Every vehicle with a Ferrari emblem on its nose will become a valuable classic sooner or later. Bugatti knows it can charge millions for just about any type of car it decides to make. Porsche seems to have found the Midas Touch after a near-death experience during the 1990s.
For other cars, however, greatness came later. They had to earn every ounce of it and they went through periods of time when it looked like they would never achieve it. What are the odds of an economy-oriented hatchback spawning one of the best driver’s cars of the 1980s? Here are some of the cars whose ascension to stardom was far from guaranteed:
Bentley EXP 9 F (2012)
Bentley previewed its entry into the lucrative luxury SUV segment when it unveiled the EXP 9 F concept at the 2012 Geneva auto show. Purists cried foul, which was expected, but Bentley customers politely voiced their disapproval of the concept’s design. Bentley’s SUV offensive got off on the wrong foot. The reaction sent Bentley stylists straight back to the drawing board.
Bentley's Bentayga SUV was introduced as a production model at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show with a more dynamic and less controversial design. Purists still cried foul, which was again expected, but buyers reacted withgreater enthusiasm this time around. Today, the Bentayga stands out as Bentley’s best-selling model. A new high-end Speed variant was formally revealed at the 2019 Geneva motor show - it will be the world's fastest SUV, with a top speed of 190mph.
BMW M1 (1978)
The M1 started life in the mid-1970s as a joint project between BMW and Lamborghini. Lamborghini should have supplied the Giugiaro-designed body and the chassis while BMW planned to assemble and install the straight-six engine. Deep-rooted financial issues forced Lamborghini to delay the project several times.
Frustrated, BMW axed the deal and took the matter into its own hands. The M1 finally made its debut in 1978 without Lamborghini genes. BMW had never made a mid-engined production car before but it pulled it off admirably. Today, it's one of BMW's most legendary models despite - or perhaps partly because of - a short production run of just 453 examples, and they regularly sell for over US$500,000 at auction.
Buick GNX (1987)
The limited-edition Buick GNX made the cover of every car magazine in America in 1987. With at least 276hp from a turbocharged V6, it was faster than a Chevrolet Camaro and it came frighteningly close to matching the performance numbers posted by the Corvette.
It wasn’t built on high-performance bones, though. The GNX started life as a Regal, a pseudo luxury car built on the same G body platform as Chevrolet’s El Camino and Monte Carlo models as well as the Cutlass Supreme, among other models in the General Motors portfolio.
Chevrolet Corvette (1953)
The original Chevrolet Corvette put a far greater emphasis on design than on performance. In 1953, Chevrolet offered the roadster exclusively with a straight-six engine rated at 150 hp. Lukewarm performance and quality problems caused Corvette sales to fall well short of expectations.
Chevrolet aimed to build 1000 examples of the Corvette per month by June of 1954 and believed it could sell 10,000 cars annually. Its estimates were wide of the mark. Only 300 examples were made in 1953 and production jumped to 3640 units in 1954, though a third of them were allegedly unsold at the end of the year. Officials considered canceling the model more than once.
Chevrolet saved the Corvette by improving its build quality and making a V8 available in 1955. Sales didn’t cross the 10,000-car threshold until 1960, however. But the rest as they say is history; well over 1.5 million examples have been sold to date, and a new model, mid-engined for the first time, is just around the corner.
Cadillac Escalade (1998)
Cadillac’s first entry into the luxury SUV segment was far from remarkable. Caught off-guard by rival Lincoln, the American firm took a GMC Yukon Denali, festooned it with Cadillac emblems and shipped it to dealers as quickly as possible starting in 1998.
More effort went into developing the second-generation Escalade, which made its debut for the 2002 model year, and the model has since become an important and profitable vehicle for Cadillac, as well as a figurehead for its 21st century brand identity.
Citroën 2CV (1948)
In 2019, the Citroën 2CV has achieved demigod status for its uniquely anachronistic approach to motoring. But when it made its debut at the 1948 Paris auto show, few visitors predicted it would become such a highly sought-after classic car. Most show-goers didn’t like the way the 2CV looked and the public and the press found it far too basic for its own good, according to a post-show report.
“I’d rather buy a motorcycle,” one visitor remarked. “The gray paint reminds me of a hospital room,” quipped another. The 2CV managed to beat the odds and survived for 42 years; nearly nine million 2CVs and its sundry variants were produced.
DeLorean DMC-12 (1981)
DeLorean’s DMC-12 should have gone down in history as one of the great automotive failures. The so-called ethical sports car got side-tracked several times during its development process. Company founder John Z. DeLorean planned to use a Wankel engine but settled for the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) V6 after running into issues with the rotary unit. Emissions requirements limited the engine's output to about 130 hp, which was hardly an impressive figure for a sports car.
