Even though the automobile was invented in Europe, America invented the automobile culture. While Europe considered cars as toys for rich enthusiasts, America transformed them into everyday items available to common people. America revolutionized the industry by introducing new construction methods. They created new car classes and established the automobile as the symbol of modern times.
And that is why it is safe to say the United States is the most influential country in the car industry. So, it is only natural that a nation so influential has produced dozens of iconic models over the years. Also, American car manufacturers produced numerous important and globally influential models in the last 100-plus years. And here is a list of 20 most influential and iconic American machines. These cars have stood the test of time as the most important models.
Also, they shaped the global industry and remained relevant long after they discontinued them. Here you will find mass-produced models as well as rare cars, mundane cars and even some exclusive machines. The only thing those cars have in common is that they are red-blooded American and so fantastic, we still celebrate them today.
Ford Model T
There are not enough words to describe the importance of the Ford Model T in automotive history. This was the car that singlehandedly created the car world in 1908. The Model T was the first truly mass-produced automobile with over 15 million in production until 1927. Also, it was the car that motorized the world. It also created a foundation for the modern car industry with assembly plants on other continents.
Also, the Ford Model T was the first car they produced in numerous versions. Ford made it easy to transform into a truck, agricultural machine or even into a military vehicle. It launched the Ford Motor Company as the biggest car manufacturer in the world. The Ford Model T spawned numerous models that copied the concept. However, the Model T wasn’t as revolutionary in terms of design or technology.
It wasn’t an advanced car because it was more of a utilitarian machine. But the combination of durability, affordability and usability changed the world. When they introduced the Model T in 1908, the world was still using horse-drawn carriages. But by the time Ford discontinued it in 1927, the automobile age had successfully started.
Cadillac Type 51
One of the technical symbols of the American car industry and Cadillac is the mighty V8 engine. But not many people know this brand was one of the first to introduce V8 units in mass production back in 1915. In those years, the V8 configuration was an advanced high-tech solution.
The first Cadillac with this engine was the Type 51, a true performance sedan by the standards of the early 20th century. It had a 314 CID V8 motor with 70 HP and a convincing performance for its time. The buyers loved the new Type 51. With the introduction of this engine, performance became a major part of Cadillac’s portfolio and American automotive heritage.
The ‘32 Ford was a regular, mass-produced, affordable everyday car, yet it changed car history forever. In fact, it became one of the most influential American machines due to a rather simple engine option, the Flathead V8. The 1932 Ford came with one of the best engines of the 20th century in Ford’s simple but effective 3.6-liter V8 engine. And it delivered just 65 HP at the beginning of its production.
Even though other carmakers offered V8 engines for their models, Ford’s design proved to be the toughest. Soon it became the definitive engine for anybody looking for power in an affordable package. Hot rodders across America found the Flathead V8 had serious tuning potential. So those ‘32 Fords became the favorite basis for all kinds of modifications.
The ‘32 Ford with the Flathead V8 engine is one of the most revolutionary American cars since it introduced V8 power to a large market. This car established the V8 engine as one of the most recognizable features in the U.S. car industry.
The Chrysler Corporation introduced a revolutionary new model they 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 luxurious interiors. For the mid-30s, the Airflow was the car of the future and Chrysler was happy to advertise it as such.
Although the Airflow was a controversial car, it didn’t sell as Chrysler hoped it would. Yet, this is still an immensely important automobile since it introduced forward-thinking and the latest technology in mass production. This established the American car industry as the most advanced in the world.
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 capable of going over any terrain. And it was durable enough to withstand bullets and explosions, as well as harsh conditions. The Willys Jeep turned was one of the weapons that helped win the biggest war in history.
The production of the original Jeep started in 1942 as the U.S. entered the war. It ended in 1946 after they built more than 600,000, exporting them to all parts of the world. Also known as the Willys MB or Ford GPW, it was a simple machine, yet incredibly tough and dependable. It was powered with a diminutive 2.2-liter four cylinder with 60 HP.
The Willys Jeep 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.
The unique concept of a rugged, compact and extremely capable off-road machine evolved to the Jeep brand. They became the biggest producer of off-road vehicles and SUVs as well a true legend of the segment.
Ford F-Series Pickup
Pickup trucks are the backbone of the global economy, especially for small and medium-size businesses who use it as a practical way of transport. And it has been this way for almost 100 years. Pickups are the only car class that endured over a century with little departure from the original concept. But, pickup trucks have grown in size and power.
