American automotive history isn’t just about impressively brawny engines. Or irresistibly curvaceous chrome. Or the reliable, practical vehicles that move steadily off the lot. That’s why our “Cars That Made America” list draws from all those categories—and from the duds as well.
Because in the brutally competitive auto industry, the Edsels and Vegas can be as important as the Model Ts and Mustangs. Sometimes ideas thrown at the wall stuck. Other times they slid slowly to an ignominious grease puddle on the floor. But each time, the entrepreneurs, marketers, designers, engineers and managers who guided American automobile production learned something. Failures (and there were many) often informed later successes. Clunkers could beget crowd-pleasers.
In this rundown of influential American cars, we see visionary engineers scheming ways to go faster and farther, in greater comfort and style. We see brand wizards tapping deep into the national psyche, evoking core American values of freedom, self-reliance and practicality. The cars here range from plain and utilitarian to sporty and fun to fantastically opulent. Many were testosterone-fueled under the hood, while others had to go up the hills backward.
This subjective list reflects a varied cross-section of a century's worth of American automobile development.
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OLDSMOBILE MODEL R
The first practical, reliable, mass-produced American automobile
How many built: 12,000+ between 1901 and 1904
Starting price: $650
Nickname: ‘The Curved Dash’
Ransom Eli Olds, who had started experimenting with self-propelled vehicles in 1887, was working on several different prototypes in his company’s Detroit factory in 1901 when a fire destroyed the building and three of those prototypes. The only survivor: the Model R, popularly known as the Curved Dash for its curved, buggy-like footboard.
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By the end of the year, Olds had built some 425 of them. Priced at just $650, the Curved Dash was accessible to a wide range of prospective customers. Its tiller steering and buggy-like body were familiar to the horse-trained public. Its rugged 7-horsepower single-cylinder engine, simple 2-speed planetary transmission, chain drive and high ground clearance were strong enough to survive the rigors of the nation’s largely rugged, rutted dirt tracks. It remained in production through 1904 and inspired the hit song “In My Merry Oldsmobile:”
Come away with me, Lucille,
In my merry Oldsmobile.
Down the road of life we fly,
Automo-bubbling, you and I.
BUICK MODEL 10
A moderately popular early bid to build a car for the masses
How many built: 23,100 between 1908 and 1910
Starting price: $900
Nickname: ‘The White Streak’
When General Motors incorporated in the fall of 1908, its CEO, William “Billy” Durant, went on a buying spree, building his empire by gobbling up the lion’s share of the competition within the first year. (He couldn’t convince rival Henry Ford, the other visionary of the burgeoning industry.) Buick, the first company Durant acquired, became GM’s core brand. And the Model 10, painted all white with snappy brass trim, was Buick’s most popular model.
The defining characteristic of the four-cylinder Model 10—and of every Buick since—was its overhead-valve cylinder head, a.k.a. the “valve-in-head” engine that gave superior performance. All Model 10s were marketed as a vehicle for “men with real red blood who don’t like to eat dust.” Despite arriving on the scene just before Henry Ford’s first Model T splashed onto the market, the Model 10 didn’t take off in the same way. Production ended when Buick realized it could build on its reputation—and its efficient valve-in-head engine—to sell more expensive cars at higher profits.
FORD MODEL T
Put the world on wheels
How many built: 15,458,781 between 1908 and 1927
Starting price: $825 for the Runabout model; by 1925 it had dropped to $260
Nickname: ‘Tin Lizzie,’ ‘Flivver’
Simplicity. Performance. Reliability. Those were the magic ingredients baked into Henry Ford’s wildly successful Model T, a technical and commercial triumph that not only democratized driving for the masses, but in doing so, helped transform America’s landscape and culture. Farms were no longer dramatically isolated from one another. Street paving accelerated and building of the nation’s vast network of roadways began in earnest. Street lights, road signs and a whole new array of roadside businesses sprouted, including the now-ubiquitous gas station.
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Ford also revolutionized industry at large with assembly-line production, which helped speed manufacturing and push prices down. The cost of the Model T’s touring-car version dropped from $850 in 1908 to less than $300 in 1925. Such prices helped people who never aspired to driving think that they, too, could afford a newfangled horseless buggy—and the freedom it provided. As sales soared, Ford at times produced more Model Ts than the next 10 automakers’ output combined.
