Home Cars 100 Years of Automobiles: 20 Most Important Cars of the 20th Century

100 Years of Automobiles: 20 Most Important Cars of the 20th Century

Vukasin Herbez June 25, 2018

It’s hard to imagine, but cars as a mode of transportation have been around for almost 140 years. Cars came to be in the late 19th century. But the first cars were slow, funny vehicles with diminutive engines, yet big potential. Over the years, cars evolved from toys of the rich to an obligatory possession of the common man.

The automobile shaped the world. It also changed the urban landscape and the vision of transport forever. Cars brought the freedom and ability to move fast and independently, influencing modern culture and the way of living. It’s easy to understand why the automobile is one of the most important inventions in the history of the world.

However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that cars evolved into the advanced, modern machines drivers use today. To learn more about them, here is a list of the top 20 cars of the 20th century. They defined 100 years of automobiles between 1900 and 2000.

1. Jeep Willys

Off-road vehicles were born out of necessity and the legendary Jeep Willys is the best example. They conceived it just before the Second World War as a light military vehicle. The Willys could go over any terrain. It was also durable enough to withstand bullets, explosions and harsh conditions. In fact, this Jeep was one of the weapons that helped win the biggest war in history.

Jeep began production of the original Willys in 1942 as the U.S. was entering the war. Production ended in 1946 after they built more than 600,000, exporting them to all parts of the world. Also called the Willys MB or Ford GPW, it was a simple machine, yet incredibly tough and dependable. It came with a diminutive 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 60 HP. It also used a simple four-wheel drive layout, which was an innovative concept for the 1940s.

Despite being a military vehicle, Jeep proved its worth after the war as a practical machine. Owners could equip them to do numerous things, from towing to plowing. They could even turn it into agricultural equipment. The unique concept of a rugged, compact and extremely capable off-road machine evolved with the Jeep brand. They are currently the biggest and most legendary producer of off-road vehicles and SUVs.

2. Austin Mini

American car enthusiasts know the Mini for its 21st-century modern iteration when BMW bought Rover in the ’90s. But the interesting story of the Mini started in 1959. Most automotive historians believe the original Mini introduced in 1959 and sold until 2000 is the most important British car. It is also one of the most important cars of the 20th century.

Although the British car industry is full of expensive, limited production models, the Mini proved to be the most influential, timeless car. The Mini is a technological marvel, as well as an immensely capable little car. It motorized Great Britain and influenced every car maker since.

When they first introduced it in the late ’50s, the Mini featured the unusual concept of a transversely mounted engine with front-wheel drive. This set up was something no one else had in those days. Fast forward 60 years and all front-wheel-drive compact cars in the world have the same layout as the Mini. The Mini was the champion of usability because it looked tiny from the outside, yet it could sit five people on the inside.

Even though it produced just 34 HP from the factory, the Mini won some of the world’s most prestigious races like the Rally Monte Carlo. The small weight, front-wheel drive agility and precise handling all contributed to its performance.

3. Ford Model T

There are not enough words to describe the importance of the Ford Model T in automotive history and car culture. The Model T singlehandedly created the car world in 1908. It was the first mass-produced automobile with Ford making over 15 million until 1927. It also created the foundation for the modern car industry with assembly plants in foreign countries.

Also, the Ford Model T was the first car they produced in numerous versions. In fact, Ford designed it so people could easily transform it into a truck, agricultural machine or military vehicle. It launched the Ford Motor Company, which became the biggest car manufacturer in the world at one point.

The Model T also spawned numerous models that copied the concept. When they presented the Model T in 1908, the world was still using horse-drawn carriages. However, by the time they discontinued it in 1927, the automobile age had successfully started.

4. Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Chevrolet introduced the second generation of the Corvette in 1963, 10 years after the original Corvette. The Corvette was an established sports car contender and a halo car for GM. So they put lots of effort and money into the research and development of the second generation.

With a new platform, engine and body, as well as independent rear suspension, the 1963 Corvette was one of the best-looking cars of the ’60s. The Stingray marked the introduction of the Corvette as a world-class sports car. It also put American performance vehicles on the map, establishing the legend of Chevrolet sports cars.

The Corvette Stingray got its name from GM’s 1961 Stingray concept and its resemblance to a stingray shark. With closed headlights, a split rear window bulged fenders and a round cabin, the Stingray was a fascinating example of the famed Googie design language.

