Top 5 forgotten firsts

Name the first hot hatchback. “That’s easy, it’s the Golf GTi,” says absolutely everybody. The first supermini? The Renault 5, as you all know.

What about the first people carrier? You probably think it was the Renault Espace, but I’m afraid you’re wrong there. Likewise, you probably think that BMW invented the executive saloon, but unfortunately you’re wrong again.

That’s the trouble with the car market. Good ideas are copied as quickly as possible, so it becomes difficult to keep track of where they started. So, here are five genuine originals, forgotten firsts, that don’t get the recognition they deserve.

The 1st people carrier

So if it wasn’t the Espace, what was it then? Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro invented the concept of an upright family car with a flexible interior, what we now call a people carrier or multi-purpose vehicle, when he designed the one-off Lancia Megagamma in 1979.

But it was Nissan who beat everyone else to the punch, launching the Prairie in 1982. Based on the Sunny hatchback, it had a tall, square body, as per the Megagamma, which helped to free up a huge amount of interior space in a relatively small footprint.

The rear seats were foldable and removable, and it had sliding rear doors. First generation models did without a B-pillar, as well, which gave fantastic access – the arrangement has only recently been copied on the Ford B-MAX.

Both Mk1 and Mk2 Prairies sold reasonably well in the UK, and were particularly popular for conversion to carry wheelchairs. It was discontinued in 1992, replaced by the God-awful, van-based Serena. Elsewhere in the world, it survived until 2004.

The 1st executive saloon

BMW launched its ‘New Class’ saloons in 1962, but a 2.0-litre engine, the minimum requirement for an executive saloon, wasn’t introduced until ’66. The Rover 2000, commonly known as the P6, arrived three years earlier in ’63.

In the early Sixties, fleet sales became increasingly important, as company car-driving travelling salesmen became more common. But it wasn’t just the reps who needed to get around. The higher-ups had to as well. And a 1500cc Cortina just wouldn’t do for them.

Rover spotted an opportunity to build a car specifically for this emerging class of travelling executive and the P6 was the result. It was a radical departure Rover, whose previous best-seller was the decidedly frumpy P4. It was thoroughly modern with sharp styling, a monocoque bodyshell with bolt-on panels and an all-new powertrain.

It was good enough to win the inaugural European Car of The Year award in ’64, and the execs it was built for lapped it up. Over 300,000 were built in 14 years. Incidentally, Triumph also launched an upmarket, 2.0-litre saloon in ’63, but we’ve given the Rover the nod as it had the better brand image at the time.

The 1st family hatchback

Citroen probably invented the hatchback, when it added a one-piece, top-hinged tailgate to the Traction Avant saloon in 1954. Renault, ever the innovators, took note of the packaging benefits of the arrangement and applied it to its new small car, the Renault 4, in ’61.

Though it was hugely successful, the R4 existed in its own space. So it came as quite a surprise when the mid-size R16 had a tailgate, rather than a boot. At launch in ’65, literally every rival – Ford Cortina, Peugeot 304, Volkswagen Type 3, Fiat 124 – was a saloon.

Journalists weren’t sure how to classify it – the term ‘hatchback’ wasn’t coined until around 1970. Still, they recognised that is was comfortable, good to drive, extremely spacious and, with that tailgate and folding rear seats, hugely practical. A Car of The Year award followed and over 1.8 million were sold in 15 years.

Other manufacturers followed the hatchback format, notably for the emerging supermini class. But it was Volkswagen who did most to popularise the layout on family-size cars with the Passat and Golf.

The 1st crossover

Jeep were the first to develop a 4×4 focused as much on on-road refinement as off-road capability, launching the Jeepster in 1948. Jeep’s own Wagoneer and the Range Rover followed, but these were still based on the rugged underpinnings of more utilitarian machines.

Jeep’s parent company, American Motors Corp., originated what we now call the crossover. It took the Concord saloon, fitted four-wheel-drive, raised the ride height and added off-roaderish styling.

The AMC Eagle went on sale in ’79, and soon the entirety of AMC’s range was available in Eagle form. Even the convertible. Sales were only modest, but it was at the head of the wave of four-wheel-drive cars that came along during the Eighties.

Incidentally, Subaru had been offering four-wheel-drive versions of its saloons and estates for some time before the Eagle, but they were clearly marketed as alternatives to traditional off-roaders. The Eagle was the first car to blur the lines.

The 1st sports car

Racing followed the invention of the car almost immediately. The first recognised event from Paris to Rouen took place in 1894, just eight years after Karl Benz built his Patentwagen. Motorsport quickly became massively popular.

Inevitably, drivers wanted to enjoy the thrill of racing on the road, without the bother of actually entering a race. The manufacturers were happy to oblige, but early efforts were thinly-veiled racers and rather primitive with it.

Most experts agree that Vauxhall built the first true sports car, the 1910 Prince Henry. It offered the race car thrills, but with much more civilised accommodation. It was a replica of the 3.0-litre car Vauxhall had successfully campaigned in the 1910 Motor Trial, a 1,200 mile race across Prussia.

The Prince Henry – named after Prussia’s ruler – had further competition success, both in trials and at the Brooklands circuit. Few survive and are highly prized.

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By Graham King

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