Whereas GM’s CEO Billy Durant was known as the consummate salesman, Henry Ford made his name as a visionary, roll-up-your-sleeves engineer. He designed the Model T as a workhorse of a car, building it with light, affordable vanadium steel that offered rugged durability and a supple suspension that stood up to the era’s potholed wagon roads. He gave the engine 20 horsepower, which propelled the car to top speeds of 40 to 45 miles per hour. And because he wanted any reasonably mechanically competent farmer to be able to maintain and repair their Model T, he made its engine’s cylinder head removable. An unusual feature for the time, that simplified the necessary (and frequent) process of cleaning out carbon buildup in the combustion chambers and valve pockets, making it far simpler than the rivals’ fixed-head engines.
The Model T did have its quirks. For one, the 10-gallon fuel tank was positioned under the front seat and fuel was gravity-fed to the engine. Because of that and the reality that reverse gear offered more power than the forward gears, owners could often be seen driving up a steep hill backward.
And then there was Henry Ford’s decision to offer Model Ts in any color—as long as it was black. Ever practical, with an eye on production efficiency, he realized that the pigmented paints used in the T’s early years (red, green, gray and blue) required multiple coats with time between coats to dry and sand. Vast storage areas were filled with bodies being painted, costing the company both time and money. Black cured much more quickly and it became the standard (and only) color offered from 1914 to 1926. Customers didn’t seem to mind and production jumped by nearly two-thirds in 1915.
By 1914 the Model T’s success had made Henry Ford rich, but he had a problem. The moving assembly line he had pioneered should have made it possible to sell cars at ever-lower prices, but the assembly line’s repetitive tasks proved unattractive at a wage of about $2.25 per 9-hour workday. Worker turnover killed productivity; sometimes workers just walked away from their stations, bringing the entire line to a halt.
Ford’s solution was innovative: He raised the wage to $5 per day and cut the workday to eight hours. One day after it was announced, a crowd estimated at 10,000 people showed up at the Ford plant looking for $5-a-day employment. That solved the turnover problem, letting the assembly line run efficiently. Ultimately, with its production facility that, figuratively speaking, sent iron ore in one side and finished cars out the other, Ford completely dominated the $300 car market.
DODGE BROTHERS MODEL 30
The first Dodge Brothers automobile
How many built: 596,770 between 1914 and 1921
Starting price: $785 for the Touring Car model
As successful Detroit contract manufacturers, John and Horace Dodge were a major supplier of automotive parts to industry giant Ford. But when Ford got cash-strapped and couldn’t make payments, the Dodges accepted company stock instead. Henry Ford bought the stock back in 1919, giving the Dodge brothers a $25 million windfall.
But even while the Dodges were a crucial element to Ford’s success, they weren’t all that impressed with the Model T. John Dodge is quoted as saying, “Someday the people who own a Ford are going to want an automobile.”
The Model 30 was the Dodge Brothers’ idea of what an economical automobile should be: a well-built, durable car with more power and more standard features than the Model T. With a 35-horsepower, 212-cubic-inch, four-cylinder engine and a 3-speed sliding gear transmission, it came fully equipped from the factory with a folding top, electric lighting, leather upholstery, electric starter, windshield and speedometer. Originally constructed in the traditional manner, with steel panels over a wood frame, the Model 30 in 1923 became the first-ever to offer an all-steel automobile body. The brothers, in a belt-and-suspenders move typical of their conservative nature, added rivets to the welding for reinforcement.
1927 FORD MODEL A
Model T’s successor offered modern features at an economy price
How many built: 3,572,610 produced between 1927 and 1931
Starting price: From $430 (Roadster) to $640 (Convertible Sedan) in 1931
Nickname: ‘The Bonnie’
By the mid-1920s, it became apparent even to Henry Ford that his beloved Model T was being surpassed in features and in the marketplace by competitors. So in 1926 the company set out to create a successor.
The first blueprints date to January 1927. With the company’s existing vertically integrated production facility, and ability to make a large number of its own parts, work proceeded at a phenomenal pace. Model T production ended May 26, 1927. The development of the new car, named “Model A,” was announced on August 10, 1927. The first Model A was assembled October 21 and the car was introduced publicly on December 2, 1927. Just over 3,800 were built in calendar year 1927.
For an economy car, the Model A boasted several rarely seen innovations, including four-wheel hydraulic-lever shock absorbers, self-adjusting four-wheel mechanical brakes and a laminated safety-glass windshield. Henry Ford’s son Edsel updated styling and design features with crowned fenders and lower ride height.
On February 4, 1929, Ford built its one millionth Model A; the two millionth followed on July 29th, barely six months later. But by 1931 the Model A, too, had been surpassed by a horde of voracious competitors.
