Hard to Kill


The life cycle of an automobile’s design is a brief one. Figure an average of four to six years for a given generation, with the mid-cycle facelift every two to three. Anything beyond that and people start whispering things like “long in the tooth.” In fact, in the course of automotive history, only a handful of designs have had real staying power, their unchanged shapes lasting far beyond the average.

Today’s 37-year-old Mercedes-Benz G-Class is one such oldie. The Morgan Plus 4/Plus 8 is another, a combined 66-year run of clamshell-fendered motoring in the finest British tradition. But with fewer than 15,000 copies produced in that time, the Morgan has never been the most accessible of cars.

So it is longevity coupled with accessibility we’re after here, and that brings us to the Volkswagen Beetle, Austin/Morris Mini and Fox-body Ford Mustang — three cars of very different yet surprisingly similar appeal, which during their combined 120-year production span attracted roughly 29 million total buyers. They were here to stay then, and they’re not going away anytime soon.

The story of the Volkswagen Type 1 begins in the early 1930s, with Ferdinand Porsche’s NSU Type 32 design, which itself was derived from Hans Ledwinka’s plan for the Tatra V570. Production of the inexpensive “people’s car” began by 1938, and then World War II halted the run in short order.

But if Porsche was the father of the Beetle, then surely British Major Ivan Hirst was its benevolent uncle. In the post-war rubble of 1945, it was Hirst who saw the potential to provide Allied Military Government officials with cheap wheels. He soon had production back online, with an official requisition that September for 20,000 Beetles. By the following March, the 1,000th car had rolled off the line.

Those first Beetles laid the groundwork for a model that would change relatively little over the next six decades, simply because it didn’t need to. Beneath the bulbous, arched profile lay a flat floorpan and centralized structural tunnel, with a Franz Reimspiess-designed 1,131-cc air-cooled flat-four mounted aft of the rear axle and mated to a four-speed transaxle. Though it produced just 24 horsepower and was halted by cable-actuated brakes, it was plenty enough to motor about in a time when no one was racing anyone anyway. A split rear window defines the early cars and is perhaps the Type 1’s sexiest feature, unless you count the Karmann Cabriolet, which was available as early as 1949.

East Coast importer Max Hoffman brought them to America in 1950, where they were cheap ($1,280 for a “Standard,” $1,480 for the “Deluxe”), unlike anything else on the road, and easy to sell. Volkswagen of America soon developed an extensive dealership network, and Doyle Dane Bernbach created the most iconic print ad campaign the world had ever seen, with taglines like “Think Small” and “Lemon” just daring American buyers to give the loveable little Bug a try. And boy, did we.

Many of the Beetle’s evolutionary changes occurred throughout the 1960s, with changes to suspension, bumpers, headlights and taillights, plus increases in displacement, power and — unrelated — window size. Also new was the Automatic Stick Shift semi-auto transmission. And, of course, the Baja Beetle.

The Super Beetle, a curved windshield, and Bosch fuel injection notwithstanding, the car was largely unchanged into the 1970s, and it was the 1975 introduction of the front-wheel-drive, water-cooled Rabbit hatchback that marked the beginning of the end of the Beetle in America. The sedan went away that year, and by 1979, the convertible was gone, too.

That’s not nearly the end of the Beetle’s story, of course, as production continued in both Mexico and in Brazil for another two decades, until the 21,529,464th car rolled off the line in Puebla, serenaded by a mariachi band, on July 30, 2003.

The Mini arrived as a result of both the 1956 Suez fuel crisis and British Motor Corporation (BMC) chairman Leonard Lord’s distaste for “bloody awful bubble cars.” To address both issues, Lord enlisted designer Alec Issigonis, with instructions to build a car that utilized the existing A-series four-cylinder engine, and which would fit into a 10x4x4-foot box. By August 1959, BMC had its car, badged as both the Austin 7 and Morris Mini Minor.

A two-box design with a unibody featuring exterior welded seams and front and rear subframes, the Mini rode on saucer-sized 10-inch wheels and clever, progressively damped conical rubber “springs” developed by Alex Moulton. Even more clever was the 36-horsepower transverse 848-cc engine, mounted atop and sharing its oil with a four-speed transmission, with the entire 330-pound powertrain riding over the front axle and aided by Rzeppa-style CV joints. The Mini wasn’t the first front-wheel-drive car, but no manufacturer had ever packaged one quite so efficiently, and the result was a tiny car with nearly 80 percent of its interior volume available for passengers. Key features included centrally mounted gauges, exterior door hinges, sliding windows and a cute factor beyond measure. That it turned out to be an absolute wonder to drive cemented its legacy forever.

