Every person in public life craves some form of recognition. The politician whose portrait hangs in the halls of power, the actor with a star on a sidewalk somewhere all achieve a satisfying degree of fame and for motor vehicles it has been much the same. However, during the current age of design anonymity, a car that can make onlookers stop and stare is hard to find.

Above and beyond the few current models that are still special sit the icons. These are vehicles revered by history that spark instantaneous recognition and special memories as well.

Cars in shape or sound can whisk the observer back 50 years to a dark and sweaty 1960s cinema, or a long-gone television series. Or simply remind them of the first time they saw a car that within its lifetime would become a legend.
Mention the 007 film franchise and one car stands above the dozens that have appeared and even taken starring roles.

It is of course the Silver Birch Aston-Martin DB5 that first appeared as Bond’s transport in Goldfinger. It and other significant models command a place in popular culture as true automotive icons.

Looking back at the process that creates icons we find vehicles that achieved fame for the most part by inspired design. Others have achieved superstardom simply by being an ostensibly ordinary car made famous by its deeds. Here are a few that come to mind.

More than 60 years have passed since this simple design brought small car innovation to a dead halt. Despite all of the billions that have been spent since, no carmaker has managed to devise a more efficient small-car template than the BMC Mini. The original Mini remained in production from 1959 until 1999 and is still immediately recognised in countries where BMC products were never sold new. Minis sold during the 1960s for $2500 can now generate more than $70,000 and parts still exist to build complete new cars. All that could have improved the original Mini’s basic style was the addition of hatchback access and even that was achieved back in the 1960s when Beatles drummer Ringo Starr ordered his customised Mini Cooper with a rear hatch through which to load his drum kit.

Introduce a film or television programme with vision of a Jeep and instantly the context becomes wartime, Europe or the Pacific, during the 1940s or ’50s. The Jeep had been under development even before the United States’ sudden entry into World War 2 and such was demand for the simple and rugged vehicles that Willys’ design was soon being built in Ford factories as well. Australia, although our military forces generally used the British-designed Land-Rover, is home to hundreds of WW2 and Korean War Jeeps. Despite advancing age and impracticality, these four-wheeled veterans still answer the call every Anzac Day, providing transport and evoking memories for human comrades who can no longer make the journey on foot.

On-screen action hero James Bond has been portrayed by various actors and driven different cars, however one partnership is immediately recognisable even by people not remotely interested in movies of the spy genre. The Bond with the Scots burr, Sean Connery, standing tall beside a DB5 Aston-Martin in Silver Birch instantaneously sets the scene for a Bond theme. The pairing starred in just two of the 007 franchise’s films, with the DB5 managing to make cameo appearances in a couple of others, but it remains the archetype of 007 transport. Very likely you can’t afford a real one – even though several of the DB5s were made – but you should easily find one of the 2.5 million die-cast versions made in 1966 by Corgi Toys and painted gold not silver as a nod to the villain of Bond’s Goldfinger.

You don’t need to see a Beefeater, St Paul’s Cathedral or even a Routemaster bus to know that a film or television event has been set in lovely London. Planting a camera beside a busy intersection and counting the number of tall, black vehicles that fill the frame in the space of a minute will do the job admirably. Officially known as an Austin FX4, the diesel-engined ‘Black Cab’ was built from 1958-97 and total production during that time reached 75,000. Emission controls and safety issues helped make the traditional London cab obsolete, however the replacements with their absolute absence of charisma impress no one and a big market exists to ensure survival of the old ones.

‘Bullitt’ was never intended to be anything but a nondescript police drama until someone came up with the idea of filming a chase sequence through the evocative streets of San Francisco, complete with passing traffic and open-mouthed onlookers. The ‘hero’ car, driven in spectacular anger by actor/car racer Steve McQueen and two stunt performers, was a 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback that had its own stunt double. While the ‘jump’ car that spent considerable time with daylight under all four wheels did not survive, another one has been discovered after decades in hiding and sold recently for A$5 million. If you own a GT390 Mustang, especially one painted Highland Green, its value might have climbed just a little.

No automotive shape is more recognisable or enduring than the Volkswagen ‘Beetle’. Designed by the famous Ferdinand Porsche and funded by the infamous Adolf Hitler, the Beetle was saved from oblivion in occupied Germany by British troops and went on to sell almost everywhere on Earth. The Beetle was cheap to build and buy, primitive and lethal for the inexperienced. They won long-distance car rallies and ran happily in the sub-zero environment of Antarctica. The original design remained in production for more than 50 years and more than 21 million were made.

This significance of the panel van to youth culture is best understood by those grew up in 1970s Australia. The van was all about owing nothing to nobody; a home on four wheels ready to exploit in all its glory the emerging ‘permissive society’. Van ownership turned rapidly into a competitive culture, supplementing the obligatory mattress in the back with crushed velvet wall coverings, metal-flake paint and maybe some murals. Holden with its Sandman commercialised the craze, with Ford and Chrysler chiming in later. Parental horror was mandatory and many a young male had ‘date night’ cancelled by furious parents who glanced out the window and saw a ‘sin bin’ lolling in the driveway.

When automotive customiser George Barris turned a 1950s Lincoln into the most recognisable vehicle on 1960s television, he did more than create transport for a super-hero. The Batmobile was a character in its own right, with powers far beyond those of the most exotic production car. Not even the 007 Aston Martin with its oil sprays and ejector seat matched the futuristic technology that lay at the fingertips of the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder. When Batman came to the Big Screen and a new Batmobile was required, the original had left the movie-car’s creators with nowhere to go but backwards. Today when Batman’s four-wheeled weapon is mentioned, even those not born in 1966 will conjure an image of the original Batmobile hurtling towards the foreboding skyscape of Gotham.

©Cliff Chambers 2020