How can you compare an old Mini with a brand new Rolls-Royce? It’s simple, you can’t.
The former exists in the world of the 1950s where there were barely four million cars on our roads compared with more than 34 million today, the road travel mileage was a quarter of today’s and road deaths in the Fifties were accelerating toward a 1966 peak of nearly 8,000 per year compared with 1,800 today.
It is now 60 years since the Mini was launched. Perhaps we accepted risks more readily back then. Ralph Nader’s important book Unsafe at Any Speed had yet to be written and the pioneering car safety work by Professor Murray Mackay at Birmingham University’s Accident Research Centre and others, together with safety work by car makers such as Volvo, Saab and Mercedes-Benz, was yet to happen.
We certainly did things differently; not many people owned cars, 85 per cent of households didn’t have a car compared with only 25 per cent today and we travelled more by public transport or we didn’t travel at all. Cars were relatively crude devices, often unreliable and Spartan by modern standards.
So how do you go about creating a list of the best cars? By using that well-worn oxymoron of comparative excellence. Judge each car against its contemporaries and peers and then look at how that stacks up against the other contenders judged in the same way.
You’ll have guessed by now that this is an inexact science, less about numbers and more about gut feeling, driving experience and that wonderful judging aid of hindsight.
So sales figures are important, but not overriding. Innovation and engineering need to be taken into account. Looks, that most crucial factor in today’s market where cars are more similar (and often the same under the skin), need to be taken into account. Performance is an issue, as is fuel economy, but you can’t get too revisionist about this. While a lot of today’s economy gains have been eaten up by extra weight, performance and, in the case of the SUV, sheer size, cars are still cleaner, producing fewer products of combustion and cleaning those that they do produce with exhaust treatment such as catalysts.
In the end you write a list and then repair to the pub with some trusted colleagues and friends. Many cars are shoo-ins – the original Mini, Citroen’s epochal DS, for example – but it’s when you have to argue the relative merits of an Avions Voisin against a Facel Vega for inclusion that it gets tricky.
In the end it’s my list and these are the cars I think the most important, best looking – and fun. Doubtless you’ll have your own list containing some of these cars and some that aren’t here, so let us know your favourites.