Five Vehicles That Predicted Today’s Automotive LandscapeDecember 15, 2021
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That the Piedmontese word countach translates roughly to “holy shit!” tells you all you need to know about the impact of this quintessential Lamborghini. Unlike earlier supercars, whose sensuousness was often compared to reclining nudes, designer Marcello Gandini’s brutal masterwork looks more like a deadly weapon, a flying ax-head. This is the Countach’s legacy: It defined a level of outrageousness against which all future supercars would be judged. But the Countach itself is defined by its mechanical packaging. Mounting the radiators at the sides meant the nose could plunge to a honed edge. The huge, longitudinally oriented V-12 faced rearward, its transmission pointed toward the front, centralizing the car’s weight and pushing the passenger compartment forward, inverting the typical sports-car proportions. Also, in the post-Countach era, a supercar without silly-opening doors is no supercar at all.
1976 Countach LP400 “Periscopio” Courtesy of Canepa
There were a few fancy sport-utility vehicles before the Range Rover. In fact, gilded and wood-paneled versions of the Jeep Wagoneer existed long before the term “sport-utility vehicle.” But the Range Rover, which officially arrived in the U.S. for 1987, was the first real snob-utility vehicle. Land Rover has held five royal warrants, after all. No vehicle in that market combined European appeal, genuine off-road ability, and clean, spare styling quite like the Range Rover. But the Range Rover, particularly the first-generation version, wasn’t a luxury vehicle. It was a premium vehicle, the first example of what would become known as a “lifestyle car.” It paved the road that Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, Maserati, and virtually every other high-end automaker would travel over the following decades.
1987 Range Rover Courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover
This story originally appeared in Volume 8 of Road & Track.
For its tiny dimensions, the original Mini carries an absurd amount of cultural weight. Consider this: From an engineering standpoint, the Mini is vastly more influential than the Volkswagen Beetle. Just look at any generation of the Beetle’s successor, the Golf (specifically, the GTI): tidy, understated body; transversely mounted four-cylinder; front-wheel drive; irrepressible joie de vivre. Even today’s GTI is a modern projection of the paradigm defined by the Mini Cooper S seen here. And it’s not just VW: The Mini’s basic layout has become the standard for nearly every passenger car in the ensuing decades. Only, most of the vehicles that follow that basic pattern still fail to meet the space and efficiency goals designer Alec Issigonis set for the original Mini—a full 80 percent of the car’s overall space is dedicated to its passengers. And there isn’t another automobile that transcended the budget-car realm to become such an icon.
1967 Austin Mini Cooper S Courtesy of Rudy And Cat Ouzounian
What is the oft-derided left-lane lounger of the Aughts doing in these pages? The first-gen Prius might not be typical of the cars we normally feature. But it was the first mainstream car to successfully introduce electrification to everyday buyers, launching a movement that dominates today’s auto industry. With its awkward stance, gawky proportions, and alien details, the Prius was never a triumph of design. But its hybrid powertrain and distinctive look made it an obvious badge of environmental consciousness. Hybrid-powered cars may prove to be a transitional step on the road to EV dominance, but the Prius catalyzed that movement. And watching the Leonardo DiCaprios of the world flock to a nerdy, budget-minded Toyota certainly inspired other automakers: Without the Prius, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Tesla.
2000 Prius Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales
If one vehicle could stand as the blueprint for nearly every modern-day supercar, it would be the Porsche 959. It was all here, way back in 1986: programmable all-wheel drive, electronically controlled dampers with adjustable ride height, a twin-turbocharged engine, and a body made of cutting-edge lightweight materials. (To date, though, nobody else has adopted the rear-mounted horizontally opposed engine.) The 959 defined a technical test-bed approach to high performance— a paradigm shift in an era when most top-tier performance cars were merely detuned versions of a company’s racing machines. The Porsche 918 Spyder, the Nissan GT-R, the Bugatti Veyron, the Ferrari SF90 Stradale—they all share a common ancestor in the Porsche 959.
1992 959 Courtesy of Canepa