15 people who made a difference: 65 Years of Wheels

Innovators, visionaries, ruthless bastards. It’s possible there’s a little of all that in this lot

People Lead Jpg

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. Nils Bohlin

This guy is the hero nobody knows – a Swedish engineer who went from designing ejector seats in Saab fighter planes to a job at Volvo in 1958.  A year later, he perfected the three-point seatbelt. Although Volvo patented his invention it allowed widespread use, free of royalties. By 2002, the year he died, it is estimated his invention had saved over a million lives.

2. John Button

Shaped Australian motoring culture like nobody since Ben Chifley. In 1984, the Senator dismantled high car import taxes (a lazy 57.5 percent) and scrapped import quotas. The message to the then five local makers: get world competitive or go home. The Button Plan left us with no car industry but delivered every buyer more variety, better quality, higher technology and lower prices – with billions of taxpayer dollars saved in subsidies.

3. Enzo Ferrari

Il Commendatore fashioned a business from his passion for racing. The charismatic road cars embodied primal design with symphonic engines. With a record 231 GP wins, Ferrari is the glue that holds Formula 1 together. Then there’s Le Mans, the Mille Miglia and countless others. Enzo was driven and ruthless, but long after his death in 1988, his surname remains shorthand for ultimate performance, while his cars have acquired art-collector status.

4. Akio Toyoda

The curse of the third generation weighs lightly on the grandson of Toyota’s founder. The man they called The Prince took over as Toyota president in 2009, just as the GFC turned profits into losses for the first time. Undaunted, he set Toyota on a course for radical transformation as a “mobility platform” – autonomy, electrification and connectivity are his buzzwords. By 2025 he wants every Toyota model to be either electric or have an electric option. Huge investments are being made in new solid-state battery tech to make them smaller, lighter and more affordable. For the generation that’s supposed to lose the plot, Akio Toyoda is very much the visionary. He says he thinks a lot at night about Google, Facebook and Apple because, he says: “We didn’t start out making cars, either!”

5. Colin Chapman

The engineering genius behind Lotus on road and track. His list of big ideas includes development of one of the earliest and most successful rear-engined Grand Prix cars, pioneering work on monocoque construction and aerodynamics in the form of wings (1968) then ground effects a decade later, with the Lotus 79. A total of 13 GP Championships and that famous win at Indy are part of his “Lighten and Simplicate” legacy.

6. Soichiro Honda

From the wreckage of post war Japan, he built a brand that turned accepted wisdom on its head. Motorcycles like the Honda Dream and 750/4 spelled the end for the British industry. They gave Honda the chance to apply the same engineering savvy to cars. Witness the 1972 Honda Civic and (COTY winning) 1977 Accord. Soichiro was a staunch advocate for motorsport teaching young engineers to think on their feet.

7. Bernie Ecclestone

Formula 1 existed before Bernie and will no doubt continue now he’s cashed in his chips aged 87. But this master deal maker made the sport a global phenomenon worth billions while bringing plenty of controversy along the way. Let’s not forget he bought the Brabham team in 1972 and managed it to multiple World Championships while simultaneously expanding his grip from team boss to undisputed F1 supremo.

8. Elon Musk

An outsider from South Africa achieved what GM, Toyota and the rest of the established order could not – produce a sexy, desirable and practical electric car with a recharging system to boot. While Tesla’s financial issues remain, there is no doubt it and its evangelist founder galvanised the world’s car makers into massive investments in electrification.

9. Ferdinand Porsche

His father Ferdinand (senior) helped Hitler with the People’s Car but it was left to his son Ferdinand (a.k.a. Ferry) Porsche to transition a design and engineering consultancy into full-scale manufacturing.
Ferry was the driving force behind the 356, which went into production as Job #1 and lasted until 1965. The engineering spec and dimensions for its successor may have been Ferry Porsche’s work but not the iconic design.

It was Ferry’s son, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche (known variously as F.A. to his colleagues or Butzi) who produced the distinctive shape of the 911 that debuted at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show as the 901 prototype. Arguably it sits with the Coca Cola bottle as the most recognizable piece of 20th century industrial design. Now in its seventh iteration, the 911 is still providing tidy profits for the eponymous company where for generations, everyone was a Ferdinand with a big idea.

10. Giorgetto Giugiaro

The world’s most influential and prolific car designer, full stop. There are more than 200 models credited to the studios of the man they simply call Maestro. He began his career at Bertone in 1960 penning the classic Ferrari 250GT SWB before establishing ItalDesign in 1968. Voted Car Designer of the Century in 1999 and later admitted to the Automotive Hall of Fame, his resume includes the Lotus Esprit, the 1974 VW Golf and later, the DeLorean DMC12.

11. Ferdinand Piech

World-class engineer, industrialist, and eccentric, this grandson of the Porsche dynasty has been on the spot for seemingly every significant development in Germany. He managed Porsche victories at Le Mans, revitalized Audi through the Quattro period as tech director then CEO. Later he lorded over VW as undisputed king maker and ruthless executioner. A dazzling technical mind and an enigmatic personality.

12. Gordon Murray

His pioneering McLaren F1 road car was all about transferring racing technology to the road, while his achievements in Grand Prix racing were those of an innovator – the famous Brabham fan car took ground effects to its ultimate conclusion. So good it was banned. He designed World Championship winning cars for Brabham and had his fingerprints on the all-conquering McLaren MP4 that delivered Aryton Senna his first title.

13. Sir Jack Brabham

Still the only man to design, build and drive a car of his own making to a World Championship in 1966. ‘Black Jack’ was a gifted driver and technician who worked at Cooper Cars during the development of the mid-engine F1 in 1957 and won his first Championship in 1959. He teamed up with designer/engineer Ron Tauranac in 1962 and went on to win 14 GPs and three world championships before retiring in 1970.

14. Ron Dennis

From 18-year-old F1 spannerman for Jochen Rindt in the ’60s, to co-founding his own F1 team in the ’70s, to turning McLaren into an F1 superpower in the later decades, there’s no denying the business brain and ambition that powers Ron Dennis. His impact on the F1 grid is undeniable, including the fact he was team boss in 2007 when McLaren was fined $US100m for alleged theft of Ferrari F1 intellectual property. But can we forgive him that for his part in the birth of the road-car business?

15. Bob Lutz

When you’ve been a high-level head-kicker at all of the Big Three (as well as BMW) it’s only appropriate that you’d be referred to as a ‘car tsar’. When this cigar-chomping former Marine speaks, the global automotive business listens (unless you’re Tesla, who he predicts will soon go bankrupt.) He also reckons human-driven vehicles will be legislated off our highways by 2038. Okay, bugger off now, Bob, you’re not helping.


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