A Brief History of Car Design – Part 3

Welcome to the Swinging ‘60s. A time of sexual revolution and chemical wars, the race for nuclear arms, space and civil rights and the evolution of music, drugs and communication.

A time when “Flower Power” blossomed, Pop-Art flourished and all manner of cultural movements gave people a voice, whether in protest at the turbulent political environment or in celebration of a more optimistic future.

But it was also a time of automotive evolution; or perhaps revolution would be more appropriate. With so much to cover, let’s get straight into the decade, beginning… at the beginning, in 1960. And a certain British icon.

Stunning from every angle – Jaguar E-Type Series I


It wasn’t exactly a steady welcome to the decade, 1960 seeing the first US engagement in the Vietnam war, widespread insurrections across colonised countries in Africa, the first particle accelerator trials at CERN in Geneva and the nationalisation, in Cuba, of all American and foreign-owned property by Fidel Castro.

The Cold War continued to escalate and many African countries began their first days as independent nations. But amongst all of this, a small British car company, Jaguar, were busy working on the finishing touches to their long-awaited replacement of the XK150. The Jaguar E-Type.

Jaguar, who were previously known as S.S. Cars before the war but had quickly changed their name to avoid connotations with a certain…ahem… German paramilitary organisation, had quickly built a reputation for winning races and building fast cars. Sir William Lyons, or “Mr. Jaguar” as he’s often known, had instilled the ethos of Grace, Space, Pace that would become the DNA of every Jaguar car.

Profile Picture – The Curvaceous Jaguar E-Type

In the middle of the ‘50s, as we’ve mentioned before, the D-Type had dominated the Le Mans racing series for three years, and Lyons wanted to build on that success, by taking everything they’d learned and shoving it into a grand tourer. They started with the D-Type chassis and body structure setup of a body tub and a front subframe to carry the engine, to which the front suspension and bodywork were then directly bolted. With no need for a ladder frame chassis, as was common at the time, the first cars weighed just 1315kg (2900lbs).

Its race-bred unitary construction was backed up with disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering and independent front and rear suspension, a setup reserved for the most exclusive and expensive cars of the time. It changed the game and forced other car makers to look again at what they were doing.

The E-Type had a claimed top speed of 150mph, sub-7-second 0 to 60 mph acceleration and a price tag that was just over £2,000; half its exotic rivals. And yet, despite all of this, when it debuted in 1961 at the Geneva Motor Show, it’s under-structure, price and weight weren’t really the talking point. It was, of course, its looks. 

It all hinges on… – The Jaguar E-Type welcomed on-lookers

Whilst its basic proportions followed the principles of the tourers that had existed for many years before, the legendary Jaguar XK engine –  inline 6-cylinder dual overhead camshaft – was incredibly compact, allowing the low slung bonnet and sleek profile that we all adore.

In many ways it carries similar proportions to various Berlinetta and tourer models of the ‘50s, including the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, but its rear haunches, fuss-free metalwork, gently flared arches and perfectly positioned cockpit give it a poise that’s arguably unmatched, both before or since. But it certainly started a movement.

Across the pond, some of these basic proportions were being interpreted very differently by a multitude of different car makers who were racing to build track-inspired cars for the road. It was the birth of the muscle car.

The Original Muscle Car? – Oldsmobile Rocket 88

… and the Beast

Whilst it’s difficult to pin down what a muscle car actually is, or even when the concept began, most people accept that the basic DNA of a muscle car comprises a road-going, drag race-inspired car. There is, therefore, a general consensus around small, lightweight, two-door bodied cars with V8 engines in their most powerful derivative; and rear-wheel drive configuration. They should also be affordable, and it was this last point that made them so popular during the 1960s and early to mid-70s. But how did it all begin? 

Well drag-racing has been around almost as long as the motorcar but, as we all know, it took a while for the car to become commonplace. And for that, it needed to be affordable. Whilst racing was popular, it was deemed unachievable as a reality for most spectators. 

