Quick, name an iconic car. That’s was easy, right? Now, define what makes a car iconic. That’s a little bit trickier, isn’t it? An iconic car can mean one thing to a person and another to the next. One might say that the Ferrari GTO is an iconic car while another would argue that the Lamborghini Countach is iconic. While both of these cars could be classed as iconic, I say that they are more of a subset of iconic. They are iconic supercars. They are legendary vehicles rarely seen, let alone driven. Those do not fit my definition of an iconic car.
Iconic cars are something that everyone can not only aspire to, but can realistically achieve. Iconic cars inspire passion, have a culture created around them, are available in large numbers, have altered the market since their introduction, have inspired imitators, have a higher than normal resale value, and have a larger than normal number of people willing to spend gobs of money restoring or accessorizing them far beyond any reasonable return of investment.
We should also take a moment and clarify the difference between an iconic car and a cult classic. We have to be careful here. This is dangerous territory. Emotions run high and egos are bruised very easily. Cult classics are loved every bit as passionately by their owners as an iconic car. The difference is not the passion bestowed, but rather the number of people bestowing that passion onto their beloved vehicles. Don’t misunderstand me if I say your car is not an icon but is instead a cult classic. It doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of love; far from it. I’m just saying that the character and personality of that car is missed on the majority general public. Revel in that fact and enjoy the secret of finding an unknown treasure. Let me step out onto the thin ice and drop an anvil. The BMW 3 series is the perfect example of a cult classic. It is not an iconic car.
Yeah, I said it.
I can hear the screaming across the web. “Heresy!” You cry. The BMW 3 series has won Car & Driver’s 10best twenty-two years in a row. It was the car of the eighties dreamed of by yuppies across the nations. People buy them up like popcorn and are seen everywhere. They are made into art and are in displays at museums. They are raced, and they are loved. How could the BMW 3 series not be an icon?
Ever hear of any high school students talk about them? Do you see used versions in the parking lots? What about college. How many of them do you see there? Have you ever heard a person question if it is better to buy a new VW Jetta or a used 3 Series? I haven’t. How many 3 series BMWs do you see at car shows? How many, percentage wise, do you see on the gymkhana race tracks versus the other brands? In the U.S. when the thought comes to the BMW 3 series, the thought is usually about the new and not the used. Their used prices are reasonable, but it’s their high parts and repair bills that are their Achilles heel. Just because you can afford to buy it doesn’t mean you can afford to own it. That is why the BMW falls into the cult classic category and is not considered an icon. (For those wondering which is the best of the 3 Series; it’s the 1986 M3.)
Other vehicles have crossed over the other side of the spectrum and are now considered classic. Once they were sold in great numbers but as the years have passed the survivors have dwindled until they are now listed on the endangered auto species lists. These would include the original Minis, the VW Camper Van, ’57 Chevy’s, Ford Broncos, and Datsun 240Zs. They are all great cars that are now sought for their collectability more so than their usability. (The VW Camper Van is the only one listed that could be argued that it is on the line, midway between classic and iconic. All others are completely considered classic.)
So what cars made the list and are truly iconic? Here’s my list in no certain order.
This car is old enough to almost be in the classic category, but there are enough beater bugs on Craig’s List that availability and affordability is still in their favor. Parts are relatively cheap and the ability to work on it with a hammer, screwdriver, and adjustable wrench means almost anyone can keep it running. The aftermarket is still churning out tons of accessories to make these bugs into the car of your dreams, but there is a caveat. The days of the old Beetle are numbered and before you know it, the Beetle will be shuffled into the collector’s category. But I wouldn’t worry too much. By then the New Beetle will have taken its place.
This car invented the breed. Without it you wouldn’t have the Camaro and Challenger. The first gen cars might be considered classics only, but Mustangs of other generations are still lusted after and can be lavished with aftermarket accessories.
How could such a relatively modern car make the list? With all the adoration and inspiration it has caused, how could it not. The Mazda Miata reinvented the affordable two seat sports car category by its very inception. An instant hit, the Miata became the romantic darling of weekend racers of the SCCA. (Even though they would get routinely trounced by the Dodge Neon ACR.) The aftermarket jumped on board with accessories and aftermarket parts to enhance their suspension or increase their power. Parts are of average price and used models are seen everywhere. The Mazda Miata also inspired numerous competitors: Ford Capri, Honda S2000, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky, BMW Z-3, and the Audi TT. The MG of old might be in the classic category now, but the Mazda Miata proudly carried the torch further.
If modern car is the replacement for the Beetle, the Civic is it. Inexpensive and highly customized, the Honda Civic has recreated customization to the high energy art form that it is today. You’d be hard pressed to find a tuner magazine that doesn’t feature a civic somewhere in its pages and while I’ve never personally seen an official civic rally, I’ve seen many micro, informal ones in parking lots at the mall or on the beach. To deny the civic its due is to deny reality.
Probably the most unappreciated vehicle in car circles, the Jeep is an undeniable nuke in the history of car culture. The Jeep CJ started the four wheeling hobby and spawned off numerous competitors. Ford Bronco, Land Rover, Toyota FJ, Datsun Patrol, International Scout, and Suzuki Samurai all were inspired by the Jeep. Books about the vehicle are endless as are all the clubs, parts, magazines, and accessories. If enough research was put into it, I’d bet you could build a Jeep CJ from scratch if you wanted to. With a basic design span of 68 years (Not counting its time in WW-II) no other vehicle listed can match its pedigree.
Another vehicle on the bubble between icon and cult, the Cherokee came out in the early eighties and took the small SUV market by storm. So popular was the SUV that when Chrysler was ready to replace it with a larger version, the owners and buyers of the Cherokee threw a fit so strong that Chrysler jumped away from the idea and offered the new vehicle under a different name (Grand Cherokee). The passion by the owners of the Cherokee is so strong that not even rust can pry these vehicles away from their hands. Aftermarket companies have full weld-on frame rails to replace the rusted out parts. The low price of the vehicles nudges them towards cult status, but official races designed around the vehicles, the high amount of aftermarket parts available, and the reintroduction of the Cherokee name nudge it back into the icon isle. Am I right to list it there? Only time will tell.
So what about the cars that are out now? What are the cars of today that will become the icons of tomorrow? I’m not sure. There are lots of them out there that have the potential. The Honda Element will be a cult car, but will it make it to icon? How about the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S? It is the re-embodiment of the Datsun 240 and is already a major hit since its release. Will the passion for it keep growing? What about something from China? They are getting ready to take the leap ad sell cars here. Fiat 500? Like the Mini, it’s got history. Will that and the marketing behind it give it the push it needs? Maybe something will come over that is so quirky that it will make itself a hoe with no problem at all.
When it comes to icons, it’s hard to tell which will make the cut when new, but it’s sure easy to see when looking back.
(Didn’t see the car you were thinking of? Put it in the reply and tell the world why you think your choice should be an icon. I’d love to hear your thoughts.)