15 Iconic Cars that Define the United States
Famous American cars with world class reputations
Published January 18, 2018
The American car industry has given us some of the most iconic nameplates in the world of cars. Classic muscle cars that are slowly becoming extinct, others that people never truly got the chance to appreciate, and even cars that changed the auto industry are all American made. Some of these were great rides which ultimately failed to leave their mark on history. Others became legendary vehicles synonymous with the American car industry. This time we’re reflecting on 15 such legendary cars. Famous American cars that define the U.S. Iconic models that represent what this country is all about – opportunity, freedom, and technological advancement. Opportunity for any vehicle or manufacturer to succeed with sufficient product quality and appeal. Freedom that can only be felt in a powerful large American car on an open road. Technological advancement that’s put American automakers back on the map in recent years. These are the top fifteen most iconic American cars.
1908 – 1927 Ford Model T
It’s a no-brainer, really. If the Ford Model T doesn’t represent everything the American car industry stands for, then I don’t know what early 20th century cars does! It wasn’t the first car ever produced. It wasn’t even the first mass-produced American car since that honor belongs to the Oldsmobile Curved Dash. However, the Tin Lizzie did become the first affordable car in the process that Henry Ford had envisioned. Thus the Ford Model T finally brought the automobile to the masses and enabled every average Joe to own one.
When Henry Ford’s most important creation started its two-decade-long journey, it was only around 20% more affordable than the average car of the time. With an increase in production volume though, that percentage grew with each passing year. By the time 1927 had arrived, Ford had sold more than 15 million Model T’s in as many body styles as you can imagine – including pickups. Contrary to popular belief, early models came in four different colors: red, green, blue, and gray. It was only in 1914 that Ford had adopted the all-black paint policy. To this dye, the Ford Model T remains arguably the most influential car ever produced.
1928 – 1937 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 cars and certainly one of the most recognizable automotive linchpins of the late Art Deco era.
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.
1941 – 1945 Willys-Overland MB
As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, the Willys-Overland MB was largely responsible for helping Allied forces achieve victory in Word War II. The quarter-ton all-wheel-drive rugged vehicle is widely considered to be the very first SUV ever produced. Willys-Overland produced around 360,000 of them during the war to be used in mud, desert sands, and frozen tundras alike, and they never complained.
Despite the end of their production coinciding with the end of the WWII, MBs weren’t done in 1945 – not by a long shot. Willys MB would instantly spawn its own civilian clone; the famous Jeep CJ which soldiered on until 1986. In fact, its spirit still lives inside the Jeep Wrangler which simply continued where its predecessor had left off. The seminal SUV has helped the USA (and the rest of the free world) become what it is today. Whether we like what we’ve become or not, our lives would have surely been much more gloomy hadn’t there been for the go-anywhere Jeep’s heroics.
1948 – Present Ford F-Series
The best-sold American vehicle of all time has a cemented spot on any Famous American cars and vehicles list. This favorite American pickup truck has been around since 1948 and has gone through no fewer than 13 generations. 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.
1949 – 1953 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 is widely regarded to be the first muscle car in history. Muscle cars define a large chunk of American automotive history, and this huge segment of the automotive market can trace its inception to this car. The idea was simple back then – take a small, light car and stuff as much power into as humanly possible. Oldsmobile stuffed, at the time, the new overhead valve Rocket V8 engine inside the smaller Eighty-Eight body. The 303 cu-in. Rocket V8 developed only 135 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque. Still, it didn’t take more than that back in the day.
The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 quickly became the dominant force on NASCAR circuits. It changed Oldsmobile’s perception in the general population’s eyes overnight. From a conservative automaker to an inspiring beacon of innovation; Oldsmobile had it all. The Rocket 88 became so popular, in fact, that it actually spawned what’s regarded to be the very first rock and roll song named after the car itself. The song was recorded by Ike Turner and his band in 1951. The Oldsmobile 88 nameplate would survive until 1999, but Rocket 88 itself would lose its prominence by the mid-fifties. Other manufacturers simply beat Oldsmobile at their own game. Still, the Rocket 88’s influence on both the muscle car scene and the American auto industry as a whole was immeasurable.
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 cars that always pushed the industry to its limits.
1953 – Present Chevrolet Corvette
The most famous of American sports cars hadn’t only brought immense success to the GM. It had also put the U.S. on the sports car automaker’s map when it came out. And it’s been doing the same for almost 65 years now. The good old ‘Vette is still one of the most coveted and illustrious V8-powered sports cars out there and isn’t showing any signs of stopping. Especially not since its most powerful iteration in history, the new 2018 Corvette ZR1, was recently revealed.
But the Chevrolet Corvette isn’t only one of the best sports cars money can buy. It’s also the longest-running sports car in the world, predating the prized Mercedes-Benz Gullwing 300SL by a year and world-renowned Porsche 911 by a decade. No wonder the ‘Vette earns its place among the most famous American cars. It’s been delivering sports car performance and sublime driving dynamics for more than six decades. And it’s been doing it the American way.
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 – Present Ford Mustang
Alongside Corvette, the iconic pony is arguably the first synonym that comes to mind when non-Americans hear the words: “American car” (sorry Camaro fans). It’s just the way things have worked out. And no one can say that this doesn’t make any sense. Synonymous with V8 power and the muscle car scene (despite being a pony), the Ford Mustang certainly fits the bill.
The Ford Mustang has also had an uninterrupted production cycle spanning more than five decades of automotive engineering now. Its name and badging also feed directly into classic American lore – a powerful indomitable mustang that rides across the plains and into the sunset. And the Mustang has been doing just that for more than 50 years from days of the early Shelby’s, Mach 1, and Boss 429, over SVT Cobras, to the modern day Shelby GT350. That’s why it’s one of the most iconic American cars ever produced.
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 car 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 car 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.
1983 – 2007 Dodge Caravan
Chrysler minivans changed the way car buyers think, and for that, they’ve earned their spot among the most iconic American vehicles. They replaced the outdated yet beloved station wagons as more practical people carriers with the perfect combination of driving dynamics and available space for both passengers and cargo. They became the epitome of a family vehicle overnight and the Dodge Caravan was the first among equals. Together with its stablemate the Plymouth Voyager.
It was devised by Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich who had actually been holding onto the idea for quite some time. While they were both still with Ford, to be more precise. 10 years after Henry Ford II had scrapped their initial prototype, they sold the idea to Chrysler. The rest is, as they say, history. While the Dodge Caravan has been gone for over a decade now, the long wheelbase Grand Caravan that’s debuted three years after the original is still among us. And so are many other minivans out there, despite being heavily under fire by larger SUVs and crossovers with three rows of seats.
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 – Present Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S is a perfect example of the American car industry’s leading role in the global field of automotive innovation and evolution. It’s only a matter of time before electric vehicles become a majority on our roads, and Tesla, Inc. will almost surely be leading the vanguard of that change. Even now, they’re breaking all sorts of records most car enthusiasts thought were out of EV’s reach.
The Tesla Model S’ importance is monumental. Not only is the electric vehicle with the longest range working on furthering the conventional EV car cause, but almost every manufacturer has joined the party. Moreover, more and more supercars are also getting electric powertrains. In other words, the Tesla Model S is slowly but steadily becoming an inspiration for the entire car industry. That clearly positions it among the most famous American cars that define both the United States and its auto industry.