It’s easy to think that when World War II ended, and Nazi Germany was no more, that all was merry and people danced in the streets. Which, true, they did.
But it wasn't that easy. For one thing, you don't just delete 50 million people and move on. That's a tremendous hole. And that's not to mention the wrecked economies, and food shortages, and gutted landscapes and utterly destroyed cities.
Add to that the fact that for a lot of Europe, it was merely out of the frying pan and into the fire, because Stalin wasn’t a nice man either. To him, killing people was “like mowing grass”, and apparently he believed he had an oval.
WWII was the closest that the world has ever got to complete desolation, since the Black Death, and so it isn’t remarkable that it took a lot of rebuilding. What is remarkable, though, is how fast that rebuilding was done.
Civilian car production was obviously halted when it was on, in 1939. BMW devoted all its attention to aircraft engines, Citroen kept pumping out Traction Avants for the French army, Austin started making jerry cans, and even Hitler’s people’s car was put on hold while VW built the Kubelwagen and Schwimmelsomething.
The only exception was Louis Renault, who continued making small cars right up until the Germans knocked on his doors and said it was their factory now.
And when the war ended, the first item on most people’s shopping lists was not a brand-new car. Which was just as well, because brand-new cars didn’t exist. Most of the car factories in Europe had taken a severe pounding, and some of them, as BMW found, were now in Soviet territory.
The few that did put out cars, like Riley, merely reintroduced prewar cars using materials that were on hand, which wasn’t much. In fact, the quaint looking Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn is unfairly called one of the worst Rolls-Royces ever, because even though it was built from the finest materials available, it wasn’t built from the finest materials.
Yet if there was one year when it all seemed to come alive again – it was 1948. Suddenly, astonishingly, cars that were revolutionary and brilliant and creative appeared. It would be like Gutenberg inventing the printing press 3 years after the Black Death died. Or a cure for cancer coming out of Aleppo right now.
I’m talking about cars that are amazing at the best of times. 1948 wasn’t the best of times.
1) JAGUAR XK 120
Jaguar knew immediately they had created something wonderful with their straight-six XK engine; so wonderful, in fact, that they ended up using it for over 40 years. That’s right, an engine that came out just after the war was powering your father’s car in the nineties.
So to illustrate the point, Jaguar put it in a stunning body and unveiled it at the 1948 Earl’s Court Motor Show. When the body attracted far more attention than the engine, they sighed, and made both.
2) PORSCHE 356
Porsche’s first production car was the opposite of Lexus’ first production car. It was very good.
It started when Ferdinand Porsche, who worked as an engineering contractor, was commissioned by Hitler to design the Beetle. He obviously loved his design, because he then used it to create the Type 64 for the 1939 Berlin to Rome race. Which was cancelled.
In the end it was his son, Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, who turned the Type 64 into Porsche’s first production car, the 356. Yes, it may have been based on the Beetle, and yes, it may therefore have not been very fast, but the important thing is that it was flawlessly built and handled very well. A Porsche has never been anything else.
I also love the fact that the older Ferdinand Porsche lived to see his son pick up where he left off. Louis Renault, who dreamed of giving every French family a car of their own, died having lost his company and accused of being a collaborator. Louis Chevrolet died in poverty. We need a happy ending every so often.
3) MORRIS MINOR
I know it looks nothing like the Minor you’re thinking of, because that’s the 1000 update which was in the mid-1950s. All that did, really, was change its face – for the better I suspect.
Morris needed to make a small car to challenge the basic Austin 7 for supremacy in the hearts and minds of frugal British buyers. For this they had the eccentric genius, Alec Issignois, who amongst many radical ideas, thought that a small car ought to be enjoyable, not something “people feel they’ve been sentenced to”. That was a good start.
And it was a good finish also. Issignois’ innovative ideas brought him into collision with the founder of Morris, Lord Nuffield, on almost every part of the design including the flat-four engine. Nuffield thought such an engine would be beastly expensive. Morris Vice President Miles Thomas protested that the manufacturing costs could be easily offset, but Nuffield refused, and Miles quit.
So the engine was an upgraded version of the prewar Morris Eight engine, but it wasn’t a total loss for Issignois. He got his way on many elements of the design, including through twelfth hour changes in production, which actually saw some early Minors with their bumpers cut in half and extended. Because he’d widened the body.
And despite the fact that it was predicted to be a disaster, this inspired economy car was to become the first British car to sell over a million.
4) CITROEN 2CV DEUX CHEVAUX
The best design briefs are, well, that – brief and to the point. Build a car that can do 400km/h and looks like this, said Piech to his engineers, and the Bugatti Veyron ensued. Make something terrible to behold, someone must have drunkenly told Ssangyong, and so they made a whole range.
It’s when a company starts with something like “a car for a new era of mobility” – that you be sure nothing exemplary is afoot.
The Citroen 2CV’s purpose was very specific. It was to be able to drive across an unploughed field with a load of eggs, without breaking any. This was so that French farmers, who seventy years ago were still using horses and carts, would actually buy a car.
The 2CV may have looked odd, in the same lovable way that a koala looks odd, but it was brilliant. It had a soft ride, excellent ground-clearance, and because it was so basic, nothing could possibly go wrong. Even fitting a bull in the back was easy: just roll back the canvas roof.
The French farmers loved it, the French hippies loved it, in fact, everyone loved it, and so immediately, that there was a 5-year waiting list and by 1990 – 40 years later – over 3 million had been sold.
