Driven To Write’s Top Fifty Best Cars Ever 29-20

We continue our run down of the definitive list of the best cars ever. 

1990 Geo Prizm: zombidrive.com
1990 Geo Prizm: zombidrive.com

29. In 1990 General Motors decided the way to take on the imported cars that were eating its lunch was to sell imported cars of their own, but made in the US. With a moderately restyled interior and exterior, the Prizm conquered sales from Toyota’s Corolla upon which the Prizm was based. In 1991 the Prizm’s nameplate went italic on the rear bumper. The standard four-cylinder engine produced 102 hp. At the same time Saturn was also trying to woo buyers wooed by the imported brands. With Saturn and Geo, GM’s marketing shotgun was double-barrelled, pointing firmly at the company’s foot. Great cars though.

1984 Austin Montego: wikipedia.org
1984 Austin Montego: wikipedia.org

28. From 1988 the Montego was sold without a marque since the Austin brand was discontinued. The Montego was considered a big step forward from the Morris Ital which it replaced. It had front wheel drive, extensive glazing and a very intelligent package conceived by Roy Axe and David Bache among others. Note the clever way the bottom of the side glass curves up under the front mirror so as to meet the base of the windscreen. An estate version could also be bought. This is one of the highlights of ARG’s product line-up. Deceptively simple, the car was good to drive and also comfortable.

1978 Chrysler Sigma ad

27. The Chrysler Sigma took the best of Mitsubishi’s Galant and propelled it into the turbulent heart of the Australian motor car market. Available with four-cylinder engines from 1.6 to 2.6 litres, the Sigma provided economic and reliable motoring for buyers wary of Japanese brands. Note the clever way the bottom of the side glass curves up under the front mirror so as to meet the base of the windscreen. It did not last long despite its success. Replacement came in 1980, three short years after its launch.

1996 BMW 5-series: dieselstation.com
1996 BMW 5-series: dieselstation.com

26. 1996 BMW 5-series (E39). While controversially styled, the E39 lapped up sales in all the markets it entered. It carried on BMW’s formula of rear-wheel drive, tightly assembled cabins and smart handling. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this car at all. It looks nice, drives nice and today they are relatively affordable. The range of engines is dizzying, from frugal 4-cylinders to utterly mad V8s. None of the subsequent Fives have improved any aspect of the car in any discernible way. This is BMW’s high water mark, despite the car’s disputed styling. Like or loathe it, the BMW is pretty much the car to end all cars though of course the Porsche 911 is faster and easier to park.

1975 Holden Gemini, a T-body car: automobilecatalogue.com
1975 Holden Gemini, a T-body car: automobilecatalogue.com

25. GM’s T-car platform (1973). Not a single car but a system of cars sold all around the world, it exemplifies GM’s nous at using their limited engineering resources to the maximum effect. Among the many cars underpinned by T-body architecture are the GMC Chevette, Opel K-180, Holden Gemini, Holden Piazza, Pontiac Acadian, Chevrolet Chevy 500, Daewoo Maepsy, Buick Opel and Pontiac T-1000. In fact, there are nearly enough to fill this entire list. Opel and Isuzu had a lot of input into the design and shows Opel’s importance inside GM, which today continues with the wholesale replacement of the US Buick line-up with rebadged Opels.

24. The 1968 Dino GT is perhaps the greatest of all Ferraris. Light, nimble, agile and blessed with a 2.0 V6, it had bodywork designed by Fiorovanti & Scaglietti. Alas, these are frail and fragile cars, lacking the robustness, heaviness and durablity of a true sporting car. The engine was in the mid-rear as well, sadly. It’s more of a museum piece than a car you can use daily.

1968 Dino GT: magazine.ferrari.com
1968 Dino GT: magazine.ferrari.com

23. In 1972 Fiat launched the nimble, spacious, practical and comely 132 saloon to do battle with Ford, Vauxhall and Renault mid-rangers, among others. The press loved its sporty character and the public hated its appalling build quality. It was renamed the Argenta in an attempt to help customers forget their miseries. Surviving until 1981, it was best exemplified by the Bellini edition, now extremely collectible. Its biggest powerplant was a 2.5 litre diesel L4.

