Cars, like washing machines, are functional objects, and there’s no immediately obvious reason why they should seem to have personalities. But sometimes it works out that way.
One of the possible personalities is cuteness. Whether or not you think a particular car – or any car at all – is cute is down to you, but some of them do have that extra bit of charm which adds to their appeal.
This is not necessarily about good looks. Some cute cars are also visually attractive, but they don’t have to be. An ugly car may still be lovable.
Here’s a selection of cars we think qualify as cute. Your mileage may, of course, vary. They cover a wide range, but it’s notable that they are almost all cheap, they almost all have distinctive ‘faces’ and most of them have round headlights. We’ll leave it to a psychologist to work out why that last point is important.
The A30 was launched in 1952 as Austin’s high-tech rival to the more traditional Morris Minor.
After four years, it was heavily revised, given a more powerful engine and renamed the A35. Production of the saloon version continued until the end of the decade, though Austin was still building vans right up to 1968.
Though not renowned for its handling (the Minor was considered better in that respect) the A35 performed well in competition, and you can still see examples racing in classic events to this day.
To keep production costs down, the pop-up headlights originally intended for the Mk1 Sprite were replaced by ones fixed in the upright position.
This did very little for the looks of the car, but there was something about its odd appearance which appealed to people all the same.
It was cheerfully nicknamed Frogeye in the UK and Bugeye in the US, and remains highly thought of in classic car circles.
The whole point of the 2CV was to provide basic transport for people who couldn’t afford anything more luxurious.
It was never intended to be beautiful, but its quirky functionality made it very popular, especially later in its long production run when it seemed even further removed from conventional motoring than it had at first.
Nearly four million were built between 1948 and 1990. Examples in good condition are becoming quite valuable, and for many years races (some of them lasting 24 hours) have been well supported both in the UK and on the Continent.
The restrictive requirements in the kei class (for small cars with engines up to 660cc) have inspired a lot of creativity among Japanese manufacturers.
One example is the Daihatsu Copen sports car, which despite its tiny dimensions has a remarkable amount of room for two large adults. It was sold in the UK for several years with the original high-revving engine. This was later replaced by a more conventional 1.3-litre unit, which was more sensible but less fun.
Fiat’s replacement for the gorgeous little 500 (which we’ll be coming to shortly) was the 126.
More angular and less pretty than the older car, it nevertheless had enormous charm despite – or perhaps because of – its very modest performance. With an engine producing less than 30bhp, it had difficulty reaching 60mph with two adults and two children on board.
The 126 was built under licence in Poland and became very popular there and in other eastern European countries.
There have been several cars called Fiat 500, but the most famous (other than the current model) is the one known as the Nuova 500, built between 1957 and 1975.
This was one of several cars in motoring history intended simply to be cheap and functional which became greatly loved by millions of people. There’s a case for saying that it is one of the cutest cars designed in the whole of the 20th century.
The current 500, launched during the 50th anniversary year of the Nuova, is about as close as possible to the same design as is possible with a modern car, which may account for its popularity.
Fiat 850 Coupe
Yet another small Fiat, the 850 saloon had some charm but has never been thought of as highly as either the 500 or the 126.
This definitely doesn’t apply to the Coupe and open-topped Spider variants. These looked very different from the car on which they were based, and were both absolutely delightful.
German company Goggomobil built a great many very small saloons, coupes and vans from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s.
They were generally cute in the sense of quirky, but the coupe (pictured) was also quite attractive in its own way.
Future F1 World Champion Jim Clark competed in a Goggomobil at a club event in Edinburgh in 1957. He finished second in class.
The Isetta was a tiny car designed by Italian company Iso but later taken over by BMW.
Its odd looks were partly due to the fact that the single door was at the front. Since there was no reverse gear, it was very important not to park too close to anything ahead of the car.
The Isetta was extremely popular during the bubble car boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and is possibly the model that most often comes to mind when bubble cars are mentioned.
The MX-5 is the world’s best-selling two-seat convertible sports car, with total production exceeding one million in 2016.
The first of the four versions designed so far was the only one with pop-up headlights. That car and its successor were undeniably cute, perhaps more so than the larger Mk3 and the more aggressive-looking Mk4.
MG used the name Midget several times, most recently for the small sports car produced throughout the 60s and 70s.
This started out as a badge-engineered second-generation Austin-Healey Sprite, after the frogeye appearance of the original Sprite had been abandoned. Sprites and Midgets (known collectively as Spridgets) were built together for several years until the Sprite was discontinued.
Though less distinctive than the Frogeye, the Spridgets were beautifully proportioned, and possibly the cutest of all British sports cars.
