Iconic cars, a reflection of our history

Crack the codes

The common denominator of most objects that have become “iconic” is the fact that they were conceived, designed and offered to the public by breaking the aesthetic, social and/or technical codes enforced during their marketing. The architect Le Corbusier in his spare and functional style of the 1930sthe designer couple Charles and Ray Eames with their furniture in the 1950s, or even Sony with its Walkman in the 1980s, to name a few emblematic examples. They are surprised by their time, and often wait to be accepted and become references. Disruptions disrupt society and change is scary, whether it is understood or not. Shaking codes is dangerous, and along with products that ended up imposing themselves, many others were failures, either because they arrived too early, or were simply out of tune with the sensitivities of consumers at the time.

Story markers

The same is logically true for the automobile, the major object of the twentieth century. Some models have become icons, revered by enthusiasts and still known to those less enamored with the automotive world and easily associated with an era. This is the status of the Ford Model T, produced from 1908 to 1927. Citroën Traction from 1933 to 1957, 2 CV from 1948 to 1990, DS from 1955 to 1975, the Volkswagen Beetle from 1938 to 2003, or from 1938 to the Fiat 950, or 1975 and Austin Mini from 1959 to 2000 (the latter two were respectively relaunched in 2007 and 2006 in the style of their ancestor). We can also mention the Jaguar Type E from 1961 to 1975, the Porsche 911 from 1963 and the Ford Mustang from 1964. They come from different countries, popular for some, bourgeois for others, or sporty, but they have something in common that marked their time at the time of their launch and conquered their public for a long time.. Today, they are desirable and highly coveted by collectors. Note in this list of “stars”, the presence of three Citroëns, all three invented by the engineer André Lefebvre and the designer Flaminio Bertoni. A French brand, but a triple masterstroke…

The 2CV icon© Old Vincennes

The keys to success

Success is always difficult to explain. As for a musical pipe or a film, it follows a subtle alchemy in which a little reason and a lot of emotion mix. To a reasonable degree, all these cars are “smart” and well designed by visionary engineers, sometimes at the cost of bold innovative solutions. They respond to an expected function or a need, even unconsciously, when they leave: drivability on rutted roads in early 20th century America for the Ford T : driving faster and safer for Traction, owning a simple, practical and affordable car after the Second World War for the 2CV, traveling in an avant-garde car with DS or making access easier for the German people in the car aptly named VW Beetle (Volkswagen means people’s car). But also allow Italian families to move from scooter to car with the Fiat 500, offering a spacious and elegant city car with a Mini Austin or even offers a true GT with ultimate performance and stunning lines for half the price of its direct Jaguar E competitors. And combine high performance and reliability with the Porsche 911, capable of shining on all terrains, in the city and on the circuits, joining the “dad’s car”, a large chrome-clad vessel, with a compact , customizable and cheap sports car with the Ford Mustang.

Demand exceeds supply

As we can see, all these examples describe a proposal that is in line with consumer expectations, or more generally in their sociological context. They all share the same ingredients: technical innovation that provides better value in use, style that is also innovative but in tune with the times; feeling like you’re getting your money’s worth. Not all of them were immediately praised, and some almost failed. Among those that achieved immediate success and have been confirmed for many years, we can mention the Ford T, the Citroën Traction, the VW Beetle, the Fiat 500, the Mini Austin, the Jaguar E and the Mustang. Naturally, they have evolved over their long careers, but, from the beginning, they were usually on point and won over their buyers, the demand was from the beginning greater than the supply. On the other hand, the launch of the 2CV in Paris in 1948 caused surprise, even hilarity. This car in corrugated iron and with particularly accentuated suspensions did not arouse much praise, especially since Renault’s 4CV, a competitor established for two years, was on the contrary very popular and recorded orders that hard to please

