National Automotive Icons – Germany

Our national automotive icons so far include:

United States – Ford Mustang
France – Citroen DS
Great Britain – Jaguar E-Type

It’s time to move to the automotive powerhouse that is Germany. Germany is known for robust, quality designed products but for some, they might seem to lack some soul. Creating an iconic car involves passion, flair and a willingness to step outside the square, at least just a little. Some would say that those more emotional, daring traits are not typically German. I say the list below proves that they’re being a more than just a little unkind.

So, can the Germans make an automotive icon? Absolutely. I think you’ll find the choice will be a very difficult one on this occasion.

As usual, I’ve nominated 5 of my own and you can make your suggestions in comments before I post the poll in a few days time.

Here are my five nominations. And because the Germans like order, they’re listed alphabetically 🙂


Audi Quattro (Ur)

Audi changed the face of rallying and in many ways, the face of motoring, with the release of the Quattro in 1980. The name Quattro Ur is used to distinguish between the car and the 4WD ‘Quattro’ system used on it for the first time (hence the Ur descriptor).

In rallying terms, Audi blew nearly everyone off the map. The Quattro was the first vehicle with four wheel drive to win the WRC constructors championship, in 1982. From then to now, every vehicle to take the championship has been a 4WD vehicle. That’s revolution. The Quattro took out the constructor championship in ’82 and ’84 and the 1983 and ’84 drivers championships were won in Audi Quattro.

In regular motoring terms, the Quattro made it possible, even fashionable, to have a passenger vehicle with 4WD that could perform well and still offer good ride, handling and reliability. 4WD had previously been simply a utilitarian device for getting big loads across difficult terrain. The Ur changed that forever and the abundance of 4WD vehicles on the road now are all descended from what Audi did.

Sit back and enjoy some Quattro/Rohrl goodness from the magically scary days of Group B….

BMW 3-Series

I was tempted to single out the M3 here, but the listing really belongs to the 3-Series over all, because it’s the 3-series that has made BMW the premium automotive powerhouse it is today.

The three series started with the E21 in the early-mid 1970s but it was the E30 in the early 1980s that really set BMW up for world success. The E30 had the right mix of proportions, class, engineering and equipment, and the fact that it launched the mighty BMW M3 didn’t hurt, either.

Since then, BMW have built on their dominance in the sport-sedan sector, winning award after award for a precision driving experience that put wheels on their advertising slogan – the Ultimate Driving Machine. The 3-series was a massive cash-cow for BMW right up until the launch of the X-range of vehicles, which have since taken a co-leading role in terms of the global BMW sales pie.

If you haven’t seen the BMW film “Star” then do yourself a favour, sit back and enjoy the next 7 minutes with the BMW M3.

Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing

If you ever needed an example of the Germans doing beauty as well as engineering, here it is. The gullwing remains as one of the true examples of automotive elegance to this day.

Built in 1954 as a street version of one of Mercedes’ racing vehicles, the 300SL featured a number of firsts. It was the fastest production car of it’s time, was the first direct injected motor vehicle and was the first Mercedes to sell the bulk of it’s built quantity in a country outside Germany.

Today, the gullwing is a collector’s dream with a price to match.

Porsche 911

We will read next about the Volkswagen Beetle, designed largely by Ferdinand Porsche and his son, Ferry. Ferdinand Sr’s grandson, also named Ferdinand but known to the family as ‘Butzi’ is known for being the man behind the 911 (and later, the man behind the company – Porsche Design – that can sell you a gym bag for €290).

The 911 took the design idea behind the Beetle – a rear-mounted air-cooled boxer engine – and turned it into a sports and design masterpiece. The standard journalist joke with each new iteration of the 911 is that Porsche designers have the easiest job in the world because it rarely, almost imperceptibly changes. Of course, that’s mostly because it doesn’t need much changing, but where’s the punchline in that?

Porsche nearly ditched the 911 in favour of the 928 back in the late 1970’s. As fine a car as the 928 is, we can all thank the gods of horsepower and handling that they didn’t. The 911 has been the standard bearer for the company over the last 49 years and will most likely remain as such well into the future.

The 911 below is from the 964 series and belongs to a mate of mine in Sweden. It was a pleasure to film and an even greater pleasure to drive. An outstanding car.

Volkswagen Beetle

The people’s car has origins dripping with light and shade, with links to evil authoritarians, brilliant engineers and even some conquered foes. More than 21 million Beetles were made over the vehicle’s lifetime and assembly plants existed in more than a dozen locations around the world.

The first few Beetles were made under the Nazi regime at the end of the 1930’s but proper production didn’t commence until after the end of WWII and even then, it was a fortunate re-start. The British tried to entice some of their compatriots to make the car but it was deemed unattractive and no British manufacturer could put together a business case for the car. It was their loss. The last Beetle ever manufactured was made in Mexico, in 2003, nearly sixty years after post-war production started in earnest. That car now sits in the Volkswagen museum.

