Many automakers have come perilously close to the edge of financial ruin only for a single model to save the day.
Some of those cars have attained legendary status, while others have become staples of our motoring landscape.
The roles these cars played in saving their respective manufacturers from bankruptcy, obscurity or both cannot be understated. Here, we name those cars and mark their importance in date order.
Volkswagen Beetle (1948-2003)
The Beetle saved Volkswagen and the British army's Major Ivan Hirst saved the Beetle. He cleared the factory, restarted the production lines and convinced the British Army to buy 20,000 of these unusual little cars. This was the Type 1 that set the mould for all subsequent air-cooled Beetles with a rear-mounted flat-four engine.
Sales increased gradually to begin with until factory director Heinz Nordhoff began to expand the sales network. Soon, cars were flying out of the factory and the one millionth was made in 1955. The money from these sales put Volkswagen on a firm footing and set it on track to become the global giant we now know. In total, 21,529,464 Beetles of all types were made in factories fromGermany to Australia, Belgium to Brazil, and as far flung as Malaysia, Nigeria and even Ireland. The last were built in Mexico in 2003. Today, Volkswagen is the world's largest vehicle producer, with 10.8 million produced in 2019.
1949 Ford (1948-1952)
Ford, along with its competitors, had a big problem at the end of World War Two. Nearly all of its US assembly lines had been turned over to cranking out airplanes, tanks, military trucks, jeeps and much else during the war – but now the government didn’t need most of this anymore, while demobbed soldiers came home needing cars. Ford started making cars again, but all were based on pre-war designs, which were looking dated.
Henry Ford II was a grandson of the founder and became the company’s boss in 1945, at the age of just 28. He put together a crack team of engineers and business analysts and they took the all-new 1949 model from concept to production in just 19 months, and became the first of Detroit’s Big Three to make an all-new car after the war. 100,000 orders were placed on the day it was unveiled in June 1948. It featured a variety of bodystyles including a coupe (pictured), and power came from either a 3.7-litre straight-six or 3.9-litre V8; its front suspension was independent, with a new steering setup.
1.12 million examples were produced, eventually earning Ford $177 million in profit, a huge sum at the time. It reestablished the company, and set it up for going on the stock market in 1956.
Mercedes 300SL (1954-1963)
Mercedes had a somewhat different problem to Ford; during the war many of its factories had been obliterated by Allied bombers. But it slowly got back on its feet, and once it had done so it wanted to get back to doing what it did best: making glamorous cars for the rich and famous. It needed a halo. Its answer was the 300SL, and it could not have been more successful or important.
Its large car range was still rooted in 1930s’ design and the smaller cars were dutiful but dull, so some much-needed zest was required. Enter the gullwing doors of the 300SL, complete with a fuel-injected engine, racing pedigree and 135mph top speed. It was a sensation in every sense and turned perceptions of Mercedes right around.
After the 1400 Gullwing models ended production in 1957, the Roadster took over. Arguably the better car thanks to better rear suspension, stiffer chassis and easier entry, it carried on the glamour offensive and 1856 buyers thought it worth the huge asking price. More relevantly, the technology from the 300SL found its way into mainstream models and set Mercedes on its course as a technical and safety innovator.
Fiat 500 (1957-1975)
As Italy struggled to rebuild itself after the Second World War, initial demand for cheap transport was met by scooters, but the Fiat 500 put an end to that. Here wasa proper car, not a bubble car, with four seats and looks cuter than a puppy dog’s. Little wonder Fiat shifted 3.5 million of them in 18 years.
Crucially, the rear-engined 500 with its diminutive 499cc parallel twin motor was easy and cheap to maintain while offering just enough performance to trundle around town and country alike. The money the 500 brought into Fiat made it an industrial powerhouse and made the foundations of the business it is today.
BMW 700 (1959-1965)
It’s hard to think of the BMW we know today as a company that was once on the cusp of going under, yet that’s where it was in the late 1950s. A disparate range of luxury and bubble cars wasn’t bringing home the bacon, which is where the 700 came to the rescue and set the template for its volume sellers that continues to this day with the likes of the 1 Series.
The 700 was radical in being BMW’s first monocoque structure and was initially offered as a coupe, but the saloon soon followed and racked up 154,557 sales on its own. The Coupe and Cabriolet added a further 33,500 to that tally. All were powered by a rear-mounted 697cc flat-twin derived from BMW’s motorcycle engine, but this unusual feature did nothing to dim the 700’s popularity or profit-generating income, which allowed the sleek saloons and coupes of the 1960s to create the BMW we know today.
Jaguar XJ6 S1 (1968-1972)
Jaguar’s sports cars may have garnered the headlines, but the first XJ6 was Sir Williams Lyons’ true career masterstroke. It not only consigned all other luxury saloons to second place for comfort, handling and refinement, it was achieved at a price that left the competition bewildered at how the British firm could do it for the money.
