Although America may not have invented the car, nevertheless the country embraced it as if it had. We’ve picked 25 cars that celebrate what the United States has proudly contributed to the world of motoring.
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1908 Ford Model T
Produced for 19 years, and with 15 million examples built, the Ford Model T still remains one of the best-selling cars of all time. It also represents one of the few cars that became cheaper as time passed, dropping from $825 in 1909 to just $260 in 1925.
What made the Model T significant, and cheap, was Henry Ford’s adoption and refinement of the modern assembly line. Efficiency savings meant the time needed to build a Model T reduced from some 12.5 hours, to just 90 minutes. Passing on the savings to customers opened up the potential for car ownership to become an affordable reality.
1932 Ford three-window coupe
Ask any hot rodder which is one of the most sought after cars to customise, and the 1932 Ford will be guaranteed to be top of the list. In particular, the clean lines of the rarer three-window coupe are the most desirable – note that the front windscreen isn’t included in the window count.
The Beach Boys song and album ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ was named after the three-window Ford, whilst it also made an appearance in the iconic street racing movie ‘American Graffiti’. Despite a short production period, the 1932 Ford models made a big contribution to car culture.
1941 Willys MB ‘Jeep’
For those who don’t care too much about cars, the word ‘Jeep’ is virtually synonymous for any kind of four-wheel drive off-road vehicle. Although the US Army had developed 4WD vehicles before, the MB was born from the urgent demand created by World War II for large numbers of lightweight utility vehicles.
Although produced by both Ford and Willys during wartime, after the conflict Willys retained rights to the Jeep name. This allowed them to produce civilian models, and create a brand that still endures today, despite several changes in ownership.
1953 Chevrolet C1 Corvette
Intended to compete against sports cars like the Nash Healey, the original Chevrolet Corvette was rushed to production just six months after being shown to the world in 1953. Although fibreglass bodies had been used previously for limited production, the C1 Corvette marked the first time the material was put into mass manufacturing.
The first Corvettes were low on power – with just 150hp from a straight-six engine – and suffered from poor build quality. Yet 65 years later the model still endures, and represents a slice of the American dream.
1955 Ford Thunderbird
Whilst it entered the market at a similar time to the Corvette, and looked similar, Ford was careful to market the Thunderbird in a different direction. In doing so, Ford created the uniquely American ‘personal luxury car’ segment. This meant an emphasis on comfort and convenience, powerful V8 engines, and high levels of standard equipment.
The Thunderbird would grow ever larger and more gauche over time, culminating in the wallowing land yachts of the 1970s. However, the original Thunderbird of 1955 at least showed the simplicity of a two-seater convertible body, with a 292-cubic inch (4.8-litre) V8 engine.
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham
Self-levelling air suspension is still today mainly the preserve of luxury cars, but this is a tradition which Cadillac started all the way back in 1957. The Eldorado Brougham featured a complex air system, intended to give a smooth and comforting ride, although it proved to be untrustworthy.
Air ride was just one standard feature on this high-end personal luxury car. Cruise control, air conditioning, electric door locks, automatically dimming headlights, and electric windows were also part of the package. This pushed the price tag to more than that of a contemporary Rolls-Royce.
1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner
Think the idea of a retracting hardtop roof was something invented by Mercedes-Benz in the late 1990s? Think again – Ford had been doing it some four decades earlier with the Fairlane 500 Skyliner, marking one of the first mass-produced car to feature a folding metal roof.
Requiring seven electric motors, six locking mechanisms, and almost 200 metres of wiring, the Skyliner was a complex piece of engineering. It also took over much of the luggage space in the trunk, and added additional weight and cost.
1960 Ford Country Squire
To understand the path to the modern crossover SUV, you need to look back at the American family station wagon of the 1950s and ‘60s. A full-size wagon like the Country Squire featured acres of – fake – woodgrain trim, lots of luggage space and seating for up to eight passengers.
The Country Squire managed to cling on to production from 1950 to 1991, and became a key piece of suburban America. Whilst the association with staid middle class life damaged the Country Squire’s image at the time, today it has developed a cult following.
1961 Lincoln Continental
Designed to save the Lincoln division money, the fourth-generation was based around a single four-door design offered in sedan, hardtop and convertible forms. It was also considerably smaller than its predecessors, even if it still managed to weigh more.
What makes the 1961 Continental significant, and undeniably cool, was the use of rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors. Intended to make access to the rear seats easier, they also gave the Continental a unique profile. Notably, a ’61 Continental was the basis for the SS-100-X Presidential State car, used by President John F. Kennedy on his fateful 1963 trip to Dallas.
