Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
Every now and then a manufacturer comes out with an epochal car that may set standards in design, engineering, innovation, driveability and even segment creation that can set trends and influence what's to come, often in later years. Or it could be a car that you just gawp at and wonder which galaxy it beamed in from.
It's hard to spot them at first. In today's terms they are maybe cars like the Bugatti Veyron, Tesla Model S, or potentially the new Volkswagen ID 3. Time will tell, as indeed time has already passed judgement on this selection of 10 cars I believe were conceived by time travellers from the future.
1974-1990 Aston Martin Lagonda
Oft maligned and not loved by the motoring media originally, its freakishly striking pinched-and-pulled super-wedgy shape defied the accepted notion of solid upright luxury carriages that championed heft.
Instead its concept car looks presented an impossibly large and low supersaloon. I loved it, but then I'd always been partial to sharp-edge supercars.
And then you looked inside and it was all touch-buttons, black screens and sci-fi controls. Apparently being the first car to have digital instrumentation came at a very high cost – four times the development budget of the entire vehicle!
Rare and outrageously expensive, I don't even care that the complex electronics never worked. I mean what would you rather have – Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow or this?
1955-1975 Citroen DS
Okay, an obvious choice I'll grant you. But this was Citroen at its avant-garde best, bewildering car buyers with an avalanche of innovations: the famed hydropneumatic suspension of course, but it was also the first mass-produced car to get disc brakes.
Then there were the headlights that turned into the corner, power steering, semi-automatic transmission, a fibreglass roof to lower the centre of gravity, amazing handling and that jaw-dropping aerodynamic shape.
1996-1999 GM EV1
Long before Tesla was a twinkle in Elon's eye, there was the EV1 – a fully-electric vehicle produced by General Motors. A two-door two-seater coupe with 137bhp, a digital dash, 100+ miles range and of course zero-emissions. It should have been the foundation of a lineage that might have lead and dominated the EV market till today.
Instead political shenanigans, board profiteering, and the auto industry equivalent of The Producers, meant it was a car intended to fail just to ensure the industry could continue to make internal combustion engines and keep the oil industry happy. Like The Producers it's a subject worthy of a film – and it is one: 2006's 'Who Killed the Electric Car?'.
2008-2014 Honda FCX Clarity
One day we'll all slap our foreheads, point at EVs in museums and wonder what the heck we were thinking as we drive home in hydrogen fuel-cell cars emitting only H2O – which will probably be recycled into drinking water! And we'll thank the Honda FCX Clarity for that, the first hydrogen fuel cell car available to the public – offered to lease initially in Southern California, where the second person to get one was Hollywood star Jamie Lee Curtis.
Now in its second generation and also available in Japan and Europe, the only thing holding it back is a lack of hydrogen fuel stations and fuel cell arch-rival Toyota Mirai; the sensational second generation version of which is likely going to do to the Clarity what the Prius did to... well the next car on this list.
1999-2006 Honda Insight
You may think it was the Toyota Prius, but the Honda Insight was actually the first hybrid petrol-electric car to go on sale. Actually that's not true, the Prius was on sale in Japan two years earlier in 1997, but only went on sale in America a few months after the Insight. And in terms of modern history, if it doesn't involve America, does it really count?
Anyway both first generation hybrids were awful to drive – the Prius because it was constantly confused about what mode to be in, and the Insight because it felt like an underdeveloped concept car with – unusually for a Honda – rattles, a hard ride and a very unfinished feel.
Additionally despite its coupe-style, and CRX-aping rear it was slow and not much fun to drive. But it had a drag coefficient of just 0.25Cd, a lightweight aluminium structure and a manual transmission (later a CVT). Plus it looked wonderfully weird, rather than woefully wonky like the first Prius.
1989-1994 Lexus LS400
It was expected to become a footnote as a worthy failure in the annals of the Japanese auto history. After all, how could upstart Toyota dream of taking on and threatening Mercedes, and the legendary W126 S-Class at that?
By being bloody brilliant, that's how. Technically advanced, laden with captivating kit including a darkened instrument panel until it was started, better aerodynamics than rivals, astonishing refinement and quietness, incredible robustness (evidenced by early LS400s still running around in the Middle East and America) and an engine so sublime, powerful and durable that they were used in light aircraft.
1977-1995 Porsche 928
With a few tweaks the 928 could be released today and not look at all dated. Pop-up lights based on the Lamborghini Miura's polyurethane elastic bumpers that reformed after a minor bump, an instrument cluster that moved with the adjustable steering wheel and even a form of passive rear-wheel steer put this car years beyond anything else at the time – don't take my word for it, that's what judges thought when they made it European Car of the Year in 1978.
But where this car really was a flash of the future was in Porsche's thinking that consumers would want the luxury, comfort and ease of driving of a Grand Tourer combined with the ability and dynamics of a sports car.
Hence they planned this to replace the 911 – the 928 was just as quick around a track. At the time, of course, they were wrong, and the 911 has continued to this day. However BMW, Mercedes and others have proven the viability of a proper sports GT. So come on Porsche, try again, give us a new 928!
1976-1986 Rover SD1
Think of the Audi A7, Porsche Panamera and Aston Martin Rapide – luxury four-door cars with a hatchback-like tailgate. Now cast your mind back to the 1976 Rover SD1. Ditto! Sleek, smooth, handsome, coupe-like, and desired by ministers, company directors, TV cops and the real plod.
It wasn't exactly cutting edge in engineering featuring a live rear axle, rear drum brakes and unreliability, but the style, pace and grace was at least two decades early. And it earned its stripes – it went racing, rallying and the police even famously set a record of their own. The 'Liver Run' mercy mission saw them transport a donor organ from Stansted Airport to a hospital in Kensington, 27 miles away, in under 30 minutes – the patient survived.
There's an old video of that right here:
1984-present Renault Espace
SUVs rule when it comes to families now, but at one time it was all about MPVs or minivans – and the pioneer of that automotive genre was the Renault Espace. It featured a fibreglass body, angular styling, lots of glass and set the template for this type of vehicle.
It continued breaking the mould when Renault, one-time engine suppliers to Williams F1, created the Espace F1 – basically Alain Prost's 1993 Williams FW14 F1 car mounted with a carbonfibre body approximating an Espace and fitted with a roll-cage and four racing seats.
Technically Toyota could claim to have been first in the MPV game with the 1983 Spacecruiser but that was really a TownAce van with some seats and windows – by that reckoning the Volkwagen Type 2 would be the people carrier progenitor. Chrysler too might claim the title with its Voyager also launched in 1984, but that looks dowdy and van-like, where as the Espace looked like a space shuttle from the Starship Enterprise.
1977-1984 Talbot Matra Rancho
There's a link between this and the previous car – both were actually manufactured by Matra, and both used the same fibreglass and polyester body forming technique. And whereas Espace created the MPV, this rare Rancho is, I propose, the father of the modern SUV. You may argue for the Range Rover, but that was a 'luxury' off-roader, or the Toyota's RAV-4 – well okay, perhaps for compact SUVs.
However look at this Rancho and tell me you aren't reminded of the original Land Rover Discovery that arrived 12 years later. And if I may channel a little cynicism, just as today's SUVs aren't about off-roading but more about the perception, so this Matra was only a front-wheel drive with 80bhp and actually based on the Simca 1100 supermini (originally this was the Matra-Simco Rancho, but owner Chrysler sold it to PSA which rebranded it Talbot). Anyway, with extraordinary foresight its maker's knew it only had to look the part and 58,000 buyers agreed.