Home Cars Driving Forces: Classic Cars That Shaped Today’s Auto Landscape

Driving Forces: Classic Cars That Shaped Today’s Auto Landscape

Vukasin Herbez March 13, 2024

The modern car industry is an exciting place. The most recent and significant change has been the introduction of electric vehicles, which will change the automotive landscape forever. However, even though battery-powered cars will change the mechanical aspect entirely, they still follow the forms and vehicle classes introduced decades ago.

That raises the question of what cars influenced the industry and what cars shaped the automotive world we live in today. Check out the most influential cars and models that helped shape the automobile world as we know it today.

Willys M38 Jeep 7
Photo Credit: Pinterest

Jeep Willys

Off-road vehicles were born out of necessity and the legendary Jeep Willys is the best example. Conceived just before World War II as a light military vehicle capable of going over any terrain, it was durable enough to withstand bullets and explosions and able to survive harsh conditions. It turned out to be one of the weapons that won the biggest war in history. Production on the original Jeep started in 1942 as the US entered the war. It ended in 1946 after more than 600,000 examples were built and exported to all parts of the world. Also called Willys MB or Ford GPW, it was a simple machine yet incredibly tough and dependable (via Jeep).

Willys M38 Jeep 2
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It was powered by a miniature 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 60 hp and used 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 an efficient machine that could be equipped to do numerous things. The unique concept of a rugged, compact, and extremely capable off-road machine evolved into the Jeep brand, the biggest producer of off-road vehicles and SUVs.

1967 Austin Mini Cooper
Photo Credit: Mecum

Austin Mini

American car enthusiasts know Mini for its 21st-century modern iteration from BMW after the German brand bought Rover in the ’90s. But the Mini’s story dates back to 1959 and it’s a very interesting one. Even though the British car industry is full of expensive and limited-production models, the Mini proved to be the most influential and timeless car. The reason for such praise is that the Mini is an immensely capable little car that influenced every car maker since (via ARO Online).

Mini Cooper Se 48
Photo Credit: Mini

When it was first introduced in the late ’50s, the Mini featured an unusual concept of the transversely mounted engine with front-wheel drive. That was something no one 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. On the other hand, 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 won some of the world’s most prestigious races such as the Rally Monte Carlo thanks to its low weight, front-wheel drive agility, and precise handling.

1926 Ford Model T Dr S Coupe
Photo Credit: Barn Finds

Ford Model T

There aren’t enough words to describe the importance of the Ford Model T to automotive history and car culture since it 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 made until 1927. It motorized the world and laid the foundation of the modern car industry with assembly plants in foreign countries and other continents (via Ford).

062216 Barn Finds 1922 Ford Model T 1
Photo Credit: Barn Finds

Also, the Ford Model T was the first car produced in numerous versions and designed to be easily transformed into a truck, agricultural machine, or even a military vehicle. It launched the Ford Motor Company to become the most prominent car manufacturer in the world at one point and spawned numerous models that copied the concept. When the Model T was introduced in 1908, the world was still using horse-drawn carriages. But by the time it was discontinued in 1927, the automobile age had started.

1963 Z06 Corvette Thompson 6
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Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Ten years after the original Corvette was introduced, Chevrolet introduced the second generation in 1963. Since the Corvette was now an established sports car contender and a halo car for GM, lots of effort and money went into the research and development of the second generation. With a new platform, independent rear suspension, and 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. It put American performance on the map and established the legend of Chevrolet’s sports car for decades to come (via Motor Trend).

04 1963 Corvette C2 Z06 Fuel Injection Split Window Coupe Big Tank Cannizzo
Photo Credit: Auto WP

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

1973 Porsche 911 Turbo Right Side View
Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

Porsche 911

The Porsche 911 is one of the most exciting models in car history and a success story that has lasted for more than 50 years. The Porsche 911 was developed using the Porsche 356 model, a sportier version of the modest Volkswagen Beetle. From the start, the 911 was a derivative of existing cars and a step in the evolution of the rear-engine automobile concept. However, engineers soon realized that the rear engine has disadvantages in weight balance, handling, and driving dynamics. Early models were scary to drive hard as you’d never know when the rear end would break loose (via Porsche).

