The best-selling cars aren’t always the most exciting ones.
The average motorist doesn’t care about downforce, heritage, horsepower or off-road capacity. To most, a car is a car like a fridge is a fridge.
There are times when, for a plethora of reasons, a car successfully makes the leap from a basic mode of transportation to a passion and, sometimes, a cultural icon. You’ll recognize them when you’re out and about: owners wave at each other, flash their lights, stop to chat, and will pull over to help when you have a breakdown. Here are some of the cars that have achieved cult status around the world and a few we think will get there in the coming years. We give the year of first production in brackets.
Volkswagen Beetle (1938)
Omnipresence made the Volkswagen Beetle one of the most collectible cars in the world. In Germany, it’s a symbol of an embattled car manufacturer that defeated the odds and sprung up from near extinction after a devastating war. In America, it illustrated the growing popularity of small, fuel-efficient imported cars in the 1960s and the 1970s. In Mexico, it’s largely remembered as a taxi.
The Beetle continues to turn heads today. Even toddlers who have never known a world without the internet point and smile when one drives past.
Citroën 2CV (1948)
Like the Mini and the Beetle, the Citroën 2CV has permeated into popular culture. It’s a model collectors worship as a four-wheeled deity while expounding it’s not just a car, it’s a way of life. Broadly speaking, 2CV owners love to tinker; stroll through any car show in France and you’re highly unlikely to find two identical 2CVs.
They end up painted every color imaginable (sometimes all on the same car), lifted, dropped, face-lifted with Traction Avant front ends, turned into a rat rods and so on. We’ve even seen a few powered by a GS-sourced four-cylinder engine.
Volkswagen Bus (1949)
The Volkswagen Bus started life as a commercial van, but it’s the hippy movement of the 1960s that largely fueled its meteoric rise to cult status. Like the Beetle, the Bus has become highly collectible. Well-sorted early split-window models often come with a six-figure price tag, which is an enormous paradox for a vehicle originally designed to put the masses on four wheels.
Toyota Land Cruiser (1951)
The 40-Series Toyota Land Cruiser introduced in 1960 was one of the first truly collectible 4x4s. Its popularity soared when the retro-inspired FJ Cruiser arrived in 2006. As values gradually climb, collectors increasingly turn towards the later 50- and 60-Series models.
In Australia, the Land Cruiser enjoys a different type of following. Toyota still sells the 70-Series model introduced in 1984. It’s not cheap or state-of-the-art, but it remains the go-to reliable vehicle for adventure-seekers on a quest to leave no stone unturned in the Outback - and a deep desire to return unscathed.
Chevrolet Corvette (1953)
Early on, it looked like the Chevrolet Corvette would never become a superstar. In 1953, the nameplate’s first year on the market, it was an expensive, under-powered convertible with an atypical fiberglass body. Chevrolet quickly made it more desirable by adding a V8 engine (available with fuel injection starting in 1958) and performance-boosting options like high-lift cams.
The Corvette had grown into a proper sports car by the time the second-generation model (also known as the Sting Ray) arrived in 1963. As the saying goes: the rest is history.
Chevrolet Impala (1958)
The Chevrolet Impala was one of the best-selling cars in America during the 1960s. Versions equipped with the desirable Super Sport package turned into sought-after classic cars, and all variants regardless of engine or body style later became a cornerstone of the low-rider scene that emerged from California.
Austin Mini (1959)
From its humble roots as a pocket-sized economy car for four, the Mini grew to become part of British popular culture. It transcended social classes during the 1960s, which is easier said than done in the automotive world. It provided cheap transportation by day and turned into a fashion icon by night.
The Beatles each had one, it prominently starred in films and the Cooper-badged models earned a tremendous amount of respect on race tracks in Europe and in America. Today, it’s a prized collector’s item from Baton Rouge to Beijing, via Belfast.
Porsche 911 (1963)
The Porsche 911’s silhouette is one of the most timeless designs in the automotive industry. Recognizable instantly, it has regularly evolved over the past 54 years but its appearance has never changed drastically. The most controversial update came with the 1997 996 series (pictured), which received L-shaped headlights and a water-cooled engine. It remains the black sheep of the 911 family but it nonetheless commands the respect of enthusiasts and collectors.