Here is the 1978 version petrolblog.com
Here is the 1978 version petrolblog.com

22. Possibly one of the most influential British cars of the post-war era: that can only refer to the 1945 Rilley RMA. With its wood frame and traditional looks, it captured exactly the 1945 zeitgeist. Hydromechanical braking slowed the car and the front suspension relied on the torsion beam concept. Further, it had a unique elegance allied to tremendous practicality. The top speed of 75 mph set it apart from slower cars. A detail to cherish that the RMA had Coventry roots, making it a heartland English car.

1945 Riley RMA in the post-war British street, just before chain stores and Marxist architects set about destroying it, a perfect storm of capitalist and corporatist vandalism: philseed.com
1945 Riley RMA in the post-war British street, just before chain stores and Marxist architects set about destroying it, a perfect storm of capitalist and corporatist vandalism: philseed.com

22b. Tying with the Riley is the 1975 Simca 1307 GLS which had a unique European look, possibly the earliest example of a world car or at least a multi-market car. Nothing else looked like it and it was even car of the year. The car has a firm following too.

1978 Simca 1307 GLS: wikiwand.org
1978 Simca 1307 GLS: wikiwand.org

21. In 1975 Renault adapted the ungainly Renault 30 for a lower level in the price hierarchy. This car replaced the 16. The engine drove the front wheels and it had a hatchback. Like many of the larger saloons of the time it had quite a long life, running nine years until 1984 by which time it had become an antique. The looks were controversial and alienated many buyers. However, that didn’t stop a lot being sold. The broad engine range, comfortable ride and spacious interior attracted many customers who were indifferent to their car’s appearance. The pick of the bunch is the base model 1.6 four-cylinder with 4 forward speeds and vinyl seating.

1976 Renault 20/30. It´s hard to say which. Great if you own a 20 but terrible if you have stumped up for the V6: youtube,com
1976 Renault 20/30. It´s hard to say which. Great if you own a 20 but terrible if you have stumped up for the V6: youtube,com

20. Completing our tour of the 20s, we have the definitive five-door, medium sized hatchback, the 1983 Austin Maestro. It’s standard practice to sneer at the styling and that’s for a reason. Like much English design it’s a half-baked mix of ill-judged modernism and Victorian production methods. Nothing as much as this car characterises the unsettled, confused and contradictory English approach to design. It’s a metaphor for a country that is ambivalent about its past achievements and unable to interpret the present unless in terms of a rejection of tradition. Front wheel drive, a bright and airy glasshouse and superb handling characterise the Maestro which despite its awkward styling is actually rather nice. If it had worn a VW badge and had been assembled by co-operative workers it would be as lauded as the dreary VW Golf of the same period.

Note the blacked out area at the trailing edge of the side-glass. This is there to make the glasshouse look longer and lower than it is. If “design honesty”, which is a supposed hallmark of Modernism, was being adhered too, that black triangle would be painted body-colour or would actually be glazed. Other car makers managed it.

Brilliant and rubbish at the same time - a metaphor on four wheels: honestjohncom
Brilliant and rubbish at the same time – a metaphor on four wheels: honestjohncom

[The Dino 206 was rear-mid engined, not front as originally written. The text was corrected Oct 24, 2015 at 16.45 CET.]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

19 thoughts on “Driven To Write’s Top Fifty Best Cars Ever 29-20”

  1. Interesting.

    I’d thought that in the late ’60s/early ’70s when the Chevette was designed GM was still fat, rich, dumb and happy. Oh, my. Dumb.

    I’d also thought that the Dino 206’s engine was located between the occupants and the rear axle. Where you thinking of the Fiat Dino?

  2. “Renault 20/30. It´s hard to say which”

    Not at all. The rear lights with chrome surrounds and the black background for the number plate give the game away. Just like the twin headlights, and the alloy wheels.

  3. Fun to see you list the LM10 and LM11. I had experience of parents owning both kinds. The first was an early Maestro 1.3L, which was trouble (when we collected it, the gearbox was not properly bolted to the engine, resulting in near disaster in the first half a mile of leaving the dealership). It was roomy, and handled and rode well, albeit with slow-witted steering. It was replaced with an MG EFi, which went very nicely and was slightly better built. I always quite liked the looks, but most called them dumpy. Seeing the photo of that Maestro, the lack of bulk in the body panels makes it look quite lithe compared with many hatches today.

