Putting together a list of the greatest cars to own from a particular decade is a tall order. There is so much to consider, from current market affordability and parts availability right through to the basics: how easy is the car to drive and how practical is it in today’s modern world of fast drivers.
Each car picked within the four decades was picked for a reason. It may not be the ‘best’ for fuel-efficiency or completely practical today, but they’re cars that shaped motoring as we know it today and deserve to be given the nod within the respective decade.
Idriveaclassic breaks down her favourite cars from each decade and lists the reasons why these classic cars have become legendary.
The greatest cars of the 1950s
The 1950s is great launch point to start from when looking at classic cars. This decade saw key innovations in the automotive industry such as seat belt, power steering, automatic transmission and everyone’s favourite summer mod-con air conditioning. Ford led the way in the 50s and that’s why they’ve landed one of my two picks.
The Austin/Morris Mini
The decade after the Second World War saw the launch of one of the most iconic cars of all time: the Mini.
The Mini, designed by Alec Issigonis, was BMC’s response to the Suez Oil Crisis of 1956 and the resulting slump in larger car sales.
Issigonis had created another British icon, the Morris Minor, and was tasked with creating an entirely budget-conscious yet practical small car. The brief said the car must offer a certain amount of legroom, use an existing engine within the range and be no longer than 10ft. The resulting design was the Mini, which used an incredible 80% of its floorpan space for passengers and luggage.
Although the Fiat 500 had launched in 1957 and was a known entity, this new small car was something fresh and exciting for many Brits (and those further afield!). With celeb owners ranging from Peter Sellers to Steve McQueen, the car carried a certain edge of cool that no everyday car has ever quite matched.
Made from 1959 through to the year 2000, they’re a great classic to own, run and enjoy, parts are easy to obtain for later models, and there is a thriving club scene.
The Ford Anglia 105E
Another car that needs a nod for 50s motoring is the Ford Anglia 105e.
Over one million of these incredible cars were made from 1959 to 1967. Again, they boast a bit of a quirky celeb connection after appearing in both Harry Potter and as car of choice for Vyvyan in The Young Ones. Shortly after launch, Ford provided two press cars for the classic film noir Never Let Go; the plot concerned a stolen 105E.
The car, again, was very different for Brits of the 50s and did away with the gentle curves of the 100E and instead looked across the pond to America for the styling cues. The slanted back window and fins distinguished it from the other cars on offer from British manufacturers in the year. It was also the first UK Ford with electric windscreen wipers and a four-speed gearbox.
The car was also incredibly aerodynamic because it was wind-tunnel tested by British designers, which dictated that the body was streamlined in response to testing.
It wasn’t just new styling on the Anglia; it was also the new Kent engine, which was so well received that it was then used in the Cortina, Corsair and Consul Classic.
An Anglia is still a very usable classic today. While parts like body panels are certainly pricier than some of the other well catered for mid-century cars, it is a wonderfully usable car that is like nothing else and will hold value on both sentimentality and the Ford badging.
The greatest cars of the 1960s
The 1960s saw the market start to shift, and with it, the introduction of more names into the market and a growing dominance of Ford. However, for must-have classics of the decade, I’ve picked two British icons.
The Morris Minor
Although the Morris Minor came to market in the late 40s, the early series MM cars and smaller-engined variants are wonderful in design and very thoughtfully constructed but are getting incredibly tricky to get parts for and lack the speed of the later 1098cc engined cars.
At the beginning of the decade, the Morris Minor became the first British car to sell a million units and with that came the special edition Minor Million.
In 1962, the 1098cc engine came into use within the Minor for its final major upgrade. There are still thousands of these cars available to buyers, and often a cheap, usable car not needing too much work can be found for under £5,000.
The parts availability for later cars is still plentiful, and panels are still made, making it a classic that a discerning motorist can use for occasional pleasure and daily hack.
More cautious owners will swear the cars cannot go above 55mph without something horrible going wrong, but a 1098 car will happily sit at 65mph and can be used on the motorway.
The BMC ADO16
Austin, MG, Morris, Riley, Vanden Plas or Wolseley – there was no greater exercise in 60s badge engineering than the ADO16.
The original Morris 1100 debuted in 1962 and was essentially the Mini formula on a larger scale. The ADO16 became the UK’s best selling car and, once cheap as chips, they offer a pleasant, smooth and nippy ride with plenty of legroom for both drivers and passengers. They were made across the world and popular in every market they sold, from Australia to Denmark.
The car really is the perfect storm of the best ingredients. It comes in different disguises to suit brand loyalty, it came to market with the tried and tested 1098, and the styling and trim were all very thoughtfully put together.
Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re an investor!), the BMC ADO16 across all variants are steadily rising in value and have appeal with both those who remember them and those who don’t.
Whilst rust is quite the problem, with hidden rust traps throughout the design, the car is well supported for bits, and the club is an incredibly supportive bunch for members, which makes sorting some of the trickier problems a lot easier.
The greatest cars of the 1970s
The 70s saw a big change in the motoring scene. Japanese cars, which had begun to creep in the mid-60s, suddenly saw growing interest, with strikes and variable quality hitting the British car manufacturing industry. It was certainly a decade of great interest, and the two cars chosen reflect the changing tastes of the buying public.
Range Rover Classic
Launched in 1970, the Range Rover really came into its own during that decade before morphing into the car of choice for making a statement in 2021.
The Range Rover in the early days was a very different car to the models which we see today. In fact, the first 11 years of production saw the car only sold in two-door form before the four-door variant was launched in 1981.
The Range Rover was a real step-change for Land Rover, who, with their Series cars, had become a firm favourite of those needing a practical vehicle and had earned a place in the hearts of many members of The Royal Family.
The Range Rover recognised trends spotted across the pond in the US whereby SUVs were slowly gaining traction and favour with buyers. As a result, British Leyland spotted an opportunity to take the off-road market by storm and created the Range Rover as ‘a car for all reasons’.
Nowadays, the typical Range Rover leads a far more sedate life and no longer requires the power and strength of those early cars, which were capable of 0 to 60 in less than 15 seconds.
Many fans argue the older RRs from the 70s are more reliable than newer models rolling out of showrooms and the fanbase of these is still enormous. Again, another classic always going up in value but perhaps a little thirsty for the motorist on a budget!
Whilst some may argue the provenance of the cars on the list, there were many great cars from each decade and it was certainly a struggle to pick two from each!
Although the Daihatsu Compagno was the first Japanese car to sell in the UK in 1965, it was never a familiar sight. However, the rise and rise of Japanese motors in the UK throughout the 70s changed the market for car buyers entirely.
The Civic, which even non-car fans would recognise today, came to market in 1972 and set the tone for Honda’s transition from bikes to cars, being their first major automotive commercial success.
The Civic was not Honda’s first car sold into the UK, but it proved very popular with Brits, who found home-grown cars distinctly less reliable than the Japanese imports, which were beginning to flood the market.
The emergence of Honda in the UK should not be underplayed, and whilst bigger Japanese names like Nissan now dominate the British motoring space, Honda achieved so much in the 70s and 80s, including their tie-up with BL/Rover and helping to change and challenge distrust of foreign manufacturers.
While these Civics are today a much lesser-spotted entity, they appear now and again and are always warmly received in JDM circles.
For buyers looking for a Civic, a later model is better simply for parts availability and lower entry prices.
Cult Classics with Adrian Flux
Love classic cars and want to read more? Our Cult Classic hub has an array of wonderful profiles on iconic vehicles from the Morris Minor to the Porsche 928 and everything in between.
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