The Beetle itself has been used in art, film and in countless customisation projects for on- and off-road use. Its basic design and engineering inspired other Volkswagen and Porsche classics in years to come, as well – the Karmann Ghia, the Kombi, the Type 3 wagon and all of the early Porsche range, as well.

I think the biggest compliment that one can pay to the Beetle is that it almost immediately transcended its roots to become one of the most influential and most loved vehicles of all time purely on its strength of purpose, the brilliant simplicity of its design and the resulting quality of its execution.


Your turn

Those are the house nominations.

What say ye? Is there a German icon I’ve missed that needs to be included in the poll?

Comments are open.

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  1. I always loved the Mercedes W123 and W124. Not exclusive or very exciting but some of the most successful, long-lasting and quality German cars ever made. I should never have sold my 300TE and bought another Saab 9-5. 😉

  2. Must to have the Volkswagen Golf GTI in there.
    Ford Focus is German of course…
    Merc 190E 2.5 Cosworth?
    BMW M3 E30 I think deserves a spot on it’s own. the most successful touring car in history!
    Ford escort & Sierra cosworth?

    Plenty of cars out there!!!

  3. Correction on the Star video. That is an M5 not an M3 driven by Clive Owen with Madonna as his passenger…. Very nice car nonetheless.

    1. Thanks for the correction. It really shouldn’t be there, then, but it’s so entertaining I think I’ll have to leave it.

  4. All of your nominations are pretty iconic in their own ways. Others I would add to the list are;

    Audi rs4 avant. ( circa 2000)
    Audi rs2 avant
    Vw golf in general, with the original 1985 GTI and original 2004 ish R32 being worth a note
    Bmw 2002
    Benz e series

  5. I think the Volkswagen Golf is a “must”. Here in Germany the Golf ist one of the most famous cars and it has given a whole generation its name (“Generation Golf”).

  6. I’ve been thinking about this one since we were still across the Channel in Britain. We have some overlap Swade but remembering the key words German and Iconic, my Top 5 look like this:

    VW Beetle
    VW Type 2 (Microbus etc)
    VW Golf
    Porsche 911
    Mercedes 300SL Gullwing

    Other contenders in no particular order would be

    Porsche 356 Speedster
    BMW 3 series
    BMW 3.0CS/CSL
    BMW 2002tii
    Mercedes 190 SL
    Mercedes W113 ‘Pagoda’ range
    Messerschmitt KR200 ‘Bubblecar’
    Mercedes SSK100

    This will be an interesting battle. The obvious comparison with the E-Type versus Mini shoot-out being Beetle versus 911. This time though, I think the People’s Car will prevail.

  7. Close call this one, for me, between the VW Beetle, and the 911, but the 911 just shades it, as it is still going in all its guises, and the Beetle relates to times gone past, tinged with ideology and history or its birth, and day.

  8. VW Type 2 (Microbus) is a must. I’m not sure about the BMW 3-series, though. Yes, it’s well known and have been on the race tracks forever… But is it iconic? Did it reallty change the auto industry in some way? Naw… Also a little skeptical about the Quattro. Too limited in time and space.

  9. Golf, I don’t like the car but here it is “Das Auto”( The Car).
    The Opel Manta was also a great car, although it had a bad image. And I don’t know if the Ford Capri can be qualified as German car.

    In my Top5 I would put:

    – 911
    – Ur-quattro (LWB) the SWB was much better but looked awkward.
    – Mercedes W123 series or the S-class of the ’70
    – BMW 2002
    – Golf GTI MkI

    1. I’m with you on your list. I like the replacement of the 3-series with the 2002. The 2002 really birthed the sport-sedan, and the 3-series. I do think, though, that the Beetle must be on the list.

  10. Golf GTI instead of the 300SL. While the SL may be a style icon, it’s not a ground-changing car like the Quattro or Beetle, nor was it the commercial and driving success of the 3-series and 911.

    Golf GTI. The car that invented the hot hatch phenomenon, even if the current 2 litre turbo hot hatch format is a direct map on the the slightly later 99 turbo…

    By the way, if you look closely at the Star video, at 6:20 as he crosses a busy street hands free…he passes an early 9-5 ;o)

  11. I am missing the Borgward Isabella. My dad had one and I always thought it belonged to one of the most beautiful cars in the world. Check you FB page for an image.


  12. My iconic German list would contain the Trabant (yes – it was the VW of the DDR), BMW 2002 – the first of the 3 series type cars and arguably better, Mercedes 300SL and also the 280SL Pagoda, Porsche 911, VW Beetle, VW Golf and finally Audi Quattro.

    There’s a few others like the Mercedes SEL and as a modern car, the CLS, but you’ve gotta stop somewhere! 😀

  13. VW ‘Beetle’. There is surely no other German car that comes close, nor any car in the world. The Beetle is the car you would show to aliens if they landed and asked you to sum up the transport revolution of the last century. You might want to keep quiet about the Hitler stuff. And the air-cooling. Another iconic German car with strong Nazi associations, of course, was the elegantly sinister supercharged Mercedes-Benz 770.