1931 CHEVROLET AE INDEPENDENCE SIX
The first Chevrolet to outsell Ford (beyond the 1927 Ford shutdown for Model A changeover)
How many built: 623,901 in model year 1931
Starting price: $475 to $650
Nickname: ‘Stovebolt Six,’ because its fasteners resembled common hardware-store stovebolts
Chevrolet introduced the Six in 1929, just after Ford brought out the Model A. With its overhead-valve six-cylinder engine, it was marketed with the slogan “A six for the price of a four.” It took Chevy, and the Depression, two years to whittle away the celebrity aura surrounding the Model A, but the Chevy Six’s features and value soon made an impression.
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For one thing, the 1931 Chevrolet’s 50 hp bested Ford by 10 horsepower. And even with the introduction of the powerful Ford V-8 in 1932, the 1932 Chevrolet’s 60 hp was only 5 ponies less than the V-8. It was also smoother running and free of the V-8’s rattly ride. It set up a seesaw battle for volume between Ford and Chevrolet that persisted through the next decades.
1932 FORD MODEL 18 V-8
The first low-priced V-8
How many built: 178,749 built in 1932, tens of millions more through 1953
Starting price: From $460 for a standard Roadster to $650 for a convertible sedan
Henry Ford had been experimenting with unusual multi-cylinder engines even before the Model A. He rejected an inline six as being a copycat, seeking something distinctly different to perpetuate the image of Ford as the automobile innovator. A more powerful V-8 for a low-priced car offered that innovation.
Development went on in complete secrecy in a workshop used by Henry Ford’s revered friend, inventor Thomas Edison, which Ford had moved to Michigan. The first prototype was completed in May 1930. The Ford V-8 would go on to upend the American automobile industry. Its 221-cubic-inch V-8 engine produced 65 horsepower, over 50 percent more than Model A. It had a single-piece cylinder block and crankcase, a marvel of foundry technology at the time. The V-8 was short and rigid, and it dropped right into the space designed for the Model B four-cylinder engine already planned for production in 1932. That meant no expensive factory re-tooling.
The Ford V-8 did have problems, like cooling issues that were never adequately solved. But its light weight, reliability and substantial power laid the base for American automobile engine development for years to come.
Even bank robbers John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow wrote to Ford to express their appreciation for the Ford V-8. Barrow and his girlfriend Bonnie Parker met their end in a bullet-riddled 1934 “Fordor” (the company’s pun) sedan.
DUESENBERG MODEL J
Glam in the extreme: the pinnacle of Classic Era design, performance, quality and style
How many built: About 480 between 1929 and 1937
Starting price: $8,500 for the chassis, without coachwork—enough for ten Model A Fords
E.L. Cord became owner of Duesenberg Motors in 1926 and gave Fred Duesenberg simple instructions: Design the finest, fastest, most luxurious automobile in the world. It arrived on December 1, 1928 and it was everything Cord could ask for, surpassing its competitors in nearly every respect.
Its graceful, swooping lines and opulent materials provided the perfect conveyance for image-conscious Hollywood stars and captains of industry. Whether an ordinary 4-door sedan or a custom speedster, bodies reflected the finest work of the best coachbuilders in the U.S. and Europe, boasting everything from bright chromium outside exhaust pipes to intricately inlaid fine wood interiors and richly embroidered fabrics.
Its eight-cylinder engine produced a claimed 265 horsepower, nearly twice that of its most powerful American contemporary. Even with the heaviest formal coachwork, the Model J could easily exceed 100 mph. But that wasn’t enough. So August Duesenberg developed a centrifugal supercharger that raised output to 320 horsepower.
Given the high cost of the chassis and its coachwork, Duesenberg clients were wealthy. Movie stars Gary Cooper and Clark Gable had special supercharged short-wheelbase convertible coupes built. Chewing-gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson, big-band conductor Paul Whiteman, candy heiress Ethel Mars and many more owned Duesenbergs—sometimes a succession of them. International Peace Mission founder “Father Divine” had a custom-bodied stretched Duesenberg that seated 11 with a raised rear seat under a removable roof section that allowed the 5-foot-tall preacher to be more readily seen when giving speeches through the car’s built-in public-address system.
J.L. Elbert’s book on the marque is subtitled “The Mightiest American Motor Car.” The Duesenberg is so mighty that he could have left out “American.”
