1948 could well be the single most important year in motoring history.
It marked the launch of many cars that went on to become landmark automotive designs which still influence how cars are designed. With the trials of the Second World War beginning to fade, public interest in new cars was at an all-time high and car makers had rallied in the post-conflict period to come up with innovative new models to serve every buyer.
70 years on, we look at what made the cars of 1948 so significant:
The entire Porsche dynasty started with the tiny 356. It was designed by Ferry Porsche, son of Ferdinand who created the Volkswagen Beetle, and it followed the VW’s air-cooled, rear-engined layout. However, that was it for commonality as the Porsche was a purpose-built sports car.
The first 49 were put together in Gmünd, Austria, before production shifted to Stuttgart and sales really got under way. Early 356s are prized by collectors, but later models are better to drive.
Before creating the Mini, Alec Issigonis conceived the Morris Minor as Britain’s post-war answer to the motoring needs of the masses. He got much of it spot on, though the planned-for flat-four engine was replaced by a much cheaper 918cc sidevalve that restricted performance to a sedate pace.
The prototype was also widened by four inches, resulting in the trademark band down the middle of the bonnet. Better engines arrived in 1952 along with a facelift and the Minor remained on sale until 1971.
The 2CV should have been a pre-war car, but the conflict got in the way and Citroën was determined the design should not fall into the hands of France's German occupiers. As a result, the finished car was more refined than the absolutely basic transport originally planned. It was still pared back, though, with a canvas roof that extended back to form the boot. The 375cc flat-twin engine grew to 425cc and then a heady 602cc.
Citroën was swamped with orders when the car was launched in Paris and the 2CV carried on merrily until 1990.
The XK120 didn’t just put Jaguar into the big league of sports cars, it gave life to the XK six-cylinder engine that would power its cars for the next four decades. With ‘export or die’ in mind, the XK120 was aimed at the important North American market, where it sold very well.
It also performed brilliantly in racing to forge a reputation for Jaguar as a maker of affordable fast cars that’s continued by today’s F-type.
Preston’s Tucker’s revolutionary new 48 took the year of its launch as its name, though it’s often referred to as the Torpedo because of the body’s shape. Powered by a flat-six engine mounted behind the rear axle to improve cabin space, the Tucker also bucked convention with its focus on fuel economy and passenger safety. It even had a third headlight in the bonnet that rotated in line as the front wheels steered.
Clever as it undoubtedly was, the 48 was also heavy and unproven, which along with corporate problems contributed to its demise after only 51 examples had been built.
The Jeepster was a brave early attempt to take the 4x4 in a new direction and away from utilitarian use. Based on the civilianised running gear of the same Jeep that had served in the Second World War, the Jeepster was meant as a sporting car for dashing young things to get about in. Sadly, performance was more 4x4 than phwoar and a $1765 price tag made it expensive.
Only just over 19,000 Jeepsters were made but it inspired the company to carry on developing into new areas that eventually led to the likes of the Wagoneer, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.
Vauxhall’s ownership by US-based General Motors was apparent with the launch of the Velox (and its less powerful Wyvern sister) in 1948. It was an early adopter of transatlantic styling with a broad grille and fared-in headlights. It gave the Velox a racy appearance and the 55bhp 2.3-litre six-cylinder engine endowed it with a decent turn of pace for the period.
If only the handling had been quite as honed the Velox would have been a much bigger success.
In a swoop of the designer’s pen, Hudson went from its very formal earlier Commodore shape to a graceful range of saloons, coupes and convertibles. Frank Spring was responsible for the shape that meant Hudson was one of the first in the USA to take up the full-front end and integrated headlights that became key notes of 1950s US cars.
The Commodore also incorporated Monobuilt construction where a perimeter chassis frame allowed a much lower seating position to help with handling and styling. With straight six- and eight-cylinder engines, the Commodore was and remains a very desirable car.
The Sunbeam-Talbot 90 and its smaller-engined 80 sister could easily have become just another ho-hum early post-war model. However, it gained a reputation as a very able rally car thanks to its rugged chassis, agile handling and determined power units. The simple 64bhp 2.0-litre motor could power it to 75mph and keep going where others might break.
