Can it really be 50 years since the first ‘European Car of the Year’ award was won? 

Amazingly, it was way back in 1964 that the first such judgement was made.

The concept was, and remains, simple. The idea is that a jury comprising motoring writers from across Europe selects what it considers to be the one model deserving of the ‘Car of the Year’ title. The writers judge each vehicle on its merits, according to a variety of criteria, to arrive at the single title winner. 

So that’s all very straightforward then – the Car of the Year title has always been given to the very best model of its era? Well that depends on your point of view, and also, as with so many aspects of life, theory and practice are not necessarily always the same thing…

Opinions across Europe, and of course between individual writers, can vary widely, and (especially in hindsight) some of the winners have been seen as controversial.


Some of the vehicles to gain recognition through the Car of the Year award are obvious candidates with clear-cut, significant merits. One of these was the very first model to be given the award, the Rover 2000, in 1964.

I very well remember seeing this car at the Earls Court Motor Show, and listening to my late father as he patiently guided his then young son through its design features, and extolled its technologically advanced virtues.

With its ‘panel on base unit frame’ bodywork construction, De Dion rear axle set-up (with inboard-mounted rear brakes) and overhead camshaft engine, it represented the state of the art for a family saloon of its time. This thoroughly modern looking saloon was well-built, opulently furnished, comfortable and had excellent handling. Arguably it could have done with a bit more power (but that came later with TC, 2200 and even V8 versions).

(Mind you, as I discovered in later years, reaching and working on those rear brakes was something of a challenge  – for which, please translate into ‘nightmare’, and changing the clutch was a long day’s march too).

The following year, Austin’s competent 1800 (‘Land Crab’) deservedly took the honours. As with BMC’s Mini and 1100 ranges, the new family car also featured front wheel drive, but had much larger bodywork, providing spacious accommodation for passengers and a commendable ride quality, plus excellent handling (proved often in rallying). It was a strong vehicle too, with a tough body shell, and was powered by the proven ‘B’ Series engine, in 1.8 litre form.

Moving on through the years, the next few winners were also seen as worthy, including the innovative Renault 16 family hatchback (1966), the boxy Fiat 124 (1967) and the ahead of its time NSU Ro 80 (1968). Quite apart from its rotary engine , this strikingly styled saloon showed the way for other manufacturers to follow many years later.

Fiat 128, Car of the Year 1970

The well-engineered, solid Peugeot 504 (I drove one last week, by the way, and was still impressed – especially by its exemplary comfort) won the award in 1969, followed by the Fiat 128 (1970) and Citroën GS (1971).  There’s no denying that the GS was a truly ground-breaking model, and great to drive, but was so complex to work on as to make many fully-fledged mechanics run for cover if they saw one approaching their garage… 

Next up was Fiat’s neat 127, winner for 1972. It was a nippy performer, great fun to drive, and a good example of a hatchback of its time. Unfortunately, in the UK at least, 127s tended to ‘dissolve’ if exposed to the rain, so sadly most of them disappeared within a very few years, and there are now few survivors.

German contenders took the honours in each of the following two years; the Audi 80 in 1973, and the mighty Mercedes 450S in 1974. Next came a couple of French models, respectively the Citroën CX in 1975 (the same comments apply as in the case of the GS) and the Simca 1307-1308 (Chrysler Alpine in Britain).

By general consensus the Simca/Chrysler was a good looking family car, but soon questions were being asked about its build quality (usually easily answered…) and rattling valve gear seemed to be a hallmark of their engines as mileage accumulated (although they kept on running well; if/when the rattling ceased was the time to worry…). When did you (or anyone else) last see one?

Another True Brit won the award in 1977. Rover’s new SD1 3500 was a strikingly styled model, and I can still remember the first time I saw one on the road, in Weymouth, in the late summer of 1976, and how futuristic it looked. With the Rover/Buick aluminium V8 engine, it had performance to match its looks. What a shame then that its dodgy build quality (a sign of the BL times) took the edge off its shine after a very short while. (If my wife’s not reading this I’d still like one though… ).