However, in 1949, Oldmsobile released the Rocket 88, using the V8 from the larger 98 model in a body that was essentially the Oldsmobile 76, a body designed for a V6 engine. It was the first time a V8 had been offered in a smaller body and it proved to be very successful on the track, winning eight out of the ten NASCAR races in the 1950 season.

New Generation – 1964 Pontiac GTO

A trickle of vehicles copied the basic principles during the ‘50s, but it really came to a head in the 1960s thanks to the huge increase in popularity of drag racing and the fierce rivalries between Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler and Ford.

Early offerings began as “packages”, such as the SS package for the Chevrolet Impala that arrived in 1961, consisting of a 6.7l V8 engine producing 425 hp (317 kW) and upgraded brakes, tyres and suspension. Dodge, Plymouth and Ford soon followed with similar offerings, but it wasn’t until 1964 that things got really interesting, thanks to Pontiac. And the GTO.

The Pontiac GTO arrived in 1964 as another package, this time for the Pontiac LeMans. Yet again, it was a mid-sized car with a V8 engine and various other additions and tweaks, all for a reasonable price of around $3000. But more importantly, despite slow steering and a questionable ride, it was lightning quick and gained a reputation as a perfect car for street racing. The template had been set.

Coke-bottle Design – 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado

However, from a design perspective, it’s the next generation of “coke-bottle” designed fastback muscle cars that arrived as early as 1966 which appeal more. It was a real advancement away from the traditional long front and rear-end American sedan towards something more berlinetta, dynamic and race-bred in design. And amongst the first were Oldsmobile, with the Toronado.

Although some say that it wasn’t a muscle car because it was designed, from scratch, with a V8 engine, and was actually more of a luxury car, there’s no doubting that the wonderful muscle cars that soon followed, including the 1968 Pontiac GTO, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS, 1969 Dodge Charger and offerings from both Plymouth and Ford, were heavily influenced by the fastback styling. 

The end of the ‘60s saw the muscle car battle reach its peak, with most American manufacturers appreciating the halo affect of having a muscle car in the lineup, in spite of the oft limited sales volumes.

There were, in fact, quite a few road and track battles during the 1960s, and perhaps none is more famous than the one that began at Le Mans in 1964. Ford vs. Ferrari.

Iconic Silhouette and Livery – The Ford GT40

Battle of the Decade

Whilst it would be wonderful to focus on the great story of how this rivalry came to fruition, for that watch the film or read the assortment of articles scattered across the internet. Here we’re going to focus on how the bitter rivalry created two of the coolest and brilliant race car designs of all time. The Ford GT40 and the Ferrari 330.

As always, context is key, especially in regards to the Ford GT40. I’ll try and keep it short, but it’s important; and brilliant.

Henry Ford II had made it known for a long time that he wanted Ford to race at Le Mans; and win. Rumours abounded that, with Ferrari struggling financially, Enzo Ferrari was willing to sell to Ford Motor Company. Ford immediately ordered a factory and book audit and spent considerable sums preparing everything for the takeover… only for him to jump into bed at the last minute with Fiat due to a disagreement over control of the motorsports divison. Ford were FURIOUS.

Lola Mk. 6 – Where the Ford GT40 began

Henry Ford II was so angry, in fact, that he directed his racing division to build a Ferrari-beater, whatever the cost. And after deliberation with several teams, they decided on Lola, who had shown brief glimpses of promise with their Mk. 6, or Lola GT. And it was this that would provide the underpinnings for the Ford entrant.

Having previously used the Ford V8, the Lola was the perfect match, so much so that the team moved to England, close to Heathrow airport, to continue designing and developing what they hoped would one day beat Ferrari at Le Mans. And we’re all very grateful that they did.

Whilst I would argue that the Lola GT is a better looking car – those bulbous wheel-arches for one thing – the simplicity of the GT40 and the purity of its shape are iconic, so much so that you could pick the silhouette out of a line-up.