5. Porsche 911

The Porsche 911 is one of the most interesting models in car history, as well as a success story for over 50 years. The story of the 911 is the constant effort, development and painstaking work to perfect a concept that struggled at the beginning. The key word in the 911 universe is “development,” since they developed the Porsche 911 using the Porsche 356 model.

The 356 was basically a sportier version of the modest Volkswagen Beetle. So, right from the start, the 911 was a derivative of other cars and a small step in the evolution of the rear-engine automobile concept. Soon, Porsche’s engineers realized the rear engine had problems with weight balance, handling and driving dynamics. The early models were scary because drivers never knew when the rear end would break loose.

Porsche invested an unbelievable amount of time and effort in perfecting this model. Today, over 50 years later, the 911 is the best overall sports car in the world. They sold over one million of them. It was also a benchmark model in terms of performance and handling.

6. Tucker Torpedo

The greatest “what if” story in automotive history is the saga of Preston Tucker and his brainchild, the Torpedo. There are numerous books and movies about this maverick entrepreneur. They describe his vision of an advanced family sedan and his quest for improvement. They also talk about the conspiracy against him and his company.

Preston Tucker established the Tucker car company in the late ’40s. Soon, they presented a fully functioning prototype that made the rest of the cars from Detroit look terribly outdated. The Tucker Torpedo featured numerous innovations like safety glass and a central headlight that followed the movement of the steering wheel.

It also had a roomy interior and an engine in the back with lots of power and torque. In fact, the Tucker Torpedo was so advanced, that the Big Three – Chrysler, Ford, and GM – were afraid it would cripple their market share. So, while Tucker prepared for full-scale production, the Big Three set him up with a lawsuit to stop production and sink the company.

Unfortunately, they managed to do just that, so Preston only built between 48 and 51 of his fantastic Tucker Torpedoes. Today, almost all new cars feature some of the innovations that Tucker premiered in the late ’40s. Although the Tucker Torpedo didn’t have any effect on the market, it was one of the most advanced cars in the world. It was also a true witness to the dark side of the car industry and big business.

7. Citroen DS

Imagine going back to 1955 to visit the Paris Auto Show. There were many cars on display, but most of them were warmed-up pre-war designs with common engines and drivetrain choices. But then there was the Citroen booth with the new DS. It was a car with a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension and front-wheel drive. It also had a futuristic interior, an aerodynamic design, an aluminum hood and a plastic roof.

At the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the Citroen DS wasn’t just a car, but a vision of the future that landed in France. This was exactly what Citroen intended. They designed the DS family sedan to be the most innovative car in the world. Customers approved of the futuristic model. So, by the end of the first day of the car show, they had over 18,000 orders for the new model. They also sold the DS in America where car fans considered it a technical marvel.

It had modest success on the market. Despite all the advantages of its basic design, the Citroen had underpowered four-cylinder engines. It also came with complicated mechanics, so U.S. customers were reserved. However, in all other parts of the world, the DS got a positive reception. It sold over 1.5 million examples before production stopped in 1975.

8. Volkswagen Beetle

Despite its dubious beginnings as propaganda for the German Nazi party, the Volkswagen Beetle became the car of the hippy movement. It was also the bestselling car in the world and the symbol of Germany’s rebuilding efforts. In just a few decades, this little economy car went from having Swastikas on the doors to transporting millions of peace-loving hippies to rock festivals.

Officially, they started production of the VW Beetle in 1938. It ended in 2003 during which time, they built more than 22 million cars in 14 countries around the globe. The Beetle was the first global car in terms of popularity, affordability and presence. The VW Beetle improved the Ford Model T concept. It also was the car for drivers who could only dream of owning a vehicle, especially in third-world countries like Africa and South America.

With its unique technical layout, flat-four engine and rear-wheel drive, the Beetle was a characteristic sight on the roads. The impeccable quality and durability made it one of the toughest, longest-lasting vehicles Volkswagen ever produced.

9. Jaguar E Type

The Jaguar E Type was the first massively popular sports car, even before the Porsche 911. It is a design and engineering icon that has graced the roads since 1961. And it still looks as attractive as ever. It is a sharp handling, straight six roaring, two-seater coupe or roadster with a long nose and curved rear end. Simply, it is the E-Type.

Jaguar introduced the car in 1961 and the E-Type was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Jaguar has a long-lasting tradition of building fine sports cars, so the E-Type was years ahead of its time. They gave it a superb design, four-wheel disk brakes, an independent rear suspension and a powerful straight six engine.

