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A toast to history's most important car...

I got into a debate this week about the most important car ever designed. Not necessarily the greatest, and certainly not the fastest or the most beautiful or the most expensive or the most iconic, but rather the car that most fundamentally changed the direction of the automotive industry, along with the hopes, dreams and attitudes of the buying public. Those around me in the debate brought up the same old marques and models - the Model T, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini - and all with good reasons. The Model T opened up a whole new world of mass production that changed not only the automotive industry but many other sectors to boot. The Beetle defined the very notion of the people's car, bringing affordable personal transportation to the impoverished masses. And the Mini taught us important lessons in packaging that we're still using today. One of my colleagues even made a decent case for the Porsche 911 as being the most important car ever, for its lessons in the mastery of engineering over physics.

But in my own humble opinion, they were all wrong. The most important car ever designed, the most influential by a long chalk, is the Ford Sierra.

Now, already I can sense what you're thinking - that surely I have finally tipped over the edge and descended into complete madness. But I can assure you that I am still of sound mind and judgement am fully prepared to argue that the Ford Sierra deserves to sit at the top of the list. Let me explain. With its strange jelly mould shape, the introduction of the Ford Sierra was not without controversy, and certainly polarised opinion. I was among those who thought it was truly awful, but that's by the by. What was important was that automotive manufacturers across the globe sat up and took notice. And in subsequent years virtually all car designs, it seems to me, began to converge on a common rounded theme, so that in a line up of numerous cars from a host of different manufacturers you'd barely be able to tell them apart.

Happily, there was a backlash against this. Manufacturers woke up to the notion that we are all individuals, and we don't want to all be driving identical looking vehicles. And there followed an explosion of new models that put an emphasis on design excellence and innovation. Today whatever you, as an individual, want from a car, you can find it. Without the Ford Sierra that my never have been possible. True we would never have had to suffer its aesthetic awfulness or the generation of bland jelly mould wannabes that followed it. But would we have been rewarded with the golden age of automotive excellence that we're now enjoying? I suspect not.

What's even more pleasing is just how much of that current design excellence originates in this country. British designers can be found at the highest levels of car makers around the world, while the UK has become a global hub for automotive R&D and engineering design. Minnows and market leaders alike reap the benefits of our creativity and technological innovation as they seek to add value to their automotive platforms. These are qualities we've always had in this country, but without the backlash against the Ford Sierra, would automotive manufacturers have come knocking at our door in such numbers? Again, I suspect not. The Ford Sierra, then: not necessarily the best car ever built, but surely the most important.

Mark Simms, 8 May 2011

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