Peter Sellars's mini exemplified sixties automotive style.

Signs of the Times


There’s a good reason why DCI Gene Hunt drives the cars he does in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Few things scream seventies louder than a golden-brown Mark III Ford Cortina, or eighties louder than a red Audi Quattro. Iconic, instantly-recognizable cars like this are easy cultural shorthand for their era. Stick one on screen and your eye is immediately drawn to it. And if you make the car the star, maybe the TV company has to spend a little bit less on props and street scenes to make its drama feel properly period.

Gene Hunt's Mk 3 Cortina grounded Life on Mars on period

Iconic cars represent their era, but they reflect it too. Much as we’d like the car to exist in a bubble, unaffected by the trends and crises of the outside world, it just can’t. The car shapes the world: along with the computer and industrialized warfare, the car was one of the biggest influences on the last century. Our lifestyles and our physical environment are organized around it, but it influences the culture too. The freedom offered by the internal combustion engine, whether fitted to a car or a motorbike, has energized music, art, literature and whole youth movements.

The 1959 Caddy was designed in response to Sputnik's triumph

And in turn, the cars we drive are influenced by their times in exactly the same way as the clothes we wear and the music we listen to. Think of a fifties American car, and what do you see? A tail fin. What does a tail fin represent? The jet age: a period of intense technological and economic optimism – in America at least – in which speed and power were so venerated, and advancing so fast, that the cars started to look like planes, and the planes turned into the rockets that would take us into space. Car design of the period reflects that so perfectly that if you show someone a tailfin now, they’ll smell a drive-thru hotdog and hear a Chuck Berry record.

Look at the work of designers like Harley Earl at General Motors and Virgil Exner at Chrysler: one sounds like a rock’n’roller, the other like a character from a period sci-fi puppet show, but together they gave us some of the most exuberant car design ever seen, culminating in Earl’s ’59 Cadillac Eldorado, his final and most outrageous work. And what did we get in austere fifties Britain? A steady diet of grim, grey, porridge saloons, with the apologetically-befinned Ford Anglia 105E only arriving in the same year they launched – almost literally – that Cadillac. Case closed.

Peter Sellars's mini exemplified sixties automotive style.

Same applies in the sixties. More than the Lamborghini Miura or the Jaguar E-type, I’d argue that the original Mini and Fiat 500 are the iconic cars of that decade: partly because their accessibility put millions more on wheels, but also because they reflect the classlessness of the time; a Mini might have been your first car, but the Beatles and Peter Sellers drove them too.

Seventies? Harder to identify an icon, but that just proves the point. Beset by recessions and oil crises, the car industry lacked the confidence it had in the previous two decades, and it shows in the cars it produced; there were some great supercars like the awesome, angular Countach, but from makers which lurched from owner to official receiver and often lacked the cash to put the wheels on. There was a definite seventies look – Hunt’s Cortina being the perfect European example – but few stand-out cars. Frightened by the price of petrol and the threat of the sack, people wanted reliability and affordability in everything; this was the quartz watch decade. In cars, in the US, this mood killed the big-block V8 engine. In Europe and Japan, it spawned the hatchback; VW launched the Golf, and Toyota’s Corolla broke out of Japan and began its ascent to become the world’s best-selling model.

The aggressively proportioned Countach reflected the eighties' power-focused concerns

Things were better in the eighties: greed was good, and made near-200mph supercars like the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959 both socially acceptable and economically viable. The Quattro and hot hatches made a little of that mojo available to those not in receipt of a Gordon Gecko-sized bonus.

Nineties and noughties? Maybe we’re still too close to spot the real icons, and what they say about the times. The nineties produced arguably the greatest car ever made in the McLaren F1, but recessions and economic crises in Asia and Latin America brought the uncertainty back: for all its incandescent performance, only 71 road-going F1s were sold.

Autocar magazine’s readers have just voted the current Range Rover the car of the noughties, but I’d disagree; by the time the decade ended the zeitgeist had turned so decisively against big SUVs that – for all its ability – I think it gets disqualified. Instead, I’d nominate the Prius. As a hybrid in a unique bodyshell, not only is it arguably green, but it’s obviously, visually green. That’s why diCaprio and Diaz are always seen in theirs. It tells other people you’re doing your bit, even though you’re still driving a car and probably haven’t altered the rest of your lifestyle much.

How noughties is that? Maybe, thirty years hence, when the BBC makes a retro cop-drama set in 2009, the lead character PC PC will drive a Prius, but decline to get into car chases because they’re ‘just not sustainable’.

Global recalls and eco piety – the Prius is the auto icon of the noughties.