Popular cars through the decades

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Ever thought about the most popular car of days gone by? We’ve stepped into history to find the most popular cars through the decades, from 1980s to 2022.

  • What were the most popular cars of the last 40 years?
  • Are Fords the consistent family favourite?
  • Have electric cars become more popular recently?

Picture this… the year is 2022 and the Kia EV6 is the car of the moment. Who would have thought it?

There are so many car makes and models in the UK, so it can be easy to forget just how incredible these machines are, or where they came from. 

It was back in July 1886 when the newspapers reported the launch of the first ever three-wheeled Benz Patent Motor Car. However, it wasn’t until 1903, nearly 20 years later, that the first four wheeled car that we’re all familiar with today became a thing. 

Fun fact: Did you know the world’s first speeding ticket was issued in 1902? The offending motorist was travelling at 45mph. That may not seem too fast given the motorways of today, but imagine that speed on a quaint street in the 1900's...

Shoulder pads at the ready… which cars were popular in the 80s?

In Britain, the best-selling car of the 1980’s was the famous Ford Escort. There were many different models but the five door had easy access for adults, kids and four-legged friends, so it was the most popular among families. 

At the same time, Ford also struck a deal with Her Majesty’s Inspectorates of Constabulary providing 200 Ford Escorts to officers, which proved to be a huge success. 

Fun Fact: Although filmed much later, Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner, drove a Ford Escort in the Fast and Furious film ‘Fast 6’

Another popular car in the 80’s was the Austin Metro, and a favourite of a famous royal. Launched in the 80’s as a replacement for the Mini (and labelled Car of the Year in 1983 by What Car?), it was promoted as ‘A British car to beat the world’. 

But what made it so recognisable was in the year leading up to her marriage Princess Diana was famously pictured driving around in her very own Austin Metro. She sold it in June 1981, just before becoming a Princess.

Fun Fact: Once such a common sight on British roads, the Austin Metro is now rarely seen, it's one of the rarest cars in the country worth around £4,000

Let’s ‘vogue’… what were the most popular car models of the 90s?

Shock, it’s another Ford. This time it’s the Ford Fiesta that was the best-selling car in the 90s. During the 90s, the Ford Fiesta underwent a big transformation, going from boxy and angular to having a smooth body. 

This change made it popular with young drivers and the Ford Fiesta instantly became the car to be seen in.

The Volkswagen Golf is another favourite for this decade and became well known for its TV adverts which were based on pop culture trends. You may remember the Squeaky Earring advert? A classic and funny advert, featuring a driver driven mad by the sound of his passenger girlfriend’s squeaky earring. This led to the birth of the famous ‘if only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen’ strapline that we all know and love to this day.

The versatility of the Golf meant that it was popular among small families as well as young professionals. 

Fun Fact: The Volkswagen Golf featured a scene from the classic Singing in the Rain, where a CGI Gene Kelly showcased his break-dancing skills. In a clever twist, the ad caption read… “The new Golf GTI. The original, updated.”

The BMW 3 Series was another hit car for this decade and frequently appeared in the ‘Top 10 best cars to drive’ lists from the 90s. On its release in 1995 the BMW blew away its rivals with its handsome body and comfortable interiors. To this day, the car is still regarded as being amongst the most reliable car models you’ll find.

Drop it like it’s hot. What were the most popular car models of the 2000s? 

It’s the decade of Mini madness, with the 2001 revival of the Mini bringing about a new hatchback version. 

The all-new Mini didn’t stop at just a new look, improved BMW engineering meant it also offered sharp handling, accurate steering and solid brakes, all whilst keeping its iconic retro styling.

A whole new decade. What car was popular in the 2010s?

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the most popular car of the 2010s was, once again, the Ford Fiesta.

The Ford Fiesta has been popular throughout the ages and continues to make a great car for first-time drivers. 

Did you choose a driving instructor based on what car they drove? Many driving schools, including the AA, used Ford Fiestas to teach as they were reliable and cheap to insure, making them a good first car.

The Vauxhall Astra has often been just behind the Ford Fiesta in terms of how many are sold per year in the UK. It is a great small family car for those who don’t want the traditional saloon, but still offers enough room for a small family. 

The Astra Mark 6 that was released in 2010 was finally able to rival its competitors in terms of quality, making it a firm hit of the decade. 

Fun fact: Cars made after the mid 2010s are cleaner and this decade is when the UK air quality significantly improved thanks to action at all levels.

We’re getting up to speed now… What car was popular in the 2020s?

The most popular car in 2021 was the Vauxhall Corsa. It was relaunched in 2020 with a new look and as a result, it finally overtook the Ford Fiesta which held the top spot for several years previously. 

Corsas have always been a popular choice for young and new drivers. They are often in the lowest insurance groups making them an attractive option for a first car.

The rise in demand for electric cars over the last few years can be seen by the fact that the Tesla Model 3 was the 2nd most popular car in 2021. 

The idea of never having to visit a petrol station and pay for petrol has proven attractive to buyers. The Tesla offers one of the best range, efficiency, and performance figures at its price point for an electric car.

Considering an electric car, but worried that it won’t be that cost effective? Why not check out our electric car index, and see if an electric vehicle will be cheaper for you and your family in the long run.

Fun Fact: A Tesla is currently floating in space. Yep, that’s right, and there is even a mannequin in a space suit - called Starman - occupying the driver’s seat. Wonder what else we will see in space in the next decade?

And that’s it folks, the most popular cars through the decades. 

Whether you’re planning on picking up a new car, a second-hand vehicle or an Electric Vehicle make sure it’s road ready and fully insured before you get behind the wheel.


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