For 1978 the judges chose the worthy Porsche 928, and for 1979 the Simca-Chrysler Horizon. This boxy hatchback was a practical, relatively compact vehicle, and I drove a new test car example for hundreds of happy miles. However, the model proved not to be of huge appeal to British buyers, and, like the Alpine, its valve gear tended to rattle after a while…

Lancia’s Delta won through in 1980 (who mentioned rust?), followed by the first of the front wheel drive Escorts, the Mark III, in 1981. The oh-so-comfortable Renault 9 hatchback was declared winner in 1982 (yes, I liked this car too), but it won many more friends on the continental mainland than it did in the U.K.

Renault 9 Broadway (1982)

Solidity in the form of the Audi 100 was winner in 1983, followed by Fiat’s highly practical Uno, in 1984. Lightweight construction helped fuel consumption and rapid corrosion, and on the examples I drove, the electrical system was never brilliant. However, for the most part the 20,000 miles I covered in a basic Uno 55 long-term test car (during 1983/4), proved to be enjoyable.

The car was also excellent for carrying large loads – I recall bringing home (in the Uno 55) from the south of France a large ‘Castrol’ oil garage sign (‘En vente ici’, it stated) and the huge concrete  block to which it was attached (both of which I’d rescued from oblivion). (Please note: 1. No Fiat Unos were harmed in this process… 2. I still have the Castrol sign and its concrete base).

Opel’s Kadett (the contemporary Astra was near-deintical) won the honours in 1985, with Ford’s rear drive Scorpio taking the plaudits for 1986, and another Opel – this time the Omega – winning in 1987.

Peugeot’s 405 was the award winner in 1988, and this model is still remembered by many as another tough cookie from the French manufacturer.

The judges chose the Fiat Tipo as the top of the tree for 1989, and as the 1990s dawned, two more French models wowed them – respectively the Citroën XM (still viewed as innovative for its time) in 1990, followed by the Renault Clio in 1991.

Volkswagen’s well-respected Golf came next (1992), while in 1993 it was the turn of Nissan’s Micra; both models have proved to be generally reliable in the long run.

Ford’s ‘World Car’, the ubiquitous Mondeo, stole the show in 1994, followed by Fiat ruling the roost for the following two years (with the Punto in 1995, and the Bravo/Brava in 1996). Early Mondeos are now scarce, and I can hardly remember when I last saw a Punto, Bravo or Brava of this era.

Ford Mondeo (1994)

Renault’s Mégane Scénic was the award-winner for 1997. It was rightly hailed as being a spacious, comfortable and oh-so-practical family car, but in truth, and sadly, reliability was never a strongpoint – as many buyers, including two members of my own family (who bought new examples), found out to their cost.

Alfa Romeo’s sportingly attractive 156 wooed the judges in 1998, with Ford’s Escort replacement, the Focus, carrying off the prize for 1999.

The first few years of the new Millennium brought wins for Toyota (Yaris, 2000), Alfa Romeo (147, 2001), Peugeot (307, 2002), Renault again (Mégane, 2003) and Fiat (Panda, 2004).

We are now moving into very recent territory, with electrical propulsion featuring in several of the award-winners of recent years. These include Toyota’s hybrid Prius (2005), Nissan Leaf (2011) and Chevrolet Volt/Opel Ampera (2012).

Internal combustion engines, albeit highly developed, and featuring increasingly sophisticated electronic control systems, still power most cars built in recent years, including many of the ‘European Car of the Year’ winners. Renault’s Clio took the honours in 2006, followed by the Ford S-Max (2007), the cleverly retro-styled Fiat 500 (2008), Opel Insignia (2009) and Volkswagen Polo (2010).

Volkswagen impressed the judges again to win in 2013, with the latest incarnation of the Golf, while Peugeot should be congratulated for winning this year with the 308.

To sum up, over the last half century, Fiat has won more ‘European Car of the Year’ awards (nine in total) than any other manufacturer, followed by Renault (six) and Ford (five).

VERDICT – Looking back at all the individual winning models over the years, many are obvious contenders, some are surprising, and maybe, in the eyes of the cynical, and in hindsight at least, a few are truly shocking!

I have often wondered if, perhaps, a ‘Retrospective Car of the Year’ would be an interesting and useful concept, with each model being rated objectively perhaps 10 years after its launch?

Each car could then be judged by its actual ‘real life’ appeal and performance over time, taking into account its resistance to disintegration, reliability or otherwise and running costs, as well as all the other usual factors. The only problem is that would-be buyers need to know all this when the models are new!

Images courtesy of Virtual Motorpix

Kim Henson
Kim Henson
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