Automotive history officially dates back to 1885 and Karl Benz’s Motorwagen; it was the first production vehicle ever. In more than 130 years, the auto industry has filled countless numbers of encyclopedia tomes. Some of them describe successful projects and happy times, while others speak of automotive flops and failures. Whatever the case, auto industry’s history is as vast and comprehensive as the world we live in itself. Not exactly indefinite, but still encyclopedic enough to surprise us every single day. Such is the case with American branch of the auto industry and American vehicles as well. Some of them are rightfully among the most groundbreaking cars ever produced.
Whether you consider Oliver Evans’ amphibious unit from 1805 to be the first American car ever made, or the Dureya Motor Wagon Company’s unit from 1893 – the American auto industry has always been right there at the thick of it. Oldsmobile has had its own operational assembly line as early as in 1901. We are all aware of Ford’s impact on the automotive world as well. Art Deco streamliners from the 1930s and humongous land yachts from the finned fifties finally distinguished the American way from that of the rest of the world. Muscle cars from the sixties only continued that trend, and even malaise era cars have played their part in this everlasting struggle for dominance in the world of cars.
This time, we’re reflecting on classic American models that played an essential role in changing the way we look at cars. American vehicles that had a major impact on automotive trends all over the world, not just at home. American vehicles that deserve all the praise and respect they’ve received over the decades.
Classic American Cars That Revolutionized The Industry!
1908 Ford Model T
Undoubtedly one of the most iconic American vehicles in history, the Ford Model T single-handedly changed the course of automotive history with its affordability. The average car price in the early 1900s was well over $1,000, or well over $25,000 in 2017 dollars. When the Ford Model T debuted in 1908, it started at $825 ($21,000 in 2017 dollars). It doesn’t look like a staggering difference, but at least the magic barrier of $1,000 was finally out of the way. Moreover, as production volume increased, Henry Ford found the way to decrease Model T’s prices since fixed costs were spread over a larger number of vehicles. That’s why in 1925, the Model T started from just $260 or around $3,600 adjusted.
By the end of 1927, Ford had produced close to 14.7 million Model Ts. The world’s first mass production car was finally sent into a well-deserved retirement as the Ford Model A came in to take its place. The Model A simply furthered the Model T’s legacy while diversifying the offer on a whole new scale. While entry-level models started at $385, the top-of-the-line Model A Town Car cost as much as $1,400. As much as Model A owes it all to the Model T – in a way – the entire modern car industry owes everything it has to the iconic Tin Lizzie.
1928 Duesenberg Model J
This luxury American car might have come at a wrong time, but it still fulfilled all expectations. Introduced just before the onset of the Great Depression, the Model J’s price of at least $13,500 (more than $190,000 in 2017 dollars) didn’t go in its favor. Despite the exorbitant price tag, the Model J was dubbed the finest car on sale and was still coveted by many. A list of notable Duesenberg Model J owners included the likes of Clark Gable, Al Capone, Greta Garbo, and a number of prominent European royalty of the time. The fact they all chose it over Rolls Royces, Bugattis, Maybachs and other rivals speaks volumes in the American luxury icon’s favor.
The status symbol of the time was powered by a 420 cu-in. straight-eight engine. A naturally aspirated 265-horsepower motor was available at first while a supercharged 320-horsepower mill became available in 1932. The supercharged Duesenberg Model SJ was easily distinguishable by its chrome external exhaust pipes, although owners of conventional models were also given the opportunity to order them. The Model J wasn’t only the most luxurious, but also the most powerful American car prior to World War II. The fact it had easily beaten its more illustrious rivals makes it one of the most iconic American vehicles and certainly one of the most recognizable automotive linchpins of the late Art Deco era.
1934 Chrysler Airflow
The Art Deco movement was so overwhelming that it practically influenced all the major spheres of life during the 1920s and 1930s. Then, in the early thirties, it was the auto industry’s turn to reap the streamlined benefits of the Art Deco era. Vehicles like the Stout Scarab in the U.S. and the Tatra 77 across the pond took upon themselves the weight of pioneering the streamlined styling. But it would be the Chrysler Airflow that would truly introduce the new aerodynamic styling to the American public.