1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Turbo Jetfire
The 1973 BMW 2002 Turbo is often seen as the first turbocharged production car, but General Motors took that triumph over a decade earlier. For a country obsessed with naturally aspirated V8 engines, the Jetfire version of the pretty Oldsmobile F-85 must have been something of a shock.
Producing 215hp and 301lb-ft of torque, the 215-cubic inch (3.52-litre) turbo V8 also featured water and methanol injection. Performance was on par with engines twice the size, but this was new technology and buyers were understandably cautious. Less than 4,000 Jetfires would be sold, and GM would shelve turbo petrol engines for another decade.
1964 Pontiac GTO
Defining the original American ‘muscle car’ is harder than you might think. Some argue that the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 deserves the prize, whilst others cite the 300hp Chrysler 300-C. However, the 1964 Pontiac GTO embraced both the mechanical definition of having a large V8 engine in a two-door body, but also the ideas of low price and desirability.
With a 389-cubic inch (6.4-litre) V8 producing 325hp, the GTO also came with a standard three-speed manual transmission and stiffer suspension. In common with muscle cars to follow multiple options were offered, including a Tri-Power carburettor boosting power to nearly 350hp. This would set the benchmark for other manufacturers to follow.
1966 Ford GT40 Mk2
Winning the Le Mans 24 Hours outright is a major achievement. Doing so to spite another manufacturer is even more impressive, but that’s exactly what Ford achieved with the GT40. Born from Henry Ford II’s frustration at Enzo Ferrari reneging on an agreement to sell him the Ferrari company, the GT40 would take victory at Le Mans four times.
After an initial troubled development, it was the Mk2 GT40 version with a 427-cubic inch (7.0-litre) V8 engine – and the help of Carroll Shelby – that would take Le Mans victory in 1966. Three more wins would follow, along with creating the lineage for the current Ford GT supercar.
1966 Jeep Super Wagoneer
Forget the Range Rover – this was the first premium SUV. Built by the Kaiser Jeep Corporation between 1966 and 1969, the Super version intended to bring even more luxury and comfort to the existing Wagoneer 4×4.
That meant a more powerful 327-cubic inch (5.4-litre) Vigilante V8 engine with 270hp, air conditioning, a push-button radio, tinted windows, and a power-assisted tailgate. With only around 1,500 produced, today Super Wagoneers are highly prized by Jeep collectors.
1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
NASCAR in the late 1960s was ultra competitive, with manufacturers looking to exploit loopholes in the rules to gain an advantage. This gave rise to the Aero Cars, which used limited homologation requirements to build cars optimised for high speed on the superspeedway circuits.
With a giant 23-inch tall rear wing, extended nose cone, and vents above the front wheels the Charger Daytona was the first NASCAR to break the 200mph barrier on track. Today, of the 503 homologation cars sold for road use, the versions fitted with the 426-cubic inch (7.0-litre) Hemi V8 with 425hp are the most collectible.
1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda
Size matters in America, and even more so in the muscle car wars of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Whilst the 440-cubic inch (7.2-litre) Hemi V8 offered in the Plymouth ‘Cuda might not have been the most powerful, it was one of the biggest. It’s also fair to say that 390hp and 490lb-ft of torque were still more than sufficient, too.
The 1971 ‘Cuda represented the peak of the muscle car era, with paint options like Lime Light green, Vitamin C orange, and Moulin Rouge pink epitomising the outrageousness of it all. Emissions standards would result in less power the following year, and the ‘Cuda would be gone by 1974.
1974 Buick Electra 225
Not only was the Buick Electra one of the biggest American land yachts ever created, stretching the tape measure to some 231.5-inches (5.8-metres) in length, it also contained safety features commonplace today. Much like with turbocharging, General Motors experimented with airbag technology several years before it was introduced in Europe.
The Air Cushion Restraint System was offered across Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile models in 1974, protecting both driver and passenger in the event of an impact. This was combined with lap seat belts, as GM believed the airbag system would replace the need for full three-point belts.
1980 Ford F-150
Admittedly the history of the Ford F-Series of pickup truck stretches all the way back to 1948, but the seventh-generation truck introduced in 1980 is especially significant. A year later in 1981, the F-150 would become the single best-selling vehicle in the United States, and maintain that position for every year since.
