It is defined as something or someone that is pleasant and attractive, and in this context we are mainly confining ourselves to a car's visually appeal - and the quirkier, whimsier or prettier the better in our book at least as far as this story is concerned.
So these are the cars we will be looking at here. It’s really just a matter of opinion. If there are cars which you think should have been included but weren’t, or were but shouldn’t have been, it’s fine – we’re both right. Let’s take a look at our choices:
Austin-Healey Sprite / MG Midget
We start on a controversial note by avoiding the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1 sports car, known as the Frogeye in the UK and the Bugeye in North America. Yes, many people love it, but others feel it is too ugly to be charming.
Not so the Mk2 or Mk3 Sprites, the more or less identical Mk1 and Mk2 MG Midgets (hence the collective term ‘Spridget’) or the third-generation Midget produced after the Austin-Healey brand was discontinued. All of these shared the same basic shape, with a few styling changes, and they were all lovely.
The A112 is the most famous car produced by Italian manufacturer Autobianchi, which became fully owned by Fiat in 1968. The three-door hatchback introduced a year later was in some ways a prototype of the Fiat 127.
The 127 was a reasonably charming car in its own right, but the A112 was a little beauty. Despite being updated seven times in 17 years, it never lost the visual appeal it had when it was introduced.
A surprising number of cars nowadays considered to be dripping with charm were conceived as strictly functional vehicles. We’ll come to the Fiat 500, the Mini and the Volkswagen Beetle in due course, but the same applies to the 2CV, which was designed to be appealing because of what it did, and at what little cost, rather than because of its looks.
The two-cylinder “umbrella on wheels” had a very long production life, from 1948 to 1990. In the UK it was far more popular at the end of that period than it had been in earlier times, when it was considered bizarre rather than charming. Today, it’s much loved on both sides of the English Channel.
There is a small group of vehicles based on, but looking quite unlike, regular production cars, and designed for recreational (and sometimes military) use. These include the Mini Moke, the Renault Rodeo and Citroën’s doorless, plastic-bodied Méhari, a relative of the 2CV.
By a small margin, we reckon the Méhari is the most charming, but context is important here. A Méhari on the sun-drenched streets of Sainte-Maxime in July is much more appealing than one in Slough on a wet Thursday in October.
Japan’s kei cars are inevitably seen in other countries as quaint and unusual, even though they have been a serious and important part of the motor industry for decades.
Few kei cars have ever been sold outside the home market; of those that have, one of the most delightful is the Copen sports car, which was far roomier inside than a first glance might suggest.
A case could also be made for the pretty little Suzuki Cappuccino, which went out of production four years before the Copen arrived.
When it arrived in 1972, the 126 was thought of as an angular, boxy thing compared with the irresistibly gorgeous Fiat 500 it replaced. Time has been kind to the design produced by Sergio Sartorelli (1928-2009), which nowadays seems as cute as a basketful of kittens.
1972 was too late for a major European manufacturer to be launching a rear-engined car when front-wheel drive was starting to become popular. Despite this, the 126 was highly favoured in Eastern bloc countries – particularly Poland, where most examples were built.
Fiat Nuova 500
Whatever might be said in favour of the pre-War Topolino or the 1990s Cinquecento, neither of them even approached the charm of the Nuova (“new”) 500, which was introduced in 1957 and survived until 1975.
Everything about its design was functional, yet somehow Dante Giacosa (1905-1996) created one of the most appealing-looking cars ever built. Widely respected though he is for his other work, the 500 is surely his masterpiece, and properly put Italy on wheels. Remarkably given its size, it was even sold in America for a short period, shifting around 300 examples there.
For around 15 years in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, several manufacturers brought out retro models of various kinds. The Chevrolet Camaro, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Mustang, MINI and Volkswagen Beetle, among others, all referred stylistically to past eras while using up-to-date technology.
The list also includes the modern Fiat 500, whose look and appeal are remarkably close to those of the original, even though it is outstandingly larger. For the best effect, try a 500 with the purring two-cylinder MultiAir engine.
Ford Fiesta Mk1
Ford entered the front-wheel drive supermini sector with its first Fiesta in 1976. There have been many Fiestas since, but in our view this is the prettiest of them all.
It’s at its most charming when fitted with the rounded quadrilateral headlights which give the impression of raised eyebrows. The circular-headlight XR2 hot hatch looked great too, but less friendly than the more humble versions.
German manufacturer Glas produced saloon, coupe and van versions of its tiny Goggomobil from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s. The saloon in particular is a delight, thanks partly to its cartoonishly sad look and partly to the fact that it was never produced with an engine of more than 400cc (though someone slotted in a 10.2-litre radial engine a few years ago).
As far as we know, Jim Clark (1936-1968) is the only F1 World Champion ever to have competed in a Goggomobil. The 1963 and 1965 title holder drove one – owned by his friend Ian Scott-Watson (born 1930) – in an autotest in the 1950s.
Having built several BMC models under licence in Italy since the early 1960s, Innocenti launched its own version of the Mini in 1974. This used Mini running gear, but had a three-door hatchback body designed by Nuccio Bertone (1914-1997).
Though not exactly beautiful, the Innocenti Mini was fresh, attractive and far more modern-looking than the British car, thanks to Bertone’s work. Production continued until 1993, but there was a major switch in 1982 when Innocenti dropped the Mini name and began using engines supplied by Daihatsu.