Airflow wasn’t only a triumph of design – it was also a triumph of technology as the Airflow was a few steps ahead of its predecessors in a number of ways. But, was it a commercial triumph as well? Despite being regarded as the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile, the Chrysler, and its stablemate, the DeSoto Airflow, turned out to be complete marketing failures. People simply weren’t ready for such a huge step forward. The Airflow’s flowing lines didn’t appeal to them. And, the Great Depression, which was at its peak then, certainly didn’t help to smooth the transition. As it so often happens, the Chrysler Airflow will be remembered as a pioneer that only received due respect long after it was gone.
1935 – Present Chevrolet Suburban
One glance at the Chevy Suburban’s uninterrupted production cycle tells all you need to know about this SUV’s iconic status. What started out as a station wagon built on a half-ton truck’s frame is now a three-row SUV with similar, yet contemporary underpinnings. The (Carryall) Suburban, of course, went through numerous revisions over the course of the 80-odd years it’s been on the market. It’s only fitting that one of the sport utility vehicle’s earliest predecessors is also one of the last long-wheelbase body-on-frame SUVs currently available.
The Chevrolet Suburban would remain one of the most prominent people carriers until the 1980s when a revolution was caused by the introduction of the minivan (more on that later). The fact that it’s the longest-running nameplate (active or inactive) in the auto industry speaks volumes about the usefulness and practicality of the vehicle. It clearly supports the Chevy Suburban’s claim for being one of America’s defining vehicles.
1945 Willys-Overland CJ-2A
Willys-Overland MB was such a success that even the shortsighted knew it would live to spawn a civilian version of itself. It was just a matter of how long will the war last? Willys started making adjustments as early as 1944. This is when the CJ-1 and the CJ-2 saw the light of day. These pivotal vehicles were no more than tweaked versions of the Military Jeep, which was so often a difference between life and death on the battlefield.
The CJ-2A was ready by July 17, 1945, and Willys-Overland would go on to produce a total of 214,760 units by the end of 1949. This wasn’t only the first successful civilian adaptation of a military vehicle, but a segment-defining achievement as well. After all, the Willys Civilian Jeep was the first American SUV ever produced if we don’t count in the 1935 Chevrolet Carryall Suburban mentioned above. The Suburban, however, was a different animal altogether. The Willys-Overland CJ-2A instantly created a legacy that still lasts today. The compact 4×4 has gone through numerous revisions only to become known as the Jeep Wrangler, today. In other words, the ghost of the CJ-2A still lives on.
1948 – Present Ford F-Series
The best-sold American vehicle of all time has a cemented spot on any famous American vehicles list. This favorite American pickup truck has been around since 1948 and has gone through no fewer than 13 generations, from the Ford F1 to the Ford F-100, to the huge beasts that prowl our streets today! Over the course of 70 years, it’s brought the Blue Oval nothing but success, renown, and financial stability (not counting the occasional recall). They’ve sold over 35 million F-Series trucks during that time.
It wasn’t the first or even the most iconic of American trucks, but buyers have made their voices heard. With F-Series sales surging towards 900,000 units a year, the Ford F-150 and its siblings can definitely be considered defining parts of American culture. They’re all around us and they aren’t showing any signs of stopping. To the contrary, the F-Series will likely remain the best-sold American vehicle for the foreseeable future.
1948 Tucker 48
The unlucky Tucker 48 remains one of the most technologically advanced cars ever created to this day. Compared to its concurrent competitors, of course. Preston Tucker promised the public a whole new concept based on safety and technology. Instead, people got one of the biggest automotive what-ifs in history . Only 51 units left the factory before the company folded due to Tucker’s bad image in the media. Some will say the “Big Three” conspired against him, and they might just be right. After all, Preston Tucker and his futuristic ideas were the “Big Three’s” main threat in the post-war era.
And they rightfully feared the impact his offspring would have had on the automotive industry. Tucker had planned to introduce everything from fuel injection, disc brakes, and a direct drive transmission, to a safety cage, a roll bar, a padded dash, and independent front and rear suspension. The former three features were left out in the end due to the already soaring price tag of the 48. The Tucker 48 was an impressive car nevertheless. Despite its untimely demise, the Tucker 48 went on to inspire a whole new generation of American vehicles.
1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
The everlasting debate over which car was the first true example of American muscle will likely never come to an official conclusion, but the general consensus is that the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 deserves the true honor. 1949 wasn’t only the year of the first muscle car – it was also the year in which Olds introduced the 88 badge. And, as you can see, one of the best known classic Oldsmobile models definitely arrived with a bang.
