Automotive engineering is currently the most advanced it has ever been. The cars of today are a fusion of technological and mechanical engineering, and arguably the greatest they have ever been. To find out how we got here, we need to look back over the decades, exploring iconic vehicles of the past. From true classic cars to performance cars, engineering has played a massive role in the creation and development of some of the most iconic cars ever made.
The first car ever created is widely accepted to be the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, produced between 1885 and 1886. German Carl Benz developed the car, including its one-cylinder two-stroke engine which generated just 0.75-hp. The vehicle could carry two people and was a truly rudimentary affair. While car owners would sneer at such a vehicle today, without cars like the Patent-Motorwagen there would be no modern SUVs or sports cars. Of course, the widespread adoption of computers also played a major role and has enabled automotive engineers to go expand their technical abilities even further. The following iconic vehicles have truly changed the shape of automotive engineering.
10 Willys Jeep – 1940-49
The Willys Jeep is one of the most recognizable and iconic vehicles of all time. Thanks to this model, the name Jeep has become synonymous with 4x4s, and many people colloquially refer to SUVs as Jeeps regardless of who manufactured them. During World War II over 640,000 examples were produced. The majority were made by Willys MB, while Ford was also a big manufacturer.
The Willys Jeep had a 4-cylinder engine under its hood, which produced a fairly modest 60-hp. The now instantly identifiable grille is a key design feature that has been there since the start. The original design was penned by Ford, and in contrast to later models, actually had 9 vertical slots. This design was copyrighted by Ford, and consequently, Willys-Overland Motors had to make some modifications. Off-road, the Willys Jeep was formidable, traversing almost anything in its path. Its abilities and durability were of critical importance to Allied soldiers serving in World War II. A modern-day interpretation with a new hybrid powertrain is now available, going by the name of the Jeep Wrangler Willys 4xe.
9 Citroën 2CV – 1948-90
The compact and stylish Citroën 2CV was designed to bring the world of motorized transport to rural French farmers. There wasn’t much power on offer, as the car’s name states. The 2CV’s full name is the “deux-chevaux,” which quite simply means two horsepower in French. There was a bit more than that available, with the model’s two-cylinder air-cooled engine producing 9 hp. Later in production, a 602cc engine was introduced and a significantly more powerful 33hp was produced.
The 2CV’s real party trick was its legendary self-leveling suspension system. Built around a ladder chassis, the car’s front, and rear suspension was interconnected. The result of this was that the 2 CV’s ride was extremely composed and could even be used to transport eggs across a rutted field. This special Citroën 2CV would make to welcome addition to any gearhead’s garage.
8 Volkswagen Beetle – 1938-03
Commissioned by German dictator Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, it is fair to say the Volkswagen Beetle has a checkered history. The Beetle was the first model produced by the brand and was designed as a “people’s car”, the literal translation of Volkswagen in the German language.
The Beetle’s design was penned by Ferdinand Porsche, the founder of Porsche. Also known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car was produced from 1938 to 2003. During this time around 21.5 million were produced, demonstrating its popularity. In fact, the Beetle holds the record for the longest production run of any vehicle ever. Originally, the Beetle was powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled engine. Utilizing this setup negated the need to incorporate an expensive and complex coolant and radiator system required for water-cooled engines. Here are 25 interesting facts about Volkswagen’s iconic Beetle.
7 Tesla Model S – 2012 On
Incredibly, the now commonplace Model S was first introduced back in 2012. The model was Tesla’s first production vehicle, aiming to combine an electric powertrain with the comfort of a premium sedan. The car’s design has aged exceptionally well and looks virtually identical to the modern-day iteration.
A mightily impressive range of up to 265 EPA-predicted miles meant the car was a real game changer. The Model S proved the move to electric was now a realistic option, with relatively few downsides. The interior sported a futuristic design, integrating a vast portrait-mounted 17-inch infotainment screen into the center console. For those who desire it, a new track pack is available on the already bonkers Tesla Model S Plaid.
6 Audi Quattro – 1980-91
The Iconic Audi Quattro was released in 1980. Most people remember it as a rally legend; however, it was also available as a road car. As a rally car competing in Group B, it made a big impact and was the first WRC car to feature all-wheel-drive, making it firmly stand out from the competition.
