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Rob Griffin

The five most significant cars of all time


Which cars have made the greatest impression over the past century? Motoring journalist Rob Griffin picks five of the most influential ever made.

Most significant cars

Some cars are destined to leave their mark, whether it’s for their aesthetics or the speed achieved around a test track. But how about those that are among the most significant ever manufactured despite being neither the fastest or best looking?

1. Austin Seven

Most significant cars

Aaah…the cute little Austin Seven was unveiled to the world back in the early 1920s and was one of the first small cars to be produced in large numbers at a price that put it within reach of families.

As well as proving itself to be sturdy and reliable, it also tasted success on the racetrack and was produced under licence by other manufacturers. 

By the time the last model rolled off the production line almost 300,000 had been made. The car pictured is a restored RN Saloon dating back to 1932. A deluxe model, it came with two-tone paintwork, a sunroof and leather upholstery, which pushed its price up to £125, which was £10 more than the basic version.

2. Mini

Most significant cars

OK, maybe an obvious choice in many respects but the not-so-humble Mini simply couldn’t be left off this list. Widely considered to be an iconic machine of the 1960s, this front-wheel-drive gem revolutionised attitudes towards smaller cars. Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, manufacturing was started by the British Motor Corporation in 1959.

The little two-door machine became an instant hit with people falling in love with its stylish looks and practicality. This wonderful car was made for more than 40 years with numerous variants appearing along the way, including vans and pick-up versions. There were also the racier incarnations thanks to performance specialist John Cooper.

3. Toyota Prius 

Most significant cars

The Prius can lay claim to being the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle with technology that enables it to decide whether to use its engine or its battery, depending on which is the most efficient at the time.

When the Prius first made its appearance in Japan during the late 1990s it did so at a time when green issues were an even harder sell than they are today, but its success has proved the doubters wrong.

It has also paved the way for further hybrids to be produced. Toyota now has six in its range, covering everything from superminis to seven-seater multi-purpose vehicles, while more than 100,000 hybrids have been sold in the UK since launch in October 2000.

4. VW Golf diesel

 Most significant cars

It may be hard to believe but there was a time – not that many years ago – when the only good thing about owning a diesel car was that a tank of fuel was cheaper. Other than that they were noisy, dirty and lacked performance.

While not the first to offer a diesel version, VW helped to change the image of such cars with the lump in this Golf as it was designed for purpose rather than being an ex van engine, according to Giles Chapman, author of Cars We Loved in the 1970s.

"It had quite a refined diesel engine that had really good performance," he says. "I think this marked a real turning point for diesel engines becoming a mainstream choice and dispelled the idea that they would only be found in a taxi." 

5. Citroen DS

Most significant cars 

Not only was the Citroen DS a simply stunning-looking car when it first appeared at the Paris Motor Show of 1955, it was also incredibly advanced with loads of technological developments under the skin.

Chief among these design achievements were a hydropneumatic suspension and hydraulic steering that provided this large, executive machine with enviable handling and ride quality.

At the end of that debut show, almost 80,000 orders had been taken and the DS was well on the way to cementing Citroen’s reputation for innovation. The car went on to be made for the next two decades


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