The 1949 Olds 88 boasted all the necessary muscle prerequisites without knowing it at the time. The 303 cu in Rocket V8 was there, and so were affordability and simplicity. 135 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque don’t look like much by today’s standards, but it was more than a handful in the post-war era. The Rocket 88 marked the first time an engine displacing more than 300 cubic inches was installed in a production car. The engine itself would continue on until 1953, subsequently yielding more and more power in the process. The Oldsmobile 88, on the other hand, would survive until 1999. It was an entirely different car by then, however.
1949 – 1975 Chevrolet Bel Air
The Chevy Bel Air is the most prominent of the revolutionary Tri-Five quartet which, apart from itself, consisted of the 1955, 1956 and 1957 Chevy Nomad, 150 and 210. Despite gaining a cult following during its Tri-Five years, the Bel Air’s story neither begins nor ends there. The full-size Chevy strutted its stuff for 25 years in the U.S. and additional 5 in Canada.
Early Bel Airs were limited to convertible-styled two-door hardtop bodies with solid, non-detachable roofs. Coupe, sedan, and convertible models followed in 1953, and the station wagon arrived a year later. As mentioned above, the Tri-Five era ensued shortly thereafter. The Bel Air revolutionized the market overnight thanks to its dashing and dazzling new styling. Finned 1958 models would keep some of that flair, but subsequent generations would never replicate their success. Sales would remain steady, but the stylistic impact of the Tri-Five era would never again be matched by any other Chevrolet. Nor by any other manufacturer, for that matter. After all, Early Bel Airs are still some of the most beautifully styled cars to have ever graced this Earth.
1952 – 2002 Cadillac Eldorado
The Cold War was heating up, rock and roll was starting to emerge, and days of Olympian American luxury automakers like Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, and Cord were long gone. The U.S. economy was mostly recovered by then, however, and more and more car buyers were ready to spend money on something more refined than what concurrent American carmakers had to offer. Enter the Cadillac Eldorado; a personal luxury car that would spawn a segment of its own.
The Eldorado would later be joined by the Lincoln Mark Series, Buick Riviera, Chrysler Imperial, and Oldsmobile Toronado. It would also survive for longer than any of them by making it to the golden anniversary in 2002. The specialty luxury coupe always offered the most comfortable ride, the most advanced features, and the utmost level of luxury for an American car. It practically pointed the way in all three of these segments for the U.S. car industry. Despite being gone for a while now, the Cadillac Eldorado will remain one of the famous American vehicles that always pushed the industry to its limits.
1953 Chevrolet Corvette
The Chevrolet Corvette entered the market pompously in 1953, and it still holds to its reputation. Although early models, and especially malaise era units, barely offered performance worthy of a sports car, the Corvette has always boasted being the first, and one of only a few available American sports cars. It’s been almost 65 years since the first ‘Vette rolled off the Flint, Michigan assembly line on June 30, 1953, and it’s still as mesmerizing as it had been on that fateful summer day.
Not counting the first few years, Corvettes have always kept a flashy company. They were always among the fastest American production cars, and they still are. The Corvette Z06 is second only to the Dodge Demon and Hellcat-powered cars. Soon, though, the Corvette ZR1 will likely fix that by topping Hellcats at the very least. One of the most important classic American cars that changed the course of history may sit upon its rightful throne once again. The Corvette is one of only a handful of sports cars that survived for several generations and for more than six decades. That said, Hemmings found that the Chevrolet Corvette was the most sought-after classic car in 40 states.
1957 – Present Chevrolet Impala
Excuse us for going too heavy with the Chevy, but can you imagine the good ole USA without a full-blooded affordable full-size car? Neither can I. They’ve been the essence of the American car industry for decades and the Chevrolet Impala is arguably the first among equals when it comes to them. The Impala has had its ups and downs over the years, including a 10 year hiatus between ’85 and ’94, but it’s weathered all storms and come back as good as it ever was.
Beginning its journey as the Bel Air’s top-level trim for the 1958 model year, the Impala has always dictated the standards for comfort and value. It became a separate model within a year of its initial launch, and has remained one ever since. It’s historically been one of the best-selling full-sizers in the U.S. and an undeniable trendsetter at the same time. A true American family car with a hint of luxury and class.