Brilliant scientific engineering caught in the crush of the Great Depression
How many built: 35,740 between 1934 and 1937
Starting price: $1,345
Walter P. Chrysler was an American Horatio Alger story, working his way up from farmhand to manager of the American Locomotive Works’ Pittsburgh factory, then to Buick. He successfully ran Buick for Billy Durant’s General Motors at a 1917 salary of a nearly unimaginable $175,000 per year plus stock, then left to start his own car company.
When Willys Motors was subsumed into the GM fold, its engineering team—Carl Breer, Fred M. Zeder and Owen Skelton—joined up with Walter Chrysler. It was a marriage made in engineering heaven, and their finest accomplishment was the 1934 Chrysler Airflow. It grew out of experiments Carl Breer began in the late 1920s with a small 20×30 inch cross-section wind tunnel suggested by the Wright brothers. The Airflow embodied the results of this and other wind-tunnel experiments with its teardrop shape, steeply sloped radiator grille and the first one-piece curved windshield. Although a lightweight frame was used, the one-piece steel body provided chassis rigidity, an auto industry first. The engine was placed over, not behind, the front-axle centerline.
The resulting Airflow of 1934 was like nothing else worldwide. Initial enthusiasm for the concept was followed by skepticism. Despite ambitious advertisements showing an Airflow pushed over a cliff, then driven away, buyers weren’t planning on driving over cliffs. And with the Great Depression raging, few wanted to splurge $1,345, 60% more than a conventional Chrysler CA six sedan, to take a chance on advanced technology. The Airstream disappeared three years later, an opportunity lost.
The first Ford designed and built without Henry Ford’s oversight
How many built: 1,118,740 built in two models and two engines
Starting price: From $1,333 (Six Business Coupe) to $2,264 (Custom V-8 Station Wagon)
With Ford wholly owned by its founding family, Edsel’s death in 1943 and Henry’s in 1947 forced the next generation to take the reins and usher the company into the postwar era. That included designing the first postwar model: the 1949 Ford, a major departure from traditional offerings.
One look at the body design revealed the differences: Fenders integrated with the body. The sides flowed continuously. And the passenger compartment was smoothly rounded. Underneath, the transverse leaf springs that Henry had stubbornly clung to since horse-and-buggy days were gone, replaced with coil-spring independent front suspension and longitudinal leaf springs for the live rear axle.
With civilian car production slowly gearing back up after Detroit’s massive war effort, both Chevrolet and Plymouth also introduced redesigned cars in 1949, but neither did it as well, or as successfully, as Ford: Chevrolet sold 1,037,600 and Plymouth, 508,000. The third-generation Ford team led by Henry Ford II had taken a surprising initiative and made it a success.
1953 CHEVROLET CORVETTE ROADSTER
America’s sports car
How many built: 300 in 1953, 4,640 in total between 1953 and 1955
Starting price: $3,498
Starting in 1949, General Motors presented its annual Motorama, parading the company’s products and new-vehicle concepts. In 1953, each of GM’s then fiercely independent divisions showcased their vision for a “sports car.” Most had simply restyled cars already in production. Buick weighed in with the Wildcat I, conceived by car-design guru Harley Earl, complete with a foot-controlled radio and “Robo-static” hubs. Pontiac offered the Parisienne, a two-seater with a landau roof and pink upholstery, meant to be driven by a chauffeur.
Chevrolet went for something quite different: a small fiberglass-bodied two-seater patterned after the sexy British Jaguar XK-120 roadster. They called it “Corvette.”
It became such a sensation that Chevrolet began low-volume, hand-built production at a plant in Flint. Only 300 were built in 1953 using modified Chevrolet frames, suspension and a 150hp 3-carburetor version of its 236-cubic-inch overhead-valve six. All had Powerglide automatic transmissions.
For 1954 Chevrolet moved production to a small dedicated facility in St. Louis, planning to sell 10,000 Corvettes. They didn’t sell nearly that many, but GM management, particularly the corporation’s legendary chairman Alfred P. Sloan, felt it had a place in the corporation’s stable and added welcome sizzle to the brand—particularly when crosstown rival Ford announced the two-seat Thunderbird for 1955. That year, the performance of the Corvette’s brand new 195hp overhead-valve V-8 engine (a $135 option) began to change the public’s perception. Chevrolet did reach its annual sales target of 10,000, but not until 1960. Today Corvette production regularly exceeds 30,000 annually, all tracing their ancestry back to those Polo White 1953 roadsters.