Jaguar got their inspiration from the Le Mans-winning C and D Type racers, so they made the E Type as fast as any Ferrari or Maserati at the time. But the best thing was the price, because the E Type had the looks, power and performance of a high-priced Italian exotics. Yet it cost just a fraction of the price.

It stayed in production for 15 years until 1976. They sold over 74,000 copies, most of them in America. Today, Jaguar has the F-Type sports coupe, which is a modern-day interpretation of the classic E-Type design form. Still, it’s a modern car that captures the essence of this legendary model.

10. Ford Mustang

The love affair between car enthusiasts and the Ford Mustang has lasted for over 50 years. Ever since they unveiled the first Mustang in April 1964, people across the world can’t get enough of Detroit’s favorite pony car. Over the years, Ford has produced over nine million cars. This makes it one of the most successful nameplates in Ford’s history, as well as in the whole car industry.

So, what is the secret of the Mustang’s appeal? It is a mix of performance with the V8 engine rumble. They added a touch of luxury and good looks in an affordable package with a long list of options. The car’s image and the legend was an integral part of the Mustang’s appeal since day one.

The first Mustang was so successful, it started a new class of cars they call “pony cars.” It also entered the history books as one of the best first-year sales successes of all time. Over the years, the Mustang became an automotive symbol of America and one of the most respected products worldwide.

11. Datsun 240Z

The Datsun 240Z was the first highly successful Japanese sports car on the American market. It is also a legend that’s still highly desirable, even today. The 240Z was a proper sports model with a bigger engine and better construction. It also brought more power and performance than anything coming from Japan in those days.

The critics said it was a copy of several European designs, but nevertheless, the 240Z won the buyers, creating its own segment. Datsun introduced the 240Z to America in 1970, and it was a perfect car for the times. The muscle car craze was winding down because safety regulations were killing domestic performance cars.

But people were looking for alternatives to provide driving excitement with optimal handling at affordable prices. The European models were too expensive, so Datsun 240Z was the right car for the moment. The early models had 150 HP from 2.4-liter six-cylinder, which was more than enough for a lively performance.

Over the years, Datsun improved the original model with bigger 2.6 and 2.8-liter engines and several restyles. The demand was always high, so when they discontinued this first series of Z cars in 1978, Datsun made over 300,000 examples. This makes it one of the most successful sports cars in history.

12. BMW 02 Series “Neue Klasse”

In the early ’60s, it looked like the end of the road for BMW. Their creditors and shareholders wanted them to close the factory and sell their assets because buyers didn’t find their products interesting. But, the famous German industrialist, Herbert Quandt, knew there was plenty of potential in BMW. So, in the early ’60s, he bought the company and paid off its debts.

Quandt also invested in a new lineup he called the Neue Klasse or New Class. He introduced the Neue Klasse in 1962 as a performance-oriented, affordable and cleverly designed sedan that put BMW back on their feet. The most popular of all was the E10 or what people called the 02 Series. They presented the 02 Series in 1966 and this nimble two-door sedan offered unmatched handling.

It also provided a lively performance at an affordable price, making it a hit in Europe and the U.S. The Neue Klasse started its life as a 1.6L-powered car, but with a two-liter engine, it became the quintessential enthusiast’s car. BMW used it as the basis for the upcoming 3 Series, the most popular BMW model to this day.

The sales of the 02 Series enabled BMW to expand its lineup to more exclusive E3 and E9 sedans and coupes. It also rebranded the company thanks to numerous wins in rallies and circuit races throughout Europe as well as in the famous American Trans Am championship.

This little car marked the rebirth of BMW as a brand. It also served as the definition of compact and sports-oriented driver’s sedan. It was the first modern BMW featuring powerful engines, precision steering and engaging handling, appealing to driving enthusiasts all over the world.

13. Land Rover Defender

Car enthusiasts tend to write off British cars as quirky, rust-prone and problematic, and some of them are like that. But there are also several examples where British cars are durable, dependable and legendary in their ruggedness. One of those machines is the epic Land Rover Defender. Introduced in 1948, Land Rover was a simple but effective off-road vehicle which was, along with Jeep Willys, the pioneer of the segment.

