearly guaranteed that everyone with a Tesla Model S is going to want one of these. The P90D has already shown excellent all-wheel-drive characteristics including astounding thrust. A little higher seating position and a bit more storage? Sounds like a winner.
Tesla could use a winner, burning through cash as they are. Still, demand for the company’s products is high, and adding a second more-practical vehicle to their lineup is bound to help.
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