Known as Quattro, the name translates to “four” in Italian and refers to the four driven wheels in the all-wheel-drive system. Since then, many Audi models have utilized the technology, and it has become synonymous with the brand. The revolutionary technology has gained almost as much of a fan base as the original car itself. Production lasted for 11 years, and during this time, almost 11,500 examples were produced. Audi even produced a powerful V8 variant of the Quattro.
5 Bugatti Veyron – 2005-15
The iconic Bugatti Veyron was launched in 2005 and comfortably assumed the position of a hypercar rather than a supercar. Almost every part of the Veyron was devised from scratch. Existing components simply couldn’t stand up to the challenges and forces the blisteringly fast Veyron would put through them.
Providing the power, was a mighty 8-liter W16 powerplant. Featuring no less than four turbochargers, an immense 987-hp was generated. The Veyron boasted a mighty 253-mph top speed and could absolutely rocket from 0-60 mph in just 2.5 seconds. The Veyron’s design was truly individual and sported a two-tone paint job which helped accentuate the car’s striking design. The Veyron didn’t come cheap for Volkswagen, which lost an eye-watering $1.6 billion on the model.
4 McLaren F1 – 1992-98
The iconic McLaren F1 is often cited as one of the greatest supercars ever produced. Only 106 examples were created during the car’s 6-year production run. Powering this brute, was a naturally aspirated 618-hp 6.1-liter V12 power plant. The McLaren F1 boasted a mightily impressive 240-mph top speed record for many years. Only the equally iconic Bugatti Veyron could knock it off its perch.
The McLaren F1 was constructed from several special materials. The model was built around a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, helping ensure the F1 was not only strong and durable but lightweight. The car’s aerodynamics were designed by the legendary Gordon Murray and helped it generate impressive levels of downforce. One of the coolest aspects of the McLaren F1 was the brand’s decision to line its engine bay with gold. Designed to deflect heat, it was a real trick feature. A modern interpretation of the F1 could blow the competition out of the water.
3 Ford Model T – 1908-27
Produced by Ford between 1908 and 1927, the Model T was the brand’s first “car.” Designed to bring car transport to the masses, the Model T was sold at a relatively accessible price point for many. One particularly impressive feature of the vehicle was the ability to start it using a button rather than the more common crank system of the time.
Unlike the cars we are used to today, the Model T’s throttle was controlled not by a pedal, but a steering wheel-mounted hand throttle. The model was equipped with an inline-four-cylinder engine, generating just 20 hp. The top speed was around 45 mph, although challenging conditions and inclines would have reduced this down. Here are 10 things you might have forgotten about the Model T.
2 Toyota Prius – 1997 On
Love it or loathe it, the Toyota Prius is now an important part of automotive history. The Prius was first launched back in 1997 and was initially sold in Japan before launching in the United States in 2001. Something of a technological marvel, the Prius was the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. The combination of a gasoline engine, a battery, and an electric motor proved to be a hit.
In 2003, an all-new second-generation model was unveiled, bringing with it a raft of improvements. There was more space for passengers and luggage alike, and while still divisive, the styling had also benefited from the redesign. Toyota supplied the Prius with a generous battery warranty, with up to 150,000 miles or 10 years of coverage available depending on the US state in which it was sold. The 2023 Toyota Prius is arguably the most desirable iteration yet.
1 Jeep Cherokee XJ – 1984-01
The second generation Jeep Cherokee XJ was released in 1984, and sold in big numbers until production ceased in 2001. While we are all familiar with the proven SUV formula today, the Cherokee XJ was one of the first ever made. Many are convinced the SUV segment owes its origins to this Jeep. Combining a comfortable interior with decent handling characteristics, the XJ was more like a car than a truck to drive.
The Cherokee XJ was one of the first American off-road vehicles to make use of a fairly radical “unibody chassis.” Moving on from traditional body-on-frame construction, occupants were treated to previously unobtainable levels of comfort. In 1997, the Cherokee XJ benefited from an interior and exterior refresh, giving it a new lease of life. Here is a more detailed look back at the iconic Jeep Cherokee XJ.