10 Vehicles That Changed Automotive History

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From its very origins, at least in America, the automobile has represented far more than just another way to get around. Whether it be as a status symbol, a political statement or a lifestyle choice, a car bestows an image upon its driver. As the automobile evolved, vehicles emerged for every conceivable taste and circumstance. In the process, some of these vehicles became cultural icons, trendsetters that established a precedent for others to follow. Here’s a look at 10 such vehicles, in chronological order.


10. Ford Model T (Introduced in 1908)

The Ford Model T became the first car built for the masses.

A 1910 Ford Model T Touring Edition. The Model T introduced the concept of the assembly line to auto manufacturers and other industries. © Jack Snell

Henry Ford’s Tin Lizzie didn’t just change automotive history, it fundamentally altered the way we live. To be realistic, if Ford hadn’t been the first to find a way to introduce mass production to the manufacture of automobiles, somebody else surely would have made the breakthrough. But the credit will always go to Ford. During its nearly 20 years of production, the Model T didn’t change a whole lot, and Ford can perhaps be faulted for a lack of interest in innovation. But the automaker had his reasons for sticking with a winning formula. After selling the car in four colors for a few years, Ford in 1914 decided to offer the car “in any color so long as it is black.” That decision enabled his workers to speed up the assembly line, and that’s the car’s legacy. Mass production brought the cost of the Model T down from $825 in 1908 to $260 in 1924. Suddenly, motorcars were affordable. Nothing was the same in America after that.


9. Volkswagen Beetle (1938)

A 1940s era Volkswagen Beetle. © Stahlkocher

An early Volkswagen Beetle. © Stahlkocher

Ferdinand Porsche and Adolf Hitler developed the Beetle before World War II and it’s still around today, easily making the VW Bug the longest continually produced vehicle in auto history. But the model has definitely had its ups and downs. The Beetle hadn’t quite gotten off the ground yet by the time Germany lost the war, and it took the British to get the car’s factory back in operation following the conflict. While the Beetle grew in popularity through the 1950s, it didn’t catch on in the U.S. until the 1960s when, thanks to a landmark ad campaign that touted the advantages of a small car, it quickly grew into an icon (albeit one that went from zero to 60 mph in 20.4 seconds). Following unpopular redesigns in the 1970s, the Beetle disappeared from the States until a splashy reintroduction at the end of the 1990s proved there was still much love for the Bug.


8. Ford F-150 (1948)

The Ford F-Series pickup introduced in the 1980s set the standard for other trucks to follow. © Ford Motor Co.

The Ford F-Series pickup introduced in the 1980s set the standard for other trucks. © Ford Motor Co.

The Ford F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. every year since 1981. The pickup truck, introduced more than 60 years ago, is now in its 13th design generation, but it was the one introduced at the beginning of the 1980s, a bottom-up redesign, that made the biggest impression. Loaded with features common to midsize sedans, and featuring a roomier interior, it suggested that the pickup truck could be suitable for everyday driving in addition to, say, carrying a load of hay across a pasture. Today, of course, all pickups marry amenities with workhorse power, some ranking better than Ford in automotive surveys, but the F-150 retains its popularity. The escalating price of gasoline has started to result in fewer pickups on the road (maybe they’re not suitable for everyday driving?), but in rural areas where they’re still seen as a requirement, the F-150 is an almost ubiquitous sight.


7. Cadillac Eldorado (1953)

The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, one of the most popular of the 1950s Cadillac models that ushered in the era of the enormous luxury car.

The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, one of the most popular of the 1950s Cadillac models that ushered in the era of the enormous luxury car.

Throughout most of automotive history, the preeminent way to display status on wheels was with size (recent decades are an exception). Being seen behind the wheel of a big car meant that you spent some big bucks to get there. More than anyone else, the designers at Cadillac played to that desire. The Eldorado, which took its name from a legendary South American city of riches (which is spelled with two words), debuted as a convertible in 1953, a model prized today by collectors, as is the Eldorado of 1959, noteworthy for crazy tailfins that appeared as if they belonged on a shark (the double taillights are a nice touch). But it was the pricey, 224-inch-long Eldorados of the 1960s and 1970s that defined the model. Look at a photograph of a politician from those years waving from the backseat of a car in a parade; chances are he was sitting in an Eldorado.


6. Plymouth Belvedere (1954)

An ad for a 1956 Plymouth Belvedere. The car's exaggerated tail fins influenced styling in autos for several years. © Alden Jewell

An ad for a 1956 Plymouth Belvedere. The Belvedere introduced the exaggerated tail fins that influenced styling in autos for several years. © Alden Jewell

American car culture really came into its own in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That’s when cruising down Main Street on Saturday night — so everyone could check out your ride —became popular in towns across the U.S. And the Plymouth Belvedere was right there at the center of it all, typifying the moment as well as or better than any other car on the road at the time. Its first few model years left a bit to be desired; Chrysler trailed both Chevrolet and Ford, for instance, in introducing an automatic transmission. By the time the Belvedere’s third generation hit the streets, however, in 1957-59, the automaker was firing on all cylinders, beginning with the car’s classic tailfins. And then, just like that, the moment was gone. The Belvedere was downsized in the early 1960s, when nearly every other automaker was under the impression that bigger was better, and that was the beginning of the end for the model.


