I'm sure it happens to you all the time. As soon as someone finds out you have anything to do with automobiles or the auto industry they ask you, "What's the best car?"
It's almost impossible to answer them of course, without putting them through a battery of questions: In which price range? For what purpose? To carry how many people? With which features? And so on.
Now a bunch of car nuts from The Netherlands has come up with the toughest car question of them all: What's the car of the century? In other words, if you stand back and look at every single automobile made in the 20th Century, which would you choose as the most important? They've organized a group of 120 automotive journalists and experts from around the world (including myself and Ward's celebrated Editor-at-Large David C. Smith) to make the selection. And while it sounds easy enough, it has triggered heated arguments in just about every language imaginable.
It's easy to see why. First off, how would you choose? Should it be based on beautiful styling, or technical innovation, or the greatest production numbers, or what? The organizers left the rules deliberately vague, knowing full well that half the fun would be seeing everyone argue it out.
The process started with a list of 200 cars, which was pared down to the top 100, then whittled down to the top 25. But because there was a tie, the final list contains 26. It's been fascinating to see how different people from different parts of the world have very different opinions as to which cars should even be considered. Some cars I felt passionately about never made the list, while other cars I never heard of made it.
Many Americans are puzzled to see that popular favorites like the '55 Chevy, or classics like any Duesenberg didn't make the final cut. (Just so you know, the Ford Model T, Chevrolet Corvette, Willys Jeep and Mustang are the American cars that made the list.) But that's how the voting goes when you open it up to people from all over the world. And imagine the chagrin of the Japanese. Not one car made in Japan made the final list! In my view, the Toyota Corolla should have been one of the top vote getters.
Of course, your choice depends on what you want to measure. For me, these cars should be chosen based not on sculptured beauty or technical prowess, but more on their impact on the auto industry and on society.
That's why I see the Ford Model T as the Car of the Century. It is quite literally the car that put the world on wheels. It transformed society like no other car before or since. It liberated rural communities where people rarely traveled 20 miles from their farm. And it allowed farm wives to travel in to town on a regular basis, not every few weeks, giving women far more freedom than might be expected of a mechanical contraption.
Aside from its impact on society, the Model T was a technically advanced car for its day, especially considering it was one of the cheapest cars you could buy, and whose price kept going down. Its planetary transmission, magneto ignition, and vanadium steel chassis were leading-edge in that era. Perhaps most importantly, its legendary robustness convinced skeptics that the horseless age was here to stay. Moreover, the Model T represents one of the greatest revolutions in manufacturing, where the adoption of the moving assembly line and the Ford Production System led to mass production volumes that few would have dreamed possible. And it provided a working wage for factory workers that literally stunned the world.
That's how I see it. But the Model T is up against some formidable competition, and is by no means assured of winning. Based on conversations I've had with colleagues from around the world I'm going to guess that the top five cars in the voting will include the Model T, Volkswagen Beetle, Rover Mini, Citroen DS and Porsche 911. All those cars represent innovation and had a noticeable impact on the auto industry. Maybe it would be fairer to choose a Final Five, but the world seems more interested in seeing a single winner than a list of honorable mentions.
You can get a lot more info about the Car of the Century on the web at www.cotc.com. And you can even vote for your favorite. The final choice will be announced on Dec. 18 in Las Vegas on a globally televised program. You can bet I'll be there, pulling for the 'T.' o
- John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky
Productions, producer of "Autoline Detroit" and "The Nightly Auto Report" for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.