26 July 2012

Game changers: Five cars that created a new category

Watch any movie or TV show from the 1960s, and in addition to modern conveniences like laptops and cell phones, SUVs, minivans and crossovers are all conspicuously absent. In each case, in the perception of consumers and the history books, it was one vehicle that popularized each category. Here’s a list of five vehicles that began a new automotive trend:

  1. The Crossover: 1979 AMC Eagle

    The term “crossover” denotes a vehicle that combines several attributes of a truck-based SUV, a station wagon and a car. The AMC Eagle was all of the above. Based on the rear-wheel-drive Hornet/Concord station wagon, the Eagle combined the utility and four-wheel-drivability of a truck with the amenities of a station wagon. You can still see them in daily use everywhere from Colorado to the Pacific Northwest to Alaska.

  2. The Sports Car: 1946 MG TC

    Prior to the Second World War, imported sports cars like Bugattis and Alfa Romeos and the few homegrown ones like the Stutz Bearcat and Mercer Raceabout were rare and/or expensive in America. After the war, American servicemen caught the bug for inexpensive and fun British sports cars, and so the MG marque became synonymous with sports car in the minds of most Americans. In fact, MG even used the tag line, “The Sports Car Americans Loved First.” The spindly and underpowered little TC was the car that launched countless racing careers and America’s love affair with small, nimble two-seaters.

  3. The Sport Sedan: 1968 BMW 2002

    There had been quick, good-handling small sedans prior to the BMW 2002 (the Alfa Romeo Giulia Super is one of them), but none was the commercial success that the 2002 was. The brainchild of Max Hoffman, BMW’s U.S. importer, it followed the same formula as American muscle cars — stuff a large engine into a small body. Enthusiast magazines gushed over the 2002 (particularly the more powerful fuel-injected 2002tii), and it became the car that saved BMW. Prior to the 2002, BMW was headed to oblivion as a car company that lacked focus; after the 2002, it became “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

  4. The Minivan: 1984 Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager 

    Some might quibble with the “first” label being applied to the Chrysler corporation’s minivan (Renault makes the same claim for the Espace and VW Microbus fans point to that vehicle as the first minivan), but the Caravan popularized the name and cemented it as the original in the hearts and minds of countless suburban soccer moms. Though now essentially extinct, the Caravan’s memory carries on.

  5. The SUV: 1963 Jeep Wagoneer

    Prior to the Wagoneer, there were trucks that sold in fair numbers to the consumer market. (The International Harvester Travelall comes to mind.) But it was the Jeep Wagoneer that combined the luxury of a Buick with the utility of an all-wheel-drive truck years before the Range Rover filled a similar niche for the horsey set in the UK. Faux-wood sided Wagoneers were a sign of status among affluent ranchers and suburbanites in the 1970s.

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