The Recurring Dream: A Survey Of A Century Of “People’s Cars”

(originally posted 1/16/2015)   Like most of our readers, I have been keeping a wary eye on the comings and goings at the various auto shows being held around the country since the new year began. It looks (for the moment) like we are going to miss out on another “every man’s car” again this year. Most of the offerings these days seem to be going in the opposite direction, toward more gee-whiz gadgetry and ever more complicated command and control systems. Those of us that admire the simple honesty of a Model A or early Ford Falcon are dismayed that capitalism demands that even bottom feeder, entry level cars come with a level of technical complication far beyond what is strictly necessary to get from point A to point B.

Of course, this has not always been the case as it pertains to the first rung on the automotive ladder. Even as the money men demanded ever more chrome spattered, gadget laden, fad following , entry level autos, there have been plenty of honest cars that bucked the “bigger, better, flashier” coda and just delivered the basics for less money than any other four wheel competitor.

Remember, we’re talking about  “four wheel” competition. In many countries in the past (and in southeast Asia to this day), the purchase and maintenance of a car is a major economic decision for its erstwhile owners. The best selling motor vehicle in the history of man is the Honda Super Cub (above, doing the work of an F-150). It’s the step up from the lower class of society to the middle strata of the economy and entails greater responsibility and financial wherewithal than the move from walking to riding a motorcycle. For well more than a billion of our fellow humans, a two wheel, single cylinder motorcycle is their entree to motor transport. They are still waiting for someone like Ferdinand Porsche or a modern day Henry Ford to design a car that even they can afford to buy.

From the beginning, owning a car has been intertwined with politics. Woodrow Wilson opined (in 1906) that mass ownership of automobiles would result in a move toward socialism because they were thought to be the “picture of the arrogance of wealth” . Wilson, by the way,was a Pierce-Arrow man. P-A being the American equivalent of a Rolls Royce in its day. Wilson was way off the mark, but he could hardly foresee a day when just about every driver could afford some type of basic car. That day would come faster than anyone thought possible.

To a large degree, whenever a government gets involved in the manufacture and sale of an automobile,the results are generally not pretty. Cars designed by bureaucrats in some central ministry rarely resemble cars that people want to buy and own. There are exceptions, of course. The VW Beetle was a very good car, but it took the utter destruction of its government patron to make the car a worldwide success.

But just across a political border, its evil twin communist counterpart, the Trabant, literally couldn’t be given away when its country of origin collapsed. Generalizing, it’s only when private enterprise decides to build a universal car that it finds real, lasting success. The product can be updated to attract new buyers and lives a natural life cycle that puts economic decisions in the hands of people that don’t have to face voters or politburos. In short, capitalist people’s cars generally are just that-people’s cars.

Our list here can’t be all inclusive. There are just too many shades of gray to cover every mass market model that captured a nation’s imagination. But I hope that the narrative gets the discussion going and you add your comments below.

Model T- Ford Motor Company 1909 -1926

This was the prototype of the founder/inventor/tycoon model for auto manufacture. Looking backward a century,the Model T was a crude, unreliable, unsafe and not all that attractive car. But it was the seminal influence in the early days of mass motoring. Not well remembered today is that the T had to bridge the gap between unpaved roads of appalling quality and the first real motorways that resemble what we know today. With a starting price in strong 1908 dollars of $850, the car saw its list price fall dramatically as Henry Ford perfected his methods of assembly , sales and marketing. By the time the fifteen millionth copy rolled off the line in 1927, Ford could sell the car for less than $300, and book a profit.

The Model T also had a brush with “socialism”, but not as we now understand the term. When Henry Ford introduced the $5 day for assembly workers in 1914, he was thought to be an insane utopian socialist by no small number of industrialists worldwide. But the move was as shrewd as it was utopian – the near doubling of wages pulled legions of factory workers into the middle class, where their first affluent purchase often was…a Model T.


VW Beetle – 1938 -2003

Even though he never got a formal driver’s license, Adolf Hitler had a thing for cars. The evil genius understood that he could tighten his grip on power by appealing to the material aspirations of his countrymen after wild inflation and crushing depression ruined Germany’s economy in the late 20’s/early 30’s. What we now know as the VW Beetle was the result of the marriage between government policy and private know how in the person of Ferdinand Porsche.

The VW Type I was in many ways a throwback to the Model T to which it was often compared. The early models were spare and functional, with no creature comforts save a rock solid dependability that still amazes owners some 74 years after it was first produced. The Bug went on to outsell the Model T and stayed in production until 2003 in Mexico. It set a record that will most likely never be matched.