Costs skyrocketed, too. The DMC-12 should have started in the vicinity of $12,000 but it landed in America in 1981 with a base price of $26,175 (about $72,500 in 2020 money). That figure placed it well above the Chevrolet Corvette ($15,248; about $42,000 in 2020) and right between Porsche’s 924 Turbo and 911SC models. Production ended in 1983 after DeLorean ran out of money as both man and company became mired in scandal.
The DMC-12’s saving grace was its inspired appearance as a time-machine in the 1985 movie Back to the Future. Without this starring role, in 2020 it would surely be as obscure as the Bricklin SV-1.
Ford Consul Capri (1961)
Before Ford affixed the Capri nameplate to a coupe billed as a Mustang for Europe, it used it to denote a two-door variant of the Consul Classic made between 1961 and 1964. Built in England, the original Capri stood out with an elegant, eye-catching design but it didn’t sell nearly as well as Ford hoped.
It was expensive to build and early models didn’t live up to the performance image Ford tried to convey. Nearly 19,000 examples – including about 2000 GT-badged models – were made during a production run that lasted a little over two years. When the nameplate relaunched as the first Capri in 1968, it sold like hot cakes and did much to establish Ford as a maker of sporty and often aspirational cars in Europe; 1.9 million were produced over three model generations up until its demise in 1986.
Ford GT40 (1964)
Ford’s ambitious plan to beat Ferrari at its own game could have gone down history as a fiasco. The GT40 dropped out of its first race, the 1964 Nürburgring 1000 km, due to suspension problems. None of the three examples entered in the 1964 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans managed to finish the race.
Six GT40s dropped out of the 1965 edition of the event after experiencing an array of mechanical troubles. Had Ford given up, the GT40 would have remained an obscure also-ran like so many Le Mans entries from the 1960s; but it didn't, and the car won an emphatic first, second, and third places at Le Mans in 1966. All these years later, it's funny to think that the Ford GT sold in 2020 most likely wouldn’t exist had that not occurred. Note: 1966 model pictured.
Ford Model T (1908)
Historians credit Ford for putting America on wheels by inventing the modern assembly line to build the Model T. One fact often lost to time is that, early on, Ford workers made the Model T largely by hand and the company had a difficult time volume-producing the model. It was relatively expensive, too; pricing started at $825, or $22,601 in 2020 money.
Ford made about 10,666 examples of the Model T during the 1909 fiscal year, a number that pales in comparison to the 15 million examples built during the car’s nearly 20-year long production run. Production began increasingly significantly in 1913 when Ford inaugurated its assembly line system. The solution made the Model T much more affordable, too. In 1922, annual Model T production totaled 1.3 million examples and Ford charged $319 (roughly $4800 in 2020) for an entry-level model.
Honda Civic (1972)
In America, the 10th-generation Honda Civic is one of the go-to choices for motorists who need “just a car.” It does everything well, it’s reliable and it’s relatively affordable. The original Civic introduced in 1972 also ticked these boxes but it was built in an era during which Honda was one of the most obscure names in the automotive industry.
38,957 American motorists bought a Honda in 1973. The Chevrolet Blazer outsold the entire Honda line-up that year. Today, the Civic was the eighth best-selling vehicle in the US in 2018 with 325,760 units sold.
Lamborghini Cheetah (1977)
Lamborghini didn’t set out to build a V12-powered super-SUV. Instead, it started developing an off-roader in the 1970s to secure a contract with the United States Army. Defense contractor Mobility Technology International (MTI) helped Lamborghini design a vehicle named Cheetah (pictured) that made its debut at the 1977 Geneva auto show. It looked more capable than it truly was, however.
Power for the Cheetah came from an anemic, 183 hp Chrysler-sourced V8 mounted behind the passenger compartment and bolted to an automatic transmission. This combination made it excruciatingly slow and ill-suited to demanding off-road terrain. Army officials didn’t want it and the costly, result-less development process contributed to Lamborghini’s bankruptcy in 1978.
The Italian firm’s new management re-launched the SUV project by unveiling a prototype named LM001 at the 1981 Geneva auto show. Still rear-engined, it was envisioned as a way to enter the burgeoning leisure vehicle segment, especially in markets like the Middle East. The LM001 morphed into the LM002A in 1982 and gained a Countach-sourced V12 during the transition. It took Lamborghini another four years to introduce the LM002, its first SUV, which then became something of an oddball legend.
Matra Rancho (1977)
The French-built Matra Rancho – a rare model quickly gaining ground on the collector car market – was a cocktail of random parts mostly sourced from the Simca parts bin. Starting with a van named VF2, Matra added brakes from an 1100TI, an 80 hp engine from the 1308 GT and a four-speed manual transmission pulled out of the 1307. Rugged-looking styling cues helped it mask its working-class roots.