In stark contrast, some would say, with Ferrari’s offering; the 330 P3

Ferrari 330 TRI/LM Spyder – First Ferrari racer to wear “330” name

Ferrari had been dominating Le Mans, winning the famous endurance race in 1960, ’61, ’62 & ’63 before introducing the 330 P series in 1964 alongside the ridiculously successful Ferrari 250 series. Though the 330 appeared – and won – in 1962, it was not the 330 P configuration that would later push Ford to their limits, instead being the last Ferrari race car with a front-mounted engine configuration, the Ferrari 330 TRI/LM Spyder. Smooth name.

1964 saw the Ferrari 275 P win convincingly, and 1965 saw Ferrari win yet again, though the debut of Ferrari’s 330 P2 was overshadowed by the fact that it was a non-works Ferrari team from the U.S. that won. Something had to be done, especially considering the resurgent form of Ford with their GT40.

1966 saw the debut of the Ferrari 330 P3.

Too Beautiful to Race – Ferrari 330 P3

Some would argue that the 330 P3 is the most beautiful race-car ever created. And from almost every angle, its sultry curves, compact profile and race-bred features certainly draw the eye.

What’s more, the design was very much “of-the-time”, sharing several features with the successful Porsche offering, the 904. But race-cars are nothing if they’re not successful, and the Ferrari 330 P series was certainly that, despite losing Le Mans to the Ford GT40 in both ’66 and ’67. In fact, since 1965, Ferrari have not won another race at Le Mans.

For me, the Ferrari is certainly emotive, a demonstration of the Italian marque pushing at their very limits, determined not to let Ford have their way. And it shows in the design. The GT40, meanwhile, is both a hero and a villain. The product of a wealthy conglomerate throwing big bucks at a problem in order to overthrow the mightily successful minnow, it also took a different design route and found a way to win.

But the true winners are us. Not only do we get to reminisce about the great rivalry, and relive it through so many different forms of media, we have been blessed with two icons of motorsport that live on to this day.

And if that wasn’t enough, Ferrari were also being pushed to their limit off the track.

The beginning of a wonderful thing – Lamborghini GT350

Multiple Fronts

Whilst Enzo was fighting Ford and Porsche on the track, back at home, and on the road, a new battle was beginning: with a man named Ferruccio Lamborghini.

Now if you’ve ever been to Italy, and spent enough time getting to know the people and a little bit of the culture, you’ll soon come to notice something. Whilst national and regional pride is huge, Italians are very proud individuals; and Ferruccio was no different. So much so, that he created a car company to compete with Ferrari specifically because he didn’t like Enzo’s reaction to his criticism of the Ferrari he’d recently purchased!

I digress, but Lamborghini have, since their conception, produced some of the most desirable, beautiful and, at times, absurd vehicles the world has seen, so anyone who appreciates car design should be a fan of Lamborghini, at least pre-VW days. And here, we’re going to cover not one but two of their vehicles from the ‘60s.

First, their first: the GT350. Whilst Lamborghini’s first vehicle is rarely talked about, in similar ways to Porsche’s 356, it’s where everything began; and it’s also a beautiful car.  It should come as no surprise that it was a two door grand tourer aimed squarely at the Ferrari 250 series: it was Feruccio’s series of clutch problems with his multiple 250s that led to the creation of Lamborghini in the first place.

Raging Bull – Lamborghini’s first prototype, the 350 GTV

Based on the Lamborghini GTV concept that debuted in 1963 at the Turin motorshow, it was very much in the Berlinetta mould, with a long front end, low waist and a cockpit that blended elegantly into a compact rear. Whilst the front lights may look like an after-thought, the concept had pop-up headlamps that were decided against due to cost and complexity, but the rest of the elegant proportions and sweeping lines were kept.