While not in financial straits when the XJ6 was launched, Jaguar was by then part of British Motor Holdings and was about to negotiate the muddled management of the Leyland era. Throughout all of this, the XJ6 held the company together and its derivatives lasted into the 1990s as the Series 3 XJ12. By the end of the S1 XJ6’s life in 1972, 78,218 had been made and sold to eager customers all over the world. The XJ line continued all the way to 2019; an all-electric XJ will be launched in 2020.
Alfa Romeo Alfasud (1972-1983)
Sporty rear-wheel-drive cars had been Alfa’s staple, so the Alfasud was an exceptional car even before it was launched. Front-wheel drive with a flat-four engine mounted in hatch-style body, here was Alfa doing what it would take Volkswagen another two years to offer with its Golf. The name came from the new factory in Naples in the south, or ‘sud’, of Italy, though this created problems with build quality and rust resistance.
No matter, the Alfasud soon garnered a reputation as a fine-handling hatch with a willing engine. In Italy, it was a direct bullseye for Alfa, though remained a more acquired taste elsewhere. Still, 387,734 Alfasuds were sold in its 11-year period of manufacture, securing the company’s ongoing future into the 1980s.
Vauxhall Cavalier (1975-1981)
General Motor’s British arm was in decline in the mid-1970s, until the Cavalier turned up to give the Ford Cortina a serious run for its money. Billed as ‘the power you want, the economy you need and at a price you’ll like’, the Cavalier was all that and more. It handled well thanks to sharing much of its suspension and chassis with the Opel Manta, while a range of four-cylinder engines provided anything from frugal 1.3 to peppy 2.0-litre units.
In the UK, 238,980 Cavaliers were sold and many were built in Luton, UK, to appeal to a patriotic streak in their drivers. It set Vauxhall back on course in the all-important fleet sector and the name enjoyed two decades of success until it was replaced by the Vectra.
Volvo 700 Series (1982-1992)
Volvo was ticking along on its image of safety and durability when the 740 and 760 arrived. In an instant, the Swedish firm moved up a notch into the executive sector and became a desirable alternative to a Mercedes wagon. Vast boots were a given, along with build quality that made bank vaults look flimsy, but what was unexpected was how good these saloons and estates were to drive.
A rear-wheel drive chassis coupled to lively engines made the 740 and 760 entertaining and the turbocharged models were decently quick, taking 8.0 seconds to cover 0-60mph. By the time production ended and the 900 took over, Volvo had shifted 1.23 million 700 Series cars. Not only did this provide welcome funds, it paved the way to the more upmarket image the company now enjoys today.
Land Rover Discovery (1989-1998)
Land Rover was gently becoming a niche company selling off-roaders to farmers and utility companies until the Discovery was launched in 1989. The original Land Rover models were being left behind by Japanese and American rivals, but the Discovery turned that right around with its elegantly simple shape, Conran-styled cabin and a chassis borrowed from the Range Rover.
That final decision was a masterstroke as it made the Discovery acceptable to those who wanted a 4x4 as an everyday car first and foremost. The V8 was the range-topper, but four-cylinder turbodiesels made it cheaper to run and the bulk of the 392,443 Disco 1ssold used this motor. A five-door broadened its appeal and the Discovery was even sold in Japan as the Honda Crossroad with a 2.0-litre petrol engine from the Rover 800, as well as a V8.
TVR Chimaera (1993-2003)
The TVR Chimaera may have lived in the shadow of the mighty Griffith, but the fact is TVR sold three times as many Chimaeras. It helped that the two shared a chassis, engine and much of their drivetrains, but the Chimaera was more affordable and practical thanks to a more spacious body. It set all manner of sales records for the Blackpool company and finally gave the firm the financial security that had always been missing.
Demand for the Chimaera remained strong throughout its life and its success helped spawn the Cerbera and Tuscan models. However, TVR’s insistence on developing its own engines to replace the ageing Rover V8 used in the Chimaera were to prove difficult. The company was sold in 2004 to Russian Nikolai Smolenski who invested in development, but sales never materialised in the way they had for the Chimaera. The company is in the process of being revived now.
Ford Mondeo Mk1 (1993-2000)
The Mondeo - sold in the US as the Contour - was a huge gamble for Ford. Not only did this range of sedan, hatch and wagon models aim to offer a single badge to the whole world, it cost the company a huge sum in new factory facilities. Add in the expense of a new five-speed gearbox and modern engines, and the Mondeo was do or die for Ford.
History now records the Mondeo as a massive hit, although there was some early resistance to its front-drive platform from those used to the aged Sierra. However, the Mondeo’s superb ride and handling, quality and space shone through and made its rivals look distinctly old hat. Company fleets loved the Ford and it’s now rightly revered as a modern classic for the clarity of its design and execution.
Aston Martin DB7 (1994-2004)
Aston Martin’s lurch from one owner to another had become almost legendary when Ford stepped into the breach in 1987 – indeed, it was the final major decision taken by the aforementioned Henry Ford II before his death in the September of that year. Ford’s money, plus the design talents of Keith Helfet and Ian Callum, created the DB7. However, it would take until 1994, seven years after Ford took control, for the company to find a stable footing.
