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10 Classic American Cars That Changed the Auto Industry Forever

Are These The Most Groundbreaking American Cars Ever?

Updated November 10, 2018

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 cars 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 cars 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.


1908  Ford Model T

Undoubtedly one of the most iconic American cars in history, the Ford Model T singlehandedly 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.

Seminal American Cars - Ford Model T


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.

Seminal American Cars - Chrysler Airflow


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. 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.

Seminal American Cars - Willys-Overland CJ-2A


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 cars.

Seminal American Cars - Tucker 48


1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

The everlasting debate over which car was the first true American muscle car 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 car 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.

Seminal American Cars - Oldsmobile Rocket 88


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 American cars that changed the course of history may sit upon its rightful throne once again.

Seminal American Cars - C1 Chevrolet Corvette


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 Ford Mustang I 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, 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 car 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.

Seminal American Cars - Ford Mustang I


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.

Seminal American Cars - AMC Eagle Wagon


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.

Seminal American Cars - Dodge Caravan


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 cars, 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.

Seminal American Cars - Ford Taurus


Honorable Mention: 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.

Seminal American Cars - Tesla Model S

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Nikola Potrebić
About Nikola Potrebić

Despite driving a piece of junk, Nikola still manages to survive the harrowing experience called "A road trip in a Yugo," day in, day out. On the other hand, precious few things move him as muscle cars do. Especially those from the bygone golden era, which makes him wonder why wasn't he born a few decades earlier? Well, at least he's been given the opportunity to enjoy the likes of the Pontiak Aztek, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Fiat Multipla, and other lovely millennials, right? Come to think of it, I'll stick with my Yugo. Thank you very much.

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