In 2016 Ford sold over 820,000 F-150s, representing a 5.2% increase from the previous year, and adding to the total of over 35 million sold since the range was first introduced. Contrast that to the 21.5 million Volkswagen Beetles sold, and that’s the reason the Ford pickup truck seems so common in the USA.
1981 DeLorean DMC-12
History has not always viewed the DeLorean DMC-12 kindly, tarnished by the bankruptcy and drug trafficking charges brought against company founder John DeLorean. That it was powered by a 2.85-litre V6 with a modest 130hp certainly did help win approval either.
Now the DMC-12 has a legendary status, thanks to featuring as the ‘time machine’ in the Back to the Future movie franchise. There is more to it than just film prop though, with stainless steel body panels and gull-wing doors making it extraordinary. John DeLorean was also ahead of the time in trying to appeal to the super-rich, with a gold-plated limited edition.
1984 Dodge Caravan
Beating the Renault Espace to production by a matter of months, the Dodge Caravan (and related Chrysler brethren) became the first MPV on sale. Ruthlessly killing off the station wagon overnight, the minivan did at least hold on to that fake woodgrain trim.
Families loved the sliding rear door, the potential for three rows of seating, and the low cost from being built on a front-wheel-drive platform. The Chrysler Corporation sold over 200,000 minivans in 1984, and was selling more than 600,000 per annum by the late 1990s. Then came the crossover SUV; making the minivan instantly uncool, just as it had done to the station wagon.
1996 Dodge Viper GTS
Being both achingly beautiful, and terrifyingly fast, would warrant the inclusion of the Dodge Viper here on merit alone. However, having one of the largest engines ever offered in a production car helps guarantee it making the cut.
With ten-cylinders displacing 8.0-litres, the Viper GTS was even more powerful than the RT/10 roadster introduced before it, making 450hp and 490lb-ft of torque. Later Vipers would have even more displacement and power, but the original GTS is just too pretty to ignore.
2002 Hummer H1
Initially offered to the public after its success in Operation Desert Storm, the Hummer really was just a military vehicle with the faintest trimmings of civility. General Motors bought the brand name in 1999, and continued to market the original H1 alongside smaller SUV variants.
With a huge turbo diesel V8 engine, wide track suspension, and the ability to ford 30 inches (56 cm) of water the H1 was able to take on anything. But only a few people needed such capability at the best of times, and the economic rationale for improving the H1 to meet new emissions regulations meant GM abandoned it in 2006.
2006 Ford Crown Victoria
Imagine any typical American cop car or taxicab, and the Ford Crown Victoria is likely to be the image that appears in your head. Using the Panther platform body-on-frame construction gave the Crown Victoria dependability, and ease of repair should it be involved in a collision.
These qualities were desired by fleet operators, and saw almost 10 million Panther platform cars produced between 1979 and 2011. Ultimately the market for big, thirsty, rear-wheel drive sedans diminished, but the Crown Vic still remains an icon of car chases and movies.
2008 Tesla Roadster
Tesla and Elon Musk might not have invented the electric car, but with the pioneering use of lithium-ion batteries EVs became both practical and desirable. The Tesla Roadster is the genesis for current Model S and Model X, along with the forthcoming Model 3.
Adding an 185kW (248hp) electric motor to a chassis derived from a Lotus Elise resulted in 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds, and a top speed of 125mph, silencing those who criticised EVs for being slow. A theoretical range of over 240 miles on a single charge was the nail in the coffin for the haters.
2013 Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang
Having been in production since 1964, picking a Mustang that exemplifies it the best is not easy. The Boss 429, the ’67 Shelby GT500, and even the newest GT350R all have considerable merit. Choosing which not to include is simpler, with the debatable second and third-generation cars best left alone.
Ford rediscovered Mustang greatness with the fifth-generation, and the 2013 Shelby GT500 marked a milestone with a top speed in excess of 200mph. It is still the fastest street Mustang, and the fastest muscle car ever built to date. Easily done with a 5.8-litre supercharged V8 engine producing 662hp and 631lb-ft of torque.
2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
World’s fastest production car 0-60mph (2.3 seconds), world’s fastest quarter-mile production car (9.65 seconds), most powerful production V8 engine (840hp), first production car with the front-passenger seat deleted… Yes, the Challenger SRT Demon has set quite a lot of world firsts.
Being little more than a road-legal dragster, the SRT Demon encapsulates the craziness of a place where a Guinness World Record for the first front-wheel lift in a production car is a thing. As incredible as it is ridiculous, the SRT Demon is testimony to the American car industry catering to the most extreme of customer needs.