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Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

Porsche invested an unbelievable amount of time and effort in perfecting this model. Today, the 911 is the best overall sports car in the world, with over 1 million sold and a benchmark model in terms of performance and handling. This just goes to show that anything can be done if you put enough effort into it.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Tucker Torpedo

One of the greatest greatest “what if” stories in automotive history is the saga of Preston Tucker and his brainchild, the Torpedo. There are numerous books and movies about this maverick entrepreneur and the conspiracy against him and his company. The Tucker Torpedo featured numerous innovations from safety glass to an engine in the back with lots of power and torque. The Tucker Torpedo was so advanced that the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, and GM) were afraid that it would cripple their market share. So while Tucker prepared for full-scale production, the Big Three was ready to set him up with a lawsuit that would stop the production and sink the company (via Tucker Club).

Tucker Sedan 905
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Unfortunately, they managed to do that and Preston only built between 48 and 51 of his fantastic Tucker Torpedos. Today, almost all new cars feature some innovations that Tucker premiered in the late ’40s. Although Tucker didn’t have any effect on the market, this model remained one of the most advanced cars in the world and a faithful witness to the dark side of the car industry and big business.

A Look Back At The Citroen Ds Arguably The Most Innovative Car Ever Built 3
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Citroen DS

Imagine being transported back in the year 1955 to the Paris Auto Show. Many cars were on display but most were warmed-up pre-war designs with standard engine and drivetrain choices and nothing really interesting. All of a sudden, Citroen’s booth showed off a brand-new DS. It was a car with a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension, front-wheel drive, an aluminum hood, and a plastic roof. For all visitors to the 1955 Paris Auto Show, the Citroen DS wasn’t just a car but a vision of the future (via CCC).

Auto Magazin Citroen Ds Istorija 06
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This was precisely what Citroen intended and the DS was designed to be the best and the most innovative car in the world. Customers accepted the futuristic model. By the end of the first day of the show, over 18,000 orders were placed for the new model. The DS was also sold in America, where it was considered a technical marvel, but it had only modest success in the market. Despite its basic design’s advantages, Citroen always needed help with underpowered four-cylinder engines and complicated mechanics, so US customers were reserved. However, in all other parts of the world, the DS was very well received and sold over 1.5 million copies before the production stopped in 1975.

1967 Volkswagen Beetle Herbie The Love Bug
Photo Credit: Mecum

Volkswagen Beetle

Despite its dubious beginnings as a propaganda gimmick, the VW Beetle became the car of the Hippy movement and the best-selling vehicle in the world. In just a few decades, this little economy car went from having negative connections to WWII to transporting millions of peace-loving hippies to rock festivals (via Car and Driver).

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Photo Credit: Pinterest

Production on the VW Beetle started in 1938 and ended in 2003, during which time over 22 million cars were made in 14 countries around the globe. The Beetle was the first global car in popularity, affordability, and presence. The Ford Model T motorized the world as the first globally popular automobile. But the VW Beetle improved the concept and became a car for classes that had 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 site on the roads. It is still one of the most durable and longest-lasting vehicles ever produced.

E Type Uk 1974 Jaguar E Type Rear
Photo Credit: SEMA

Jaguar E-Type

The Jaguar E-Type was the first massively popular sports car before the Porsche 911. It was a design and engineering icon that has graced the roads since 1961 and still looks as attractive as ever. Introduced in 1961, the 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 with a superb design, four-wheel disk brakes, independent rear suspension, and powerful straight six engines. It was derived from the Le Mans-winning C and D Type racers and was as fast as any Ferrari or Maserati at the time. But the best thing was the price. The E-Type had the looks, power, and performance of a high-priced Italian exotics at a fraction of the price (via E-Type).

Photo Credit: Pinterest

It stayed in production for 15 years until 1976 and sold over 74,000 copies, most of them here in the USA. Today, Jaguar has the F-Type sports coupe, a modern interpretation of the classic E-Type design form. It is a modern car that captures the essence of this legendary model.

Mustang Mki 1964 Images 1 E1649288377820
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Ford Mustang

The love affair between car enthusiasts and the Mustang lasted for over 50 years. Ever since the first Mustang was unveiled in April 1964, people around the world can’t get enough of Detroit’s favorite pony car. Over the years, Ford has produced over nine million Mustangs, making it one of the most successful nameplates in company history and the car industry. The secret of the Mustang’s appeal was to mix performance with V8 engine rumble, add a touch of luxury and good looks, and pack it in an affordable package with a long list of options (via Ford).