One of those avid spectators around the new Corvette at the New York Motorama in 1953 was a Belgian-born Russian engineer with extensive racing experience in Europe, Zora Arkus-Duntov. He approached General Motors for a job, was hired and soon became Corvette’s chief engineer. Despite chafing under GM’s corporate structure, he shepherded Corvette to its greatest early successes.
1955 CHRYSLER C-300 TWO-DOOR HARDTOP
A smoking-fast luxury car for grown-ups
How many built: 1,725
Starting price: $4,109
Nickname: ‘The Banker’s Hot Rod’
In automotive terms, few years offered as much reason to go car crazy as 1955, which saw the release of V-8 versions of both the Thunderbird and Corvette, along with the popular ’55 Chevy. But for many car enthusiasts, that year will be best remembered for the introduction of the Chrysler C-300, which combined testosterone-fueled horsepower and sporty suspension with a handsome, muscular design.
Based on the already opulent New Yorker Deluxe, it was styled under the supervision of Virgil Exner, whose famed “Forward Look” design conveyed an eager, poised-for-action look. It came in just one body style, which was configured from stock parts, and in only three colors (white, red or black). It was upholstered in tan leather.
Chrysler engineers beefed up the C-300’s suspension to cope with its 331-cubic-inch Hemi engine (so-called for its hemispherical combustion chambers), which boasted dual four-barrel carburetors and 300 horsepower—more than any other 1955 American car.
Despite weighing in at a hefty 4,000-plus pounds, the C-300 proved its mettle on the track. A fleet of them entered by Mercury outboard-motor company owner Karl Kiekhaefer swept the 1955 racing season nearly clean, winning some 37 AAA and NASCAR races of 100 miles or more. Instantly recognizable on the street, it commanded respect at every stoplight, yet its cost meant that in pretty much every case a suit-and-tie-wearing swell was at the wheel. Tom McCahill, auto writer for Mechanix Illustrated magazine, called it “as solid as Grant’s Tomb, and 130 times as fast.”
The debut of the ‘smallblock’ Chevrolet V-8
How many built: 1,830,029 in all body styles
Starting price: 2-Door Sedan V-8 prices ranged from $3,055 for a 150 to $3,125 for a Bel Air
An argument can be made that it was the ’55 Chevrolets’ redesigned bodies—with their balanced proportions and restrained chrome—that helped push Chevrolet’s 1955 model-year production to its highest ever. But those results probably wouldn’t have been achieved were it not for the car’s brash under-the-hood bonafides: a high-revving 265-cubic-inch V-8 that powered Chevy’s success that year.
Developed under the supervision of Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole, the ’55 Chevy would ultimately help propel him to the chairmanship of GM. The small-block engine bristled with innovations. First was its light weight: an impressive 41 pounds less than the Chevy six. Its short piston stroke, big valves and excellent cylinder-head design gave it unparalleled high rpm performance. The first modern short-stroke V-8, the Chevy smallblock V-8 would firmly cement Chevrolet’s place at the head of the pack in the horsepower race that was to come.
1957 DE SOTO ADVENTURER
Muscle and fins
How many built: 3,069 between 1957 and 1959
Starting price: $3,997 for the hardtop, $4,272 for the convertible
Nowhere was Virgil Exner’s jet-age “Forward Look” body styling taken further than in the top-of-the-line DeSoto Adventurer. The aesthetic emphasized length and sleek, swept, dart-like features. It was reinforced by dramatic two-tone paint schemes with bright chrome borders. Taillights were housed in the trailing edges of the fins. Bumpers and grille were treated as massive chrome appendages. The Adventurer got standard TorqueFlite automatic transmissions and power brakes among many other standard features. It also had gold plating for the trim accents.
As with the Chrysler C-300 two years before, the real excitement growled under the Adventurer’s hood, in the form of a 345-cubic-inch Hemi V-8 with dual four-barrel carburetors that twisted out 345 horsepower. DeSoto proudly noted it was the only standard (i.e., not ordered as an option) engine in 1957 to make one horsepower per cubic inch displacement. In a horsepower race, this was the car to have in 1957, with flamboyant style to match its performance.
A dramatic new middle-market entry marked by utter failure in the marketplace
How many built: 110,847 between 1958 and 1960
Starting price: $3,500 for top-of-the-line Citation hardtop coupe
By the mid 1950s, Ford’s marketers believed the company was missing the chance to upgrade existing customers by having only one middle-market brand, Mercury. The fix, which fell to the Special Product Operations office under Edsel’s son, William Clay Ford, was aimed at filling an ill-defined and tiny niche just below Mercury.
