Ask a thousand petrolheads to give you a list of their Top 10 Most Iconic Cars of All Time and you’ll get a thousand different lists. You’ll get a lot of crossovers for sure, but the debates rage on in pubs and on internet forums the world over.
The trouble with all these lists is coming up with a definition of the word iconic that everyone can agree upon. Does it mean most beautiful? Does it mean best-selling? Does it mean fastest or most expensive? Can it refer to technological advancement or even exclusivity?
It can mean all those things and no doubt countless others too. One person’s supercar of the future is another’s expensive flop. However, for our purposes iconic means the cars that rewrote the rule book. These are cars that made the world stand up and pay attention and – more than that – it’s cars that the world simply fell head over heels in love with.
When compiling this iconic cars list, we started with at least 50 cars and then had the customary discussions, debates even arguments… All this debate proved fascinating, interesting, surprising, heated and fun but after many long hours, many conversations with serious automotive scholars as well as those with just a passing interest and many, many cups of coffee, we think we’ve come up with THE list of the most iconic cars in the world.
The Jaguar E-Type epitomises the word ‘cool’. Designed by Malcolm Sayer, it’s a staggeringly beautiful car, so beautiful in fact that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has included a blue Roadster to its permanent design collection.
The 3.8-litre straight-six Mk1 was beautifully balanced (later 4.2-litre versions were said to have affected the purring cat’s poise) but mechanics aside, the E-Type had the very rare ability to make people stop and stare. It still does. It’s an exquisite piece of design. The twin centred exhausts, the chrome and the bonnet that arrived ten minutes before the driver did created perhaps the first ‘bedroom poster’ long before the white Countach.
Despite the Miura’s sleek movie star good looks, the paradigm-shifting car built between 1966 and 1973 was designed at night, against the wishes of patriarch Ferruccio Lamborghini. Preferring big GT cars over the playboy Ferrari pseudo-racing cars, he finally came around and arguably the most important car in the history of gorgeously-fast Italian speed monsters was with us.
Marcello Gandini’s designs were lauded by fans and journalists at the 1965 Turin car show but it was the bold decision to mount the 3.9-litre V12 block in the middle behind the driver caught the car world napping and the modern-day supercar was born. Named after Don Eduardo Miura, one of Spain’s most famous breeders of aggressive fighting bulls, he also bred two bulls called Murcielago and Reventon…
Thanks to Peugeot who had previously registered all three-digit numbers with zero in the middle, the name of the original Porsche 901 had to change. It became the 911, and with it in 1963, the world’s most famous and most instantly recognisable sports car came to life.
A rear-engined masterpiece of iconic design and technology, the essence of the car hasn’t changed for half a century. With hundreds of iterations over the years, the argument rages to this day that an engine mounted at the back of the car shouldn’t work, but work it does. Think Lamborghini and you think Countach, Miura or Diablo. Think Ferrari and you think Testarossa, Dino or F40 but think Porsche and you think 911. That’s the difference.
After a production run of almost five and a half million units, the Mini, by any criteria in which it’s measured, can lay claim to be one of the most iconic cars ever built. It doesn’t carry the prestige, exclusivity or panache of the E-Type, the DB5 or the GT40 but what it did was forever change the landscape of affordable, family motoring.
Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, the most British of British cars was purposely cheap to own and operate. In response to the 1956 Suez Crisis that drove up petrol costs, the sales of bigger cars dropped, leaving a gap in the market for a compact ‘classless’ family car. From popularity with the public to one of the most iconic car chase scenes from the movies, the Mini was firing on all cylinders. This iconic motor set the standard for what was to follow, both as a design classic in its own right and as inspiration for generations of small city cars.
Still reeling from the trauma of the Second World War and in the midst of a post-colonial identity crisis, the Citroën DS (Déesse is French for ‘goddess’) became the poster child of the new breed of French ingenuity, technology and design. Arguably one of the most beautiful cars ever built, the DS set new standards for its ride, its brakes and the way it handled.