    1. It´s impossible to decide if this list is serious or not. I only hope I have captured the randomness and capriciousness of some lists. That´s why among the mediocrities are cars like the F1 and the ´88s Five series. While the Maestro has some stupid flaws such as the egg-shell bumpers, the packaging is very good indeed. Would I be right in guessing Rover had some skill at this until the Honda dalliance took control out of their hands?

  4. The Maestro’s bumpers were dire in both material and form. The rear bumper especially irked me, the tapered shape creating a huge 45º departure angle fit for an all terrain vehicle. A more fulsome backside might also have served to equalise the perceived volumes, front to rear.

    1. Funny you should write about departure angles …. The Maestro was designed by David Bache (I think I spelt that right) with input from Spen King, both more normally associated with Range and Land Rovers, so, maybe it was a design-tick of theirs.

      Like most BL/ ARG designed and engineered cars, the LM10/ 11 were under-developed and both the painted plastic bumpers and digital dash were infamously last minute features forced on the car by management in an attempt to update a design first drawn in the mid-to-late 70s. Hence, both were hopelessly under-baked (that’s an AR geek’s pun, btw, as the paint was baked onto the plastic…) at time if launch on the Maestro. Royden Axe managed to make some improvements to the Montego before it was unleashed about 18 months later – most notably the dashboard and that interesting rear window arrangement.

      As Richard writes, packaging was a BL/ ARG strong point, lost during the years of collaboration with Honda. Rover gained an awful lot in return, and may still be here today if it had not been thrust into the bewildered arms of BMW. Who knows (or cares, I hear you cry)?

  5. I care. The British motor industry is impoverished by the absence of Rover. And drivers have less choice, since Rover´s conception of motoring is now extinct. If they existed they would form part of a broader conversation about passenger cars.
    That point about packaging was something I had not really thought about until I wrote up the Maestro. Rover lost a lot when teaming up with Honda, that part of their character that was related to the disposition of elements in the car, that and the type of suspension they could use. The cars *looked* more Rovery for a while and those looks deceived. It all started with the Triumph Acclaim.

  6. At the time of the BMW takeover, there was a fair amount of sympathy for Honda who were seen to have invested a lot in a relationship that they assumed was ongoing … meaning that it would lead to a takeover, since it was certainly no collaboration of equals. BL learned how to make a forgettable car with a mediocre ride but it was apparent that Honda didn’t seem to think it had anything to learn from BL in return. Which is a pity, since for all their clever engineering, Honda products are frustratingly hit-and-miss, a fact that maybe comes from an excessive confidence that their way is always right. Looking for different solutions is praiseworthy, but not being objective about them isn’t. Ask Ron Dennis.

    Incidentally, is the 7th generation Civic in your list (the 2000 onwards upright 5 door version)? This is a near invisible vehicle. But recently I’ve noticed how many are around – always in silver. It was a very logical, habitable car, totally at odds with the radical looking 8th generation.

    1. The 7th generation Civic might not be allowed as it´s obviously desperately characterless. It could be allowed because it is very functional. I can´t include everything.Perhaps the Civic falls between too many stools. If you like you could make a proposal via this forum as to why it´s the 22nd best car ever but you will need to say why it’s better than number 23 and worse than number 21.

  7. Austin Rover is often portrayed as the hapless victim of the ambitions of other car makers, but to me they just failed to seize any of the life lines they were offered. Initially, European market Legends were built alongside 800s by AR, but Honda were appalled by the quality. Honda even designed a Euro-market 5 door ‘Civic’ to be Roverised, and it was quite successful. BMW designed a stonking new Range Rover, Mini, and 75, and still Rover couldn’t or wouldn’t learn. I’m sorry they failed. But – industrial strife apart – they just never seemed strong enough or clever enough to survive.

    1. It wasn’t the designs but the culture of the company, you seem to be saying. Other companies do quite well in Britain: Nissan and Honda and Rolls-Royce for example.

  8. If you try to imagine a follow-up to the Meastro, you can’t. There is not much to go on, much like to Tagora, I think. The next Maestro would have looked different and had no visual continuity with the first one. The Maestro lacks much identity. They were afraid to style it. I know Ford and Opel get away without needing model to model continuity. They have world markets to deal with.

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