The Beetle was the exception to the “people’s car” formula that involves government involvement. It was only after the car was divorced from its Nazi past that the company that built it truly prospered and conquered the worlds car markets. The Beetle was the foundation for a worldwide empire that on any given day counts Volkswagen as either the second or third largest car maker on the planet.The Nazi government it should be noted, sold the KDF Wagen on a layaway scheme that was the polar opposite of buying on credit (which GMAC had been doing for years). Purchasers paid in installments and received a car after all the payments were made.

Renault 4CV – 1947-1961

Like most things French,the 4CV doesn’t lend itself to absolutes. The product of Gallic collaboration with the Nazi occupiers or transcendent car that brought égalité and fraternité after the war? Depends on who’s doing the asking and who’s doing the telling. We do know that the little 4 CV had design work done underneath the noses of the Wehrmacht between 1941 and the liberation of France in 1944. With a 750cc powerplant and 17HP, the car’s (possible) connection to the Vichy/Nazi regime was soon forgotten, and by 1949, it was the top seller in France. Testament to the car’s basic value was a production run that only ended in 1961. Over a million 4 CVs were built before the car was essentially replaced by the Dauphine. It’s probably no great stretch to say that the 4CV helped save Renault after its founder and guiding hand, Louis Renault, died while awaiting trial for collaborating with the Germans.

BMC Mini 1959- 1968

A very British take on the “People’s Car” leitmotif. And another worldwide success done without “help” from any government. The Mini was the first really practical transverse engine front wheel drive car. The overall package of sturdy build quality and space efficient layout made the Mini a Beetle beater in commonwealth markets around the world. In one form or another, the car sold over five million units in an incredible run that started over a half century ago. The Mini also accomplished something that the Bug perfected – it made an emotional connection with it’s owners that bordered on romance.

Trabant1957- 1991

The first time I ever laid eyes on a Trabant, (In Ukraine) I thought that it was a Revell model kit blown up to full size. I wasn’t too far off the mark. The car used a resin/paper/cotton body made of “Duroplast” that made the little Trabi unique in its day. With a two stroke 600 CC engine that smoked like a Burger King grease fire, and a crude, imprecise shifter that made gear changes just another indignity to be suffered by its hapless owners, the Trabant was socialism distilled to its essence.

The Trabant was a direct response by the East German “People’s Republic” to the Beetle that was fast becoming the default entry level car around the world in the late fifties. The Trabant was frequently nursed along as a lifetime possesion because the waiting list was unofficially 8 years and subject to official corruption. The little two banger could belt out only 18HP at full throttle,which made the car dangerously sluggish,underpowered and loud. But it was easy for the amateur mechanics behind the iron curtain to maintain because the engine only used five moving parts.

Of course, when that same iron curtain came down in 1991, cars like the Trabant had no future against modern designs that were fully fifty years ahead of the technology in the Trabant. Given a choice, many Trabi owners drove their antique mounts into West Germany and simply abandoned them when they found a decent car that they could afford. The very last models used a VW one litre four built under license, but by then, too few people cared. The last Trabants were built in the spring of 1991. Over three million Trabants were produced.

Proton Saga 1985Present

This was a government sponsored and backed project from Malaysia that was basically an old Mitsubishi Lancer face lifted just enough to claim that it was a different product. The Saga was the result of prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamed’s vision for a “national car” that would employ locals in its manufacture. The Saga came to market in September, 1985 and immediately zoomed to number one on the sales charts for Malaysia by virtue of being the lowest priced car(by far) on the market. The Saga has fulfilled two missions for its government patron: It has put a couple of million Malaysians in a real car for the first time and has nurtured a domestic design and engineering center that can now design a car from the ground up. The first generation car came within an eyelash of being exported to the U.S. by automotive wheeler-dealer Malcom Bricklin in 1986 as he cast about for an encore to his Yugo adventure.

Tata Nano2009-?

It’s fun to watch history being made. That’s exactly what we are doing as we watch the evolution of the Nano,being built by Tata motors in India. Although often compared with the Volkswagen, the Nano is closer to the Model T idiom than the Beetle. With a 38 HP twin driving the 12 inchers,the Nano will be the car that hundreds of millions of Indians will remember fondly in thirty years. If it doesn’t incinerate them. The car had barely hit the market when engine fires sent the company into full panic mode to pinpoint the cause.It would appear that a faulty switch can turn the car into a mobile hibachi with little or no warning.

No matter. The Nano,warts and all, will be the first four wheel conveyance that India’s expanding middle class can buy new. The car’s $2900 (U.S. equivalent) price puts it within reach of a large slice of the country’s working classes and that means that it won’t be long before its early adopters will like driving a car so much that they will want to trade up. It’s not hard to see an entire industry being built to service the needs of India’s newest elite-Nano owners.

Did I miss your favorite “people’s car”? That’s what the comments below are for, so I’d love to see everyone weigh in on their favorite car for the masses.