Home Cars The 20 Most Interesting European Cars with American Designs

The 20 Most Interesting European Cars with American Designs

Vukasin Herbez July 10, 2018

Even though they use the term, “European design,” in the automotive industry to mark specific aesthetic values, not on domestic cars. But the truth is, all cars look the same these days. Gone are the times when real artists designed cars. In fact, today computers, wind tunnels and even marketing experts determine design elements. If you don’t know the badge on the hood, chances are that you won’t be able to tell if a new car is American, European or Japanese.

However, in one period of car history, American car design was globally popular. Car manufacturers and fans respected and widely imitated U.S. cars. This was especially true during the post-war period when European manufacturers struggled to survive the harsh reality of slumping sales. They watched as those American car brands introduced fresh, Googie-styled cars with chrome fins and powerful engines. The cars coming out of Detroit showed America as the promised land and the leader of the free world.

For a couple of decades, American design was dominant in the car industry across the globe. Most manufacturers tried to copy the aesthetics and feel of American models of the period. Some even presented cars that were obvious copies of U.S. models, but on a smaller scale and with different technology. However, in those days, the patent laws were not as strict, so most car companies managed to get away with it.

Here is an interesting compilation of the top 20 European cars with American-influenced designs. Although you may recognize some of them, most of them will be a true domestic design revelation.

1. Peugeot 404

The 404 was a popular French mid-sized family sedan Peugeot produced from 1960 to 1975. It came with a 1.5 or 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine or a 1.9-liter four-cylinder diesel unit. It was one of Peugeot’s bestsellers and was popular all over the world. The Peugeot 404 was a masterpiece of contemporary car design. It had straight, elegant lines and sported a chrome grille and rear fins.

Since chrome fins were an American design feature, it’s obvious where the Peugeot designers got the inspiration for their 404. In fact, if you saw the 404 from the back, it would remind you of several American models from the period. And if you saw it in traffic, you could easily mistake it for a domestic model. The only sign that would give the 404 away is its compact size. This Peugeot is about a third smaller than a regular U.S. sedan from early 60’s.

2. Opel Diplomat V8 Coupe

The German car manufacturer, Opel, was one of the biggest GM companies outside the U.S. For almost 90 years, from 1929 to 2017, GM owned Opel. And more than a few times, the parent company influenced the design of its models. One of the American cars they produced in Europe is the glorious Opel Diplomat V8 Coupe from 1965 to 1967. The Diplomat was Opel’s luxury model.

While the base versions got 2.8-liter six cylinders, the top-of-the-line Diplomat Coupe got Chevrolet’s 327 V8 engine. Its overall design was reminiscent of Chevy’s mid-size and full-size models. They came with the Powerglide automatic transmission, so it was easy to mistake the Diplomat V8 Coupe for a U.S. model. However, since Opel was an economy car manufacturer and the Diplomat Coupe V8 was expensive, they only produced 347 of them.

3. Volvo 444/544

Sweden was a neutral country during World War II, which meant that they weren’t involved in fighting, so they turned to industry and economy. After the war, Volvo, Sweden’s biggest car company, wanted to export their cars. But they needed a fresh, modern car to attract buyers from other countries. So, in 1947, Volvo 444 was introduced.

At first glance, a knowledgeable enthusiast could see the striking resemblance to a 1941 Ford. Even when they gave the 444 a major restyling for the Volvo 544, the design influence was there. The look of the front end, sidelines, bulged fenders and roofline were too similar to Ford’s design to call it a coincidence.

4. Facel Vega Excellence

Just after World War II, France was left without luxury manufacturers. The entire car industry was concentrating on economy cars with small engine displacement. Facel Vega founder, Jean Daninos realized there was a gap in the market, so established his company in 1954. It was to serve as a luxury brand using Chrysler engines and U.S.-inspired designs.

However, the purest example of American styling was the Facel Vega Excellence. It was a big super luxury four-door sedan people could be easily mistaken for a Cadillac or Lincoln. Facel Vega introduced it in 1958 and the motoring press and experts gave the Excellence high praise. They thought it was a fantastic car with its stacked headlights, chrome grille, rear fins and a wraparound windshield.

Also, the Excellence was a four-door hardtop with a characteristic American body style, which was almost nonexistent in Europe. The most interesting design feature was the suicide rear doors, similar to the 1961 Lincoln Continental. However, Facel Vega introduced it three years earlier in 1958. Production lasted until 1964, but they only built 156 of those fantastic limousines.

5. Auto Union SP1000

If you think you’re looking at a 1957 Thunderbird, think again. This is the Auto Union SP1000. It is a blunt German copy of the famous American design they introduced two years later, in 1959. Auto Union was an independent German economy car manufacturer until Volkswagen bought it and it became the basis for the Audi brand.

But, back in the late 50’s, Auto Union had several successful models, including the sporty SP1000 coupe. Despite looking like the Thunderbird, the SP1000 was nothing like it under the sheet metal. It had a two-stroke, 1000 cc straight three-cylinder engine with 55 HP and equally modest performance. In 1961, the company introduced the convertible version, but left the mechanics unchanged.