1964 – 1969 Ford GT40
The iconic Ferrari fighter was never intended as a mass production sports car, but it still managed to leave a lasting impression on both the American car industry and the world of automotive racing as we know it. And it didn’t do it by simply winning. The Ford GT40 has done it by dominating high-performance endurance racing – winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for four consecutive times between 1966 and 1969, and recording a one-two-three full-house podium finish in 1966.
We all know the story behind it. The GT40 was born out of Henry Ford II’s fury. When Enzo Ferrari pulled out of the deal that would secure Ford’s takeover of the Italian company (for which Ford had already spent a considerable amount of money), Henry Ford II called for a vendetta. His engineers would build him a superior car that would go on to humiliate Ferrari – on European soil, no less. The Ford GT40 showcases what American automotive masterminds and manufacturers in general are capable of achieving when setting their minds to it. Although the ‘Vette would take over from then on, the GT40’s mission was successfully completed. It has earned its status among the icons of American automotive engineering.
1964-5 Ford Mustang
The Ford Mustang might not be the first muscle car, but it sure is one of the most important and successful American performers in history. Ford first envisioned it as a 2-seat roadster with a 4-cylinder engine, but the concept was quickly revised. When the first Mustangs got introduced in April 1964, the smallest engine displaced a mere 170 cubic inches. Powertrains only grew from there, ultimately reaching displacements as high as 429 cubic inches (Boss V8 and Super Cobra Jet V8).
Not only was the Mustang successful, it also spawned a number of direct opponents. However, the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, AMC Javelin and Plymouth Barracuda had never really threatened the king. Moreover, the Mustang actually spawned a whole new class of muscle cars, and arguably, redefined entirely what it meant to be a muscle car. Pony cars are currently your only option of tapping into that muscle scene. After more than 9 million sold units, the Mustang is still going strong. Unlike its competitors, it never made a sound, even when things were tough. Like it or not, the ‘Stang rightfully finds itself among the most revolutionary American cars ever produced.
1966 – Present Chevrolet Camaro
The first generation of Camaro debuted back in 1966, and this iconic vehicle was introduced as a competitor to Ford’s Mustang. Concerned by the success of the Mustang, Chevy realized that their compact sporty car, the Corvair, would not be able to generate the sales volume close to the Mustang. The sister car, the Pontiac Firebird , shares many of its designs and parts. While the Camaro is still in production today, the 1960’s models are the most collectible and stand as a true testament to classic American muscle.
This iconic muscle car definitely influenced car culture in the US as only a handful of other cars. Now, it is a part of the Hemmings list of classic cars Americans love. As it turns out, the Camaro is a favorite car in eight states.
1966 – 1996 Ford Bronco
Finally! An SUV. Ok, not exactly an SUV but the first gen Ford Bronco – a serious off-roader with rather appealing looks. While it’s not the most groundbreaking vehicle on this list, it’s arguably one of the most recognizable. Produced between 1966 and 1996, spanning across 5 different generations, this small SUV battled against the likes of the Jeep CJ-5 when it first came out, before evolving into a larger SUV model that could contest against the larger, more capable models. Unfortunately, the Bronco was discontinued in 1996 thanks to a declining interest in two door SUVs…but don’t mourn the Bronco’s demise just yet. It’s coming back.
1969 – 2002 Pontiac Trans Am
The Pontiac Trans Am is definitely one of the most iconic American vehicles of all time. In production from 1969 to 2002, the Trans Am shaped a whole class of sports car lovers which had had enough with all that muscle craze and Corvettes. Sure, the Trans Am was a muscle car on its own, but not in the same terms as the Charger, the Camaro, or even the Mustang were. Obviously, the plan worked, as the car is now considered amongst the classic cars Americans love. Interestingly enough, Hemmings report the Pontiac Trans Am is most popular in Washington DC.
1980 AMC Eagle
By the end of the 1970s, AMC was barely holding on. They needed an innovative idea, and they needed it quickly. Deliverance came in the form of the AMC Eagle. The sedan, coupe, and wagon, especially, were designed with greater ground clearance in mind. AMC also fitted the Eagle with an all-wheel-drive system taken from concurrent Jeeps, inadvertently creating one of world’s first crossovers in the process. Yet, despite its innovative nature, even the Eagle failed to save the limping automaker from utter ruin.
