Since automobiles first became available they have dominated popular culture and the media. Some of the largest companies in history have been car manufacturers. Some of the most poignant ad campaigns have been for cars, countless iconic cars have been central to monumental films. Sadly, some cars have been more memorable than others. And the cars that defined the decades in American history are likely those that most people drove or sought after. Here are the cars that were unquestionably decade-defining in the long history of automobiles in America and abroad.
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While the first car ever released came over two decades before, Ford changed the game with the Model T. Released in 1908; the Ford Model T reshaped transportation in the 1910s by creating the first automobile to be commercially affordable. It would still be years before the average family could afford a car, but despite production stopping in 1927, the Model T set a unit sales record that would stand for 45 years after it stopped being sold. Notably, the Model T was the first car to scale production using an assembly line.
As automobiles become more common on city streets, it became the large manufacturers, like Ford, taking on smaller, independent automakers. One of the most successful of the latter group was Packard, who created one of the most popular cars of the time, the smooth-riding, powerful Twin Six. In fact, when it was created, the Twin Six was met by such high demand that Packard's manufacturing facility in Detroit had to undergo a $1.5 million upgrade — that's $30 million in today's currency.
In the 1920s, British automaker Rolls-Royce — the makers of the "best cars in the world" — was looking for a way to follow up on the success of the Silver Ghost. The result was the Phantom I, released in 1925 with the distinctive look that would come to be associated with Rolls Royce. It had a bigger engine and a bigger following. After almost a century of jostling the Rolls-Royce brand between buyers, the latest version of the Phantom — the VII — was released in 2017, still considered the height of luxury.
Cars are unique in that, like music, art, and culture, they are primarily a function of their times. There very few cases where this holds true more than with the Buick Series 40. Automakers were slowing production due to the Great Depression and the impending involvement in the war, and those that were sold were practical. The Buick Series 40 was a textbook example of this. When it launched in 1936, it was looked at as a reliable, powerful, dependable family vehicle. While Buick has stood the test of time, the 40 Series didn't — Production stopped in 1942.
Before Jeep was an American brand, it was a type of vehicle, one that history buffs will know well. Willys-Overland was a principal maker of jeeps used in World War II but moved into the commercial space once the war's end was imminent. The CJ-2A was only in production from 1945 to 1949 but is largely credited as the beginning of the popularity of the Jeep. Today, these cars are immensely popular for their all-terrain versatility, balance, and 4-wheel drive power.
The distinctive era of rock n' roll needed a similarly distinctive car, and the Chevrolet Bel Air became that. Bulky yet sleek, the 55 Bel Air would later be coveted by collectors as a quintessential picture of American vintage. The Bel Air was also looked at as a return to form for Chevrolet, who, at the time, needed something big. The company's range through the early part of the 1950s left something to be desired, with more elegant vehicles favored over Chevy's clunky, awkward models.
In the 1950s, Ford, who had been shining examples of family automakers for the majority of their history, went through a significant shift. Suddenly, the "T-Bird," as it was called, was released and started paving the way for a major increase in muscle and sports cars over the years to follow. Some speculate that Ford's success with the Thunderbird in the mid-50s led to their iconic failure towards the end of the decade with the unfulfilled hype of the Edsel in the latter part of the decade. Of course, as we'll see next, they didn't take long to redeem themselves.
Considered one of the most iconic cars of any decade, the Mustang had it all: power, finesse — it was even loud, which its drivers seemed to cherish as a symbol of dominance on the road. Ford didn't let the first Mustang speak for itself, though — the release of the car coincided with an ad campaign communicating that the Mustang had a certain "cool" factor that would come to be associated with Ford in the coming years. Whether it was the marketing or the car itself, Mustangs started flying off the line in the mid-to-late 1960s.
In 1972, the VW Beetle officially passed the Model T as the best-selling car of all-time. This was surprising given Volkswagen's beginnings as a favored automaker in Nazi Germany, both during and after WWII. The VW Beetle positioned itself as a break in the trends for cars at the time, and this gamble paid off. The VW Beetle and later, the VW Bus become symbols of the free love, peacemaking, hippie counterculture of the late 60s and into the early 70s. Despite being at the center of the clean diesel scandal in the mid-2010s, VW is still riding that success.
As the market for cars struggled to the sluggish economy as well as new emissions and fuel standards, the Trans Am emerged as a symbol of American innovation and the idea that power still had a place on the roads. If the T-Bird paved the way for muscle cars to dominate decades earlier, Pontiac followed that road with a car that's still cherished today — Trans Ams from the 70s are still sought-after by vintage street racers, car collectors, and everyday drivers still seeking some of that iconic style from a bygone era.
The most expensive car here is rivaled only by the adjusted exchange and price for the Rolls-Royce Phantom I — a few years into its release in the US market, the Ferrari Testarossa was listed at around $135,000, just over $300,000 in today's terms. Released in 1985, the car was a perfect symbol of the excess that defined the 1980s in American cities, as well as a product that fulfilled wealthy citizens' desires for more power than anyone would need to have on the roads.
Practical? Not quite. Functional? Barely. Reliable? We wouldn't count on it. But iconic? There's no doubt about it. With its gaudy butterfly doors and polygonal design, the car that simply referred to as the DeLorean was, like the Testarossa, a symbol of times, only without the fine, Italian engineering. Instead, the DMC-10 was featured in the Back to the Future" movies, which were smash-hits during the era and defined the car as iconic for all time.
The icons from the first 70 years of widespread car manufacturing are American, with some European models sprinkled in. In the 90s, Japanese manufacturing started to seize market power, and the game was never the same. The first examples were all about performance — early Mazdas and Nissans were known for efficiency, smooth-riding, and effortless speed — the Mazda RX-7 was one the earliest, shining examples of this shift in the trend that would continue for years after.
While the 2000s are still too fresh for many icons to stand out, two vehicles have had success from start to finish in the first two decades of the new millennium. The first is the Toyota Corolla. Actually introduced in 1966, but never more popular than today, this Japanese sedan has proved to be practical, economical, safe, and as a result, loved by families and individuals around the world. This international appeal has been the driving force in its stature as the best-selling car of all time.
The Ford F-Series might be cheating, as it includes the majority of all the trucks Ford ever released, but after over 70 years in production, the F-Series has never been more popular than over the past few decades. As Ford's relative value falls compared to other manufacturers, it still remains a titan in the truck world, and members of the F-Series are popular for commercial use as well as individual expressions of American power and ingenuity.