It didn’t have wide fenders or aggressive haunches, rather the opposite in fact, favouring smooth simple panels with minimal shapeliness. But this was very typical of Italian tourers of the time, and it’s a classic.

Lamborghini followed it two years later with the 400GT, an evolution of what had gone before, but things would change dramatically for the Sant’Agata manufacturer in 1966 with the unveiling of, arguably, the world’s first supercar. And certainly what has come to be the template for all modern mid-engine supercars.

The Lamborghini Miura

Possibly the most beautiful thing ever created

No Bulls**t

Mr. Lamborghini, keen to avoid what he saw as the mistakes of Ferrari, wanted to focus on making powerful, elegant grand tourers and avoid making race-derived sports cars like the noisy neighbours over in Maranello. But Lamborghini’s engineering team didn’t quite agree, so worked in secret to create a transversely mounted, mid-engined rolling chassis derived from many successful race cars of the time.

When they eventually plucked up the courage to present it to Ferruccio, he reluctantly accepted the possibility of such a car as a marketing tool, and when people began placing deposits, based solely on the rolling chassis presented at the 1965 Turin Auto Show, he quickly got Bertone on the phone and asked them to design a body. Which would be known as the P400.

1966 Lamborghini Miura P400

Bertone’s new head of design, Marcello Gandini, was tasked with making the rolling chassis into a highly desirable supercar, and along with his young team they certainly succeeded. Except they never actually checked whether the body they’d designed would fit the chassis developed by Lamborghini. Low and behold, the concept shown at the ‘66 Turin Auto Show had a sealed bonnet and an engine bay filled with foam because, well, it didn’t! 

But it proved so popular that it was rushed into production and can proudly be called the first supercar. Yet it’s so much more than that, because, amongst everything else, it’s so damn cool. The Miura’s appearance evolved little during its 7 years in production, tweaks made to improve aerodynamic and handling concerns previously ignored being the only adjustments made. The rear haunches, sleek lines and aggressive stance remained untouched and, even today, the thing is stunning. Grazie mille Lamborghini.

In fact, the sixties were a great time to be an Italian automotive marque.

Riding High – The Maserati Sebring

La Dolce Vita

Maserati, who in 1957 made their first mass-produced vehicle, the 3500GT, kicked off the sixties in style with the Sebring in 1962. Oddly similar in appearance to the Lamborghini 350GT, thanks in part to the strong influence of Italian coachbuilders who were often consulted on such projects, their volumes quickly rose. 

The legendary Quattroporte name was first used on the ‘63 model, the first saloon produced by the Modena carmaker, and it would prove equally successful for the brand. And whilst it was certainly a looker, another, more important, vehicle arrived in 1967 that really pushed the design boundaries. The Maserati Ghibli.

Pushing Envelopes – 1967 Maserati Ghibli

Anyone who knows a little about cars, more specifically car design, will have heard of Ghia. Or should I say Carrozzeria Ghia SpA. They were an Italian coachbuilder established, like so many other of Italy’s greatest design houses, in Turin, in 1916. Famous for stunning creations including the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500, the VW Karmann Ghia and the Volvo P1800, they were also famous for bringing legendary designers through the doors. Including one Giorgetto Giugiaro.

The Ghibli was destined for success, having been designed by a young Giugiaro during his stint at Ghia, and was joined by a Spyder variant two years later, the clean profile and low-slung waist requiring few visual changes between the two models. In total, 1,295 Ghibli’s were sold, most of them Coupes, and it’s nameplate is so sacred that it’s still used to this day.

The Maserati Ghibli is one of those timeless designs that still looks wonderful. But at the time, arriving within months of the debut of the Lamborghini Miura, it was lightyears ahead of other vehicles visually, especially in comparison to offerings from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz.

Italy was in the midst of a design movement that was the envy of every other nation, so much so that its influence had spread to every corner of the industry. Even to little old Fiat.

