Cars that changed consumer perceptions

on another thread, the subject came up of the old perception, still alive in the minds of some, that higher cost equals a higher quality car. I brought up Lexus’ having upended that idea for most automotive consumers.

Through history there have been many cars that upended existing (at the time) assumptions. I thought a thread identifying them might be interesting. So, here it is!

I’ll start with the Model T. Prior to Ford’s Model T, cars were considered playthings for rich people. They were handbuilt, expensive, unreliable, and the infrastructures of fuel supply and roads were only marginally existent, completely nonexistent in most of the country.

Anybody care to add to the list? It might be fun.

lee iacocca brought the minivan to market. Until then we had station wagons and full sized vans. Kids, groceries, drywall and 2 x 4’s could be carted around in a vehicle about the size of a large car.


I would put the VW Beetle on this list, which became popular in this country beginning in the mid 1950s. The VW Beetle broke tradition in 2 ways:. 1) it didn’t undergo styling changes every two or three years. Continuing improvements were made each year. The VW Beetle held its value better than any U.S. nameplate. 2) The fit and finish of the body was unmatched by any U.S. nameplate.
The VW Beetle was not only popular with college students, but their professors as well. The price was lower than almost any U.S. make.


I like that choice. The reasons you mention were also the reason the VW Beetle sold more cars than any other make or model. It may still hold the record, I’m not sure.
My first car was a '61 Beetle. For a H.S. kid with no money, there was no second choice.

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And the minivan wasn’t Lee Iacocca’s idea, it was Volkswagen’s, more than a decade before the Chrysler minivan.

For engineering and packaging revolution, the Mini Minor designed by Alec Issigonis and first sold in 1959 brought us front wheel drive, strut suspension, crosswise front engine and lots of room in a very small car. Compare a Mini Minor to a 59 Plymouth. What a revolution.


Willys Jeep Wagoneer was the first consumer SUV. There were military versions before, but this was the first one designed for the general public.

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Agree! Prior to the Beetle the common perception was that small 4 cylinder cars did not last and could not sustain turnpike speeds for long with out burning out their engines.

I personally burned the valves on a Morris Minor over one summer on a highway with a 60 mph limit.

The beetle merrily cruised all day with the gas pedal on the floor. It was designed to do that on German Autobahns.

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I will add to the list the Acura NSX. Prior to that, the perception was that supercars could not be reliable. That one caused supercar manufacturers to rethink their dismissal of the need for reliability.


The car we know as the British Mini. Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis. for the 1959 Model year and built until 2000. There were 4 series but the basic design remained the same for 41 years. It defined the transverse engine, FWD layout with the wheels at the corners of the car to provide the greatest passenger space in the smallest car. This layout is the design foundation for most of the cars, minivans and smaller SUV’s.

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The Mini did not have strut suspension. It had a double A-arm front suspension and a swing arm rear both with shock absorbers and rubber biscuits for springs or later, the Hydralastic suspension with integral dampers and gas springs.

The first Japanese cars to score big sales in the US: rear wheel drive, with durable 4-cylinder engines, center-dash vents that could blow a big dose of air (especially desirable before AC was the norm), good value for the money, and overall quality and reliability better than the rest.

Toyota Corona and Datsun 510 come to mind. As their reputations percolated through the US car market, people’s expectations of carmakers were raised and carmakers had to improve or lose market share…

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Another vehicle I would add to the list is the 1949 Plymouth Suburban. Before the 1949 Plymouth Suburban, station wagons were either wood bodies on car chassis or were panel trucks with rear seating and side windows. Willys did have an all metal wagon that was introduced in 1946, but wasn’t on an automobile chassis as was the Plymouth Suburban. I would argue that these Willys Overland Jeep Station Wagons were more like today’s SUVs. The Plymouth Suburban really kicked off the station wagon craze of the 1950s.
The wood bodied station wagons were hard to maintain where the Plymouth Suburban was no more difficult to maintain than a conventional car.
Margaret Mead, the well-known cultural anthropologist characterized the typical American family as having a house in the suburbs, three children and a station wagon in the driveway. This image may have hurt the station wagon. The minivan that took its place really had more utility as a people hauler and a goods and materials hauler.
I think the auto manufacturers probably took a page from Margaret Mead’s book and dubbed the minivan as a “soccer mom’s” vehicle to promote the SUV.

Actually, those exact cars you mentioned were the ones that my relative in his late 70s vividly remembers as being garbage cars that rusted out quickly and were the opposite of of reliable

They are the reasons he has steadfastly refused to buy japanese vehicles

He would vehemently disagree with you on that

it’s not necessarily my opinion . . . because I wasn’t old enough to drive at the time

I that it was the Datsun (Nissan) Maxima that gave a luxury car image to the Japanese car back in the late 1970s. I knew a couple Mercedes Benz owners who traded for Maximas. I also had a friend that bought a Toyota Corona but traded it for a Cadillac because she didn’t like the Corona.

The Japanese luxury cars forced the issue! I worked with an engineer who had his second BMW, a Bavaria. When it came time to trade, he bought a Lexus for a lot less and never looked back!
Strangely, in Asia it took longer for Lexus, Acura and Infiniti to gain acceptance. Luxury buyers there had been brainwashed that Mercedes and BMW were the only brands worth buying.

Travelling through the US, California and Washington were the first states to really embrace them. Texas came much later.

If he traded a Bavaria for a Lexus, he must have kept that Bavaria for a very long time, because the Lexus nameplate didn’t arrive here until 1990 . . .

Agree, as an engineer he took really good care of the BMW. In the meantime the price of BMWs had gone up really fast and a Lexus looked like a bargain by comparison.

A few miles down the road from me is the home of a somewhat eccentric guy who inherited industrial fortunes from both sides of his family. He is… let’s just say… frugal, and one of his two cars is a BMW Bavaria (the other one is a Mercury Sable) in a revolting shade of green. In addition to the BMW’s nauseating color, the paint is totally chalked, but I guess that isn’t too surprising in view of the car’s age.
I have no idea how much he spends to keep that old Bimmer running, but at least he can well afford it.

Let’s keep things in perspective, please

Many car manufacturers offered colors in the 1970s which would be considered ugly, questionable, tacky, etc. by today’s standards . . . yet at the time, they were on the cutting edge of fashion

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I might be a little off the topic and couldn’t really think of any. But I ran into a former class mate this morning who had his Amphacar stolen out of his garage about five years ago. No closer to getting it back but says he’ll know it when he sees it. Saw one in Ohio last week but it wasn’t his. They have about 9 of them at Disney selling rides and they all have Minnesota plates. Like said though a car-boat is neither a good car or a good boat.