The most important cars from each decade
1917-27 Ford Model T
Talk about an easy start. For the same reasons that saw Ford's frill-less chuffer being named Car of the Century back in 2000 (yes, I was on that committee too), what else could it be than a car whose simplicity belied its landmark status?
The Tin Lizzie achieved so much more than to introduce the division of labour assembly line concept. No car defines the consumer durable better; Ford's baby made cars affordable to the masses and, as result, put the world on wheels. Unveiled in 1908, the "heroine of a million journeys" was a clever design, though it had few - if any - landmark features. That it endured until 1928 says much about Ford's marketing power; by then it was an antique.
Kiwis loved the T, particularly once a switch to local assembly brought the price down. In 1924, you could buy a tourer "with the lot" for 175 pounds.
1927-37 Austin Seven/Ford V8
By this period, New Zealand was fast becoming a motoring nation; we had the roads and, the Depression notwithstanding, car buying was on the up. The well-heeled went for the exciting new Ford that arrived in 1932; its powerful 3.6-litre 60-degree engine was a tour de force: Smooth, and packed with boundless energy. And such a beautiful exhaust note. We even imagined it to be economical (hah).
The Austin? The British baby was too pricey for the down-at-heel, yet it certainly was aimed at the more budget-minded. Realising that they couldn't compete with the Yanks on performance, durability and technical sophistication, Austin pitched toward the lower end of the market and talked up their lower prices and running costs. A lot of Kiwis were in Seven Heaven; they found it seated four in comfort and pottered along amiably with its 10bhp engine. Features included a hinged windscreen; great for improving air circulation, though also good for catching flying insects in the face.
1937-47 Ford Prefect
Hardly a technical tour-de-force; not even a particularly good-looking car, but the "original" Prefect does have one standout feature. After six grim years of warfare, it was the first "all-new" car to be sold in New Zealand. As such, it perked the attentions of the private motorist, who'd become a rare species during World War II, while staff at Ford's Seaview, Petone factory - having dedicated their war service to assembling trucks, bren-gun carriers and munitions - could get back to the work they'd signed up for.
1947-57 Morris Minor
Everyone's maiden aunt drove one of these, one of the most loved cars of the 20th century. Early post-war Minors from 1948 (918cc MM) were known as "low lights", due to their lower headlamps. Fondest memories were for the later, 1000cc over-head valve "Nurse Gladys Emmanuel" model. The most sought-after Morrie Thou variants were the Traveller wagon and the later convertible, whose engine produced a heady 37 horsepower.
The model that embodied the Swinging 60s. Penned on the back of an envelope, the Mini invented the efficient packaging: It was the least space in which four people could travel comfortably. Interior packaging was brilliant and if there was too much to fit into the closed boot, you simply relied on the boot stays to form a platform upon which much bigger loads could be tied.
As well as being king of the city, the Mini also proved itself in motorsport, the Cooper S' rally and race circuit successes creating the idea of a small performance car.
1967-77 Holden HQ
1954 was the year Holden cars started coming to New Zealand, and a decade after that GM decided to build its huge factory in Trentham. Aussies get all teary and hand-on-heart about the original FX (popularly called the 48-215) or even the EH. Sentimental pap. The car that really put this brand on the map was the mighty HQ. Consider this: The Commodore was in production for a full decade before its annual sales eclipsed those annually achieved by the 'Q. Quite an achievement, especially since the big Aussie battler had to weather the 1973 oil crisis and carless days. Back in its day, this was unquestionably the most worldly and (even with "three on the tree") most sophisticated and worldly car yet manufactured in Australia. And boy, was it a TOUGH car. Cops, sales reps and taxi drivers ran Belmonts, small business managers favoured Kingswoods and row on row of rural resident Premiers, short-lived Broughams and Statesmen filled racecourse car parks.
1977-87 Toyota Corolla
The very first small Japanese cars to sell in New Zealand in appreciable numbers were the Isuzu Bellett, Datsun Bluebird and a little Toyota. The Bluebird and Bellett are now mere names in history; the Corolla has risen to become the world's best-selling car, and a household name. The first examples came into New Zealand in the late 1960s but the car really grabbed the public imagination once Toyota New Zealand used the services of former Ferrari F1 ace Chris Amon, and a team of clever in-house engineers, to sort the dynamics. Of course, the Corolla had other merits: Owners found them thrifty and absolutely, rock-solid reliable. Once the rust bug was tamed, it became what it remains today, the automotive equivalent of the Energiser Bunny.
1987-97 Toyota Prius
Yeah, yeah, Prius isn't a car - it's an appliance. True enough, yet no car has done more to break down a lot of barriers - both psychological and practical - between hybrid technology and mass-market acceptance. Prius was also the first car in the world to successfully prove the marriage of a small-capacity petrol engine and a battery-powered electric "booster" motor for acceleration.
The sum total of its parts is astounding - it's a bit like the result of an explosion in a good ideas factory - yet the turn-key friendliness of the car helps acceptance. The primarily impetus for this car is, of course, environmental. While the hardware is complex, the idea behind it is very simple: maximise fuel economy by wasting as little energy as possible, so as to emit fewer greenhouse gases. Hybrids still draw derision but like it or not, there'll be no place like ohm.
Crikey, where did THAT decade-plus-five years go? Truly, this period is the hardest to review; it kicked off with massive technology spread throughout the whole car world – give thought, for a moment, about how long since a new car didn’t have at least airbags and antiskid brakes – and is now at the point where also when we’ve begun to give fresh thought to the basic question: What is motoring all about? When I say ‘we’ it’s in a global sense; New Zealand has yet to fully feel the impact of this essential reconsideration of personal mobility, but it’s happening overseas, in a myriad of ways. Even the very concept of having to own a car simply to enjoy their benefits is up for reconsideration. And, as the Renault Twizy and Gordon Murray’s amazing T-machines demonstrate, cars don’t even have to look like cars any more to be …. well, cars. Not all change has become reality; that hydrogen dream is still beyond practical grasp. But we are starting to plug into pure electrics, despite the range and price anxieties. ‘Diversity’ is the key word; no single car that can represent it. Finally, I’m stumped.