Trabant 601 (1963)
Motorists consigned the Trabant to Germany’s attic after the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Germans suddenly had unrestricted access to considerably more modern cars like Volkswagen’s Golf and Polo. West Germans had zero interest in purchasing a Duroplast-bodied two-door that defied modern beliefs. Trabant values embarked on a free fall.
Today, Berliners eagerly exploit the Trabant’s image as the people’s car of East Germany. Several companies rent them out to tourists, there is an entire museum dedicated to the model and we’ve even seen a beer tap made from its two-stroke, two-cylinder engine.
Ford Mustang (1964)
Ford had no idea what it was about to unleash as it prepared to unveil the Mustang in April 1964. The company expected to sell about 100,000 examples during the model’s first year on the market. It sold 22,000 on the day of the car’s debut and crossed the 100,000-mark in just three months. Sales peaked at 607,000 in 1966. The Mustang became an automotive celebrity before the end of the 1970s, and it reaps the rewards of this reputation as a classic car.
Chevrolet Camaro (1967)
Chevrolet’s answer to the wildly popular Ford Mustang quickly built up a following of its own. The Camaro found 220,000 buyers during its first year on the market, an impressive statistic that still paled in comparison to Mustang sales.
American emissions regulations punched the Camaro in the gut during the latter half of the 1970s. The nameplate survived and, boosted in part by its re-introduction in 2010, managed to surf the classic muscle car wave.
Volvo 200 Series (1974)
The reputation of Volvo’s 200 Series varies greatly from country to country. In Sweden, where it’s from, it’s understandably tied to nostalgia. In the south of Europe, in countries like Italy and Spain, it’s often little more than an obscure sedan that looks like it was designed using Lego bricks instead of clay.
In America’s Pacific Northwest, the 200 is the object of boundless fascination. Hundreds of examples still meander across Seattle and Portland daily. People who would normally pay very little attention to cars go to great lengths to keep their old Volvo on the road.
Mercedes-Benz W123 (1976)
Not that long ago, many motorists considered the Mercedes-Benz W123 as little more than a cheap, solid form of transportation that accelerated with the lethargy of a scorbutic sailor. The predecessor to today’s E-Class has recently settled comfortably into its new role as an accessible, daily-drivable classic car. Its successor, the W124, isn’t far behind.
Land Rover 90/110/Defender (1983)
The Defender stands as the final evolution of the go-anywhere Land Rover Series I introduced in 1948. Buyers flocked to this back-to-the-basics truck for its ability to casually overcome the forces of nature. As it aged, it became a symbol of both the British car industry and a bygone era. You’re unlikely to find a Defender owner who bought one because they simply needed a car.
BMW M3 E30 (1985)
The original, E30-based M3 was born out of BMW’s desire to enter the second-generation 3 Series in touring car races, and the necessity to sell at least 5,000 examples for homologation reasons.
Flared and lowered, the street-legal E30 arrived with a 200hp 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine. Homologation specials can be a tough sell but buyers couldn’t get enough of the M3. BMW built more than 17,000 examples of the original M3 over a six-year period. The self-proclaimed purveyors of the ultimate driving machine have much to thank it for.
Jeep Wrangler (1986)
Ask anyone to draw you a Jeep and you’re bound to get a sketch that looks a lot like a Wrangler. It’s the modern interpretation of the Willys and it channels its heritage better than most without going retro. The Wrangler is to the automotive industry what the Vespa is to the world of scooters. Fortunately, Jeep kept that in mind as it designed the brand-new fourth-generation model introduced recently.
Mazda MX-5 Miata (1989)
Mazda presented the MX-5 Miata as an up-to-date interpretation of classic British and Italian roadsters like the Fiat Spider and the MG B. At the time, the firm explained its two-seater exemplified the concept of jinba ittai, a Japanese term which translates to “the oneness of horse and rider.”
In hindsight, Mazda notes reliability is another attribute that helped make the Miata a hit. “It didn’t leak oil all over your driveway. It started every time and didn’t overheat. Bringing reliability to the small roadster segment was an evolutionary revolution,” the company remembers. Unfortunately, early cars demonstrate a propensity for Fiat-like rust.