    The Beetle’s global celebrity beyond Europe is also down to the fact it was as much an advertising/marketing icon as an automotive icon, as that wonderful episode of Mad Men makes clear.

    Beyond the Beetle, I think the UrQuattro and the 3-Series are certainly icons – how could you overlook the Golf, Swade! – but they cannot lay claim to being THE icon of German car-making in my opinion. And the 911 is obviously iconic – but it started with the Beetle. No Beetle, no 911. Simples.

    So for a top five I think Ian Brade is on the money again. But I think the Beetle would win hands down. Second place must also be a VW – but which one? 🙂

    Nobody does engineering like the Germans, so arguably this is the ultimate poll, and it is interesting that you have gone here Swade before going to the (admittedly superb) Johnny-come-latelies from Japan.

    1. “….it is interesting that you have gone here Swade before going to the (admittedly superb) Johnny-come-latelies from Japan….”
      – Or Italy! though the Italians don’t fall into the J-C-L category obviously.

      1. Yes, perhaps Italy, then Japan, and some others would have kept us building towards a mighty Teutonic conclusion.

        But wait. I have a feeling that Swade’s two favourite makes of car mean the grand denouement is going to be either:

        A) Sweden
        B) Italy

        Since there are only so many Volvos, Saabs and Koenigseggs you can choose from, I think we all need to get the pizzas and chianti in for the finale!

    2. “The Beetle is the car you would show to aliens if they landed and asked you to sum up the transport revolution of the last century…”

      You reminded me of this

      1. The best of the pre-Annie Hall slapstick-era Woody films by a mile. The post-modern dumbness of her character is just genius.

    3. The Beetle? Poor heating (Try driving without a hat on at -10C) , dangerous in Any critical situation even compared to other cars from the 40’s….
      Did it get any better over the years? Not much no.
      Nice design but… Ferdinand did have help now didn’t he?

      What I mean… Does a car like that deserve to claim the no1 spot?


      1. No, indeed you are right. My family owned a couple of Beetles before I was born and they were A) unreliable and B) deadly. But it is still probably the most iconic car of all time.

  14. The VW Golf has certainly been more influential and adaptable to the evolving needs of society than the Beetle, yet there is something about it that is less iconic. Perhaps it is that the Golf is not as purely Germanic, mainly due to the influence of that famous Italian design-house on its original iteration.

    The Golf-Beetle argument being too close to call, the Porsche 911 should take the overall German Icon crown by default. The BMW 3-Series would be my second runner-up, even as it owes a huge debt of gratitude to the earlier 1600-2002 (my favorite German cars of all time).

  15. The Beetle and 911 are the same car, they don’t need separate entries. If you don’t believe me, ask Jeremy Clarkson.

    I pick the Golf over the Beetle, or perhaps over the Quatro. I like the Quatro, but few could distinguish it from a later 100hp Audi Coupe at a glance. Iconic cars should be distinctive.

    I like bpsorrel’s idea of adding a Trabant to the list.

    Here’s my list:
    3 Series
    Mercedes-Benz 600 (W100)

  16. I could nominate a few extras, like;
    – Mercedes 540K for the sheer beauty
    – the Auto-Union GP car from the thirties for the guts to put the engine behind the driver.
    – NSU Ro80 for its interesting engine.
    or the obvoius Volkswagens you omitted, but others nominated; Type 2 and Golf.
    But only looking at your nominees it must be VW type 1, with the beautiful Mercedes 300SL “Gullwing” as runner up.
    The Volkswagen really *was* the peoples car its name said it was supposed to be. Not an easy feat.

  17. For some reason, I keep picturing Hitler riding in the back of a VW Thing. Sold in North America later, but I suppose I simply have watched so many WWII movies that the Thing is an iconic image for me —even if lacking the prestige, refinement, sales, and horsepower of the house nominations.

    1. That thing is called the “Kübel” which means the Bucket, it didn’t even have any means of heating.

      And BTW, there was no VW during Adolf’s days. Even the Beetle was the KdF car, the name Volkswagen was invented after WWII to “clean” the company from its short past.

    1. The Mercedes W108 is a very beautiful car. One of the 60’s finest. I have had a 280S, but I would want the 300SEL6.3 if I could (a W109, I think).

    1. Cheeky. And no. I’d have to consult the automotive icon polling handbook but I’m pretty sure one marque can’t appear for more than one country 🙂

    1. The Ro80 is best of Gemran tehy ever put on wheels.
      A milestone in design and indeed the foundation of many later Audi, untill the singleframenonsensenose took over.
      A milestone by trying to widepsread that Wankel rotary-technology, but they failed, just as Citroën with a GS birotor, leaving only Mazda with further developping that unique engine.
      But producing less than 38000 cars over a period of 10 years doesn’t help it to get the iconic status it really deserves.

  18. It took a while for anyone to take any notice of NSU, would it be the Ro-80 or the Prinz 4???

    I am a recent admirer of these cars and the only real TT/TTS are NSUs. Audi/Audi-Union – do they have motorcycling heritage?