We continue our run down of the definitive list of the best cars ever.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[The Dino 206 was rear-mid engined, not front as originally written. The text was corrected Oct 24, 2015 at 16.45 CET.]