Anyone who regularly follows auto industry news, or any industry news for that matter, sees the word “innovation” a lot. However, many of the best cars of all time rarely go through any fundamental changes at all.
Hype versus reality
The word “innovation” is commonly bandied about when it comes to numerous consumer products. Cars, cellular phones, computers, whatever; there is a constant deluge about how “innovative” this, that or the other thing is. Every new car model is inexorably “boldly innovative” and so forth. However, some of the best cars of all time barely changed for decades. New gadgets and window dressing are added, but that’s about it.
The perfect driving machine
The BMW 3 Series is one of BMW’s most popular cars — for good reason. Since the model was introduced in 1977, the car has been roughly the same. It’s a compact performance sedan, somewhat pricey with a luxurious interior, decent power and great handling without guzzling too much gas.
In 1984, according to Edmunds, the inline-six engine was introduced to the 3 Series, which is currently the only engine one can get in a 3 Series today, according to BMW, except for the 4.4-liter V-8 in the scary-fast M3, which has been available in the U.S. since 1988.
There have been some upgrades, but the 3 Series is fundamentally the same. It’s still compact, still gets good mileage, still is powerful for its size and is still a fantastic driving machine. All-wheel-drive, an option since 1988, is still available, as are four-door sedan, two-door coupe, convertible and wagon configurations.
Meet the Beetles
According to Porsche’s history page, the Volkswagen Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1934 at the behest of the Nazi regime for a “people’s car.” The evil regime that ordered it has been rightly damned for its atrocities, but perhaps one thing it got right was the “ur-Beetle” it commissioned.
The car was simple. A compact coupe with a small mid-mounted four-cylinder engine available for a modest price. It went on to be the unequivocally best-selling car of all time with more than 21.5 million of the original configuration being produced, according to the New York Times, the last in 2003 at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla, Mexico.
The first major update to Volkswagen Beetle didn’t come until 1998, according to Edmunds. There were improvements to engines and other things over the years, but the car was barely changed for more than 60 years.
Numerous other best-selling vehicles have the same story. The domestic Ford Ranger, the Toyota Tacoma and its international cousin the Hilux, have barely changed during the lifespans of those models. Different styling and a few improvements are made, but it’s still essentially the same vehicle. It isn’t innovation that makes a great car, when one takes a critical look at the best sellers of all time. It’s making an automobile well and then adding new and improved bits.