Home Cars 20th Century Automobiles That Changed Car History

20th Century Automobiles That Changed Car History

Vukasin Herbez September 11, 2019

Without a shadow of a doubt, the 20th century was the century of the automobile. No single contraption or patent has ever changed the face of the Earth more than the car. To list all the areas touched by the appearance of the motor vehicle would be impossible.

So here, we broke down 20 of the most influential cars. They managed to change history and steer mankind into a completely new direction during the 20th century.

Jeep Willys
  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 World War II as a light military vehicle. It was capable of going over any terrain and durable enough to withstand bullets, explosions, and harsh conditions. In fact, the Jeep Willys turned out to be one of the weapons that won 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. They also called it the Willys MB or Ford GPW. It was a simple machine, yet incredibly tough and dependable. It was powered by a diminutive 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 60 HP. Also, it had a simple four-wheel-drive layout, an innovative concept for the 1940s.

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

Austin Mini

  1. Austin Mini

American car enthusiasts know the Mini for its 21st-century modern iteration by BMW after the German brand bought Rover in the ’90s. The story of the Mini dates back to 1959 and it is an interesting one. The original Mini they introduced in 1959 and sold until 2000 is the most important British car of the 20th century.

Although the British car industry is full of expensive and limited production models, the Mini proved to be the most influential, as well as a truly timeless car. The reason for such praise is that the Mini is a technological marvel and immensely capable little car. It motorized Great Britain and has effected every car maker since. When it first debuted in the late ’50s, the Mini featured an unusual concept of a transversely mounted engine with front-wheel drive.

That engine was something nobody 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. Also, the Mini was the champion of usability since it was tiny from the outside but could seat five people on the inside. Even though it had just 34 HP from the factory, this little car managed to win some of the world’s most prestigious races like the Rally Monte Carlo thanks to its small weight, front-wheel drive agility, and precise handling.

Ford Model T

  1. Ford Model T

There are not enough words to describe the importance of the Ford Model T in automotive history and car culture. This was the car that 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 laid the foundation for the modern car industry with assembly plants in foreign countries and other continents. Also, the Ford Model T was the first car they produced in numerous versions. Ford designed it to easily transform into a truck, agricultural machine or even into a military vehicle. This car launched the Ford Motor Company and at one time, it was the biggest car manufacturer in the world.

The Model T spawned numerous models that copied the concept. When the Model T debuted 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.

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

  1. Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

In 1963, just 10 years after the introduction of the original Corvette, Chevrolet presented the second generation. Since the Corvette was now 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. With a new platform, independent rear suspension, engines, and most importantly, a 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 in the best possible way. Also, it established the legend of Chevrolet sports cars for decades to come.

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

Porsche 911

  1. Porsche 911

The Porsche 911 is one of the most interesting models in car history and a continuing success story that has lasted more than 50 years. The story of the 911 is a saga of constant effort and evolution. But mostly, it was painstaking work developing and perfecting a concept that wasn’t all that promising at first. The keyword in the 911 universe is “development” since they developed the Porsche 911 using the Porsche 356.

It was basically a sportier version of the modest Volkswagen Beetle. Right from the start, the 911 was a derivative of an already existing car. At the time, it seemed like just a step in the evolution of the rear-engine automobile concept. The first 911s were big for Porsche, but soon their engineers realized the rear engine had its disadvantages in terms of weight balance, handling, and driving dynamics.

Early models were scary to drive hard because drivers never knew when the rear end would break loose. So, 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, with Porsche selling over a million. The 911 was a benchmark model in terms of performance and handling. This car shows that anything is possible if you put enough effort into it.

Tucker Torpedo

  1. Tucker Torpedo

The greatest “what if” story in automotive history is the saga of Preston Tucker and the brainchild he named the Torpedo. There are numerous books and even movies about this maverick entrepreneur and his vision of an advanced family sedan. He is famous for his quest for improvement, and the conspiracy against him and his company. Preston established the Tucker car company in the late ’40s. Soon, he presented a fully functioning prototype that made the rest of the cars from Detroit look terribly outdated. The Tucker Torpedo featured numerous innovations, from safety glass and a central headlight that followed the movement of the steering wheel, to a roomy interior and engine in the back with lots of power and torque.