The SP1000 stayed in production until 1965, selling mostly on the European market. Production numbers were relatively low at 6,640, which car aficionados nicknamed it the “baby Thunderbird.”

6. Opel GT

In the late 60’s, the German brand, Opel was one of the most popular economy car manufacturers in Europe. Since General Motors owned it, they designed the Opel too, making it look like scaled-down versions of Chevrolets and Buicks. So, in 1968, the GM presented the Opel GT, a sporty, affordable coupe.

Opel needed a sports car they could base on their entry-level model, the Kadett. So in the mid-60’s, GM introduced the GT. The Corvette and the GM concept from the mid-60’s heavily influenced the design. With covered headlights, a curvy Coke bottle design, twin round tail lights and a similar silhouette, the Opel GT was a scaled-down version of the Corvette.

It even appeared on the market at the same time as the Vette’s third generation. With 1.3 and 1.9-liter four-cylinder engines, the Opel GT lacked the same power or performance, but it had the looks. The Buick dealership network sold it in America and, interestingly, it sold well. In fact, they sold more Opel GTs in the U.S. than in Europe during the five-year production run.

7. GAZ 24 Volga

Russia was still behind the Iron Curtain back in those days, so their car industry concentrated on domestic needs. However, they still managed to produce many interesting cars. Up until 1980’s, all Russian models were designed and/or mechanical copies of Western cars, especially American ones. However, in the late 60’s, GAZ, a producer of family cars and trucks, introduced its new, modernly-designed model they called the GAZ 24 or Volga.

It was a modern car, even by Western standards. It was a large sedan, almost the size of a full-size U.S. model with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 95 HP. The performance wasn’t great, but for Russian standards, this was a prestigious automobile. The only catch was you had to be a perspective and respected member of the Party or a KGB operative.

Even so, the design of the new Volga was American. In fact, it reminded most people of the 1962 to 1964 Chevrolet Impala sedan. The counters, the boxy shape, chromed front grill and the trim were all extremely reminiscent of Chevrolet’s design, but with two headlights less than the Impala. The Volga stayed in production, although with extensive modifications, until the late 90’s.

8. Trabant 601

One of the funniest examples of American design on an Eastern European car is the East German Trabant 601. This was a communist economy car, diminutive in every way, but with a body of composite material. It had a tiny 600 cc, two-stroke engine with two cylinders and 26 HP. Since it weighed just 1,300 pounds, the performance was good, but far from satisfying.

The most interesting thing was the design. Although smaller and lacking chrome, American design clearly inspired the Trabant 601, thanks to the rear fins and taillights. They introduced the Trabant 601 in 1963, considering it a modern economy car at the time. It stayed in production until 1990 and they made more than two million of them.

9. Lancia Flaminia Berlina

Even though the Italians are masters in car design and the Italian car industry is recognizable for their shapes and lines, Italy once looked to American cars for inspiration. And this is the case with the beautiful Lancia Flaminia Berlina, a big four-door sedan they introduced in late 50’s. It was the biggest, most luxurious Italian sedan. In fact, even the Italian government and officials drove them.

The car got its power from two V6 engines with 2.5 and 2.8 liters of displacement. Considering the size and purpose of this big car, the performance was decent with 102 to 128 HP. Pininfarina was the design name behind the Berlina. They gave it distinctive American styling with lots of chrome trim, a big grill and elegant, understated rear fins. Interestingly, Lancia produced coupe and convertible versions that are more popular than the Berlina.

10. Mercedes W110/W111 “Fin Tail”

Even the mighty Mercedes Benz was once under the influence of American styling. The best example of this design trend was in the form of the W110/W111 series models. The W110 was the E-Class in today’s nomenclature. But the W111 was bigger, more like today’s S-Class. However, both models share the same basic design, big grille and elegant lines. They also had chrome headlights and fins; hence the name.

Interestingly, the Fin Tail models all featured American styling in the interior, most noticeable the dashboard and steering column. In those days, the Studebaker-Packard Corporation imported the Mercedes into the U.S.

Also, several automotive historians claim that, in their final years, Studebaker-Packard influenced Mercedes in creating and designing the W110/ and W111. Although no one can confirm this claim, Mercedes has produced cars for American buyers since the late 50’s. This is because the American market is extremely important for this company.

11. GAZ 12 ZIM

You could easily mistake this car for a 40’s Cadillac or Chrysler limousine. To all but the most knowledgeable car enthusiasts, this car looks totally American, but it isn’t. It is a Russian GAZ 12 ZIM. It was one of the first big post-war sedans they produced for high-ranking members of the communist party, as well as taxis and ambulances. And obviously, they styled it after American models of the period.

In fact, the Russians never denied using Cadillacs or other U.S. cars as inspiration for the development of their own vehicles. They presented the GAZ 12 ZIM in 1950 and they equipped it with a 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine with just 95 HP. The performance was slow, but this comfortable cruiser didn’t need to be fast. The car stayed in production until 1960 and they built more than 21,000 of them. Interestingly, this is one of the rare Russian high-class cars that ordinary citizens could own.

