10 iconic car designs: 65 Years of Wheels

These are some of the most instantly recognisable exteriors ever penned, and shapes of endless influence

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It’s official: Wheels is 65 years old. But this series isn’t about us. To celebrate our 65th, we thought we’d take a look at the decisions that have changed the automotive world over the last six and a half decades. Some were inspirations that altered it for the better, others were engineering dead ends, nefarious cover-ups and valiant flops. Scroll on to read more, then click here to explore all 65 cars, people, game-changers and failures that have influenced the car industry since 1953, in no particular order.

1. 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing

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Mercedes’ original 300SL was essentially a rebodied, road-going racer, complete with a bulky aluminium spaceframe chassis, featuring wide sills for maximum rigidity. As a result, regular doors couldn’t be fitted, so the suave signature gullwings were the inspired solution. Contrasting the classy elegance of the clean rounded silhouette are the blistered wheelarches and outrageously long dash-to-axle ratio, cementing the 300SL’s place as the world’s first supercar.

2. 1955 Citroen DS

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Imagine how mind-blowingly otherworldly the futuristic DS must have seemed back in 1955, amid Cold War paranoia, stifling normality and the FJ Holden. Its beautiful proportions were the work of Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni, while the advanced engineering by aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre included hydropneumatic suspension, making it distinctly secure as well as sublimely comfortable. The beauty of ‘the goddess’, as it was known, ran beyond skin-deep.

3. 1957 Fiat Nuova 500

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Like most cars for the masses, the Fiat Nuova 500’s ethos was function over form. Observe the tiny air-cooled twin tucked out back to maximise interior space, mandatory fabric roof since that’s cheaper and lighter than steel, wheels at each corner for surefooted handling and minimal ostentation. Nearly 3.9 million examples over 25 years turned the feisty 500 into a symbol of Italy.

4. 1964 Ford Mustang

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Sexing up the original Falcon with a four-seater coupe/convertible spinoff range boasting a striking long-bonnet/short-boot silhouette, evocative name, stirring performance options and countless personalisation configurations might seem normal today, but the Mustang elevated design-fuelled marketing to dizzying heights, smashing records and sending rivals scrambling in response.

5. 1963 Porsche 911

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It’s now legend that Porsche had intended to kill off the 911 not long after the larger, luxo 928 grand tourer launched in 1977, but by the ’80s neither sports car buyers nor marque fans would have any of that and the company relented. It just doesn’t date. Rear engine, rear (or later all-wheel) drive, and a horizontally opposed six in either naturally aspirated or (nowadays) turbo-charged guises, the 911 has become the sports-car yardstick which all others – including ultimate supercars – must match to achieve greatness. Happy 55th, Project 901.

6. 1966 Lamborghini Miura

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A sublimely sensuous silhouette and production-first mid-mounted rear-drive V12 heart that helped make this Lamborghini the world’s fastest car back in the day are all good and well, but Marcello Gandini’s ’60s supercar masterpiece has sashayed into the world’s collective psyche because of those eyes. With headlights that make this car’s face as sultry as any supermodel’s, the Miura catapulted its maker into the sports-car stratosphere, and remains the epitome of Italian design prowess to this day. No wonder the Countach didn’t even try to emulate such loveliness.

7. 1964 Ford GT40

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The story goes that after being courted then spurned by Enzo to buy Ferrari for its racing division, a seething Henry Ford II teamed with British outfit Lola to create the ruggedly lithe GT40 (denoting the car’s approximate height in inches). Ford eventually won four Le Mans (1966-69), and the legend of the blue-collar underdog prevailing over the arrogant Italian fuelled the GT40’s provenance ever since. 

8. 1999 Audi TT

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The impact of the original TT was profound. The first true modern Audi sports car (the epochal Ur-Quattro was a beefed-up 80 Coupe), the sleek, A3-hatch based two-door borrowed Bauhaus design elements, brilliantly melding originality with post-modern retro cool. A real highlight was the austere yet crafted cabin that exuded high-quality finesse. For a decade afterwards, the TT’s high-minded aesthetic influences even transcended the auto industry, in areas such as hi-fi goods. Demand soared, finally elevating the Volkswagen luxury brand to premier-league status, even when early TTs proved dangerously unstable at Autobahn speeds.

9. 1959 BMC Mini

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Alec Issigonis’s response to a ’50s oil crisis was a flawed, fabulous masterstroke, punching above its diminutive weight by pioneering east-west front-drive engineering, engaging dynamics and friendly design. The latter came about through packaging and budgetary requirements, since the Mini was foremost a mass-market econo-car. Yet ’60s counter-culture adopted the bolshie Brit runabout as its classless poster child, while motorsport recognised the virtues of the spirted and agile Cooper S – a pocket-rocket pioneer.

10. 1961 Jaguar E-Type

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Evolved from the ’50’s Le Mans-winning D-Type racers, the feline E-Type’s original aim was to stamp Jaguar’s authority on performance. Its 150mph claim was sensational, aided by innovations like monocoque construction, independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes, combined in a lightweight, aerodynamic and then-affordable grand tourer shaped by former aircraft engineer, Malcolm Sayer. That’s why the E-Type feels like a wingless jet fighter behind the wheel. That it also represents Britain, ’60s revolution and unbridled sexual virility are simply reflections of the beholder. 



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Byron Mathioudakis

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