Ford Motor Company’s ad agency pitched 18,000 possible names for the new marque. But in a show of respect for their late father’s struggles to bring style and modern technology to Henry Ford’s automobiles, the family-controlled company chose “Edsel.” The final design marked a distinct stylistic departure from past Fords, with scalloped coves in the rear fenders and a dramatic grille with an ovoid center section that quickly became known as a “horse collar.” Aside from styling elements, the push-button automatic transmission selector in the hub of the steering wheel, some rudimentary safety features and different engine displacements, the Edsel was easily identifiable as what it was: derivative of Fords and Mercurys. Consumers weren’t fooled, sales stalled and Edsel disappeared after three years.
1964½ FORD MUSTANG
The original Pony Car, creator of an entire category
How many produced: 263,434 between April and December of 1964, nearly overwhelming Ford’s production capacity; 1,288,557 first-generation Mustangs between 1964 and 1966
Starting price: $2,368 for a notchback hardtop coupe
Named after a WWII fighter plane, the Mustang was unveiled by Henry Ford II at the 1964 World’s Fair. It was just a Falcon with new bodywork, built at the same plant in Dearborn, but that made no difference to America’s car buyers in 1964. They eagerly adopted Mustang as an entirely new concept of a moderately priced “personal car” with room for four—with a sporty profile aimed squarely at the emerging market of baby boomers, who had started hitting driving age just a few years earlier.
The Mustang’s significance in American automobile history can’t be understated. It rivals that of Henry’s Model T. Without it, there would never have been a “pony car” category, which includes Camaros, Barracudas, Firebirds, Javelins, Challengers and Cougars. It spawned things like Carroll Shelby’s GT350, a rip-snorting pony car on steroids. It won uncountable races as the Boss 302. It set drag-racing records as the Boss 429. And nearly 10 million sales later, it still exists today, cleverly styled by Ford’s designers so if you draped a 2017 Mustang with a parachute it is still recognizable as a Mustang.
Lee Iacocca, ever the marketing showman (in one stunt, he had a Mustang cut in three pieces so he could get it to the top of the Empire State Building), championed the Mustang’s development and rode it to success, becoming president of Ford and later, chairman of Chrysler.
An ingenious concept felled by one fault: swing-axle rear suspension
How many built: 1,695,765 between 1960 and 1969
Starting price: $1,984 for Club Coupes
“Compact” cars emerged as a category on the bumpers of Volkswagen’s Beetle and other successful imports. Small, lightweight and modestly powered, a compact served basic transportation needs—and maybe a little bit of counter-cultural disdain for prestige. A flood of them came from Detroit in 1960, and the driving public gobbled them up.
Whereas Ford’s Falcon and Plymouth’s Valiant were conventional American cars with front engines and rear-wheel drive, Chevrolet’s sporty looking Corvair was anything but conventional, the only mass-produced American passenger car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled six-cylinder engine. Its distinctive styling, with its stubby nose insolently free of any semblance of the unnecessary radiator grille and extended tail around the pancake engine, left no doubt it was “different.” It was Motor Trend magazine’s “Car of the Year” in 1960.
But Corvair had one fatal flaw: a swing-axle independent rear suspension. Drivers of cars like the Porsche 356 understood how to handle it, and only carefully approached its limits in high-speed cornering, but the average American driver had less experience with the “tail-happy” character of the rear engine and swing axle, which sometimes led to spinouts.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader featured the Corvair in his pejoratively named book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” In 1965 Chevrolet changed to wishbone rear suspension that eliminated the problem in a seductively redesigned Corvair, but it was too late. Even with the attraction of a turbocharged 180hp version of its 164-cubic-inch engine. Corvair passed away after 1969, a daring concept tripped up by negative publicity and the burgeoning auto-safety movement.
PONTIAC LE MANS GTO
The prototype for ‘muscle cars’ with big engines in mid-sized chassis
How many built: 514,793 between 1964 and 1974
Starting price: $2,963 for the GTO-equipped 2-door hardtop
Pontiac Division president E.H. “Pete” Estes and his chief engineer John DeLorean wanted Pontiac to challenge Chevrolet as GM’s most successful division. Choosing performance as their weapon, they proceeded to introduce terms like “wide track” and “Tri-Power” into automotive parlance.