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 to 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 Torpedos. Today, almost all new cars feature some of the innovations that Tucker premiered in the late ’40s. Even though Tucker didn’t have any effect on the market, this model was one of the most advanced cars in the world. It was true witness to the dark side of the car industry and big business.

Citroen DS

  1. Citroen DS

Imagine being transported back to the year 1955 and being at the Paris Auto Show. There were many cars on display there, but most of them were warmed-up prewar designs. They came with common engine and drivetrain choices yet nothing new or interesting. But, at the Citroen booth, there was the new DS. It was a car with a self-leveling hydro-pneumatic suspension and front-wheel drive. They gave it a futuristic interior with an aerodynamic design. To make it lighter, Citroen added an aluminum hood and a plastic roof.

For all the visitors at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the Citroen DS wasn’t just a car, but a vision of the future landing in France. That was exactly what Citroen intended since they designed the DS family sedan to be the best, most innovative car in the world. The customers accepted the futuristic model, so by the end of the first day of the car show, over 18,000 orders were put for the new DS.

They also sold the DS in America where drivers considered it to be a technical marvel. Still, it only had modest success on the market. Despite the advantages of its basic design, Citroen always had problems with their underpowered four-cylinder engines and complicated mechanics, so U.S. customers were reserved. However, in all other parts of the world, the DS was popular, selling over 1.5 million examples before they ceased production in 1975.

Lancia Delta HF Integrale

  1. Lancia Delta HF Integrale

Lancia’s compact model, the Delta, debuted in 1979. It was only after it was on the market for five years when the company started thinking about a performance version. Lancia was always big in rallying. After the banning of their Group B model S4, they wanted something that would work well on the street and track. That’s how the HF Integrale was born.

The main features of this model were the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor with, at first, 185 HP, and later up to 220 HP. Also, it had a permanent, well balanced all-wheel-drive system. The Delta HF Integrale is an important hot hatch because it was the first with all-wheel-drive. It marked the beginning of the transition from front-wheel-drive, simple, economical hot hatches, to high-tech, all-wheel-drive performance monsters today.

Volkswagen Beetle

  1. Volkswagen Beetle

Despite its dubious beginnings as a propaganda gimmick for the German Nazi Party, the Volkswagen Beetle became the car of the hippie movement. It was also the bestselling car in the world and a symbol of Germany’s rebuilding efforts.

Officially, the production of the VW Beetle started in 1938 and ended in 2003. VW built more than 22 million Beetles in 14 countries around the globe. The Beetle was the first global car in popularity, affordability, and presence. While the Ford Model T motorized the world as the first globally popular automobile, the VW Beetle improved the concept.

It was the car for those who only dreamed about owning a vehicle, especially in third world countries in 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. With its impeccable quality and durability, it is still one of the toughest, longest-lasting vehicles ever.

Jaguar E Type

  1. 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. It still looks as attractive as ever. The E-Type is a sharp handling, straight-six roaring, two-seater coupe or roadster with a long nose and curved rear end. When it debuted in 1961, the Jaguar E-Type was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite Jaguar’s long-lasting tradition of building fine sports cars, the E-Type was years ahead of its time. It had a superb design, four-wheel disk brakes, independent rear suspension, and powerful straight-six engines. They derived it from the Le Mans-winning C and D Type racers, making it as fast as any Ferrari or Maserati. The E-Type had the looks, power, and performance of a high priced Italian exotic, yet it cost a fraction of the price.

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

Ford Mustang

  1. Ford Mustang

The love affair between car enthusiasts and the Ford Mustang has lasted for over 50 years. Ever since Ford unveiled the first Mustang in April 1964, people can’t get enough of Detroit’s favorite pony car. Over the years, Ford has produced over nine million Mustangs. It is one of the most successful nameplates in the company’s history as well as in the entire car industry.