It’s no surprise then that motorsport was part of the Mini story from the beginning, Revolutionary race car builder John Cooper saw immense potential in the cars, and by late 1961, the 997-cc, disc-braked Mini Cooper was on the prowl. Outright victories piled up, starting with Pat Moss and Ann Riley’s win at the 1962 Tulip Rally in a works Cooper. The Mini would cement its competition legacy with outright wins at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, ’65 and ’67 (and ’66, for that matter, though a headlight technicality DQ’d them).

All the while, the production cars soldiered on, added to by other body-styles, including the Countryman/Traveller van, a pickup and the topless, door-less Moke. BMC’s upmarket versions, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, are distinguished by their trunks and cushy interiors. Nothing quite matched the original for its charm, however. Engines, too, varied, and ranged from the 848 and 997 up to the 1,071- and 1,275-cc units found in the hottest Mini around, the Cooper S. They boasted 70 and 76 horsepower, respectively.

Minis are chiefly identified by era, or marque, and we only ever officially got the Mk I (1959–67) and Mk II (1968–70) cars here in America, where prices ranged from $1,295 for a base 1960 Mini 850 up to $2,850 for a 1968 Cooper S. The rest of the world, however, was teeming with the things until production’s end in 2000, when roughly 5.4 million had rolled off assembly lines at more than 20 plants around the world. Nothing major changed in all those years, though the Clubman with its square front end debuted in 1969, door hinges moved inboard, windows got winders, and more than 60 special editions came and went.

Compared to the Mini and Beetle, the Fox-body Mustang is a mere pup. But a 14-year production run of nearly 2.7 million examples is nothing to slouch at, particularly when the car in question eased us out of the Malaise Era and into a new era of grin-inducing horsepower.

Ford designed the Fox platform to support a range of cars, and 11 different nameplates used it, including the Fairmont, Cougar and Continental. The Mustang, built from 1979 to 1993, outlasted them all. Based on a Jack Telnack-led design, with a slant-back nose, recessed quad headlights, good outward visibility, and louvers running up the C-pillars, the Mustang II replacement would be larger overall than that car but also 200 pounds lighter, with 20 percent more passenger space.

The front suspension was a variation on the MacPherson strut theme and left plenty of room for a larger engine bay, which would come in handy for a variety of powerplants, including four-cylinders, a V-6, a straight-six, and the all-important V-8.

The new Mustang paced the Indy 500 in its debut year, the first Mustang to do so since 1964. It also enticed 370,000 folks to buy it, turning it from the No. 22 seller in America to the No. 7 seller. Ford had a hit on its hands.

But the really big news — the kind upon which legends are made — arrived in 1982, in the form of an all-new GT powered by an all-new high-output V-8 — the engine everybody means when they say, “5.0.” With a whopping-for-the-day 157 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, the GT hit 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. In advertising, Ford declared, “The Boss is Back,” and it all worked nicely; five times as many V-8s sold that year over the previous year, and the power would only go up from there.

There was a convertible for 1983, and in 1984, for less than 10 grand, you could get your 5.0 with either a four-barrel carb or with all-new fuel injection rated at 165 horsepower. That wasn’t even the biggest news, either, because for $5,000 more, there was the quite-Euro Mustang SVO, with 175 horses from a screaming 2.3-liter turbo that benefited from an air-to-air intercooler, BorgWarner T5, adjustable suspension, four-wheel vented disc brakes and functional hood scoop. Road & Track claimed, “This may be the best all-around car for the enthusiast driver ever produced by the U.S. industry.”

SVO and GT output soon eclipsed 200, until Ford killed the SVO for 1987, leaving only the 5.0 and 2.3-liter four-banger to power the Mustang into the 1990s. There were few complaints, however, because superficial updates modernized the look, without sacrificing what made it work. Ford also reinvigorated the V-8, to the tune of 225 horsepower and 300 pound feet. It was enough put the GT on various 10-best lists, fully a decade into its life.

Ford closed out production in 1993 with the SVT Cobra and Cobra R, distinguished by their limited numbers, GT40 heads, hot cams, limited-slip differentials and, in the R, rear seat, a/c and radio deletes.

Much of the Fox-body Mustang’s legacy has been shored up in the ensuing decades as more enthusiasts realize just how cheap and easy it is to tune the 5.0 from a bottomless well of bolt-on performance parts. It’s difficult to go faster for less, frankly.

On paper, the Beetle, Mini and Foxbody Mustang have little in common. But over the course of their long lives, each changed the way people viewed what a car could and should be. All three were and still are plentiful, inexpensive to own and operate, and easy to enjoy. I imagine we’ll still see them out and about for the next 120 years.

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