You might be driving an incredibly important car.
When we talk about the most influential cars in automotive history, the most obvious are the Ford Model T, the Volkswagen Beetle, the BMC/Austin Mini, and the Willys Jeep. All of which have ended production, unless you consider the BMW owned MINI brand to be a spiritual continuation of the Mini, which we don't. These are cars that have shaped the industry and changed the world.
Some incredibly influential cars are still around, either because they're not that old or because they have evolved while retaining the same instrumental basis in design as the original game-changers. These are the ones we consider the most influential.
Someone, we can't remember who, once suggested that only a man could have designed the Porsche 911. The reason given was that a woman would have admitted that putting the engine in the rear was a mistake and changed, whereas only a man would spend the next 50 years forcing it to work. In reality, the rear-engine design did work from the beginning but made the Porsche 911 a hard car to master and use the advantage of the engine's weight hanging at the rear. Whatever way you look at it, the Porsche 911 has been the proverbial benchmark for high-end sports cars since the 1960s, and often literally when a manufacturer is building a new or next-generation its own sports car.
The Corolla set a new bar for fuel-efficient family transport in 1966, and it's a bar still being maintained today. The Corolla is the best selling car on the planet with well over 40 million models sold across over 150 countries. Now, in its 12th generation, the Corolla is as inexpensive, reliable, practical, and fuel-efficient as ever. Not only that, but Toyota keeps making sure that it's inexpensive, not cheap. As standard, it currently comes with Toyota's suite of safety tech, including automatic braking, as well as Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa compatibility, and Wi-Fi Connect. It even comes with LED exterior lighting on the base model.
The Audi TT wouldn't make this list next year, but you can still, for now, go to the dealer and buy one. Production started in 1998, and jaws dropped around the world. It wasn't just the seamless Bauhaus-inspired styling that consumers fell in love with, but the everyday nature of its performance. It was a watershed moment in modern car design, and a strong departure at the time. However, the TT's design signature is such a recognizable riff now in car design that it's easy to forget just how influential it is. The influence comes the same way The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin were influential in shaping music over the decades, and even now.
When you see the hundred or so crossovers on the road each day as you go to work, they can all be traced back to the RAV4. There were some precursors to the advent of the Crossover Utility Vehicle, but the RAV4 goes down in history as the blueprint for what we see today from every automaker that values its stockholders. The RAV4 combined the practicality and some of the off-roading ability of an SUV, then combined them with the every-day usefulness and driving manner of a more traditional road car. The fact that the current one is the best-selling non-truck in America simply cements its status as an icon.
The incredible thing about the Ford Mustang is how it has influenced the world despite not being available globally until the current generation. In 1965, the first year of the Mustang being sold saw 400,000 models go onto the road. It was the first "pony car," and the brainchild of industry icon, Lee Iacocca, as an affordable sporty coupe and convertible and landed during the biggest population bubble in history, the Boomer generation. Other American carmakers joined the pony party quickly, Chevrolet with the Camaro and Pontiac with its Firebird, but that was just the start. Japanese manufacturers used it as a template, most notably with the Toyota Celica, and Ford even tried to create a European Mustang, the Ford Capri. The Capri wasn't quite as successful as the Mustang, but left an enduring legacy of its own.
If you drive a nice, comfortable SUV, then you primarily have Land Rover to thank. The Range Rover in its first generation was designed, essentially, as a comfortable vehicle that farmers and landowners could throw a bale of hay in the back of and navigate the countryside in. When rich landowners started showing up in central London, they soon become a fashion item and a show of wealth. Land Rover capitalized on that, and the next generation got more luxurious, and the comfortable SUV became a staple of the roads throughout the world. Now, the Range Rover is a full luxury vehicle, but still has the off-road chops that made it so widely used in the first place.
Once upon a time, if you wanted the most luxurious of everyday sedans, you bought a German car. You could go with the better handling 7 Series, but the gold standard for road-going comfort was the Mercedes S-Class. Then, in 1990, Lexus changed the game by introducing the LS line. It came off the production line with the build quality, the ride quality, and the quiet power of the German cars, but it was relentlessly reliable. Compared to the German cars, it was low maintenance, and the parts weren't anywhere near as expensive. It showed the world that luxury didn't need to be expensive or time-consuming to drive. The LS is still going strong, but snapping at its heels now are the Korean brands with the Kia K900 and Genesis G80. The LS is still the benchmark for monotonously reliable luxury, though.
Toyota has become the most influential automotive company in recent times. However, the Prius is likely to turn out to be the most influential car since the Model T. The Prius grew slowly as a long game from Toyota, eventually being taken up and popularized by America's liberal elites. It became the poster child for hand-wringing environmentalists and a moving billboard for political bumper stickers. However, time has shown that the Prius lit the fuse for the slew of hybrid vehicles that followed. The early adopters have been vindicated by the fact that almost every popular model built by a major automaker now has a hybrid version.
As the realization dawns that the significant adoption of pure electric cars is still in its earliest days, we are now seeing that our immediate automotive future is hybrid. On top of that, a large part of the reason electric cars are becoming affordable is that the Prius helped make the batteries affordable to begin with.
The adoption rate for electric cars might still be minimal. However, the fact it has even started comes down to Tesla, and the Model S. Tesla was started by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, followed by three employees turned co-founders called Ian Wright, Elon Musk, and J. B. Straubel. Ian Wright had the best name, but Elon Musk had a vision of Tesla becoming an independent automaker that could offer all-electric vehicles at a price the average car buyer could afford. The idea was treated with disdain by the automotive world, initially. But Tesla's tactic at aiming at car buyers with money and building towards making the technology affordable paid off. It started with the Tesla Roadster, but the Model S sedan started being delivered to customers in 2012 and demonstrated that a mass-produced all-electric car was a viable proposition.
In the introduction, we said that we don't consider the new Mini models to be spiritual successors of the BMC Mini. However, the current Mini Cooper makes this list as it does so many things right that other car companies try and fail at. Every time you see a new car aimed at young people as customizable and fun to drive, the vehicle the designers go to for inspiration is a Mini. BMW took an existing car as the inspiration for retro styling and made it fun and appealing, both as a fashion statement and to drive. Originally launching in 2002, the breadth of the Mini brand's range and personalization options based around a single chassis will be aspired to for decades to come. And, like the Audi TT, students of car design will be studying the Mini for years to come.
The MX-5 isn't influential in how it has spawned a market, as the roadster niche is still small. Still, all attempts to mimic the little, affordable roadster's success have failed. Its influence is deep and comes from how the MX-5 still developed under the same tightly focused discipline in concept and design, despite the first production model rolling off the line over 30 years ago.
The design creed followed through the four generations, so far, of MX-5 is based around the Japanese phrase "Jinba ittai," translating, loosely as, "horse and ride as one body."
The idea of the car and driver becoming one as a core philosophy led to the tenets of what every generation of MX-5 has to be: as compact as possible, lightweight, yet comfortable enough for two adults without wasting space. It has to be front-engined and rear-wheel drive, have a 50:50 weight balance front to rear, a maximized suspension system for grip and handling, and a direct connection from front engine to rear differential to optimize throttle response. The result is an affordable roadster that has progressively improved on each of its tenets and stayed true to its core philosophy.