Defects and characteristics

It was the rural people who finally saved the 2CV, appreciating its rural qualities, before it was finally adopted by the city dwellers. When the DS was presented at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, it not only changed its segment, but the car industry in general, giving all its direct rivals a “stroke of age”, especially the Peugeot 403, which was launched at the same time and the Renault Frégate was already 4 years old. There was excitement on the Citroën stand and orders were pouring in, but the DS had its flaws : a poorly mastered technology, which the network does not know how to maintain. It would take several years for the DS to become reliable and a real success in France and abroad because its road characteristics and its design were unusual. The Porsche 911 also experienced some difficulties in its early days, not due to design flaws (other than a quick and clever fix to the sliding front axle by adding bumper overriders that act as counterweights) , but because it replaced a model that was firmly established. for almost 15 years: the 356. Porsche was then a very small manufacturer producing mostly handcrafted sports and racing cars for a clientele of connoisseurs, Europeans and especially Americans. These customers, who were very attached to the 356, took the time to accept the 911, which had to prove itself to the competition, to finally become eternal.

Porsche 911 Targa short chassis 2.0 S Targa (1967)
Porsche 911 Targa short chassis 2.0 S Targa (1967)© Aguttes

The mirror of an era

The success of the models mentioned goes beyond their intrinsic characteristics and their adequacy to market expectations. It also testifies to the spirit of their time, and all contributed to the History of the Automobile and its social context. Some have made it possible to democratize something reserved for the richest: Ford T, VW Beetle, Fiat 500, while others have industrialized technologies that were marginal such as Traction avant, DS (hydropneumatic). Others break the established rules: a small car can be fun to drive (Mini), a GT can break prices by offering as much as a Ferrari or an Aston (Jaguar E). An American can also be attractive and sporty within the reach of a secretary or a student (Ford Mustang).

These vehicles also entered the culture of their time, through the cinema (Laurel and Hardy with the Ford T, the Beetle at Disney, the Mustang in “Bullitt”, “60 seconds Chrono” or “A man and a woman”; by Literature with the DS (Roland Barthes – Mythologies, 1957), by music (the Jaguars or Mustangs of various singers such as rock bands in the 60s).

Happy and conquering

They symbolize the lifestyles and social aspirations that characterized the Society at that time. They are completely in line with the deepest expectations, not necessarily expressed, but in which their appearance shows as obvious. They are vectors of freedom and social liberation, along with the national characteristics of their country of origin. They carry their cultural values, until they become their symbols, such as the 2CV symbol of France, especially abroad, in the same way as a baguette or a beret, and also DS, Republic car and business leaders. Both the VW and the Porsche testify to Germanic rigor, while the Mustang represents the happy and conquering America of the 1960s fueled by the “baby boomers”. The Mini quickly became the second car for wealthy households, favored by modern and elegant women.at the same time as it mocks the big cars in international rallies, while the Jaguar E becomes the prerogative of young and wealthy aesthetes.

The Mythical Cox (1974)
The Mythical Cox (1974)© Alexandra Legendre

When imagination dominates

During their marketing, and after as well, they retain their aura and their power of attraction. Those who dreamed of it at the time of their launch without the means to afford it, sometimes waited a long time before finally owning a used one, thus achieving a form of the holy grail. Today, they are among the most collected cars in the world. Many communities of followers meet in clubs or through forums. They have their special magazines, their events, and keep rolling thanks to a network of spare parts dealers that meet the needs of their many users. All things considered, they are accessible, even the 911 or the Jaguar E (which can be bought in good condition for less than 60/100,000 Euros depending on the model), compared to a Ferrari, a Lamborghini or an Aston Martin whose prices will definitely put them out of reach for the greatest number.

The models evoked testify to the nostalgia of a past era that seemed softer, freer, even if this feeling was undoubtedly far from the reality of the past. But it doesn’t matter, because the imagination prevails and the symbolic power that these icons carry gives them a status that goes beyond just being an “old car”. Most old cars can claim this “madeleine de Proust” effect., especially if the model refers to a personal story (“my father had the same…”) but the most iconic ones combine more common references and evoke more emotions. What better tribute to pay their creators?

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