Pure Simplicity – The Fiat 124 Sport Spider

Small Package, Great Thing

I could easily discuss the Fiat Dino here, but I won’t, for one simple reason. We’ve already covered a Giugiaro-designed Italian fastback coupe and spyder. And whilst you should absolutely check out the Fiat Dino Spyder when you get a chance, we’re here to discuss the far more simple, and affordable, Fiat 124.

Actually, it’s the Fiat 124 Sport Spider by Pininfarina S.p.A., penned more specifically by a certain Tom Tjaarda of Ferrari 365 California, De Tomaso Pantera and Ford Fiesta fame, that I want to talk about.

As was the case at the time, Italian mass-market automakers were heavily focussed on providing cheap saloons and compact vehicles at high volumes; but there was a consistent desire for model proliferation. And though design houses were typically involved in every step of the design process, some of them would offer their low-volume manufacturing services for additional variants. And that’s where Pininfarina stepped in, with the Fiat 124 Spider offering.

Two can play that game – The Alfa Romeo 1600 Duetto

The Fiat 124 Spider Sport is a wonderful example of fuss-free design, much like several of the roadsters being produced in Britain at the time by the likes of Triumph, Austin-Healey and Lotus. Gentle wheelarches, smooth haunches and a subtle feature line that leads from the elegant front headlamps all the way through the car, tying everything together. It’s a lesson in minimalism if ever there was one.

And whilst Italy was awash with classic roadsters, including the 124s more expensive stable-brothers – the 850 & Dino – and offerings from Alfa Romeo like the roadtrip-through-vineyards perfect 1600 Duetto pictured above, it’s the Fiat 124 that deserves the strongest mention here.

And I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so. The Fiat 124 Sport Spider survived twenty years of production and sold more than 200,000 vehicles. And it was deemed such an icon that, on its 50th birthday, in 2016, Fiat released a new version, the Fiat 124 Spider, that’s still in production now.

So Italy was vibrant in the ’60s, or at least in the world of car design. And it wasn’t just Italy providing the world with sleek compact cars. France was also getting in on the act, particularly Renault.

Simplicité – The 1961 Renault 3


I have a thing for the Renault 3 & 4, I’m putting it out there now to avoid any awkward moments later. I’ve never driven one (yet), or even been in one but from purely a design point-of-view, I’m in love. So let me explain a little why I’m such a fan of a vehicle that remained in production for more than thirty years, selling over eight million vehicles. Ah, that got your attention, didn’t it?

This was Renault’s answer to the 2CV, launched by Citroën in 1948, and yes, I also have no idea why it took so long to counter their French counterparts. But I’m chuffed that they did.

Conceived in 1956, Renault had used the time to observe the success and flaws of Citroën’s utilitarian icon and sought to modernise the concept for a France that was, economically, beginning to find its feet again. Whilst the 2CV had been designed during the Great Depression, when the French countryside was dominated by manually-powered agriculture and terrible infrastructure, the France of the mid-50s was becoming increasingly mechanised, agriculture certainly, and the country was rapidly expanding its system of autoroutes.

A Renault in Rovinj – The Bijoux Renault 4

The Renault 3 & 4, then, were the French marque’s answer, and boy did it work. Mechanically similar, and identically designed, the main differences were the size of the engine underneath the bonnet. The 3 came with a 603 cc version (and 3CV classification, so a tax save) and the 4 came with a 747cc engine.

With torsion bar suspension systems for mechanical simplicity, rack and pinion steering and not a lot else, the little Renault was simple but refined. And by keeping the body as boxy as possible, it maximised the space available inside, adding to its utilitarian feel. And it quickly gain a reputation for usability that would take it to all four corners of the globe.

The Renault 4 became the popular choice for rally teams, and not only due to its engine. The Renault 3 was halted early into its life due to poor sales; it was so spartan, with no interior door trims or rear quarter glass, that those who could afford the thing were happy to pay a little extra for the subtlest of luxuries!