12. Opel Rekord C Coupe

Germany’s Opel was one of the biggest, most successful advocates of American car design in the 60’s because GM owned it at the time. All Opels had U.S.-inspired designs and another example is the mid-sized Rekord Coupe. This car could easily pass as a U.S.-made pony class muscle car thanks to its wide stance, chrome trim and semi-fastback roofline.

The C Coupe was sleek and modern when they introduced it in the late 60’s. The biggest engine was a 2.2-liter six-cylinder with 90 HP. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the performance of its American cousins, but had some power by European standards of the day.

13. GAZ Chaika

Another Russian limousine and American-influenced design is the GAZ Chaika. But, in the case of the GAZ Chaika, it was more than just influence. In fact, it was a direct copy of late 50’s Packards with little modifications. So if you put a 1956 Packard and 1959 Chaika side by side, you would have a hard time telling the difference.

They introduced the Chaika in 1959 and discontinued it in 1981. Bu the GAZ Chaika copied the American car industry even further with a 5.5-liter V8 and push-button automatic transmission like Chrysler’s Powerglide gearbox. The only difference was that Chaika came as a six-window sedan and even a wagon in its hearse version. But the Packard was a regular four-window model.

14. Ford Capri

The success of the Mustang was influential, inspiring most American car brands into offering a pony car model of their own. Even in Europe, the Mustang was popular and common. However, Ford wanted to explore the market further with a smaller, European version. They wanted it to be less expensive and more suited to the needs of European buyers. And this is how Ford Capri came to be in 1969.

They designed the Capri in the UK, so it was a European Mustang in every way. Using the “long hood-short deck” formula and semi-fastback styling, the Capri had a fantastic stance. Even though they based it on the standard Cortina floorplan using the same engines, the Capri looked like a thoroughbred sport or muscle car.

In fact, people often confused it with a U.S.-built Ford. This affordable coupe was almost as successful as the Mustang, selling millions throughout its 16-year lifespan. They also imported it to America as the Mercury Capri in the mid-70’s.

15. Moskwich 408

The most popular and mass-produced Soviet family sedan was the Moskwich 408. They presented it in 1964 and produced it all the way until 1982 in numerous versions. The technology was primitive and the 408 was a slow, sturdy car with just 50 HP coming from its 1.4-liter engine.

But the design was inspired by the American cars of the ’50s. From the chrome grille, round headlights, side panels and small chrome fins, everything on this Soviet car screamed American styling.

16. Fiat 1500

Although Mario Boano, the Fiat company designer conceived the 1500 as a family sedan, the 1500 looked much like the American sedans of the period. Fiat introduced it in 1961 and sold the 1500 through 1967. The Fiat 1500 was a well-engineered car with disc brakes and a roomy interior.

From the outside, this Fiat resembled many U.S.-made cars with its cool-looking grille with four headlights, chrome stripe and U.S.-inspired rear. It reminded some buyers of the Chevrolet Impala from the late ’50s.

17. Ford Zephyr

As a subsidiary of the Detroit Ford Motor Company, it was expected that the European and British Fords would have similar designs. And they did, on numerous cars, they produced in the ‘50s and ‘60s. One of the prime examples is the Ford Zephyr, a big family sedan they produced from 1962 to 1966.

This car looked like it was styled in Dearborn, Michigan, not in the UK. The massive grille, big dimensions and rear fins are quite big for a European car. Under the hood, there are either 1.7-liter four-cylinder or 2.6-liter straight six engines.

18. Rolls Royce Silver Cloud

Rolls-Royce models always had signature styles and a presence that other companies could hardly repeat. However, the Silver Cloud, which they produced from 1955 to 1966 was more than just a Rolls Royce. It was the first British luxury car to adopt American design influences.

Take a look at its dimensions, proportions and long hood. The fenders, rear end and roofline look identical to those luxury Cadillacs, Lincolns and Packards of the 1940s. And that is where Rolls designers found its inspiration for Silver Cloud.

19. Ferrari Daytona 365 GTB/4

This one is a bit controversial since nobody expected a Ferrari to look like anything else than itself. However, in the case of the 365 GTB/4, Ferrari turned to America for design. In those days the company needed a strong seller to survive. So Enzo Ferrari decided that a new car should be designed to sell on the American market.

That is why the Daytona had a style that looked more like a Corvette than a Ferrari. It has a long pointy front end, pop-up headlights and round tail lights. It also has chrome bumpers similar to those on the Corvette C3.

20. ZIL 114

They modeled all those Russian limousines and luxury sedans after American cars. So, in the case of the ZIL 114, the role model was the Lincoln Continental. The Russians copied the front and the silhouette of this cool sedan for their ZIL 114.

However, the ZIL didn’t use suicide doors and the rest of the features. They presented the car in 1967 and produced it until 1978. Many high-ranking government officials used this car.

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