In 2014, Guinness (the book, not the beer) certified the Miata as the best-selling two-seater sports car of all time. Prices are on their way up and Mazda recently launched an in-house MX-5 restoration service in Japan.
Subaru WRX (1992)
Even fitted with the stock exhaust, the Subaru WRX is the kind of car you hear before you see. The flat-four’s inimitable rumble denotes the presence of Subaru’s rally-bred machine. It’s an enthusiast’s car by nature but owners are split into two clear-cut camps. There are those who modify their car and those who prefer keeping it stock.
Audi RS2 Avant (1994)
Porsche helped Audi create the RS2 Avant, its first RS-badged model. Starting with a humble 80 Avant, the two partners dropped a 2.2-litre five-cylinder in the engine bay and bolted a large turbocharger to the side of it. It sent 310hp to all four wheels via a six-speed manual transmission and Audi’s well-known quattro all-wheel drive system.
We take all-wheel drive for granted today but it was a real novelty in the mid-1990s, at least in the segment of the market the RS2 competed in. Quattro made Audi’s hot rod wagon one of the very few high-performance cars usable daily, even during winter in the mountains.
Holden Ute (2000)
The Holden Ute’s lineage goes all the way back to the Coupe Utility of 1951, though the Ute name didn’t become official until the Commodore VX launched in 2000. Australia’s home-brewed car-turned-pickup had two personalities: it was a work truck and a sports car. They each led different lives.
While the work-oriented models were often mercilessly driven into the ground, the performance models made by Holden and tuner HSV were cherished by enthusiasts. They were the symbols of Australia’s unique breed of performance, sometimes packing up to 576hp.
Renault Avantime (2001)
The Renault Avantime was, at best, ridiculed when it made its debut as a concept in 1999. It was the answer to a question no one had ever asked, especially no one at Renault. And yet, in hindsight, it was significant as the face of the company’s then-upcoming design language.
With 8557 examples built over a three-year period, the Avantime is considered a magnificent failure. The fiasco’s flip side is that most of the production run has already ended up in the hands of collectors, some who have joined the growing number of Avantime clubs in Europe.
BMW X6 (2007)
Critics passionately argue both generations of the BMW X6 encapsulate the concept of conspicuous consumption. The design is contentious and naysayers insist it excels neither as an SUV or as a coupe. But even the most vocal opponents of BMW’s slinky four-door coupe can’t deny the X6 pioneered an entire segment. History shows the classic car market is often kind to trailblazers. We predict an all-original, one-owner 2009 X6 M will draw a crowd at Retromobile in 2057.
Skoda Yeti (2009)
Skoda’s recently-departed Yeti was a cross between a van and an SUV. It built up a loyal fan base that continues to appreciate its offbeat design and its quirky personality. Believe it or not, there is even an active club for Yeti owners in England.
Its replacement, the Karoq, went on sale earlier this year. We called it a very capable and well-rounded family car but noted it’s just a little bit short of any individuality to call its own – unlike the Yeti.
BMW 1 Series M (2011)
Almost sold out before it reached showrooms, the BMW 1 Series M was an instant classic. Decision-makers in Munich originally planned on limiting production to 2700 examples worldwide. BMW ended up building 6309 cars but demand nonetheless outstripped supply by a wide margin. Used examples often sell for more than they did when new.
Dodge Challenger Hellcat (2014)
The Dodge Challenger competes in the same segment as the Chevrolet Camaro and the Ford Mustang. But while its two main rivals have become more driver-oriented, the Challenger continues to channel the American muscle car ethos of the 1960s. Dodge capitalized on that image when it launched the Hellcat, a 707hp one-finger salute to downsizing in the automotive industry. The Hellcat – and the recently-launched Demon – will fetch big bucks at classic car auctions 40 years from now.
Alpine A110 (2017)
Alpine fans are a quiet but patient bunch. They dutifully kept the brand’s fire lit even 20 years after the last car rolled out of the Dieppe, France, factory. Renault rewarded them by announcing Alpine’s return and promptly delivering one of the best driver’s cars in recent memory. The original A110 is like gold dust and its 21st century reincarnation looks set to follow the same path.