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Photo Credit: Pinterest

Of course, the image and legend have been integral to the Mustang’s appeal since day one. The first Mustang was so successful that it started a new class of cars known as pony cars and entered the history books as one of the best first-year sales of all time. Over the years, the Mustang became an automotive symbol of America and one of its finest and most respected products worldwide.

Datsun 240z Photo 5159 S Original
Photo Credit: Japanese Nostalgic Car

Datsun 240Z

The Datsun 240Z was the first highly successful Japanese sports car on the American market. The legend is still highly desirable today. The 240Z was a proper sports model with a bigger engine and more performance than anything from Japan in those days. Critics say it was a copy of several European designs. But the 240Z won the buyers and created its segment. Introduced in America in 1970, the 240Z was a perfect car for the times. The muscle car craze had started to wind down and safety regulations killed domestic performance cars. So people were looking for alternatives that could provide similar driving excitement with better handling and cheaper prices (via Car and Driver).

1970 Datsun Fairlady 240z Rear.jpg
Photo Credit: Japanese Nostalgic Car

The European models were too expensive, and Datsun 240Z was the right car for the moment. The early models had 150 hp from a 2.4-liter six-cylinder, which was more than enough for lively performance. Over the years, Datsun improved the original model with more significant engines (2.6 and 2.8-liter units) and several restyles. The demand was always fantastic, and when this first series of Z cars was discontinued in 1978, Datsun made over 300,000 examples, making it one of the most successful sports cars in history.

BMW 2002
Photo Credit: BMW

BMW 02 Series “Neue Klasse”

In the early ’60s, it seemed like the end of the road for BMW. The creditors and shareholders wanted the factory closed and assets sold, but buyers didn’t find the products interesting enough. However, famous German industrialist Herbert Quandt knew that BMW had a lot of potential. So, in the early ’60s, he bought the company, paid its debts, and invested heavily in a new lineup called Neue Klasse, or New Class. Introduced in 1962, the Neue Klasse consisted of performance-oriented, affordable, and cleverly designed sedans that put BMW back on its feet. The most popular was the E10, commonly known as the 02 Series (via BMW2002).

Photo Credit: BMW Group

Introduced in 1966, this elegant two-door sedan offered unmatched handling and lively performance at an affordable price. It became a market hit in Europe and the United States. At first, it started as a 1.6L-powered car, but with the addition of a two-liter engine, the 2002 became the quintessential enthusiast’s car and the basis for the upcoming 3 Series, the most popular BMW model to this day. This little car marked the rebirth of BMW as a brand and as a definition of a compact and sport-oriented driver’s sedan. It was the first true modern BMW that featured powerful engines, precision steering, and engaging handling, making it to driving enthusiasts all over the world.

Photo Credit: Carsot

Land Rover Defender

Lots of car enthusiasts tend to write off British cars as quirky, rust-prone, and problematic. To be honest, some of them are like that. However, several examples of British cars are durable, dependable, and legendary in their ruggedness. One of those machines is the Land Rover Defender (via Land Rover).

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Introduced in 1948, the Land Rover was a simple but effective off-road vehicle along with the Jeep Willys, the segment’s pioneer. It was built out of necessity and needed for a capable vehicle that could be used for military and civilian purposes. Land Rover soon started exporting these cars worldwide, and millions of buyers found out how good it was. It had a rigid chassis, permanent all-wheel drive, decent power, and an all-alloy body, which made it light and extremely good on rough terrain. The production of the Defender stopped in 2016 after 68 years. Over time, this model changed the design and the names, but it never changed the original concept and character. You’ll be amazed to find out that over 70% of all Land Rovers built are still on the roads all over the planet. That says a lot about the quality of British cars.

1956 Ford F 100 Three Quarter.jpg Copy
Photo Credit: Motor Trend

Ford F-Series Trucks

Pickups are the backbone of the global economy, especially for small and medium-sized businesses that would be lost without this practical and usable way of transport. Pickups are the only car class that endured a full century with very little departure from their original concepts. Of course, pickup trucks have grown in size and power and can carry more than ever, but the basic idea and design have been the same (via AutoWeek).

