3 December 2013

Cars That Wouldn’t Die: Six cases of shocking automotive longevity

In this age of ultra-short product lifecycles, where a three-model-year run unchanged is an eternity, it’s tough to imagine the same basic design being produced in three separate decades or more. Here are six of our favourites that had tortoise-like lifespans:

  1. 1959-2000 Austin/Rover Mini: At 41 years, we deem the thoroughly British and thoroughly brilliant original Mini to be the non-Third World automotive longevity champion. Francophiles can quibble with this and nominate the Citroen 2CV at 42 years, but even though it was built in Slough for a while, it wasn’t sold in Britain for a number of years. In any event, little needs to be said about Sir Alec Issigonis’ game-changing creation other than the words of Mini driver James Hunt: “If you’ve never driven one, you can hardly be said to have driven at all.”
  2. 1983-? Land Rover Defender: At 30 years this year, the Defender has surpassed the American Jeep CJ-5  and the Japanese Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser as the Methuselah of utility vehicles. Like the Mini, it’s a British national treasure, with Bulldog looks and real off-road abilities that sadly rarely get put to the test in places like Knightsbridge and Surrey. A huge market exists for secondhand Defenders in the U.S., where they were only officially sold from 1993-95. Just don’t try to send them one built before 1988—they’re 100 percent verboten for import and there’s a viral video showing the Feds crushing a newer illegally imported one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzBFwFos-o0 Ouch!
  3. 1954-83 Jeep CJ-5: The CJ-5 was actually a variant of the Korean War-era military Jeep. Far more suited to civilian use than the WWII-era Jeep, the CJ-5 was a hot seller for American Motors, which took over Jeep’s parentage from the old Kaiser automotive group. The CJ-5’s short wheelbase gave it a terribly choppy ride and made it rollover prone in emergency situations. Nevertheless, it remained in production for an astonishing 30 years, and there is a fair amount of CJ DNA in today’s Jeep Wrangler.
  4. 1953-80 Volkswagen Beetle:  The Allied occupying powers didn’t quite know what they should do with the Beetle, which was commissioned by the Nazis to give mobility to the loyal pfennig-saving subjects of the Third Reich on the new Autobahn superhighways. As it turned out, invading Poland took precedence over delivering new Volkswagens and in 1945, the British Army found the remains of a little used but thoroughly bombed factory in a new town known as Wolfsburg. They elected to let the post-war Germans keep producing the funny little car and the rest is history. The first Beetles were sold in the UK in 1953 by a dealer in Sheffield, and the last Karmann-built Super Beetle Cabriolets were sold in 1980. However, by then the Golf had thoroughly supplanted the Beetle in the UK and Europe, although production of the basic Beetle sedan continued in Mexico until 2003.
  5. 1964-89 Porsche 911 (air-cooled):The 911 celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, but to be fair, we cut this off in 1989, the last year for the original torsion bar suspension, air-cooled 911. It’s simply amazing how little of the basic car changed over the course of 25 years, from a primitive heating system, to most of the glass, roof and doors, as well as the basic engine design. 911 fans seemed just fine with that as the car outlived its intended successor—the 928.
  6. 1962-80 MGB: The MGB was the first “modern” sports car from MG, with cushy features like actual wind-up windows and (from 1967 on) a fully synchronized gearbox and an optional folding hood. When it was introduced in 1962, few thought that it would remain essentially unchanged for two decades. Sadly, that’s how it turned out.  After a titanic 18-year run—spanning The Beatles to The Clash—the B exited the world little changed (with the exception of U.S.-mandated rubber bumpers) from the way it entered.

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