Nowadays, they can carry and tow more than ever. But the basic concept, technical layout, and design have been the same. Among dozens of models produced in this country, there is one nameplate that has been the definitive symbol of quality, durability and tradition for over 80 years. And that is the Ford F-Series truck.
Ford produced it in 13 generations, building over 35 million trucks in countless different variants, so the F-Series is the definitive U.S. pickup. Over the years it evolved from a rugged workhorse into a lifestyle model. There is even a performance vehicle with the Lightning and Raptor versions.
However, it is still one of the best-selling U.S. vehicles of all time and a true piece of Americana on four wheels. They introduced the Ford F-Series trucks as you know them today in 1948 as F-100. And although Ford offered various trucks before and since, the F-Series is the most successful story in the history of pickup trucks in America.
The everlasting battle between Ford and Chevrolet for supremacy in medium priced cars was in the height in the mid-50s. That is when Chevrolet presented the legendary Tri-Five series. Since they produced this body style over three years from 1955 to 1957, people started calling them the “Tri-Five” and the name stuck. Those cars were modern family models featuring a long list of options, innovative elegant designs and numerous body styles.
Fans called the base models One Fifty or Two Ten. One of the top of the line models was the Bel Air. However, one of the biggest features of the iconic Tri-Five series is the availability of legendary Chevrolet Small Block V8 engine. 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.
No list of the most iconic American cars can be without the legendary 1959 Cadillac. This car represents so many great things about the brand. Those classic American cars are simply a landmark moment in design and technology. The design of the 1959 model year saw Cadillac’s most noticeable feature, which was the chrome fins that went to ridiculous heights. They were exactly 98 inches high to be precise.
Cadillac improved the mechanical layout with improved suspension components and a 6.4-liter V8 engine with up to 320 HP. The 1959 Cadillac sold 142,000 cars, which is respectable, even by today’s standards. Cadillac sold several models, including the Eldorado and Fleetwood limousine.
They even sold a naked chassis with engines for commercial use like ambulances and hearses. Thanks to its timeless design, amazing power and quality, 1959 Cadillac remains one of the best years in Cadillac history. And the 1959 Cadillac is one of the landmark American cars of all time.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
Just 10 years after the introduction of the original Corvette, Chevrolet introduced the second generation in 1963. Since the Corvette was an established sports car contender and a halo car for GM, lots of effort and money went into research and development of the second generation. They gave it a new platform, independent rear suspension and engines.
But most importantly, with its stunning new body, 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. That put American performance on the map and established the legend of Chevrolet sports car for decades to come.
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 round cabin, the Stingray was one of the most fascinating examples of the famed Googie design language.
Shelby Cobra 289
The story of the Shelby Cobra 289 is a widely known one, but it’s still interesting enough to tell it again. In 1962, Shelby heard that AC Cars in England were ending production of their Ace sports roadster because Bristol engines weren’t available anymore. In just a couple of days, he got several engineless bodies on a transport ship to his Venice Beach shop. That is where he had Ford 260 V8 engines ready to install in those new bodies.
The small but powerful American V8 in a light and nimble body proved to be a match made in heaven. Soon, Shelby installed the 289 V8 with 271 HP, which brought some serious performance to this little roadster. Shelby’s main goal was racing, and it was obvious the Cobra was a race track terror. It dominated domestic championships and beat all Corvettes, Ferraris and Jaguars.
But Shelby wanted to go to Europe to prove his concept. So, in 1963 and 1964, with immense help from Ford, Shelby campaigned Cobras all over Europe’s finest racing tracks, repeating the success. The small V8 roadster proved extremely capable and dominated the GT class. Ford’s V8 was a durable and reliable unit.
However, Shelby’s knowledge and racing know-how were crucial in setting the car right for different tracks. Also, Shelby sold factory prepared “Competition” Cobras to private teams, so numerous amateur racers enjoyed success with this fierce car.
Currently, SUVs are bloated sedans with little off-road performance that look like big off-roaders with lots of space and luxuries. On the other hand, the Jeep Wagoneer looked like a big off-roader that was quite luxurious for the era. It included an enormous amount of space and offered respectable off-road skills. All that makes the Wagoneer the ultimate vintage luxury off-road vehicle.
The fact that they produced it from 1963 all the way to 1991 with just a few tweaks is a 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 luxurious features, including wooden side panels.
The Wagoneer included a compass as standard equipment. This proved they meant this vehicle to be a luxurious land barge for navigating through ranches, fields and mountain trails. The Wagoneer was powered by numerous inline six and V8 engines. It had both rear wheel and all-wheel drive.