The original Mini was another example of a small, cheap and fairly basic car unexpectedly capturing the hearts of the general public.
Its heyday was the 1960s, when it won many motorsport events including the Monte Carlo Rally, and had world-famous owners such as Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen and Paul McCartney.
Production continued until 2000, by which time it was well out of date. Nevertheless, it is remembered very fondly, including by people who can barely bring themselves to admit that the later BMW MINIs exist.
Morgan 3 Wheeler
Morgan’s early success was based on its little three-wheeled cars with twin-cylinder motorbike engines.
As the company matured, this concept was abandoned for decades, but Morgan returned to it in 2011 with great success.
You don’t see many Morgan 3 Wheelers on the road, but for a quirky product from a low-volume specialist car company it has been exceptionally popular.
The Minor was designed by Alec Issigonis, who was later responsible for the Mini.
Although Issigonis was born in Turkey to Greek and German parents, the Minor is now almost the poster child for British family cars of its period. It was produced from 1948 to 1971, with around 1.6 million being built.
Early examples had low-level headlights mounted either side of the grille. In 1952 the lights were moved up to their better-known position in the front wings.
Nissan has built three generations of the Cube mini-MPV, of which only the third has been sold in the UK.
The very boxy shape is partly disguised by extravagant exterior and interior styling details which make it look very appealing, and cute to some eyes if not others.
It is still being sold in Japan, but poor sales and an unfavourable exchange rate between the euro and the yen led to it being discontinued after a very brief period in Europe.
The Figaro was a Micra-based retro-styled convertible produced briefly by Nissan.
Only around 20,000 were built, all for the Japanese market, but you occasionally see imported examples on British roads.
The Figaro was created by a special projects group within Nissan which also came up with the equally retro Be-1 and Pao, along with the cartoonish S-Cargo van.
The NSU Spider was a derivative of the second-generation Prinz saloon.
Both were designed by Claus Luthe, but they looked very different. While the Prinz bore some resemblance to the American Chevrolet Corvair (as several small European cars of the 1960s did), the gorgeous Spider could almost have been the work of Alfa Romeo.
As well as looking wonderful, the Spider was the first production car to be fitted with one of Felix Wankel’s rotary engines.
Not as well-remembered now as the Fiat Nuova 500, the Dauphine was a close rival to it in terms of cuteness, and very successful in its own right.
In just over a decade, more than two million were built in France, Israel, Australia, Italy, South America and – yes, really – Acton.
Arguably the cutest of the three generations of Twingo was the first, which was never officially imported to the UK.
The second was more conventional. The third, co-developed with smart (and very closely related to the smart forfour), is the first rear-engined four-seat Renault for several decades.
Conceived by the Swiss watch company Swatch, the original smart was an odd two-seater which looked like nothing else on the market.
After it went into production it gained many passionate followers, but not enough to prevent a financial collapse which almost led to owner Daimler abandoning the whole business.
Daimler put together a rescue package, and smart is now building another fortwo, designed in collaboration with Renault. It is every bit as unusual as the first version, and arguably just as cute.
Like the Daihatsu Copen mentioned earlier, the Cappuccino was a tiny two-seater sports car, and one of the very few from Japan’s kei class to be imported officially to the UK.
It didn’t stay on the market for long over here, but it made quite an impact. One British owner has had his Cappuccino for over 20 years, thinks it is the best car he has ever owned and has no intention of replacing it with anything else.
Toyota rarely produces cars which could be described as cute, but the tiny iQ is an exception.
It was designed to provide a lot of interior space for its overall size. This was a reasonable success, though claims that it could seat three six-footers were rather optimistic.
A mechanically identical but vastly restyled iQ was sold, very briefly, as the Aston Martin Cygnet. This project is generally regarded as having been a bad idea, and the word ‘cute’ isn’t often applied to it.
Adolf Hitler’s plan to provide a cheap car for ordinary Germans in the 1930s had unexpected consequences.
The original Volkswagen (nicknamed Beetle but never officially called that) became one of the favoured cars of the 1960s hippy movement.
Further publicity came from the Herbie films, in which a race-prepared Beetle had a sometimes annoying but generally lovable personality.
The Beetle has retained a place in people’s hearts for a long time after production stopped, which is why Volkswagen has spent more than 20 years building tribute models across two generations.
Volkswagen Type 2
To right-on dudes in the 1960s, the only form of transport better than a VW Beetle (officially known as the Type 1) was a VW Type 2.
It was mechanically very similar to the Beetle but much larger and more practical. Roughly the same body shape gave rise to vans, pickups and, most importantly in this context, campers.
Early Type 2s are greatly sought after, and frequently appear in classic car auctions, particularly in the US.