Velocity F 100 Hero (1)
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Among the dozens of models produced in this country, there is one nameplate that has been a symbol of quality and tradition for over 80 years: the Ford F-Series truck. The F-Series is the definitive US pickup, produced in 13 generations in over 35 million examples. Over the years, it has evolved from a rugged workhorse into a lifestyle model. It even morphed into a performance vehicle with the Lightning and Raptor versions. However, it is still the best-selling US vehicle of all time and a piece of Americana on four wheels.

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Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1

In the mid-’70s, Volkswagen was getting ready to introduce a whole line of new models, including the Polo, Golf, and Passat as it desperately tried to shed its dull image of the VW Beetle. Their new cars all featured modern design and engineering. They attempted to gain some attention from the motoring world by producing a performance model. So, in 1975, VW presented the GTI version. The Golf GTI featured a three-door hatchback body style, sporty details, and a 1.6-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder engine with 110 to 115 hp (via Top Gear).

Volkswagen Golf Gti 3 Door 1
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With a 0 to 60 time of nine seconds, the GTI was an immediate hit with buyers, especially in the late ’70s when performance levels were very low due to tightening regulations. In America, the VW Golf GTI could outrun mid-spec Camaros or Mustangs, which made it one of the best performance cars you could buy. The popularity of the GTI influenced other manufacturers, who even coined the term “hot hatch.”

1987 91 Jeep Grand Wagoneer 4a
Photo Credit: Auto WP

Jeep Wagoneer

Today’s SUVs are bloated sedans with little or no off-road performance even though they look like big off-roaders and have lots of space and luxuries. On the other hand, the Jeep Wagoneer looked like a big off-roader, was quite luxurious for its era, and offered respectable off-road skills. All that made the Wagoneer the ultimate vintage luxury off-road vehicle. The fact that it was produced from 1963 to 1991 with just a few tweaks is valid proof of its quality (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

At first, the Wagoneer was available as a two or four-door SUV or a two-door panel truck. As the model progressed, it became available with more features including those wooden side panels. An interesting fact about the Wagoneer is that a compass was available as standard equipment, proving that this wasn’t meant for the streets but rather a luxurious land barge for navigating ranches, fields, and mountain trails. This was the first proper SUV and granddad of all modern SUVs.

Minivan 02 1500
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Chrysler Town & Country Minivan

Chrysler was practically done in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The enormous losses, poor sales, and lack of new models pushed the brand to the point of no return. 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 and returned Chrysler to the top position in the industry in a few short years. The primary weapon was a new line of minivan models under Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth names. Today, minivans are a common sight on the streets of America, but in the early ’80s, the concept of the minivan was nonexistent (via AutoEvolution).

2022 Chrysler Pacifica Passenger Minivan Hybrid Pinnacle Fq Oem 1 1600
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Iacocca strongly insisted that Chrysler invested in the production of front-wheel drive people carriers with as much space and comfort inside but with compact dimensions overall. The first such model was Chrysler Town & Country, 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 preceding the SUV craze of today. The Town & Country proved very influential and revolutionary and stayed in production until today.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Tesla Model S

The Model S isn’t the first car that Tesla produced but it is by far the most popular and influential globally. It is the first fully electric sedan produced in significant numbers and singlehandedly created the electric car market. Introduced in 2012, Tesla Model S production has passed 200,000 examples, making it the most successful and advanced electric vehicle in the world (via Tesla).

Photo Credit: Car Magazine

The Model S is known for its pioneering construction, unusual features, and top-line performance. 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 differs 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.

2024 Chevrolet Corvette E Ray
Photo Credit: General Motors

Chevrolet Corvette C8 E-Ray

The 2024 Corvette C8 E-Ray is the first all-wheel-drive Corvette and the first American sports car with a hybrid powertrain. It is a cross between the standard C8 and an electric sports car with a 6.2-liter V8 in the back paired with an electric motor that powers the front wheels and helps with acceleration (via Chevrolet).

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Of course, with an overall weight of almost 4,000 pounds, the C8 E-Ray is heavy. But it must be since it features additional components and a battery pack between the seats. It also features a wider track, a different design, and many specific E-Ray options that distinguish this model from the rest of the C8 Corvette range. Chevrolet claims that 0 to 60 mph is achievable in 2.5 seconds and that E-Ray has driving dynamics equal to or better than the C8 Z06. However, despite it being very advanced, this is a Corvette with a base price of over $100.000, which is another controversial aspect of it.

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