Designed by an Italian sculptor and a French aeronautical engineer, its space-age looks are genuinely breath-taking and the convertible (or the beautifully French décapotable) is as jaw-droppingly gorgeous to look at as the Riva Aquarama speedboat or Charles Eames’ eponymous chair. In the first 15 minutes of the 1955 Paris Motor Show, Citroën took 743 orders for the DS and its army of fans endures to this day.
Ford Model T
Henry Ford’s Model T is probably the very definition of an iconic car. It was the car that made automobile travel, previously the exclusive domain of the super-wealthy, accessible to Billy Average. It gave firstly Americans and then the rest of us the freedom to travel. Called ‘Tin Lizzie’, by 1913 it was outselling the combined output of every one of the world’s car manufacturers thanks to Ford’s paradigm-shifting moving assembly line.
Between 1908 and 1927, he succeeded in his ultimate aim to ‘democratise the automobile’ and while he famously wrote in his autobiography ‘any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black’, it was available in other colours! The Model T was cheap, basic and the subject of a thousand jokes but it forever changed the socio-economic fabric of the century that followed.
Similar to the Porsche 911, the VW Beetle (internally designated the Volkswagen Type 1) is one of the most instantly recognisable cars ever to have gone into production. In less than auspicious beginnings, a certain Chancellor of Germany in the late 1930s ordered Ferdinand Porsche to make a ‘car for the people’ to take advantage of his country’s newly-developed road network, the Bug has become the most ubiquitous car ever produced.
Built in massive numbers for the thick end of 65 years, the Type 1 was one of the first mass produced rear-engined, air-cooled, rear-wheel drive cars on the market and ‘the people’s car’ was designed to be affordable and cheap to maintain and run. It has safety issues and it lacked power but it remains an iconic car, best remembered emblazoned with #53 as Herbie the Love Bug!
The Veyron (named for Bugatti development engineer Pierre Veyron) was a feat of automotive magnificence that’s unlikely to be repeated. It was a car of numbers. The original EB 16.4 had an 8.0-litre, W16 cylinder (two V8s bolted together), quad-turbocharged engine; 10 radiators and 1,001 horsepower. It’s quoted 0-62mph was 2.46 seconds and at full pelt and smashed even the other handful of road-legal 200mph cars. A brimmed petrol tank would drain in 13 minutes.
As a technological exercise, the Veyron was a resounding success, but as a business model, it was doomed from the start. The company lost money on every model and the demands made on the technical team by Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piëch were such that the end result was a car that seemingly defied the laws of physics. It was the perfect marriage of form, function, looks and power and has become the benchmark by which all other ‘hypercars’ are measured.
Aston Martin DB5
Is there a car made before or since that oozes class more than the DB5? Named for David Brown, Aston’s chief, the DB5 was made in small numbers between 1963 and 1965 as a classic grand tourer with a 4.0-litre, 282 bhp engine and 4-speed manual gearbox with optional overdrive. Later versions had a 5-speed transmission.
It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and carries an endorsement by none other than James Bond (making it one of tv’s greatest ever cars). As synonymous with 007 as a dry Martini and a liberal attitude to bedding dangerous women, the wood, the chrome, the leather and its inherent sexuality has made the Aston Martin DB5 one of the most sought-after and eminently recognisable cars in the world for over half a century.
This was the car that bridged the old and the new. It was the last car personally approved by Enzo Ferrari himself and ushered in the stewardship of Luca di Montezemolo. It is a throwback to the days where driver aids – traction control and ABS – were considered ‘too safe’ and when it reared its head from Maranello, it was the fastest, most expensive and most powerful production car ever made.
Designed by the world-famous Pininfarina design house (who also provided us with some of the most expensive second hand cars ever sold), it was intended to compete with the Porsche 959 in the FIA Championship with a 2.9-litre, twin-turbo engine generating 471 bhp but it was further developed to be used as a road car, the first with a 200 mph+ top end. It does everything a supercar should. It is as striking to look at as anything before or since and while it had its issues with gear changes at speed and braking often required lead boots, the Ferrari F40 had movie star good looks, a throaty V8 roar and competed with the Countach as the poster of choice for 80s and 90s boys who dared to dream!