It’s pretty remarkable to think about all the sub-categories and factions and one-make fetishists and near-cults that are contained within the general overarching category of automobile-lovers we call gearheads. There’s intense loves and hates, deep allegiances and sworn hostilities all over the automotive world, which makes the idea of finding cars of near-universal appeal so very difficult. So let’s give it a try.
The criteria I’m looking for here are cars that, while perhaps aren’t the absolute favorite of every car-lover, are ones that nearly every car-lover can at least respect, and be at least somewhat interested in.
There’s a lot of very popular, even iconic cars that just don’t work for this. My own personal favorite, the original, air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle, for example, while it has a huge cult following, also has many detractors, and its early history is controversial enough that it can’t really be on this list.
Other cars, like the original Ford Mustang, seem like they might be a good choice, but intense rivalries from, say, Chevy Camaro devotees, make it unsuitable. As a result, this is really tricky. The cars need to be interesting, important, and engaging, but also free of significant controversy or really polarizing ideas.
Think of it this way: these need to be cars that, if any random gearhead was transported into a garage with them, they’d at the very least respect the car, and be interested in it to at least some degree, even if that car was wildly removed from their normal scope of automotive interests.
These are cars that you could show up in to any general gathering of cars and people interested in cars and be accepted, pretty much no matter what.
Get it? Of course you do. So, with that in mind, here’s the list we’ve come up with by entering a mind-twistingly complex algorithm into the Jalopnik Mainframe, recently upgraded with a second Z80 CP/M card and relocated to a new, more secure location in what used to be Garrison Keillor’s old sex dungeon.
Here’s the list:
The first car that came to mind for this was what I always think of as the archetypal honest, unpretentious enthusiasts’ car: the BMW 2002. Even if you hate BMWs, the old 2002 always gets a pass, somehow. It’s simple and engaging to drive, with a clean, uncomplicated design that you’d have to be a really determined ass to find fault with, and I’ve yet to meet anyone that doesn’t at the very least respect the 2002.
Who doesn’t like the Amazon? Even if Volvo’s humble, stolid every-Swede’s car isn’t on your top ten list, have you ever met a gearhead who doesn’t at least appreciate a well-kept old Amazon? I’ve sure as hell never met anyone who hates them, at least, and, frankly, I don’t really see how anyone actually could.
The original Jeep is one of those machines that is satisfying in that deep, basic way of something that solves a problem really, really well. It’s crude and unashamedly mechanical and one of those rare cars that has grown past its very specific origins to become an icon.
Can you imagine even the most one-model-focused enthusiast ignoring an old Willys Jeep if they’re right next to one? I can’t.
Even your most V8-loving, cubic-inch counting, exhaust-huffing muscle car lover almost certainly has to give grudging respect to the original Mini, the tiny car that punched way above its weight. The Mini was a masterpiece of space utilization and design, had an impressive motorsports history, and was wildly influential in the design of modern, transverse-engined FWD cars.
Plus, I bet even the most insecure grease-monkey bro thinks that they’re at least a little adorable, in a bulldog puppy kind of way.
I didn’t want to include any true supercars on this list, because I felt like their inherent inaccessibility and exoticism would disqualify them from near-universal appeal. But the Honda (Acura here) NSX somehow managed to give those supercar-like qualities to the masses, providing a true mid-engined supercar experience for people who normally couldn’t even get within farting distance of a supercar.
Much like the NSX, there’s something about the Prometheus-like giving driving joy to the masses quality of the original GTI that I think almost all gearheads respect.
Even if you’d never be caught dead owning a FWD car or an import or a hatchback or whatever your particular kink is, I think everyone appreciates the combination of practicality, accessibility, and just simple fun that the original GTI offered.
I’m sure there’ll be those who think I’ve made some grave errors and omissions here, because this is the internet and we are humans. So, go ahead and remind me of the sheer scale of my idiocy, and tell us all what you’d have done better. Then let’s all argue, because, perversely, this is what we love, right?