However, the Eagle was considered one of the few bright spots in AMC’s portfolio at the time. They sold over 180,000 units in total which is a more than respectable figure considering the Eagle was bordering a niche vehicle status. They’re slowly but steadily becoming collectibles as more and more modern-day crossovers trace their roots to one of AMC’s most successful experiments. Maybe the AMC Eagle wasn’t exactly a segment-defining vehicle, but it sure did inspire other American car makers to try and do the same.
1984 Dodge Caravan
If that segment-defining badge of honor eludes the AMC Eagle, the Dodge Caravan certainly fits the description as well. Conceived as a replacement for aging station wagons, the Caravan sported more room without sacrificing its driving dynamics. Like station wagons, it too was based on a car platform. This gave it an advantage over truck-based vans, and almost every major car manufacturer soon entered the fray by offering a Caravan of their own.
This pioneering minivan has been around for more than three full decades, and it still isn’t showing any signs of stopping. Why would it, after all? The Caravan and its siblings are Chrysler’s bread and butter alongside Ram trucks and Jeep’s trio of Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, and Wrangler. Dodge sold close to 130,000 Caravans in 2016 alone, and well over 6 million units throughout the minivan’s lengthy run.
1985 Ford Taurus
Although it didn’t bring any groundbreaking technological advancements to the table, the Ford Taurus still managed to influence the car market in a major way. Its jellybean aero design was itself a groundbreaking achievement which completely changed the way people looked at modern cars back then. The Taurus would go on to influence a whole new generation of American vehicles, even though GM continued offering boxy cars well into early nineties.
The Ford Taurus wasn’t only revolutionary on the outside. Under Mimi Vandermolen’s watchful gaze, a team of designers had revised the sedan’s entire interior concept as well. What they created was regarded as the most user-friendly interior to date. Modern cars have only built upon this already advanced design.
1987 Buick GNX
Arguably the most badass muscle car ever produced, the “Grand National Experimental” represents the American car industry in more than one way. It’s not just a powerful and menacing velvet hammer, but a car that’s singlehandedly brought the muscle scene back from the grave. Although, some people likely won’t acknowledge the fact that the GNX actually was a muscle car. Even the sternest proponents of that cause, however, can’t deny the role it’s had in resurrecting the muscle scene.
The Buick GNX was introduced during the Regal Grand National’s ultimate G-Body year. It was a result of a Buick/McLaren Performance Technologies/ASC collaboration and only 547 of them were produced. All were painted black and officially packed 276 horsepower thanks to revised Buick 3.8L turbocharged V6 engines. In truth, they made more like 300 horsepower, and the MSRP of $29,900 was never really a factor. Numerous dealers bumped their stickers to as much as $75,000 at dealer-only auctions.
1992 – 2017 Dodge Viper
America has been limited to a single potent sports car for far too long. At least that’s what gentlemen from the Chrysler Corporation were thinking back in the late eighties. Hence, they decided to give us a choice from then on. Enter the Dodge Viper – a venomous serpent with an odd-firing V10 powerplant under its hood. 8.0L at first, 8.3L between 2002 and 2006, and 8.4L until Viper’s discontinuation in 2017.
The Dodge Viper obviously wasn’t your run-of-the-mill sports car. People don’t call it serpent for nothing. Early models were, in true fashion of the American car industry, almost too much to handle. Especially for inexperienced drivers. It was as if the car was actually plotting to kill its owner. But boy were they fun in the hands of capable drivers! When Viper finally bowed out and left the game, the most powerful models were generating as much as 645 horsepower and were capable of topping 204 mph.
2012 Tesla Model S
It wasn’t the first electric vehicle; it wasn’t even Tesla‘s first model, but it definitely propelled the EV market to its current heights. The Tesla Model S is simply the best deal you can get in the electric segment these days – at least when all factors are accounted for. It’s the most luxurious of the mass production all-electric cars, it has the longest range, it’s the quickest, and it boasts corresponding charging times.
More and more automakers are seriously digging in into the electric vehicle game, but Tesla continues to prove itself to be a hard nut to crack. While others market EVs as filler cars, this California-based company’s sole purpose revolves around zero emission vehicles. As long as that’s the case, Tesla will likely remain the spear tip of the EV segment’s vanguard.
There are plenty of other American classic cars that could’ve made the list, including the Chevrolet Chevelle, the Dodge Charger, and the Dodge Challenger too, but these are the ones that we think symbolize the country best in four-wheeled form. Care to disagree? We would love to read your comments!