The Rancho only achieved modest success in its seven years of life, selling around 60,000 examples. But the trend it heralded - the compact lifestyle softroader - is today better known as the all-conquering crossover.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class (1979)
In 2020, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is the high-powered, ultra-luxurious chariot of the super-rich. That’s not what the German firm envisioned when it teamed up with Austria's Steyr-Daimler-Puch in 1972 to begin developing an off-roader aimed at the Land Rover Series III.
The design brief outlined a 4x4 that was seriously capable off-road, docile on-road, robust, easy to repair with basic tools and that would look current for at least a decade so that Mercedes wouldn’t need to worry about updating it. The original Geländewagen made its debut in 1979 with a 72 hp four-cylinder as its base engine. In 2020, the second-generation model isn’t available with under 416 hp in the US.
Nissan GT-R (1969)
The original GT-R-badged Nissan didn’t have two-doors and it couldn’t boast of supercar-beating performance. It launched in 1969 as a hotter variant of the four-door Skyline powered by a 1998cc, 160 hp straight-six engine that Nissan received when it merged with Prince in 1966. The two-door GT-R didn’t join the Nissan line-up until 1971.
Over later generations, the GT-R became a legend of the Nissan lineup, with even the cheapest model today capable of 196mph.
Peugeot 205 (1983)
Enthusiasts praise the 205 GTI as one of the best-driving cars Peugeot has ever made. In 1983, when Peugeot released the standard 205, it didn’t look like the model could spawn a hot hatch, let alone one that would achieve a Greek god-like reputation for dynamism.
The 205 made its debut as a humble hatchback envisioned as a people’s car of the 1980s. It needed to meet the needs of as many motorists as possible in order to save Peugeot from collapse. Which it did. Today, the model is fondly remembered in Europe and many other markets. The GTI sprinkled star dust upon the entire range, which would be produced in one place or other until 1998, by which time 5.3 million examples had been made.
Pontiac Tempest GTO (1964)
The Pontiac GTO arguably launched the muscle car craze in America. It started life as a souped-up version of the Tempest developed to circumvent the 330-cubic-inch restriction Pontiac parent company General Motors enforced on engine displacement.
The limit applied to production cars, not option packages, so Pontiac dropped a 389-cubic-inch V8 into the Tempest Le Mans and made it available to buyers who paid extra for the GTO package. It sold better than anyone expected so the GTO became a standalone model in 1966.
Suzuki Jimny (1972)
Endearing, capable and attainable, the recently launched fourth-generation Suzuki Jimny is one of the automotive industry’s darlings. It traces its roots to a small off-roader developed as a kei car by a now-defunct Japanese firm named Hope Motor Company.
Historians believe Hope made about 15 examples of a 4x4 named ON360 before Suzuki purchased the design and turned it into the original Jimny (pictured).
Volkswagen Beetle (1938)
The original, rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle has become an automotive institution. It left an indelible mark on America’s car culture during the 1960s and it's widely hailed as a masterpiece of simplistic design. And yet, some of the car industry’s top minds wrote it off as a poor excuse for a car.
The Wolfsburg factory fell into the designated British occupation zone of Germany at the end of the Second World War. In 1945, a commission headed by British motor tycoon William Rootes (1894-1964) visited the Wolfsburg plant that made the Beetle and recommended tearing it down. The members of the commission didn’t want the Beetle’s design, either. “The vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirements of a motorcar,” Rootes affirmed of a car that was originally designed to put Nazi Germany on wheels before war kiboshed that plan.
The British were ready to give the factory to Ford in 1948 to get rid of it once and for all. Henry Ford II considered it but company chairman Ernest Breech urged him not to take it on. He famously said, “Mr. Ford, I don’t think what we are being offered here is worth a dime!” Today, Volkswagen is the world's largest car marker, producing 10.8 million vehicles in 2018.
Volkswagen Plattenwagen (1946)
Volkswagen employees in Wolfsburg cobbled together the first examples of a vehicle they named Plattenwagen (pictured) after the British army asked for its forklifts back. Workers simply placed a flat loading deck over a Beetle chassis and installed a pair of seats in a rudimentary cab over the rear axle. Production started in 1946, though no one knows precisely how many examples were made.
The Plattenwagen was Volkswagen’s first commercial vehicle. Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon asked company boss Heinz Nordhoff for permission to sell the Plattenwagen in Holland. Nordhoff wisely turned down Pon’s request but the two men’s brainstorming sessions spawned the original Transporter 'T1' which made its debut in 1950. Today, the nameplate is in its sixth generation, named T6 suitably enough; VW sells around 60,000 of them a year.