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Open Diff – can a car be iconic?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

GM Media photo.

Unless you’re new to the hobby (in which case, welcome!) or completely unfamiliar with American cars (Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Ni hao!), you know exactly what car that is above. You know what year it was built. You probably know who designed it, how many examples were built, and what engines powered it from the factory. Does that make it iconic?

It’s a question worth discussing, especially after DaveR took issue with the use of the word “iconic” in the recent story on the restoration of a gold-paneled Airstream.

Everything in the world seems to be reported as “Iconic” these days… does that mean that nothing is “Iconic” or that reporters these days have extremely limited vocabularies?

We’ve fielded comments like these in the past, particularly from people who think the word “iconic” should only apply to very specific things. But that construes the definition of the word far too narrowly.

To begin with, modern English ultimately derives the word iconic from the Greek word eikōn (or, if you prefer, εἰκών), which translates to “likeness” or “image.” These days, as words tend to do, its meaning has drifted to “widely recognized and well-established” or “widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence,” according to ol’ Merriam-Webster.

Those definitions are, of course, somewhat subjective. How widely must something be recognized to be considered iconic? Locally, regionally, globally? Who’s responsible for acknowledging something for its iconicness? Designated arbiters of excellence or every one of us? Could something feasibly be iconic to an individual rather than to a culture?

So let’s go back to the car above. Is it iconic? Is an Airstream iconic? The BMW 2002, the Land Rover Defender, ’80s movie cars, the VW microbus, the Mini, the American hot rod, or any other vehicle which we or others have happened to describe as iconic over the years? Or do none of these qualify?