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30 Innovative American Cars That Changed Auto History

Vukasin HerbezAugust 28, 2020

For most of the 20th century, the U.S. car industry was at the forefront of innovation and design. American cars introduced many advanced concepts and patents that are standards to this day. However, in the thousands of models offered in that period, some were much more influential than others.

We looked back at 30 of the most forward-thinking U.S. cars ever made. You’re probably familiar with most of them. However, not all were sales successes. Some were and ended up as truly classic muscle cars. Most people consider some of these cars failures, even though they are known as influential and trailblazing machines that helped grow the industry.

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30. Ford Model T

There aren’t enough words to describe the importance of the Ford Model T in automotive history and in car culture overall. This classic singlehandedly created the car world in 1908. The Model T was the first truly mass-produced automobile, with Ford building over 15 million until 1927. This car motorized the world and created a foundation for the modern car industry with assembly plants in many foreign countries.

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Also, the Ford Model T was the first car produced in numerous versions. In fact, Ford designed it so owners could easily transform it into a truck, agricultural machine, or even a military vehicle. The Model T helped the Ford Motor Company become the biggest car manufacturer in the world at one point. But the Model T wasn’t so revolutionary in terms of design or technology. It wasn’t an advanced car but more of a utilitarian machine. When Ford debuted the Model T back in 1908, the world was still using horse-drawn carriages. However, by the time they discontinued it in 1927, the automobile age had begun.

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29. 1953 Chevrolet Corvette

The introduction of the Corvette was big automotive news for 1953 since nobody expected Chevrolet to build such an exotic car. All of a sudden, there was a new roadster with incredible features. Despite that fact, the first Corvette was a well-designed, well-executed model. The most interesting thing about the new Corvette was the fiberglass body. Back in the early ‘50s, plastic was still the material of the future. The Corvette was the first car with a fully plastic body, making Chevrolet one of the pioneers of fiberglass construction.

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This incredible innovation gave the Corvette its lightweight construction. And from that day, they’ve made the ‘Vette body out of fiberglass. With the price of $3,490, the 1953 Corvette was pricey, yet it was more affordable than a Jaguar XK120 or a Ferrari 166. However, despite the interest from the public the first year, they only made 300 Corvettes. However, the 1953 Corvette marked the start of American sports car production. Better yet, it was one of the most successful U.S. nameplates ever produced.

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28. Cord 810 and 812

Errett Lobban Cord was a successful car salesman who had a dream of building cars under his own name. So, in 1929, he established his company and introduced the first model named the L-29. The philosophy behind Cord cars was simple: offer advanced technology, powerful engines, and gorgeous designs, which is exactly what he did. The L-29 had one especially interesting feature: front wheel drive.

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In those days, a FWD layout was unheard of, and Cord was the only manufacturer in the world with this drivetrain. The most famous Cord was definitely the 810/812. It featured Art Deco styling, front-wheel drive, and powerful V8 engines. At that time, this was the most advanced American production car with V8 power, front-wheel drive, an independent front suspension, and hidden headlights. The car featured many industry firsts and established itself as one of the most revolutionary American cars of all-time. Unfortunately, the market was not ready for such an advanced automobile so sales were disappointing. Cord closed their doors in the late 1930s.

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27. 1932 Ford

Even though the ‘32 Ford was just a regular, mass-produced, everyday car, it changed automotive history forever. It became one of the most influential American machines due to a rather simple engine option: the Flathead V8, one of the best engines of the 20th century. It was Ford’s simple-but-effective 3.6-liter V8 engine producing just 65 HP at the beginning of the production.

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Even though other carmakers offered V8 engines in their models, Ford’s design proved to be the best. Soon it became the definitive engine for anybody looking for power in an affordable package. Hot rodders learned the Flathead V8 had serious tuning potential, so all ‘32 Fords became the favorite base for all kinds of modifications. The ‘32 Ford with the infamous Flathead V8 engine was one of the most revolutionary American cars since it introduced V8 power to a larger market. In fact, it established the V8 engine as one of the most recognizable features of the U.S. car industry.

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26. Tucker Torpedo

The Tucker car company began in the late 1940s. Soon, they presented a fully functioning prototype that made the rest of the cars from Detroit look outdated. The Tucker Torpedo featured numerous innovations including safety glass and a central headlight that followed the movement of the steering wheel. Also, it had a roomy interior and the engine was in the back, providing lots of power and torque.

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Basically, 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 prepared a lawsuit to stop production and sink the company. Unfortunately, they succeeded, so Preston only built between 48 and 51 Torpedos. Today, almost all new cars feature some of the innovations that Tucker premiered in the late ’40s. And although Tucker didn’t have an effect on the market, it was one of the most American advanced cars in the world as well as an example of the dark side of the car business.

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25. AMC Eagle

It’s interesting to see how some manufacturers were so ahead of their time, their products have received recognition long after they were gone from the market. And one of those manufacturers is the American Motors Company (AMC). Always flirting with bankruptcy, AMC was forced to present new concepts to stay profitable. One of those experiments was the Eagle, a passenger car lineup with Jeep-derived all-wheel drive and offroad capabilities. Best of all, it came in the form of a regular sedan, wagon, and even a coupe or convertible, all with AWD standard.

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Conceived in the late ‘70s, the Eagle was AMC’s answer to the rising popularity of AWD vehicles and SUVs. It had the comfort and luxury of a sedan yet with compact dimensions and relatively low weight. Also, it had extremely good off-road characteristics. The Eagle was one of the first, if not the first, crossover models in the world. Only today can most people see how important and influential this car really was. The Eagle was a relatively popular car, especially in areas with harsh climates and long winters. Unfortunately, AMC was losing money elsewhere, so they were forced out of business in 1987.

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24. Jeep Wagoneer

The current SUVs are bloated sedans that offer little to no off-road performance. On the other hand, the Jeep Wagoneer is quite luxurious, includes an enormous amount of space, and offers respectable offroad skills. And all that makes the Wagoneer the ultimate vintage luxury offroad vehicle. The fact that they produced it from 1963 all the way to 1991 with just a few tweaks is proof of its quality. Jeep never meant this vehicle to be a car for the streets, but rather for navigating through ranches, fields, and mountain trails.

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The Wagoneer got its power from numerous inline-six and V8 engines. Also, it had both rear-wheel and all-wheel drive. The most coveted models came from the 1987 to 1991 Chrysler era when the car went through a series of upgrades. With air conditioning, high-quality audio, comfortable power seats, chrome, and optional woodwork, the Wagoneer is a well-equipped car. Many agree the Wagoneer was the first proper SUV and the daddy of all modern SUVs.

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23. Ford Mustang

The love affair between car enthusiasts and the Mustang has lasted over 50 years. Ever since they unveiled the first Mustang in April 1964, people haven’t been able to get enough of Detroit’s most famous pony car. Over the years, Ford has produced over nine million Mustangs, making it one of the most successful nameplates in the car industry. The Mustang is a mix of great performance with a V8 engine rumble, a touch of luxury, and good looks. Ford packed it in an affordable package with a long list of options.

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The Mustang wasn’t revolutionary in the technical sense since it was just an ordinary Ford Falcon with a fancy body. But they designed and presented its package so perfectly, it caused a sensation. The first Mustang was so successful it started a new class of American cars they still call pony cars. Also, it entered the history books as one of the best first-year car sales of all times. Over the years, the Mustang has become the automotive symbol of America. But most of all, it is one of the finest, most respected products worldwide.

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22. Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan

In the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, the Chrysler Corporation was practically done. Poor sales and a lack of new models pushed them to the point of no return. So when famous ex-Ford executive Lee Iacocca came to Chrysler in the late ‘70s, everyone thought there wasn’t anything he could do to save the fallen giant. However, Iacocca proved them wrong. In just a few short years, he helped Chrysler return to the top position in the industry. The main weapon was a new line of minivan models. Today, minivans are a common sight among American cars, but in the early ‘80s, the concept was nonexistent. Iacocca insisted that Chrysler should invest in production.

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They would come with as much space and comfort inside but have an overall compact dimension. The first such model was the Chrysler Town & Country, which proved to be the right car for the times. Basically, it was the world’s first mass-produced minivan. This was the model that established the minivan class, becoming the first Chrysler sales hit in decades. It was a perfect car for suburban America, replacing big, thirsty station wagons and preceding the SUV craze of today.

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21. Oldsmobile Jetfire

Unfortunately, the Oldsmobile Jetfire is important among American cars in auto history but never got the respect it deserved. This was the first turbocharged passenger car along with the Chevrolet Corvair Monza. However, the Oldsmobile system was more complex and powerful than the Chevrolet. Back in the early ‘60s, Oldsmobile was an innovative company. In those days, each GM division was in competition with the others. So Oldsmobile chose turbocharging as the new technology to perfect. By present standards, the Jetfire V8 was state-of-the-art technology so initially, the market was interested. The new V8 delivered 215 HP, making it one of the best performance cars of the day.

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It boasted a 0 to 60 mph time of around eight seconds, almost as fast as the Corvette. Although people praised the power delivery of the new Jetfire, most owners forgot to fill up the Turbo Rocket Fuel tank, which caused a loss of power and eventually engine failure. Soon, the Jetfire had a bad reputation despite praises from automotive magazines. After just two years and around 10,000 units, Oldsmobile killed the car as well as its focus on turbocharging technology.

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20. AMC Gremlin

AMC introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970, and it looked like an April fool’s joke. The competitors laughed at its compact dimensions, funny rear end, and diminutive engines. But soon, AMC was the one smiling all the way to the bank. The Gremlin proved to be a sales success and the first American subcompact car.

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When they presented the car, it received mixed reviews but soon, it became quite popular, especially with younger audiences. In fact, in the decade of platform shoes, The Eagles, and shag carpets, the Gremlin became one of the symbols of the generation. But most of all, it was an influential model that inspired all other American cars that soon followed.

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19. Pontiac GTO

The Pontiac GTO was the first proper muscle car, debuting in 1964 as an option on the Tempest model. Even though there were a lot of early muscle machines, most people consider the 1964 GTO to the first true muscle car. And that’s because they marketed as such, selling it in big numbers. Also, they featured all the right ingredients that later became mandatory for all American cars like this.

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But to be perfectly honest, the GTO didn’t bring anything special in terms of design or technology. Basically, it was a Tempest in a two-door form with a 389 V8 engine and up to 360 HP. This combination of power with a cool-looking body and a cool-sounding name was enough to attract the attention of performance-loving young buyers. The GTO had the hottest premiere of the 1964 model year. Soon, all manufacturers followed Pontiac’s formula. Today, you can safely say the GTO is one of the most influential and revolutionary American cars of all-time.

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18. Ford Taurus

Back in the late ’80s, Ford caused a revolution with the introduction of the Taurus. This was one of the first truly modern American cars that ditched the heavy ladder-type chassis and a big engine. They went in a different direction with a sleek and aerodynamic body, new technology, and front-wheel drive.

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Ford sold millions of them over the years. They even created a performance legend with the highly capable Taurus SHO, which is still a great all-around performance car.

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17. Chrysler Airflow

In 1934, the then-young Chrysler Corporation introduced a revolutionary new model called the Airflow. It was one of the most advanced cars of its time with numerous innovative features. They included unibody construction, aerodynamic styling, advanced safety features, and a luxurious interior.

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For the mid-30s, the Airflow was the car of the future, and Chrysler was happy to advertise it as such.

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16. Pontiac Fiero

The story of the Fiero is one of the greatest “what if?” tales of American cars. In fact, this compact sports car caused a big sensation when Pontiac presented it in the early ‘80s. Everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac, yet they got a small sports car that was like something the Italians would build.

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That was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact rear-wheel-drive car with the engine positioned in the center of the car. On top of that, they paired it up with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox. By the standards of the day, this was the most advanced American production model.

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15. Ford Thunderbird

In 1955, Ford unveiled the Thunderbird. However, even though Ford tried to present it as a sports car, it was clear the Thunderbird was not one. The car had two seats and sporty looks, but it rode on a standard platform with a comfortable suspension.

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Also, Ford filled the interior with creature comforts. This was the first personal luxury car for Ford with others to follow soon. However, the market responded well so soon the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette by a big margin. Best of all, the Ford Thunderbird created the personal luxury segment, and that influenced all other car manufacturers.

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14. Jeep Willys

Offroad vehicles were born out of necessity and the Jeep Willys is the greatest example of that. Jeep conceived it just before World War II as a light military vehicle capable of going over any terrain. Also, it was durable enough to withstand bullets, explosions, and harsh conditions. In fact, the Jeep Willys turned out to be one of the weapons that helped win the war. Production of the original Jeep started in 1942 and ended in 1946 after they built more than 600,000. They also called it the Willys MB or Ford GPW. A simple machine, it was incredibly tough and dependable. It came with a diminutive 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that produced just 60 HP.

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Despite being a military vehicle, the Jeep Willys proved its worth after the war as a practical machine. Jeep owners could equip it to do numerous things. They included towing, plowing, and even agricultural equipment. The unique concept of a rugged, compact, and extremely capable off-road machine evolved to the Jeep brand. And they became the biggest producer of off-road vehicles and SUVs as well as a true legend of the segment.

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13. Tesla Model S

The Model S is not the first car that Tesla produced, but it is by far the most popular and influential. It’s the first fully-electric sedan that is produced in significant numbers and singlehandedly created the electric car market. Introduced in 2012, Model S production has passed the 200,000 examples mark, which makes it the most advanced and most successful electric vehicle in the world. The Model S is not only known for its pioneering construction but also for its unusual features, many industry firsts, and unbelievable performance.

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A controversial vehicle when it was released, the Model S is the symbol of progress and forward-thinking. One of its most important features is its AWD system, which is totally different from gasoline-powered competitors. Tesla’s AWD consists of four electric motors that independently power each wheel and are controlled by a highly-advanced system for perfect traction and road holding.

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12. Pontiac Tempest

In the early ’60s, all major US carmakers introduced compact models. Pontiac presented the Tempest. In most cases, these compact models were only smaller versions of bigger cars, sharing design cues and mechanicals, but Pontiac went a different route and presented one of the most advanced and interesting American cars of the era. The Tempest didn’t have a conventional drive shaft but instead used a torque tube with the cable inside.

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This layout gave the Tempest almost ideal weight distribution, perfect handling, and enough room for six passengers since there wasn’t any transmission tunnel in the cabin. During its lifespan, Pontiac sold over 200,000 making this model a solid success. But in 1964, the company introduced a bigger Tempest. Despite its revolutionary mechanics and perfect driving dynamics, the first-generation Tempest was soon forgotten. Today, it’s only remembered by diehard Pontiac fans. It is rarely seen on car shows and the parts are scarce.

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11. Cadillac Seville

The 1975 Seville was shocking to Cadillac purists as the first downsized Caddy ever and an affordable luxury car. But it was an extremely smart move by the company and one of the best US sedans of the late ’70s. After the 1970-77 period marked by big land yachts and heavy cruisers, Cadillac realized that the market has turned to more nimble and precise foreign cars such as Mercedes W116 S Class. So it decided to introduce a smaller and more modern car that was every bit a Cadillac so the market would accept it as such.

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The 1975 Seville turned out to be the perfect car for the time. Sales went beyond expectations. The Seville was elegant, perfectly sized, and reasonably powerful, and it came with a long list of options and trim choices, including an interesting Slantback body style and even a Gucci-themed trim package. The Seville was based on Chevrolet’s Impala platform. It wasn’t special in terms of engineering or design. It didn’t feature any innovative systems or components. However, its value was in forward-thinking and foreseeing the changes in the luxury car class. The Seville was the first modern luxury car with a host of special versions, trim packages, and better fuel economy.

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10. 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado

Back in the day, Oldsmobile represented the cutting-edge division of GM. This is because they presented models far ahead of their time. In fact, the company displayed power and style on the global market. And one such cutting-edge car is the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. This was a big, powerful personal luxury coupe with a twist since it was front-wheel drive.

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In those days, only a few imports were front-wheel drive. And all domestic cars, regardless of the class or engine, were rear-wheel drive. However, Oldsmobile wanted to introduce something else, so they constructed an ingenious FWD system. The designers drew a fantastic-looking shape with a low roof and hidden headlights. Also, the power came from a big block 455 V8 producing 385 HP. The Toronado was a success since it provided superb driving, which left its competitors in the dust. With 385 HP on tap and great handling, those Oldsmobile Toronados were full-size muscle cars. The first out of two generations were the best. However, future Toronados were just Cadillac Eldorados with a different grille.

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9. Chevrolet Cameo

Before the 1955 to ’58 Chevrolet Cameo, pickups had a step-side design in the truck bed. It was a production method that dated to the first trucks from the early 1920s. But as one of the biggest pickup manufacturers in the U.S., Chevrolet introduced the fleetside truck bed for the 1955 model. The truck bed looked more elegant because it was flush with the lines of the cabin and the whole design of the truck. Second, the fleetside design allowed for the use of the maximum width of the truck bed, making the truck more capable to carry a wider load.

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The first model to feature this construction solution was the Chevrolet Cameo, but it wasn’t successful at first. The Cameo was an upscale version of a standard Chevy truck. It featured a V8 engine and updated equipment, and some earlier versions even featured a fiberglass fleetside bed instead of steel. They discontinued the Cameo as a model in 1958, but the fleetside style continues to this day.

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8. Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

If a whopping 707 HP from the Hellcat package is not enough and you want the ultimate modern muscle car and the most potent street Hemi engine ever, the Demon package is just the thing for you. Even with standard fuel, it will deliver an insane 808 HP. The rest of the Demon package is equally insane from the special transmission, suspension, and brakes, to its widebody stance and exterior details.

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The acceleration time from 0 to 60 is less than three seconds. Under full power, the Demon will accelerate with a gravitational force of 1.8, which is faster than dropping it off a cliff. The car is capable of covering a quarter-mile sprint in less than 10 seconds straight out of the box. If the reports are accurate and Chrysler is considering discontinuing the Hemi engine lineup, this is the best way to go.

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7. Chevrolet Corvette C8

The revolutionary C8 Corvette debuted in July 2019 as the 2020 model. It’s one of the most important Corvettes they ever made, and for four reasons. First, it has new architecture; a change that hasn’t happened since the early ’80s and the C4 generation. Second, Chevrolet based it on a completely new concept with a mid-engine layout.

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Third, this Corvette will have an entirely new design. Last but not least, the car will come with a much-improved engine and an upgraded performance. You can expect that this car will be a Ferrari-beating beast from GM, just as the Corvette has always been.

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6. Lincoln Navigator

When the first Navigator rolled off the assembly line in 1998, nobody expected that it would be such a successful, influential model. It wasn’t the first full-size luxury SUV, and it wasn’t the biggest, but its combination of luxury, style, power, and performance was so captivating, it influenced the industry.

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Unfortunately, Ford concentrated on the luxury aspects instead of off-road characteristics. Despite the fact that the Navigator has a capable chassis and engine, it was too heavy for off-road driving. But that is perfectly fine since the Navigator has lots of other qualities.

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5. 1992 Dodge Viper RT/10

The original Viper in the early ’90s was what happens when talented individuals with a clear goal want to make the perfect car. Bob Lutz, then president of Chrysler Corporation; chief engineer, Francois Castaing; chief designer, Tom Gale and the legendary Carroll Shelby wanted a model to celebrate their success. However, it had to connect with those muscle cars from the ’60s and early ’70s. Castaing, Lutz and Gale were fans of Shelby`s original Cobra, one of the most exciting American sports/muscle cars they ever built. But the team wanted a modern-day Cobra with more power, refinement and performance to show that the concept of a light, but immensely powerful roadster was still attractive. And thanks to their influence, the team gathered over 80 engineers and designers, officially launching Project Viper.

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In 1989, they revealed the Dodge Viper Concept at the Detroit Motor Show. The crowd went crazy over its aggressive, yet elegant lines with a V10 engine. So, Lee Iacocca, Chrysler chairman, ordered the start of production. And the team rushed into building the car for its 1992 release and for pace car duty at the Indianapolis 500 races. Under the hood was an 8.0-liter fully aluminum V10 delivering 400 HP and 465 lb-ft of torque. That was unheard of, so it secured the Viper`s place as one of the most powerful new models on the market. However, the design was like the other prototypes, but the long hood, short rear, and roll bar made the Viper visually dramatic. With a price tag of over $50,000 and 0 to 60 mph times of 4.6 seconds, the Viper beat many European exotic machines. Its performance established the Viper as one of the best-looking, fastest cars of the early ’90s. And thus, the legend of America`s deadliest snake began.

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4. Ford GT40

The story of the Ford GT40 is a saga of enormous effort and incredible support. It took a meeting involving several talented people in one place to create automotive history. After a failed attempt to buy Ferrari in the early ’60s, Ford was angry at Enzo for his childish behavior. They decided to beat him on the race track to prove who the real boss was. But at the moment, Ford didn’t have a racing program or even someone to manage it. So, the company looked for outsourcers who could make things happen. They found the base for the Ferrari-beating race car in England. It was the Lola Mk6 that they re-engineered and redesigned. They gave it a new racing 289 V8 engine, turning it into the first Ford GT40 in 1964.

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The car didn’t look promising at the beginning, but meticulous work and money transformed the GT40 into a world-conquering machine in several months. Ferrari was humiliated between 1966 and 1969 when the GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times in a row. It was an amazing success and an incredible achievement for a company that never appeared in Le Mans before the mid-60s. The GT40 became an outright legend and a symbol of an American race car by dominating the European racing scene.

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3. 2020 Ford Mach E

The most controversial Mustang introduced in recent years and maybe ever is definitely the Mustang Mach E. Some claim that this isn’t the Mustang at all, and Ford calls it “Mustang-inspired.” But it is painfully apparent that it is a Mustang but a very different one. For those who don’t know, Mustang Mach E is an all-electric, performance-oriented, four-door SUV. The Mach E is all that the regular Mustang isn’t, and that makes it so controversial. However, looking at the interest and pre-orders Ford has collected, the general market seems to be crazy about the electric Mustang-inspired SUV. This is probably the first proper Tesla Model 3 fighter there is, and that alone is impressive.

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The Mach E is fast, just like Mustang needs to be. The base version can get to 60 mph in low six seconds, and the top-of-the-line model can do the same in about 3.7 seconds, as fast as the 2020 Shelby GT500. Power is ranging from 266 hp to 459 hp, and prices start at around $40,000.

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2. Chevrolet Suburban

The Suburban is the longest-serving nameplate in car history with the first model under this name emerging in 1935. But right from the start, the Suburban defined itself as a people carrier in a body style closer to a minivan than to a regular wagon or SUV. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Suburban moved to a truck platform, benefiting from its advanced construction, tough suspension, and a long list of engines and options.

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At the same time, Chevrolet started introducing the all-wheel-drive option for its truck line, so the Suburban could come with AWD, as well. This was the moment when the Suburban became an off-road model. The all-wheel-drive option proved popular during later generations. In fact, it became an almost mandatory option for the famous, long-serving seventh generation, which they introduced in 1973 and discontinued in 1991.

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1. Jeep Cherokee XJ

Introduced in 1984, the Cherokee XJ generation was an enormous success for Jeep. It had boxy yet elegant looks, great build quality and lots of useful features. In fact, the second-generation Cherokee was the SUV of the ‘80s as well as a globally-successful model.

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Despite being a modern, comfortable vehicle, the Cherokee XJ retained all the Jeep characteristics like rugged mechanics and a dependable AWD drive train. Also, the engines were great, which helped it claim the title of one of the best SUVs of all time. In some foreign markets, they produced the Cherokee XJ until 2014. And that just shows how good of a car this Jeep was. The XJ is the next big thing since decent examples are hard to find yet people fondly remember this great vehicle.

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