So whilst Renault weren’t pushing any technical boundaries with the 3 or 4, they’d certainly gained a reputation for designing appealing vehicles. And that continued, in 1965, with the Renault 16; And the beginning of what we know as the Hatchback.

Newly Hatch-ed…back – The world’s first “Hatchback”

Hatchback…to the Future

So let me be clear very early on; this wasn’t the world’s first hatchback… technically. That honour probably goes to the Citroën 11CV Commerciale, and there were subsequent examples between 1938 (when it debuted) and the 16’s debut in 1965 from the likes of Kaiser-Frazer and Austin. But make no mistake, the 16 was the first hatchback body-style car in a market segment. And all cars since, from the Audi A3 and Ford Fiesta to the VW Golf, have the Renault 16, and its success, to thank. So, moving on…

Mechanically, it was a front-mid engine setup, with the engine sat behind the gearbox powering the front wheels, whilst torsion bar suspension was used again, thanks to its success on the 3 and 4 models. But it was, of course, the novel bodystyle that was, and remains, the talking point of the car.

Versatility – The Renault 16

The design allowed huge amount of versatility in the interior, with families able to enjoy the space offered by an estate body-style without the additional weight or handling compromises. There were multiple configurations too, thanks to removable rear seats and foldable front seats, something we expect today.

It won the European Car of the Year award, the first ever French car to do so, in 1965, and lasted all the way to 1980, selling well over 1.8 million vehicles in total. Sir Stirling Moss, in 1970, was so impressed by the car that he said:

“There is no doubt that the Renault 16 is the most intelligently engineered automobile I have ever encountered and I think that each British motorcar manufacturer would do well to purchase one just to see how it is put together”.

I rest my case.

Jack of All Trades – Peugeot 504 (Coupe)

Salooning Popularity

The 60s were a great time for the French car industry, and Peugeot were keen to get in on the act. In 1968 they launched the Peugeot 504, the now legendary saloon/sedan model that, along with its estate sibling, is famous for being practically immortal.

Known as “Africa’s workhorse”, the 504 series was still being produced, via CKD (Complete Knock-Down) kits in 2006, when production finally ended in Nigeria. In total, almost 3 million of the 1969 European Car of the Year were produced, with many custom variants added to the base offerings of: saloon, wagon, two-door coupé, convertible and pick-up.

The entire range was designed by Pininfarina, but it’s the sleek silhouettes of the coupé and convertible that gain most of the visual plaudits. There was no doubting the importance of the range for Peugeot, not only improving their reputation for building honest, reliable vehicles, but ones that looked great and appealed to a variety of customers.

But the importance of the 504 to it’s maker was nothing in comparison to what was underway across the border, in Germany.

Die Neue Klasse – BMW 1500 (New Class)

It really is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the 1500 to BMW, such was the state of the company at the time. As we always say here at CLT, Context is Key. And no more so than BMW in the ’60s.

As with pretty much all German OEMs following the war, their production efforts had been severely restrained by strict regulations and monitoring. When BMW were eventually allowed to produce cars again, instead of pots, pans and bicycles as they had been to survive, they returned to producing their pre-war luxury vehicles and motorbikes, then proliferated into microcars.

Their luxury cars were uncompetitive, and there was little profit to be made in motorcycles and microcars, resulting in a financial crisis that peaked in 1959. After significant investment, BMW kicked off the beginning of the Neue Klasse range of vehicles in 1961, the first time they’d produced an all-new car since 1933 with the 303. Pressure was mounting.

First up was the 1500, which debuted in 1961 with a 1.5L engine, a unitary body structure, MacPherson strut front suspension, independent rear suspension and front disc brakes; pretty standard for the time. But it was also the first BMW vehicle to pioneer what is known as the Hofmeister kink.