5) TUCKER 48
The death of the rotary engine and the dumping of faithful Spinach in favour of the new trendy kid on the block, Kale, is proof that the world isn’t fair.
As is the fact that Raoul Wallenberg almost lost his life several times during WWII, rescuing thousands of Jews, only to lose it when the whole thing was over and Russian imbeciles took him to be a spy.
To this I’d add the story of the Tucker 48. Because it is painfully tragic.
After the war, American entrepreneur Preston Tucker wanted to build a car, and he had some good ideas on how to do it, too. We often think of Volvo and Mercedes and Citroen – with its foldaway steering column – as being the pioneers of car safety, which they were. But Tucker was up there too.
Along the 48’s development process, all sorts of safety ideas were trialled, such as a shatterproof windscreen – which was also designed to pop-out in an accident, rather than enter the cabin – rollover bars, positioning the steering box behind the front axle so it didn’t impale the driver, and a padded dashboard. Every other dashboard was either steel or walnut.
And we praise the Citroen DS for its ground-breaking lights that swivelled to meet corners. The Tucker 48 had an extra headlight in the middle that did just that.
It went beyond safety too. Tucker’s other radical ideas included disc brakes and a fuel-injected flat-six engine. Not all of these ideas were implemented because of their complexity, but in the end, the engine they settled on was good enough – it could apparently do 211km/h, which was worlds ahead of any other American car.
So obviously the Tucker 48 was ahead of its time, and looking rather amazing too, the public was enthralled. Nothing could go wrong.
But it did. First, the suspension on one of the prototypes broke just before it was due to appear to a crowd of 3,000. So Preston Tucker just kept talking until 2 hours later, it showed up. The reception was rapturous.
But then a journalist claimed that the whole thing was a fraud, because he’d seen that the 48 could not actually reverse. This would have been easily sorted out had he checked his facts and found out that of course it couldn’t reverse, because it was a prototype, but the damage was done.
Then the Big Three – Ford, GM, and Chrysler – instigated legal proceedings for fraud against this small company which had obviously outshone them. Tucker was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing whatsoever, but they had got what they wanted.
The company collapsed, and with it, a car too worthy for its world.
6) FORD F-1
They are so inseparable, big Americans and their big trucks, that it's easy to forget that the whole thing, by and large, is an Australian invention. Though we called it a ute, which obviously is better.
Cars with trays on the back had been around for a long time. But not until an Aussie farmer's wife wrote to Ford, in 1932, was a car specifically built with an integrated, open rear.
And 70 years ago, Ford again perfected its recipe, and this time it was more than a great success. It was a sensation. By the end of 1948, over 100,000 had been bought.
And now today, as we know, Ford sells two F-series trucks every minute in the US. Goodness knows what they do with them. Eat them, maybe.
7) LAND ROVER SERIES I
Apparently, after WWII, one of the best ways to get some raw materials to build a new car was to point out to the British government that it would help grow vegetables.
That’s what Rover’s boss Maurice Wilks did. With the Rover factory in Coventry badly damaged – I hate the name Maurice, so I shall call him Liquorice – Wilks cleverly decided to make a rugged vehicle for the farmers.
And so the Land Rover was born. Here was a car, very basic and affordable, that could take the family into town for the May festival, and yet be hitched to farm machinery and slog through bog, in the afternoon. Being so inherently basic, there was nothing that could break that couldn’t be fixed with bootlaces and some thick Yorkshire muttering.
I sat in one for about five minutes once and in that time, I became convinced that you would not want to lash out in anger in there. Because it would be agonising.
Liquorice Wilks only intended the Land Rover Series I to be a temporary thing, but it sold so brilliantly that many more Series came along, and now here we are, seventy years later, and it’s the only bit of Rover that’s still going.
8) HOLDEN 48-215 FX
In the recounting of WWII, Australia’s part often gets overlooked. Don’t forget it was our boys who Rommel called the “Rats of Tobruk” - not just any British contingent.
And while Australia might have been a long way away from Germany, we weren’t a long way from Japan. We got bombed too. Admittedly, only in Darwin and Newcastle, but the point is Japan had its sights on conquering the land down under.
We also shouldered our fair share of post-war burden, which makes it equally remarkable that we came out with our first car in 1948. The Holden.
And I’m not remotely biased, but when the most resourceful people on the planet build a car, the result is obviously good. It was; the FX was robust, comfortable, and absolutely dependable.
9) FERRARI 166 INTER
When Ferrari started making cars for the road, seventy years ago, a good engine and chassis wasn’t enough anymore. They needed to be beautiful as well. They also needed to be built to last longer than a race, which is what’s said to have peeved Ferrucio Lamborghini, but that’s currently irrelevant.
And the bodies of Ferrari's first road car, the 166 Inter, were very beautiful – all 37 of them. They were coachbuilt, so they varied, but not one was ugly. In fact the common Berlinetta body by Touring actually makes me cry.
10) WOLSELEY 6/80
It mightn’t have been the newest looking car, but it was really a terrific use of what was on hand and it sold deservedly well. It was so straight-forward good that it became the postwar British police car, largely until the Jaguar MK2 took its shift in 1959.
I remember Enid Blyton going on about the policemen in their Wolseleys, who Dick and Pam & friends could never confide in because they’d never believe us anyway – and so terrific was the day when I found out the ubiquitous Wolseley was the 6/80 of 1948.
If Enid Blyton was around today, she wouldn’t mention the police cars. Because they’re Vauxhall Astras. Children don’t need to know that.