This made it ideal for long-distance motorsport and it won many rallies, including the Monte Carlo in 1955.
The 203 set in motion Peugeot’s reputation for fine handling and riding cars that lasted until the end of the 20th Century. Independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering were almost unheard of in an affordable family car, yet the 203 boasted them and hydraulic brakes too.
The 45bhp 1.3-litre engine was tough and powered the Peugeot to many successes in rallying. Little wonder this ground-breaking model enjoyed a production life that lasted till 1960.
Aston Martin DB1
As the name suggests, this was the first Aston Martin to emerge after the company was bought and saved by tractor magnate David Brown, though it was a title given to the car after it was succeeded by the DB2. That lineage carries on to this day, but the DB1 was also notable for ushering in a modern look to the firm’s cars with full wings and enclosed headlights.
This was also the first appearance of the grille shape that still marks out the front end of every post-war Aston. The DB1 is one of the rarest cars ever made by the company as just 15 were built.
The Bristol 401 cost two and a half times the price of a Jaguar XK120 coupe when it was new. This was a measure of how well made the Bristol was, but it held sales back to just 650 in total. Why is such a significant car, then? Simple: it set the template for all subsequent cars from the small firm and achieved a benchmark in quality that others would be judged by.
Think of the 401 as Savile Row tailoring and it’s easy to see why so many aspired to it.
The first car to bear the Ferrari name as a manufacturer was the 125, but it was a race car and leaves the 166 as the firm’s original roadgoing machine. Even so, it scored an outright victory at the 1949 Le Mans to set Ferrari on the path to endurance motorsport success.
It shared the same chassis as the 125, so handling was a cert, while performance was also a given thanks to the 110bhp 2.0-litre V12 tucked under pert bodywork by the likes of Bertone, Pinin Farina and Ghia. The rest is history, with Ferrari producing awe-inspiring road cars to this day.
Few will have missed the fact it’s the 70th anniversary of Land Rover in 2018, but more importantly is what the genesis of the company achieved. Built to be rugged from the outset, it also used lightweight aluminium panels that didn’t rust and were easy to bash back into shape after an off-road mishap.
This was down to necessity rather than design as aluminium was cheaper to get hold of than steel, but it set the design for all following Land Rovers right up to the final Defender in 2016.
The sleek styling of the Tatra 600, known as the Tatraplan, should have been a huge success across Europe. However, its launch in 1948 coincided with a move to Communist rule so the 600 was rarely seen outside of the Eastern Bloc. That was a great shame as this handsome car offered seating for six inside a body with a drag coefficient of just 0.32Cd.
Production ended in 1952 when all private cars stopped being made in Czechoslovakia after 6342 600s rolled off the line, with 2100 made at Skoda’s plant in Mlada Boleslav. The car was truly a trailblazer of packaging and design.
Cadillac Series 62
The third generation of Cadillac Series 62 was an obvious step forward for the American luxury car maker. At the time, it wasn’t remarked on, but this Series 62 was the first Caddy to come with fins on its rear wings, starting an American design trend that would come to symbolise the 1950s.
It was a sure sign the USA was leaving behind the bad days of war and moving into a more exuberantly prosperous period. A new 5.4-litre V8 motor also joined the range at the end of ’48 to give more power and refinement.
How could you not be bowled over by a car with a Futuramic body and Rocket V8 engine? This is exactly what the Oldsmobile 88 offered when it went on sale late in 1948. With that kind of firepower under the bonnet, it turned Oldsmobile’s reputation from staid to status when it started to win in NASCAR racing.
The 88 also enjoys the title of being America’s first true muscle car.
Packard Super Eight
Packard is important to all car makers as a warning from history. Immediately after the war, it was in good financial shape, yet poor management and a move towards the mass market hurt the firm’s reputation.
The Super Eight was a decent car but it weighed too much as Packard couldn’t afford an all-new design at the time so they reclothed the previous model with a larger, heavier body. While the styling was fashionably modern, the straight eight engine felt old hat next to rivals’ powerful new V8s.