The first-generation Elite was a successful road-going sports car with an excellent record in motorsport. It was also simply gorgeous, arguably even more so than the Lotus Elan which followed it, or indeed than any other Lotus ever built.
The design – originally by Peter Kirwan-Taylor (1930-2014), with later contributions from Frank Costin (1920-1995) – remains incredibly fresh today, even though the Elite first appeared over 60 years ago, in 1957.
Of course the MX-5 has to be on this list, but which one? The Mk3 was a little chunky, while the Mk4 has fashionably complex styling which is typical of the early 21st century and will no doubt be replaced by something simpler when tastes change.
The earlier cars have neither of these problems, but the Mk1 (like some other cars with retractable headlights) looks like it’s going around with its eyes shut most of the time. So it has to be the Mk2.
For all its practicality, its technical cleverness and its potential as a competition vehicle, the Mini would not have become the iconic British car of the 1960s if it hadn’t looked exactly right.
It was already old-fashioned when the Innocenti Mini came along in 1974, but the more modern flat front used for the Clubman and 1275GT was abandoned in 1980. The original look was still popular enough to attract customers for a further 20 years after that.
Although it was developed for the U.S. market by the company which became known as the American Motors Corporation (AMC) following a merger with Hudson, the Metropolitan was one of the least American-looking cars ever devised.
There was no aggression or sense of status about its design, only what writer Jack Nerad described as “an ageless, cuddly quality” which made the car “as irresistible as a baby kitten”.
To add extra confusion, it was built not in America but in the UK, by Austin. It was sold in markets around the world from 1954 to 1962 as an Austin, Hudson or Nash.
The rather dumpy NSU Prinz saloon led to the much prettier, Bertone-designed NSU Sport Prinz coupe, which in return gave rise to the gorgeous little Spider convertible of 1964 to 1967.
The Spider is credited with being the first production car to be fitted with a rotary engine designed by Felix Wankel (1902-1988). If fitted with a megaphone exhaust, which rotary engines respond well to, a competition-prepared Spider is rather like an innocent-looking puppy with a bark like machine-gun fire.
Peugeot did not have a particular reputation for building charming cars when the 205 was launched in 1983. The simple but enormously effective styling of the new supermini therefore came as a big surprise.
GTi or not, three doors or five, this was an extraordinarily good-looking car. Unless you really objected to Peugeots, it was difficult not to fall in love with this one.
Peugeot has not built a more delightful supermini since, but nor has anyone else.
If the Fiat 500 was the loveliest small, rear-engined, European car of the 1950s, the Dauphine must come a close second. More stylish than the 4CV it replaced (sold as the 750 in the UK) and less boxy than the Renault 8 which followed, the Dauphine was lovely from roof to floor and bumper to bumper. The Caravelle cabriolet based on it was unquestionably more beautiful, but not necessarily more charming.
There have been three generations of Twingo, and all of them have been visually appealing in their way. But while it is possible to like the later versions, the first is the one you can fall in love with.
It was a small, cheap, no-frills car (the kind of thing French manufacturers in general are very good at designing) and it had an irresistibly happy, smiling face. It was never sold in the UK because it couldn’t be built with right-hand drive, but that didn’t stop people importing it anyway.
The quirky and very distinctive look of the 92 was the result of a serious commitment to safety, aerodynamic efficiency and structural rigidity. Although it appears charming and inoffensive now, it was a very successful rally car in its day, as later Saabs were too.
Saab entered a new design phase when it created the 99 in the late 1960s, but the basic shape of the 92 lived on until its descendant, the 96, was discontinued in 1980, 31 years after the 92 entered production.
Derived from the prototype Swatch car and originally known simply as the smart, Daimler’s exceptionally short two-seater was appealing because of its technological cleverness, or its cuddly looks, or perhaps both.
Attempts to move the brand into other market sectors with the Roadster sports car and the still-born formore SUV were financially catastrophic. The current smart, available as either a fortwo or the extended-wheelbase forfour, remains true to the original 1990s concept.
Tang Hua Book Of Songs
Chinese brand Tang Hua took three bright yellow electric concept cars to the 2008 Detroit Show. The Piece of Cloud and the amphibious Detroit Fish were intriguing, but the Book of Songs was the one that looked most like it had been driven to the Show directly from a children’s cartoon.
Even if it wasn’t quite the most charming car ever devised (opinions may vary on that), it had what must be one of the most charming names.
If you are in any doubt about how the look of the original VW affected its fortunes, consider this: the strange charm of its design was enough to make members of the ‘60s flower power generation forget that it had been commissioned by Adolf Hitler, whose values it is safe to say none of them shared.
Volkswagen brought out retro Beetle models in 1997 and 2011. Neither caught the spirit of the original in the way the new Fiat 500 did.
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
The coupe and convertible versions of the VW Beetle were named after Karmann, which hand-built their bodies, and Italian design company Ghia, which looked after the styling. Ghia’s work made this perhaps the most beautiful Volkswagen ever.
Two other VW Karmann Ghias were devised, one by Volkswagen itself and one by its Brazilian subsidiary. They were interesting, but neither had anything like the charm of the first.