Spot the Kink – BMW 1500 Side Profile

Firstly, pull your mind out of the gutter. It’s not that, whatever you’re thinking, but is in fact the angular form at the base of the c/d pillar, as the inner profile parallel to the glass juts suddenly car-forward, away from the rear most profile of the pillar.

Whilst GM vehicles and Lancias utilised the form, it was most definitively applied by Wilhelm Hofmeister, who was chief of BMW design from 1955 to 1970 and oversaw the development of the 1500, amongst other vehicles. And its now firmly a part of BMW’s design DNA.

And there’s a lot more to the 1500 than just a tweak of the c-pillar. The leading edge of the bonnet that juts out ahead of the lower front bumper certainly gives the 1500 an aggressive, almost unique, stance, whilst the integrated indicators are elegantly designed, as is the grill that surrounds the simple, singular headlamps.

This car, and the New Generation that Mercedes-Benz kicked off in 1968, saved their respective companies. The year of the 1500’s release, BMW broke even after years of losses, and the following year they paid out their first shareholder dividend in twenty years!

Whilst BMW and Mercedes were finally developing company-saving products, another German marque was moving steadily towards extinction thanks to it’s pursuit of a rather unique piece of technology.

Ground-breaking, Company-ending – The NSU Ro 80


You heard me. The Wankel rotary engine.

NSU, who recovered quickly in the aftermath of WWII by becoming the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, had a reputation for innovation. The Wankel engine, which is essentially a piston-less engine that utilises the same four phases as a four-stroke engine to rotate a curved triangular rotor, has been the holy grail of internal combustion engines since Felix Wankel’s first patent in 1929. And NSU were determined to pursue it.

As you can see from the 1967-released Ro 80, the engine is far more compact than a typical four-stroke IC engine with the same power, allowing low-slung bonnets, less vibration and in-cabin noise, plus a more consistent power and torque output. In fact, the concept was so popular at the time, and the Ro-80 so well received, that NSU sold the engine patent rights to virtually every manufacturer in the world; apart from BMW.

The Ro-80 itself, despite being marred by several reliability issues, most of them relating directly to the engine, was notable on several fronts. The gearbox operated an electrically-controlled vacuum clutch that removed the need for a clutch pedal; it was operated instead by simply moving the gearstick. There were four-wheel disc brakes, fully independent suspension, power-assisted rack and pinion steering, and a Cd of 0.355, almost inconceivable on a family sedan at the time.

Clutching at Pedals? – The Interior of the NSU Ro 80

But for me, it’s the design of the NSU Ro 80 that was even more prescient than the technology within it’s metal skin. As we move towards the inevitable EV revolution, the car design industry is finally being given the opportunities it has craved for so long. Low slung bonnets, flat interior floors and minimal clutter are the order of the day. Except the NSU Ro 80 delivered all of this, and more, in 1967. Thanks to the Wankel rotary engine, amongst other innovations.

Even today, the Wankel engine dream has not completely vanished. Mazda are still amongst a handful of companies exploring the opportunities that it can undoubtedly deliver. And the Japanese maker has long been at the forefront of innovation, and design, amongst many other attributes.

When Mazda purchased a Wankel licence from NSU, they pursued it in anger more than most other marques, so much so that they soon had a compact sports car ready to launch in-market in 1967; the Mazda Cosmo.

Space-Age Tech – 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport (L10A)

Cosmology & Coupés

Mazda developed the Cosmo on the same timeline as the NSU Spider, before launching the vehicle in full production guise in 1967. It’s sleek profile has earned it a cult following, and the car remained Mazda’s halo vehicle over four generations, all the way to ’96. But it’s visuals changed considerably, especially once the powertrain system changed to more conventional internal combustion variants.

None of them can compare with the proportions of the Mk. 1 Cosmo, with it’s angular feature line, narrow body and pointed features, most of which were enabled by the powertrain. And the design trends of the ’60s.

In fact, Japan, in the ’60s, was a melting pot of creation and art, especially with sports cars, and there were two other marques who also brought halo sports cars to market in the second half of the ’60s. One of them was Nissan.

