Americans are inventive, sure. We came up with stainless steel, steam turbines, chocolate chip cookies. So while we didn’t invent the automobile, it’s not surprising that we made it our own.
While car ownership in Europe was restricted to the wealthy, Americans gave cars to the people, restructuring our whole society around drivable cities and interstate highways. Our history in the 20th century owes as much to cars as the history of the 19th does to canals and railroads.
We’ve put together a list of 12 of the most iconic American cars, in rough chronological order from the earliest models to the present day. Each car on this list represents a moment in time vividly enough to evoke feelings in you even if you don’t know anything about cars. Of course, these aren’t the only cars deserving of legendary status – just a few of our favorites.
1. Ford Model T
It’s impossible to start a history of American autos anywhere else. The first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908. Inside of 10 years, every other car in the United States was a Model T. Henry Ford wasn’t just responsible for turning Detroit into the Motor City, but for opening up America to Americans, allowing us to travel anywhere we wanted on our own schedules.
2. Ford Model 18
If the Model T introduced automobiles to everyday consumers, Ford’s early 1930s deuce coups introduced cars to rebels and thrill-seekers. The Model 18 was the first Ford to have the V8 engine that would later become the signature of muscle cars. Mechanics tinkered with the powerful motors to create the first American hot rods, giving youth culture a badly-needed adrenaline shot in the midst of the Great Depression. Allegedly, a souped-up Model 18 was the car of choice for bank robber John Dillinger.
3. Willys Jeep
In the 1940s, off-roading wasn’t a hobby: it was the only way for U.S. soldiers and their allies to survive the battlefields of World War II. Officially called the “U.S. Army Truck” and possibly nicknamed “Jeep” after a character from Popeye cartoons, this all-terrain vehicle was sent across the world to aid the Brits in North Africa, the Red Army in Russia, and the French Resistance. According to General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Willys Jeep was one of the three most decisive weapons wielded by the U.S. military in WWII.
4. Oldsmobile Rocket 88
In 1949, Oldsmobile arguably invented the muscle car with the Oldsmobile 88, a sedan equipped with a 135-horsepower V8 engine. While that may not sound like much now, it was enough of a rush at the time to inspire Ike Turner to record “Rocket 88,” which many consider the first rock-and-roll song of all time. Royalties from Turner’s hit single would later be invested into launching a musical career for a little-known gravel deliveryman named Elvis Presley.
5. Chevrolet Corvette
America’s first true answer to the sports cars of Europe, the Corvette was such a hit when it first debuted in 1953 that it’s been in continuous production ever since. Out of seven generations, we’d probably pick the Stingrays from the 60s as our favorites. With a sleek design and an incredible amount of power for the time, the Stingray generation proved to the world that America had come a long way since the days of Henry Ford.
6. Cadillac Eldorado
If the Corvette is America’s first iconic sports car, the Cadillac Eldorado was our first true luxury vehicle. Signature design elements like rear shark fins, chrome trim, and covered headlights built on top of exterior comfort to create this emblem of the postwar era. While it helped usher in America’s golden age of automotive excess, the Eldorado also helped it bow out, rolling out the 1976 model Cadillac’s final 50s-style luxury car.
7. Ford Mustang
Even total muscle-car neophytes can pick a Ford Mustang out of a crowd. In 1965, cars were starting to look more and more like landbound luxury yachts – but the new generation of customers was looking for something a little more geared toward performance. While early Mustangs were fairly average compact cars wrapped in space-age bodies, legendary designer Carroll Shelby refined the Mustang’s potential, jump-starting the “ponycar” revolution that would birth the Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Pontiac Trans Am.
8. Pontiac Trans Am
What’s the best way to make a car into an icon? Have it star in a Hollywood movie, of course! The Aston Martin costarred with James Bond, the Ford Mustang with Steve McQueen’s Lt. Frank Bullitt, the Volkswagen Beetle headlined as Herbie the Love Bug, and the instantly recognizable Pontiac Trans Am anchored 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit – the movie that taught a whole new generation a “total lack of respect for the law!”
9. Lincoln Continental
The Lincoln Continental first became iconic for all wrong reasons when President John F. Kennedy was riding through Dallas in one when he was shot to death. But the Continental, already one of the best luxury sedans on the market, was strong enough to overcome the stigma. The Mark III, released in 1969 with a 460-inch V8 engine, is the quintessential edition.
10. Chrysler Town & Country
Lee Iacocca, who helped bring the Ford Mustang into production, caught lightning in a bottle again after moving to Chrysler. Once again displaying an uncanny ability to predict the wants and needs of a rising generation, Iacocca saw Americans moving to the suburbs in droves, and designed a vehicle tailor-made to move whole families in luxury: the minivan.
11. Ford F-150
Unlike other cars, which change according to the tastes of the time, the pickup truck hasn’t evolved much at all. Not that it needed to. Since its invention in the 20s, the pickup has done one thing – haul loads – and done it well. And according to consumers, nobody does it better than Ford: the F-150 is the bestselling vehicle of all time in the United States. No vehicle has a better claim to being the most American in history.
12. Tesla Model S
Whatever you may think of Elon Musk’s Twitter tantrums, or his recent decision to name his child an unpronounceable string of digits, you can’t deny his success in at least one of his chosen fields. With Tesla Motors, Musk has made electric cars cool again at a time when the world badly needs them to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Model S is a car-lover’s car with towering specs that just happens to run on electricity instead of gasoline.
Featured Image Credit: matze_ott, Flickr