They built out of the need for a capable vehicle that the military could use, as well as for civilian purposes. Soon Land Rover started exporting Defenders all over the world, so millions of buyers found out how good it was. It had tough chassis, permanent and capable all-wheel drive, decent power and all-alloy body, making it light and extremely good on rough terrain.

The production of the Defender stopped in 2016 after 68 years. Over time, this model changed the design and the names, but it never changed the original concept and character. Amazingly, more than 70 percent of all Land Rovers are still on the road all over the planet. This fact says a lot about the quality of British cars.

14. Ford F-Series Trucks

Pickup trucks are the backbone of the global economy. This is especially true for small and medium-sized businesses who would be lost without a practical, usable way of transport. And it has been this way for almost 100 years. The pickups are the only car class that has endured one century with little departure from the original concept.

Although pickup trucks have grown in size and power and can carry and tow more than ever, the basic concept, technical layout and design are the same. Among the dozens of models they produce in America, there is one nameplate that has been a symbol of quality, durability, consistency and tradition for over 80 years.

And that nameplate is the Ford F-Series truck. Ford produced it in 13 generations, over 40 million vehicles and countless different variants. So the F-Series is the definitive U.S. pickup truck. Over the years it has evolved from a rugged workhorse into a lifestyle model.

There is even a performance vehicle in the Lightning and Raptor versions. However, it is still the best-selling vehicle of all time and a true piece of Americana on four wheels.

15. Toyota Corolla

Despite the fact that Corolla was always an affordable economy car, it played a pivotal role in the rise of the Japanese car industry. Eventually, it became the bestselling car of all time. Toyota introduced the Corolla in 1966, selling more than 40 million of them.

Toyota thoroughly redesigned the Corolla through 12 generations, producing various versions for different markets. But the essence of the Corolla has always stayed the same. It is a dependable, affordable and quality economy car for everybody.

16. VW Golf/Rabbit

Until the mid-70s, Volkswagen was known only for Beetles and passenger vans. Nobody expected the company was capable of turning its image and lineup in just a few years. But with the Golf, that’s exactly what happened.

The Golf was a modern and advanced vehicle as well as the perfect economy car for the mid-70s global oil crisis. With its hatchback styling, high quality and interesting features, it made people forget about the Beetle. In fact, the Golf introduced Volkswagen as one of the giants of the industry. Today, the VW Golf is a symbol of its class.

17. 1959 Cadillac Eldorado

Nothing describes American 1950s styling like the ’59 Eldorado. With the biggest fins in history, 345 HP, two tons and the driving dynamics of a small boat, this is automotive excess and opulence at its finest.

Although they produced the Eldorado in limited numbers and featured this style for just one year, it was enough to earn a place on this list. This car is a symbol of the American car industry and an unmistakable cultural icon.

18. Jeep Wagoneer

The Jeep Wagoneer was the first true SUV, so it had a tremendous influence on the global industry. The fact that Jeep produced it from 1963 all the way to 1991 with just a few tweaks is true proof of its qualities. At first, the Wagoneer was available as a two-door or four-door SUV, or a two-door panel truck.

As the model progressed, it became available with more luxury features, including wooden side panels. With air conditioning, high-quality audio, comfortable power seats, lots of chrome and optional woodwork, the Wagoneer was a well-equipped car. This was the first proper SUV and the daddy of all modern SUVs.

19. Honda Civic

Until 1972, Honda was primarily a motorcycle company with just a few obscure and not so popular cars. Honda cars were diminutive, and they sold them mostly on the domestic market. With that background, nobody expected Honda would become one of the biggest car manufacturers.

However, the introduction of the Civic changed everything since Honda presented an affordable but high-quality product that appealed to millions all over the globe. In just a few years, cars became Honda’s main product. And the rest is automotive history.

20. 1955 Chevrolet

The 1955 to 1957 Chevrolet lineup would be just another classic car if it wasn’t for one important feature. And that is the availability of the legendary Chevrolet Small Block V8 engine. In fact, it brought power to the masses and gave those ’55 to ’57 Chevrolets some serious performance to go with their everlasting style and chrome fins.

The small block Chevrolet V8 was first available in 1955. And it marked the birth of the bestselling car engine of all time. Soon, it became the ultimate hot rod powerplant. They have produced over 80 million V8s so far. This makes the 1955 Chevy one of the most important cars of the 20th century.

These are 100 years of automobiles and the 20 most important cars of the 20th century. Which one was your favorite? All of them made the automotive history books for their innovative styles, engines and performances.

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