DeLorean had developed a powerful 389-cubic-inch V-8 that would drop right into Pontiac’s existing Tempest model after its 1964 redesign, but the suits at GM Headquarters on the 14th floor of the GM building in downtown Detroit had put out an edict that big engines could not be used in new models of mid-sized cars. So Estes and DeLorean found a simple workaround to the new-model rule: Make the 335-horsepower engines a mid-year option in the Le Mans. It paid off with one of GM’s most successful offerings ever, blossoming into its own model in 1966 when the management realized how much it appealed to buyers. With sales success, all restrictions were off.
The GTO helped propel Estes to the presidency of General Motors and DeLorean to be head of Chevrolet. It also ignited muscle car madness.
An ingenious approach to a subcompact car
How many built: 1,966,660 between 1971 and 1977
Starting price: $2,090 for the 2-door sedan to $2,328 for the Kammback station wagon
In 1971 GM looked to have a hit when it introduced the handsome, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive, sub-compact Vega. Its new engine, with a groundbreaking die-cast cylinder block, contributed to the Vega’s light weight. Its single-overhead-camshaft cast-iron cylinder head aided performance. Individual bucket seats and a floor-shift 3-speed manual transmission came standard, giving Vega a sports car flair. It was chosen by Motor Trend magazine as its Car of the Year.
Unfortunately for Chevrolet, it also rusted quickly and the engine had vibration and cooling issues. A major redesign after a few years couldn’t overcome the negative impression that had been made and the Vega was discontinued after 1977 with just over 2 million built.
Car and Driver chided Motor Trend by including the Vega on its list of “The 10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History.” The editors commented: “It was so unreliable that it seemed the only time anyone saw a Vega on the road not puking out oil smoke was when it was being towed.”
Economical, hugely successful in the marketplace—but with a fatal flaw
How many built: 3,150,943 between 1971 AND 1980
Starting price: $1,919 to $2,062
In 1971, Time magazine named Richard M. Nixon its person of the year. The movie “Love Story” was released. And Ford introduced a spiffy new small car called the Pinto. Despite promising starts, none of these would end well.
The Pinto, a project of marketing wizard Lee Iacocca, was Ford’s entry into the sub-compact market that year, a homegrown answer to the slowly widening stream of small cars being imported from Japan and Germany. It used two different cast-iron four-cylinder engines engines (one 75 horsepower, the other 100) which had been built in England and Germany and were already proven in their home markets. Bucket seats, a floor-mounted shifter for the standard four-speed manual transmission and rack-and-pinion steering sported up the driving experience. In 1972 an attractive and practical 2-door station wagon was added, and these three models would remain in the Pinto lineup until it was discontinued in 1980.
Pretty much anyone with a passing knowledge of cars, or who lived through the 1970s, knows what happened next. With more than a million Pintos on the road soon after its introduction, the car displayed a sometimes-fatal tendency to catch fire when hit in the rear. The problem was ultimately traced to the location of the fuel tank and its filler neck. Ford relocated those components for 1976 and later models. But in 1977, facing an impending recall order from the U.S. government, the company voluntarily recalled all pre-1976 Pintos to be fitted with shielding and reinforcements.
It proved to be a devastating and expensive blow to Ford and its prestige—particularly when, in 1980, the State of Indiana charged Ford Motor Company with reckless homicide in a rear-ended Pinto fire. Although the company was acquitted, the charge and trial were devastating to Ford’s broader reputation.
Brawn meets beauty in the ultimate European-American hybrid
How many built: 62 with 260 engine, 453 with 289 engine (street cars only) in 1962
Starting price: $6,300
The blistering-fast brainchild of American racing driver and entrepreneur Carroll Shelby, the Shelby Cobra made incarnate the belief that you can never have too many horses under the hood. It was powered by an American V-8 and was final-assembled in California, but the chassis, body and interior were built by AC Cars in Thames Ditton, UK.
Theirs was a nifty marriage: Shelby was looking for an American engine-European chassis project. And AC was looking for a new engine for its light, beautiful AC Ace roadster. Shelby approached Chevy for engines. Chevy said something like, “For a Corvette competitor? We think not.” Ford thought differently.
Introduced in 1962, the Shelby Cobra created a sensation among the automotive media—and wreaked havoc among its racing competitors. In 1965 Cobras won the GT class in nine of 12 FIA World Championship races, taking the GT Championship. It would be a first for an American manufacturer.
Shelby’s original Cobra spawned a separate industry to race, maintain, restore, show them and track their histories. Yet another industry creates replicas—some good, some bad and a few downright ugly. The Shelby Cobra, whether in its original leaf-spring 260/289 configuration or its later coil-spring 427/428 evolution, has proven to be an American legend that still delivers thrills to owners and onlookers alike.