The secret of the Mustang’s appeal is its V8 engine with a touch of luxury and good looks. All that comes in an affordable package with a long list of options. Also, the image and legend are integral parts of the Mustang’s appeal since day one.

The first Mustang was so successful it started a new class of cars called pony cars. It made history as one of the best first-year sales of all time. The Mustang has become the automotive symbol of America and one of its most respected products worldwide.

Datsun 240Z

  1. Datsun 240Z

The Datsun 240Z was the first highly successful Japanese sports car on the American market. It’s a legend even today. The 240Z featured a bigger engine, updated construction and more power and performance than anything from Japan. Critics say it was a copy of several European designs. But nevertheless, the 240Z managed to create its own fanbase.

Datsun introduced the 240Z to America in 1970, and it was the perfect car for the time. The muscle car craze was winding down because safety regulations were killing domestic performance cars. People were searching for alternatives to provide driving excitement with better handling and prices. Most European models were expensive, but the Datsun 240Z got 150 HP from its 2.4-liter six-cylinder, providing lively performance.

Over the years, Datsun added bigger engines, 2.6 and 2.8-liters, and did several re-styles. The demand was always high, so, when they discontinued this first series of Z cars in 1978, Datsun built over 300,000. That made the 240Z one of the most successful sports cars in history.

BMW 02 Series “Neue Klasse”

  1. BMW 02 Series “Neue Klasse”

In the early ’60s, it looked like the end of the road for BMW. Their creditors and shareholders wanted to close the factory and sell the assets. Worse yet, most consumers didn’t find their products interesting. But the famous German industrialist, Herbert Quandt, saw potential in BMW. He bought the company, paid its debts and invested heavily in a new lineup that he called Neue Klasse or New Class. He introduced the Neue Klasse in 1962. It consisted of performance-oriented, affordable and cleverly-designed sedans that put BMW back on their feet.

The most popular was the E10, known as the 02 Series. Introduced in 1966, this nimble two-door sedan offered unmatched handling and lively performance at an affordable price. Soon, it became a market hit in Europe and the United States. At first, it was a 1.6L-powered car, but with the addition of the two-liter engine, 2002 became the most popular BMW model ever. In fact, it was the basis for the upcoming 3 Series. Sales of the 02 Series enabled BMW to expand its lineup to the exclusive E3 and E9 sedans and coupes. Also, it 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 prompted a rebirth for BMW and was the definition of a compact, sport-oriented sedan. It was the first modern BMW featuring powerful engines, precision steering, and engaging handling, appealing to driving enthusiasts all over the world.

Land Rover Defender

  1. Land Rover Defender

Many car enthusiasts write off British cars as quirky, rust-prone and problematic, and some of them are indeed like that. But, there are several examples where British cars are durable, dependable and legendary in their ruggedness. One of those machines is the epic Land Rover Defender.

Debuting in 1948, the Land Rover was a simple, effective off-road vehicle which was, along with Jeep Willys, a pioneer of the segment. They built it as a capable vehicle people could use for military and civilian purposes. Soon, Land Rover started exporting these cars all over the world. It had a tough chassis, permanent 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. This model changed in design and names but never changed the original concept and character. Amazingly, over 70 percent of all Land Rovers are still on roads all over the planet. That says a lot about the quality of these British cars.

Ford F-Series Trucks

  1. Ford F-Series Trucks

Pickup trucks are the backbone of the global economy, especially for businesses that would be lost without this practical, usable way of transport. Pickups are the only car class that endured one century with little departure from the original concept. They’ve also grown in size and power so they can carry and tow more than ever.

However, the basic concept, technical layout, and design have remained the same. Among dozens of models in this country, there is one nameplate that has been a symbol of quality, durability, consistency, and tradition for over 80 years. That’s the Ford F-Series truck. Produced in 13 generations, over 35 million examples and countless different variants, the F-Series is the definitive U.S. pickup.

Over the years, it evolved from a rugged workhorse to a lifestyle model. There’s even a performance vehicle with the Lightning and Raptor versions. It’s one of the best-selling vehicles of all time, as well as a true piece of Americana on four wheels.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1

  1. Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1

In the mid-70s, Volkswagen was getting ready to introduce a new line of models. They included the Polo, Golf, and Passat. VW wanted to shed the dull image of the VW Beetle, so their new cars featured modern designs and engineering. The company wanted to gain some attention from the motoring world by producing a performance model.