A rose by any other name… – Nissan S30 / Datsun 240Z / Nissan Fairlady Z

Whether you know it as the Datsun 240Z, the Nissan S30 or the Fairlady Z (in Japan only), the fact that you are aware of this car means you already love it; that’s natural instinct.

For starters, just look at it. Styled by the same man who designed the BMW 507, which we’ll come onto later, it matches sleek feature lines, elegant proportions and a rear-end more in the ’70s than ’60s. Trend setting.

When combined with four-wheel independent suspension, a manual gearbox and a straight-six engine producing up to 148hp (150PS) depending on the variant, it was a seriously well-rounded offering. Aimed squarely at aging British roadsters and quick but clumsy American muscle cars, it was destined for success.

Single Moulding – 1969 Nissan S30 Interior

Even the interior seemed more at home in a 1970s Porsche than a 1960s Nissan. Just look at that single-moulding Instrument Panel. I’m getting carried away now, but you can see my point.

Before, there had been nothing like a dynamic-bodied grand-tourer in Nissan’s line-up, the nearest thing on offer being the aging Prince Skyline that, at least in its early days, was a sporty offering in a sedan body. Or the Nissan Fairlady that looked exactly like any other frumpy 1950s roadster. The Datsun 240Z was a pure-bred sports car.

It offered what few other brands could; a cool, agile, attractive car with a price-point that almost literally matched the price of a 1962 MGB-GT. It was a 1970s-ready, quick and engaging sports car for the price of an old and technologically-dated roadster. But they had competition. And it was a stunner.

Sploosh! – The Toyota 2000GT

The 911… Sort of

Not one, but two Japanese automotive marques produced, in the space of a couple of years, two absolutely stunning pieces of automotive art. If the 240Z has wonderful feature lines and elegant proportions, then what in the Egon Schiele is the 2000GT?!

Designed by Satoru Nozaki in 1965, and taking several design cues from the Jaguar E-Type, the Toyota 2000GT was shown to the public shortly afterwards, in an attempt to test the water for a halo car that they felt had been missing in their line-up. It proved to be an instant success.

Until that point, remember, the Datsun 240Z was still a mere idea, and Japanese automakers were known for conservatively-designed, simple products designed predominantly for the reserved Japanese market. The 2000GT was like nothing before; or, arguably, since.

Sultry Curves – The aching beautiful Toyota 2000GT

With a straight-six engine tuned by Yamaha, five-speed manual transmission, limited slip-differential, all-wheel disc brakes, fully independent suspension and rack and pinion steering, it contained many firsts, not just for Toyota but for the Japanese market at large. And if anything, its popularity has only grown since.

One reason is because they only made 337 vehicles, the production run lasting from May 1967 until the summer of 1970. And all were sold. We’ll never know if Toyota planned to sell more, mainly because production was canceled a little abruptly due to slow sales in America, a key target market. Why? Well it was priced at around $6,800, a lot more than many Porsches, Jaguars and some Italian marques whom Toyota considered direct rivals.

But they’re certainly worth considerably more now, with recent examples selling for more than one million dollars. And it’s easy to see why.

Not only is it an outstandingly beautiful car, it’s performance is unquestionable and it has also become a bit of a cultural symbol, not just thanks to its appearance, as a one-off roadster, in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. It’s a shining light for many Japanese automakers since, and a benchmark to which vehicles ranging from the Honda S2000 and the Nissan GT-R to the more recent Toyota Supra and GT-86 are measured. If that’s not a halo affect, I don’t know what is.


And that’s the end of Part 3 in our Brief History of Car Design series. I’m sure you’re wondering why we haven’t mentioned the Porsche 911, the Ford Mustang, the Shelby Cobra, the…. You’ll have to tune in to Part 4 to find out. How? Subscribe below, of course.

Friend or Foe – The Star of You Only Live Twice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: