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30 Innovative American Cars That Changed Auto History

Vukasin HerbezAugust 28, 2020

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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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