Sir William Lyons Award 2012 pt.2: What makes a car or motorcycle iconic?

Icon. Let’s be honest, it’s a word which has lost a lot of its meaning in recent years. Everything from the Mini to the TomTom satnav has been lauded as iconic by somebody, and whilst the Mini is a clear case of an item which rightly bears the title, there has to be a cut-off somewhere. The word is being abused now to the extent that I know one editor who has banned it completely.

So what gives a car or motorbike iconic status? The internet cannot help – searching “Automotive Icon” may well return pages of influential people and legendary cars, but it offers nothing with which to link them together. All we can do is attempt to define an icon here, using what we know to create an explanation – however thin! Let’s make one thing clear from the start – “iconic” does not mean the same as “classic”. For me, a classic car inspires memories, it makes you smile, and it is a car which people actively choose to buy despite it being older and rarer than the norm. Yet my Austin Montego is not an icon – the iconic reps’ car is the Ford Cortina.

Iconic is not a title to be given to those which have simply achieved acclaim, either. The Riley One Point Five, I’m told, regularly put in good records on the Monte Carlo Rally – yet it ain’t an icon. As we can see; even without codification it is easy to decide what is and is not an icon. Without a formula though, pub debates across the land will never be settled. So let’s try to create one.

Perhaps the solution is to be found by analysing a series of vehicles which are undoubtedly iconic – even in the mind of the editor who has forbidden the word. Ford Transit. Mini. Audi Quattro. None was particularly ground-breaking; there were vans before Transit, four wheel drive supercars before the Quattro, and transverse-engined front wheel drive small cars had been about for well over a decade before Moulton’s masterpiece first broke cover. Could it be, I wonder, that iconic status is not bestowed upon the FIRST of a breed, but the first to be taken seriously? Jensen’s FF was seen as an expensive and costly flight of fancy, front drive DKWs were unheard of, and vans before the Transit were a bit of a joke so far as the driver was concerned.

Now here we might have hit upon the answer. Icons popularise the traits which we later come to take for granted – they are not the first of their ilk, not the last – but their ubiquity casts them forth into the limelight. There is but one fly in this ointment, and it’s the Austin Maxi.

It wasn’t the first hatchback. It wasn’t even the first British hatchback. Nor was it the first car with a five speed gearbox. But certainly in Britain it popularised both concepts, which we now come to expect as a minimum of our family cars. In terms of what we want a family car to be, the Maxi was well ahead of its time, and still had a modern specification when discontinued thirteen years after launch. Yet whilst the Maxi provides much material for the likes of Jasper Carrott, it has yet to be inducted into the Iconic Hall of Fame.

On the strength of what we’ve seen so far, this seems strange. But then the Maxi was never a world car, it had one core market (The UK) and limited sales in some others. Returning to our original choices, the Mini and Quattro were World cars whilst the Transit enjoyed success across Europe. It thus seems that there is something of an international dimension to the matter – the more diverse the base of fans, the more likely a vehicle is to become an icon. The Maxi offers us another insight – whilst capable it was maligned when new, unlike Transit or MKII Jag.

Perhaps an acceptance or regard for the product when contemporary helps to fuel the cocktail known as the Icon. So what do we have so far? To become iconic, a car or bike must have the following qualities. It must have achieved acclaim at some stage. It must have popularised some facet of the automotive condition which has since become taken for granted. It must have an international presence, which will boost and spread any appeal it may have.

Yet whilst this is all true of any automotive icon, the key facet is missing. You’d be forgiven for thinking it might not be a factor, because we’ve already mentioned it when outlining what an icon is not. An icon must stir the soul. There has to be an emotional tie; not the same as the personal emotive tie with a classic; that would be too little. There has to be a bond which transcends mere individuals, and bonds groups or nations to a particular car. Take possibly the most iconic car of the lot, the Mini. Look at the effect next time one is driven down your local high street. Children point, adults smile, the elderly recall their youth.

But then, we’ve only really explored what icon means to one person. To a friend of mine, any car which is as desirable when 20 years old as it was when new is automatically iconic – but I’m not too sure myself. My father thinks an icon is a car which changed the way we see motoring – and yet we’ve outlined why that simply cannot be. Subjective definitions are just that – we cannot objectify them. Would we perhaps be better to admit that there isn’t really one universal definition of an icon, and to simply like what we like? Or would it be cheating?

Either way, what we’ve now got is a weak definition which isn’t universal in its application. We’re not really any further forward than we were when we started. And it’s taken two pages to admit it.

Landlord! Same again, please…

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