Instantly, the DB7 was a hit thanks to its sleek looks, performance from a 3.2-litre supercharged six-cylinder engine and, crucially, a vaguely starting price. While not cheap, the DB7 created an entry-point to the desirable brand that hadn’t been there before. The result was a huge commercial success; more than 7000 DB7s were sold in all variants and produced the rejuvenation of the company. Aston has required subsequent savior vehicles, notably the DB9 of 2003, and, with luck, the new DBX SUV, heading to the roads soon.
MG was all but consigned to the history books by 1995 when the MGB-based RV8 ended production. Then came the MGF, which didn’t just breathe new life into the historic brand but took the fight to the Mazda MX-5. In many ways, the Brit was the much better, more advanced car thanks to its mid-mounted alloy engine and Hydragas suspension.
Here was a Midget for modern times with a competitive starting price, and plenty of buyers found this package more appealing than the Mazda that was by then growing long in the tooth - 77,269 MGFs found willing homes before it was replaced by the TF version. Sadly the lack of a dealer network meant that the car was never sold in America, thus denying MG a chance to re-live its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, when about half of all MGs ever sold – hundreds of thousands of cars in total - went to that market.
Skoda Octavia (1996-2004)
The first-generation Skoda Octavia is an unremarkable car in many ways, yet it’s also the car that turned the Czech manufacturer from the butt of jokes to sales success. By now owned by Volkswagen, the Octavia cleverly made the most of the Mk4 Golf’splatform to offer a family hatch for small car money. With strong build quality, generous cabin and boot, and a drive that was better than that of its German cousins, the Octavia nailed it.
Such was the importance of the Octavia to Skoda’s fortunes and turnaround, the advertising campaign used the cheeky tagline ‘It’s a Skoda, honest.’ That sort of tongue in cheek attitude endeared the Octavia to thousands and paved the way for the vRS model (pictured) that arrived in 2001 to be taken seriously as a rival to the likes of the Ford Mondeo ST220 and Honda Accord Type R.
Porsche Boxster (1996-2004)
Without the Porsche Boxster, we would likely not have the company nor wide range of cars we know and love today. With sales dropping off of the last air-cooled 911, the mid-engined, water-cooled Boxster could not have been more important to Porsche’s survival. The Boxster shared its complete front end with the still to be launched 996-series 911, helping to save costs.
It was the company’s first roadster since the 1970s 914 and caused a showroom stampede when it arrived in 1996. The first-generation Boxster went on to sell around 160,000 units, pumping money into Porsche’s coffers and introducing thousands to the company. Although the original 2.5-litre model was criticised for being a little underpowered, that was soon addressed with larger motors to keep interest alive throughout its eight-year life.
Lotus Elise (1996-2001)
If ever there was a lesson in going right back to basic principles, the first Lotus Elise is it. After mixing with supercars and trying to beat the Mazda MX-5, Lotus returned to its roots with a thoroughly modern vision of its 7 sportscar. Weighing in at a mere 1608 lb (731kg), the original Elise was a joy to drive and quick because of that low mass, even with a humble 118bhp Rover K-series motor.
Quicker versions inevitably arrived to boost appeal and sales, along with the Exige coupe and rare 340R. However, the essential nature of that first Elise is what appealed to a broad spectrum of buyers and dragged Lotus back from the brink. It went on to notch up 10,619 sales, plus more for the models based on the same clever chassis tub, putting the Norfolk firm in the black and back on the map.
Buick GL 8 (2000-2010)
Buick’s history as a maker of luxury cars goes back to 1908 in the USA, but it was fond memories of the brand in China that helped it when it launched the GL8 there. Based on the Chevrolet Venture, also known as the Vauxhall Sintra in the UK, it was far from cutting edge but the comfort, space and swathes of wood and leather appealed to the Chinese market.
From its launch in China in 2000, the GL8 rapidly became the most popular car for business owners. It helped that Buick was among the first non-Chinese companies to build cars in China and was fortunate to be in the market early, but that’s all part of the industry. Just as importantly, the GL8 built an image for Buick in China that continues to this day as a maker of affordable luxury cars. Buick sold 872,000 cars in China in 2019, and GM is easily the most successful US car company in that market.
Bentley Continental GT (2003-2011)
Few cars were more eagerly anticipated than the Bentley Continental GT in 2003. The Crewe-based company had been building barely 1000 cars per year, so what would its new parent company Volkswagen do to improve on that? The resulting Continental GT was just the ticket thanks to its sleek coupe looks, four-seat cabin and, of course, the twin-turbo 6.0-litre W12 engine with 560 hp. No wonder 3200 customers put down deposits before the car was even launched.
Another first for Bentley was four-wheel drive in the Continental GT that helped make this a year-round daily driver for many of the thousands who flocked to the Flying B’s showrooms. In its first year, 6896 Continentals were sold and more than 40,000 of the first generation left the production line including the convertible GTC. Without the Continental GT, Bentley would likely be another British marque left to history books alone.