From a Roman architecture-inspired grille to the ducktail spoiler.
There are some cars that you only have to glance at to know what they are, even if you aren't an avid enthusiast. These are cars that have set themselves apart from the beginning of time, setting trends that many other models in the family tree eventually followed. Take BMW, for example, and its kidney grilles. They might have changed drastically over the years, but the average commuter has that design cue ingrained in their minds whether they realize it or not. The word iconic gets overused, but BMW's dual kidney grilles are a perfect example of an iconic design. They are included in this list alongside eight more we all know and most love.
Today, we're used to seeing spoilers on cars. They appear on everything from the most basic of grocery-getters to the most high-end of sports cars. They range from the most subtle of additions built into a trunk or the most over-the-top part of a car. Porsche put the first rear spoiler on a road car and nicknamed it the ducktail due to its shape. It was a radical piece of design that appeared on the 911 Carrera RS 2.7 in 1972 and helped it become a poster favorite on bedroom walls. Once in a while, Porsche will stick one on a special edition for the exclusivity factor, and the aftermarket will build them for custom takes on modern performance, but it will always be most associated with the 911 Carrera RS 2.7.
It seems like nothing has brought out the ire in internet commenters in the modern automotive era than BMW's latest iterations of its kidney grilles, which are huge. Big kidney grilles are not new to BMW, though, as the first car to feature them in any form appeared in 1933 with cooling apertures that were huge. Since then, they have evolved in every way imaginable. BMW squished them in the 1950s on the 507; they shrunk dramatically but straightened out again on the 2002, then became curved and shapely on the early 2000s models, and now they are all over the place. Whatever way the kidneys are served up, they are the most distinctive design element of the brand's models, to the point BMW made sure to keep them for its latest electric car but use them for sensor arrays rather than airflow for cooling.
Also known as falcon-wing doors or, in French, portes papillon (butterfly doors), gullwing doors are not exclusive to the Mercedes 300 SL. However, that's where they were pioneered, and the 1950s sports car is by far the most often cited example. Not that there are many other examples. The 300 SL coupe had gullwing doors mainly because it used a tubular chassis that gave it a high midline, and the sills at the bottom were high. That made attaching standard doors a problem and using the alternative method made stepping into the car easier. Mercedes already used gullwing doors on its W194 race car for the same reasons, but it was using them on the road car that created an icon.
The Pantheon grille has been embedded in Rolls-Royce's design language for decades. It's inspired by and named after the Roman temple with its porch of large granite Corinthian columns, which significantly influenced architecture over the last 2,000 years since it was built. On the Rolls-Royce, the result only adds to the car's stateliness by recalling the classic piece of architecture. When you see that grille, though, you know it's a Rolls-Royce. Topping the grille is the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, an icon of luxury on its own.
One of the great losses to contemporary car design is the disappearance of pop-up headlights due to pedestrian safety laws. Mazda was not, by a long shot, the first to use pop-up headlights, but nowhere else were they used to such significant effect as on the first generation of MX-5. When down, the front had a sleek, aerodynamic look. When up, they completed the MX-5's face. And, because the Mazda MX-5 really did have a face, one of the modifications occasionally made is to have only one headlight retract so the car can wink at people. If you see a small conertible with pop-ups, chances are you'll identify it as a Miata.
When Cadillac put futuristic-looking tailfins on the 1948 Sixty-Two Coupe deVille, it started something big: a size war. Other automakers adopted the space-age design cue, citing the claimed effect of increased stability at speed. Cadillac started the war but also ended it with the monumental-sized fins on the 1959 Cadillac Sixty-Two. After 1960, the size of Cadillac's fins decreased until they were all but gone in 1965. By the time the 1970s started, they had disappeared from new cars completely. Despite other cars having tailfins, we doubt many people can name other cars off the top of their heads with them now. It was Cadillac that made them iconic.
Ferrari doesn't own twin circular taillights, but the Italian supercar maker has done its best to make them its own. They first appeared 50 years ago on the Dino 206, followed by the 364 GTB/4, and came from the pen of Pininfarina designer Leonardo Fioravanti. They were born from a minimalist perspective on homologation requirements and made the rear ends of Ferrari models instantly recognizable. Since then, round double taillights have been picked up by other brands as a cue for sportiness and a high-end feel - think Chevrolet's older Corvettes and Nissan with its Skyline. Ferrari has messed with the design, sometimes using a single round taillight on each side, for example, or oval lights on the SF90, but the brand has still made this cue its own.
Although less obvious than its signature dual kidney grilles, the Hofmeister kink has been part of BMW's design language since the BMW Neue Klasse models in 1961. When Wilhelm Hofmeister first penned it, the angular shape at the bottom of the side-back windows wasn't new, but he made adding a third angle to the curve BMW's second most consistent design element. The kink is most pronounced on coupe models, but once you notice it, you'll see it on every model. Sadly, BMW designers have messed with this lately, as can be seen on the current 3 Series, but that's the price of attempted progress,
Porsche doesn't redesign the 911; it evolves the sports car. While mechanical changes can be drastic, the styling is always conservatively moved forward. From the side, you can always tell it's a 911 by its single, elegant arch running from the top of the windscreen to the tail of the car. Add in the shape on the fenders leading to the round headlights, and you have an iconic shape. Sure, some will say that it could be likened to the shape of the VW Beetle, but the long hood makes the difference. Love the 911 or hate it, everyone knows when they're looking at a 911.