But the most coveted models came between 1987 and 1991 during the Chrysler era when the car went through a series of upgrades. With air conditioning, high-quality audio, comfortable power seats, lots of chrome and optional woodwork, the Wagoneer was truly a well-equipped car. This was the first proper SUV and the daddy of all modern SUVs.
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 of 1964, people across the world couldn`t get enough of Detroit’s favorite pony car. Over the years, Ford produced over nine million of them, making it one of the most successful nameplates but in the entire car industry.
So, what is the secret of the Mustang’s appeal? Ford mixed performance with a V8 engine rumble. Then they added a touch of luxury and good looks. And finally, they put it an affordable package with a long list of options. Of course, don’t forget the image and the legend, which were 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 called pony cars. Also, it entered the history books as one of the best first-year car sales of all times. Over the years, Mustang became the automotive symbol of America. And it is still one of its finest, most respected products worldwide.
In the early 1960s, Pontiac had success on drag strips across America. Soon, the performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool for a new generation of buyers who wanted powerful, fast cars. Pontiac wanted to capitalize on its success, but the company was reluctant to invest in a sports car built from scratch. At the time, all their production models were big, heavy vehicles.
However, a young engineer named John Z. DeLorean thought of a genius idea. He wanted to install the big, powerful 396 V8 into a light, intermediate Tempest two-door body. This would easily and affordably create a true performance machine. The result was the Tempest GTO, an option on the Tempest intermediate model.
For just $295, buyers could get a high performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in standard or 348 HP in the famous Tri-Power form. The manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals and dual exhaust were all part of the package. Since the car was light, the Tempest GTO had a convincing performance.
In fact, in 1964, it was one of the quickest American cars on the market. Even the Corvette owners weren’t safe from the Tempest GTOs lurking at stop lights across the country. But Pontiac’s sales managers weren’t particularly fond of the model. They thought the GTO package didn’t have perspective.
However, DeLorean’s estimate of the maximum of 5,000 examples per year was drastically surpassed by official sales figures of over 32,000 copies. So it was clear that the GTO was a hit among younger buyers and a star was born.
Lincoln Continental Mark III
The Lincoln division of the Ford Motor Company was enjoying considerable success during the ‘60s. This was thanks to the fantastic Continental sedan which they introduced in 1961. It was a landmark model in many aspects. With healthy sales numbers, Lincoln turned to the personal luxury market with innovative, advanced 1969 Mark III coupe.
And it proved to be one of the best personal luxury cars Ford Motor Company ever made. Ford introduced it in late 1968, building the Mark III on the Thunderbird chassis. They also used the new and powerful 460 V8 engine. Since the new model used existing mechanics, Lincoln concentrated on the design and equipment. The front was dominated with a big chrome grille, reminiscent of Rolls Royce models.
The hideaway headlights were an interesting touch and the trunk had a cool-looking spare wheel hump with Continental lettering. All that in combination with the vinyl top made the Mark III’s design unique and special. Buyers had a long list of optional extras to choose from and this was the first U.S. car with standard radial tires. They replaced the Mark III with the Mark IV in 1972. It has remained one of the finest personal luxury automobiles of the period.
AMC introduced the Gremlin in 1970 on the April Fool’s Day, which made the AMC Gremlin look like an April’s fool joke. The competitors laughed at its compact dimensions, funny rear end and diminutive engines. But soon, the 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.
In the late ‘60s, American manufacturers had big, heavy models, but the sales of compact imports like the Toyota Corolla and VW Beetle started to rise. AMC noticed the trend and started developing a small, subcompact model that would be affordable and simple. Yet it would offer lots of room inside, as well as decent driving dynamics.
When they introduced the car, it was received with mixed reviews. But it soon became quite popular, especially with the younger audiences. In fact, in the decade of platform shoes, The Eagles and shag carpets, the Gremlin was one of the symbols of the generation. So it was an influential model that inspired all other American manufacturers to offer small, economy cars.
The 1976 Eldorado was an automotive dinosaur in many ways. It was the last Cadillac they produced with the enormous 500 CID V8 engine and one of the biggest car engines they ever made. It was the last Cadillac convertible for over 10 years since the late ‘70s safety laws almost killed the convertible class. And it was the last of those truly big land yachts that dominated the domestic car industry in the ‘70s.