The final fling of a Detroit legend, John Z. DeLorean
How many built: 8,742 produced in 1981 and 1982
Starting price: $26,175
Nickname: Flux Capacitor
This isn’t really a story about a car. It’s about a car guy, John Z. DeLorean, whose flamboyant lifestyle grated with suit-and-tie-wearing Detroit managers, but who produced results wherever he worked. It was DeLorean who ignited the Muscle Car years with the LeMans GTO while he was Pontiac’s chief engineer. At Chevrolet, he drove development of the compact Vega and the frighteningly powerful Chevelle, leading Chevrolet to its first year of 3-million-car-sales in 1972.
In between, he courted models and movie stars, splitting his week between working in Detroit and partying in Los Angeles.
DeLorean quit GM in 1973 after only six months as group vice president, and in 1975 started the DeLorean Motor Company to build what he called an “ethical sports car.” He talked the UK government into building a huge new factory in Northern Ireland, and in 1981 announced with great fanfare the DMC-12, powered by a rear-mounted 2,850cc/130hp V-6 sourced from a Peugeot/Renault/Volvo consortium.
The body was clothed in brushed stainless steel that retained fingerprints like a policeman’s blotter. Production quality, in a word, sucked. The Ulstermen weren’t familiar with assembly-line production. And coordination between DMC’s British-based engineering, Northern Irish production and parts suppliers was convoluted. The DMC-12 lasted two years.
Then John DeLorean was caught in a drug sting. Although he was acquitted of those charges— and a later fraud charge brought by DeLorean Motor creditors and investors—his high-flying automobile career had crashed and burned. For its part, the DMC-12 was immortalized in 1985 when it was featured as Marty McFly’s time machine in “Back to the Future.”
1981 PLYMOUTH/DODGE ‘K-CAR’
A simple, efficient little car that rescued an entire corporation
How many built: 100,137 Plymouth Reliants, 95,450 Dodge Aries in 1981
Starting price: $5,880 (2-door base sedan) to $7,254 (4-door station wagon)
At the beginning of the 1980s, Chrysler Corporation was moribund and bound for bankruptcy. Its premium cars were dated. Their production totals barely registered on industry sales charts: In 1980, Plymouth sold just over 14,000 front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Gran Furys.
Into this mix arrived two veteran Ford refugees, Hal Sperlich and then Lee Iacocca, both cast out of the kingdom by Henry Ford II. They seized upon the transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive K-car platform to resuscitate Chrysler Corporation, with the help of a federal government guaranteed loan.
The 30-mpg K-car may not get much respect these days, but it turned out to be the right medicine for the early 80s: Hal Sperlich was the right car guy to get it built efficiently, with reasonable quality, and Lee Iacocca was equally right to sell it. Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler ended up being saved by the K-car, and Chrysler Corporation paid off its government loan in 1983, seven years before it was due.
1984 PLYMOUTH/DODGE VOYAGER/CARAVAN MINIVAN
An entirely new class of vehicle that redefined the family car; the origin of the ‘crossover’
How many built: 209,895 in 1984
Starting price: $8,280 for both Plymouth and Dodge
Sneer if you like. Call it a testosterone killer. And just try to find one that isn’t a magnet for half-drunk juice boxes, stray soccer shin guards and Goldfish-cracker crumbs. But 30-some years ago, as station wagons became an increasingly endangered species, the minivan proved a godsend for busy, growing families.
It was an idea Hal Sperlich had long championed at Ford: a front-wheel-drive van, based on a car chassis instead of a truck one, with “one-box” design designed for families careening between the grocery store, clarinet rehearsal and hockey practice. Ford summarily rejected the idea. But after the success of the Chrysler Corporation K-cars, it was no stretch for the now respected Sperlich to renew his envisioned project with a K-car base.
The minivan debuted in late 1983 as a 1984 model. The front-engine, front-wheel-drive platform meant the Chrysler minivan had a low floor, easy entry and exit and unencumbered interior space. A sliding door on the right side meant kids and groceries could be loaded and unloaded in cramped garages and parking-lot spaces. Three-row seating accommodated up to five rear passengers. And seats could be removed to open up cargo space, accessible through a rear hatch.
Sperlich’s long-simmering idea ended up creating an entirely new class of vehicle. And despite feeble attempts from GM and Ford to adapt front-engine, rear-wheel-drive vans to the concept, it would become the dominant minivan design for a generation.
Rick Carey is an automobile historian and founder/author of Collector Car Auction Reports at rickcarey.com.