5. Chevrolet Corvair (1960)

Advertisement for a 1961 Chevrolet Corvair 700 4-Door Sedan. © Alden Jewell

Advertisement for a 1961 Chevrolet Corvair 700 4-Door Sedan. © Alden Jewell

This car has become so infamous, few remember it launched to great fanfare; it even won the coveted honor as Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1960. However, unlike every other vehicle on this list, the Corvair earns its place here for its faults. This is one of the cars consumer activist Ralph Nader labeled “unsafe at any speed” in his 1965 book of the same name. To be fair, Nader’s book targeted eight vehicles, not just the Corvair. Nor was it the only car manufactured with a rear-mounted engine. But the Corvair really was an accident just waiting to happen. Its swing-axle suspension was a disaster. To cut costs, the automaker did away with a front stabilizer bar, which required tire pressures outside the tires’ specifications. Nader’s book hurt the Corvair’s image and sales, but it had a lasting legacy, as it focused the auto industry’s attention on safety.


4. Ford Mustang (1964)

Advertisement for an early model Ford Mustang, which redefined the sports car market in the U.S. © Ford Motor Co.

Ad for an early Ford Mustang, which redefined the U.S. sports car market. © Ford Motor Co.

By the mid-1960s, Baby Boomers had become a force to be reckoned with in the auto market. They didn’t want their first car to look anything like what their parents drove, and once the Mustang caught their eye, its place in history was assured. Along with the Chevrolet Corvette, the Mustang was the only sports car — what came to be known as a pony car — on the road when it debuted, at least the only one priced at a level that made it affordable for just about anyone. (The reason the Mustang is on this list while the Corvette is not is because the former model remains relevant today in terms of mass appeal.) Ford sold 126,538 Mustangs in 1964, and an amazing 559,451 a year later. Very quickly, competition emerged — the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, and the Plymouth Barracuda. They were all popular cars, but they didn’t make a serious dent in the Mustang’s sales. And the Mustang remains popular today, thanks in part to that storied legacy.


3. Dodge Caravan (1984)

A 1986 Dodge Caravan on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. © Christopher Ziemnowicz

A 1986 Dodge Caravan on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. © Christopher Ziemnowicz

As Baby Boomers aged, they naturally began having kids. But unlike in earlier generations, mothers found themselves working outside the home as much as their husbands, and they needed a vehicle suited for their busy lives. Cue the minivan. In the mid-1980s station wagons had become a punchline, like the “Family Truckster” in the 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. Full-size vans were hardly family-friendly (they couldn’t even fit in a garage). Chrysler designers began work on a minivan in the early 1970s, but couldn’t interest their bosses until Lee Iacocca came along. By the time the Dodge Caravan debuted in 1984, along with the Plymouth Voyager, both Chrysler and America were ready for this new type of vehicle; second-generation front-wheel drive was a big plus. Minivans remain a popular choice for many families today.


2. Jeep Cherokee (1984)

An advertisement for the 1984 Jeep Cherokee, which set the stage for the modern SUV.

An advertisement for the 1984 Jeep Cherokee, which set the stage for the modern SUV.

The Cherokee’s lineage dates to World War II, when the U.S. military found Jeeps indispensable in the field. The Cherokee’s immediate predecessor, the Wagoneer, was a 4×4 dating from 1963, and the first Cherokee was actually manufactured in 1974. But it was the model that debuted a decade later that heralded the arrival of the sports utility vehicle as a big seller and cultural force. The Cherokee, like its ancestors, could still be driven off-road, but it featured a comfortable interior indistinguishable from those found in a family sedan, and it didn’t gulp gasoline, either. It wasn’t long before every automaker had at least one SUV in its lineup, with the Ford Explorer quickly becoming the top seller. Just as the fusty station wagon gave way to the minivan in the 1980s, the SUV became the fashionable family vehicle of choice in the 1990s. And the Cherokee started it all.


1. Toyota Prius (1997)

A 2009 Toyota Prius on display at an auto show. The Prius changed the American public's thinking on hybrid vehicles. © Luca Mascaro

A 2009 Toyota Prius on display at an auto show. The Prius changed the American public’s thinking on hybrid vehicles. © Luca Mascaro

Although popular in Japan, Toyota’s gasoline-electric hybrid didn’t make a huge impression when it debuted in the U.S. at the start of the century. Honda had already set the precedent in the field, bringing a hybrid to America with its Insight in 1999. It didn’t take long, however, before the Prius (the word is Latin for “to go before”) outpaced the Insight in sales, or before other automakers concluded they needed to have a hybrid on their sales floor. Economic forces spurred the Prius’ success. After gas prices hit $3 a gallon for the first time in the U.S. early in 2008, and then $4 a gallon just a few months later, the miles-per-gallon numbers touted for the Prius — 45 mpg city, 48 mpg highway — started to look mighty attractive. All-electric vehicles are still on the fringe in America, but as other vehicles on this list have shown, consumer behavior can change overnight.


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Written by

Todd Hill has been a working journalist since 1987, with a focus on meteorology, climate studies and the Hollywood and independent film industries. After 20 years in the media maelstrom of New York City, Todd is now based on a farm in the rural highlands of central Ohio.