However, during the production of this generation of Eldorado, it was obvious the industry was changing. Cadillac had to rethink its strategy to stay on top of the game. However, the glorious 1976 Eldorado was the perfect way to end the era of excess, monstrous engines, chrome trims, soft rides and plush interiors.
Chrysler Town & Country Minivan
In the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, the Chrysler Corporation was practically done. The enormous loss, poor sales and lack of new models pushed it to the point of no return. When the famous ex-Ford executive, Lee Iacocca came to Chrysler in the late ‘70s, everybody thought there wasn’t anything he could do to save the fallen giant. However, Iacocca proved them wrong and in just a few short years retuned Chrysler to the top position in the industry.
The main weapon was a new line of minivan models under the Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth names. Today, minivans are a common sight on the streets of America, but in the early ‘80s, the concept of a minivan was nonexistent. Iacocca insisted that Chrysler invested in the production of front wheel drive people carriers with as much space and comfort inside, but with overall compact dimensions.
The first such model was the Chrysler Town & Country, which proved to be the right car for the times and the world’s first mass-produced minivan. The model established the minivan class and became the first Chrysler sales hit in decades. It was a perfect car for suburban America, replacing big, thirsty station wagons and starting the SUV craze of today. The Town & Country proved to be an influential and revolutionary car that is still in production today.
Dodge Viper RT/10
The release of the original Viper in the early ‘90s showed what happens when talented individuals with clear goals want to make the perfect car. President Bob Lutz, chief engineer Francois Castaing, chief designer Tom Gale and the legendary Carroll Shelby were heavily involved with Chrysler’s performance program in the late ‘80s.
In those days, Chrysler was enjoying strong sales, so they wanted a model to celebrate their success. Castaing, Lutz and Gale were all big fans of Shelby’s original Cobra, which car fans regarded as one of the most exciting American muscle cars ever built. The team wanted to build a modern-day Cobra, but with more power, refinement and performance.
They wanted to show that the concept of a light, but immensely powerful roadster was still attractive. The team soon gathered over 80 engineers and designers, officially starting Project Viper. In 1989, they revealed the Dodge Viper Concept to the crowd at the Detroit Motor Show. They went crazy over the aggressive yet elegant lines powered by a prototype V10 engine.
The reaction of the public was so overwhelming, Lee Iacocca ordered the start of production for its 1992 release. It also did pace car duty at the legendary Indianapolis 500 race. Under the hood was an 8.0-liter fully aluminum V10 with 400 HP and 465 lb-ft of torque. Unheard of, it secured Viper’s place as one of the most powerful new models on the market.
The long hood and short rear end with the roll bar made the Viper visually dramatic. With the price of just over $50,000 and 0 to 60 mph times of 4.6 seconds, the Viper beat many European machines. This quintessential American sports car was one of the best looking, fastest cars of the early ‘90s.
Ford’s quest for performance and racing victories in the early 21st century is a mirror image of the Total Performance Program of the 1960’s. Only, this time there was no Ferrari and revenge, but there were racing GTs and Shelby Mustangs to remind the world of American performance.
The 2016 Ford GT GTE Pro racing car is a perfect example of impeccable timing, extraordinary effort and performance. When Ford introduced the new GT supercar in 2016, one of the most common questions was about a competition version and Ford didn’t hide its racing ambitions.
So, in 2016, Ford entered the Le Mans in the GTE Pro class with the new GT racing car and won it after a long battle with Ferrari. Ford’s success was a commemorative moment of the legendary 1966 Le Mans win. But to make things even more interesting, the Ford GT was able to also beat a red Ferrari for first place.
Tesla Model S
The American car industry has dominated the better part of the 20th century. But it looks like other countries have taken over in the first years of the 21st century. That was until the Tesla Model S arrived and re-established the U.S. automobile industry as a leading force in the car world.
The Model S is not the first car Tesla produced. But it is by far the most popular and globally influential. It is the first fully electric sedan they offered in significant numbers. This car singlehandedly created the electric car market.
They introduced it in 2012 and since then, production of the Tesla Model S has passed the 200,000 mark. This makes it the most advanced and successful electric vehicle in the world. The Model S is famous for its pioneering construction and also for its unusual features. In fact, many are industry firsts.
But the most notable is its unbelievable performance. Quite a controversial vehicle when it was released, the Model S is the symbol of progress and forward thinking today. Also, it is a symbol of the American car industry in the future.
These are the 20 most iconic and legendary American cars ever made. All have unique features that revolutionized the U.S. car industry. Have you found your favorite?