So, in 1975, VW added a GTI version to the Golf lineup. The Golf GTI featured a three-door hatchback body style and sporty details on the exterior. They equipped it with a 1.6-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder engine with a 110 to 115 HP power output. With a 0 to 60 time of nine seconds, improved handling and good looks, the GTI was an immediate hit.

In the late ’70s when performance levels were low due to tight regulations in America, the VW Golf GTI could outrun mid-spec Camaros or Mustangs. That made it one of the best performance cars you could buy. The popularity of the GTI influenced other manufacturers and even coined the term “hot hatch.”

Ford V8 De Luxe

  1. Ford V8 De Luxe

Although the ’32 Ford was a regular, mass-produced, affordable car, it changed history forever due to a simple engine option, the Flathead V8. The 1932 Ford came with one of the best engines of the 20th century, the 3.6-liter V8 engine with just 65 HP in the beginning. Even though other car makers offered V8 engines, Ford’s design proved to be the toughest.

Soon, it became the engine for anybody looking for power in an affordable package. Hot rodders found the Flathead V8 had serious tuning potential, so ’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 cars ever. It introduced V8 power to a larger market, making the V8 engine one of the most recognizable features in the car industry.

Jeep Wagoneer

  1. Jeep Wagoneer

SUVs are bloated sedans with little to no off-road performance. They look like big off-roaders with lots of space and luxuries. However, the Jeep Wagoneer looked like a big off-roader that was also luxurious. It had an enormous amount of space with respectable off-road skills. That makes the Wagoneer the ultimate vintage luxury off-road vehicle. Jeep produced it from 1963 to 1991. At first, the Wagoneer was available as a two-door or four-door SUV, or a two-door panel truck. But as the model progressed, it came with more luxury features.

All that proved Jeep never intended the Wagoneer to be a car for the streets. Rather, it was 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. The most coveted models came from the 1987 to 1991 Chrysler era when the car went through a series of upgrades. The Wagoneer was a well-equipped car with air conditioning and high-quality audio. It had comfortable power seats, lots of chrome and optional woodwork, too. This was the first proper SUV and the daddy of all modern SUVs.

Chrysler Town & Country Minivan

  1. Chrysler Town & Country Minivan

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Chrysler was practically done. Enormous losses, poor sales and the 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 he couldn’t save the fallen giant. However, Iacocca proved them wrong. In just a few short years, he returned Chrysler to a top position in the industry.

His main weapon was a new line of minivan models under the Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth names. Today, minivans are a common sight in America, but in the early ’80s, the concept was nonexistent. Iacocca strongly insisted that Chrysler invest in the production of front-wheel-drive people carriers. He wanted them to come with as much space and comfort inside but have overall compact dimensions. The first model was the Chrysler Town & Country, which proved to be the right car for the time. Basically, it was the world’s first mass-produced minivan. It established the minivan class, becoming the first Chrysler sales hit in decades.

It was the perfect car for suburban America, replacing big, thirsty station wagons and preceding the current SUV craze. The Town & Country was so influential and revolutionary, they still produce it today.

Pontiac GTO

  1. 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 lots of early muscle machines, the 1964 GTO is the first true muscle car. Pontiac marketed it as such, selling it in big numbers. The GTO featured all the right ingredients that later became mandatory for all muscle car manufacturers. However, the GTO didn’t bring anything special in design or technology.

Basically, it was a Tempest in a two-door form with a 389 V8 engine producing up to 360 HP. The combination of power and a cool body and name attracted the attention of performance-loving young buyers. In 1964, the GTO exceeded sales expectations and was the hottest premiere during the 1964 model year. Soon, all manufacturers followed the Pontiac formula, making the GTO one of the most influential, revolutionary cars ever.

These are 20 cars that changed the world and perception of automobiles. Which one do you believe impacted history the most?

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