American cars have been at the vanguard of the automotive world since before the Model T began rolling of Ford’s first assembly line. The electric starter, production V8 engine, automatic transmission, car stereo, and the muscle car are all American inventions, and each has had a profound effect on the way people interact with their cars all over the world.
At their best, American cars offer performance, luxury, glamor, affordability, ingenuity, or any combination of these traits. The art deco streamliners of the ’30s were a beacon of optimism during the Great Depression. The tail-finned land yachts of the ’50s were a symbol of post-war prosperity, and the tire-scorching muscle cars of the ’60s were the embodiment of straight line performance. A recent crop of exotic performance cars has proven that Americans can even go toe to toe with today’s best European hypercars.
History has proven time and again that a car doesn’t need to be a sales success to change the world. Here are 10 trail-blazing American cars that changed the automotive landscape and became icons.
1. Tucker 48
While most ’40s cars were warmed-over versions of pre-war models, the 1948 Tucker looked like something out of the future, and with safety-minded features like a reinforced passenger cell, padded dash, and third headlight that turned with the wheels, it was. The brainchild of industrialist Preston Tucker, the company earned national attention after a successful public relations and fundraising tour, but it only managed to build 51 cars built before it ran out of money. Tucker’s collapse became a national scandal, and U.S. government indicted the company’s executives for fraud. Because of their rarity and historical significance, the Tuckers have become some of the most valuable American cars ever built. This car was sold by RM Sothebys in August 2014 for $1,567,500.
2. Cadillac Eldorado
Throughout Cadillac’s star-studded past, few models shine as brightly as the Eldorado. Launched in 1953, the range-topping Caddy was an ultra-exclusive flagship model that attracted buyers from President Eisenhower to Elvis Presley. By the end of the decade, the redesigned four-door model cost more than a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and was considered one of the most elegant cars in the world. In 1967, the Eldorado was re-imagined as a radical two-door “personal luxury coupe,” kicking off one of the most popular segments of the late ’60s and ’70s, and becoming the second front-wheel drive car ever built by General Motors. Proving that there’s plenty of magic left in these old Caddys, this 1958 example was sold at this year’s Amelia Island auction by RM Sotheby’s for $148,500.
3. Chevrolet Corvette
By the early 1950s, America had developed a small but substantial appetite for sports cars. The problem was that no American automaker was offering them. In 1953, Chevrolet introduced the Corvette, a V6-powered roadster that was as pretty as it was slow and unreliable. By 1955, Chevy had worked out the kinks, and gave the Corvette performance to go with its looks. Since then, the Corvette has become known as “America’s Sports Car,” and amassed one of the most loyal fan followings of any car in the world. In 2014, a 1967 race-prepped L-88 Stingray Corvette sold for $3.85 million, making it the most expensive ‘Vette of all time.
4. Shelby Cobra
The brainchild of chicken farmer-turned-race car driver Carroll Shelby, the Cobra was born when he brokered a deal between Ford and British carmaker AC to shoehorn massive American V8 engines into the lightweight roadsters. The 427 Cobra, built from 1965 to 1967, is arguably the most iconic of Shelby’s cars. With flared fenders, massive leg pipes, and a performance-tuned Ford V8, it’s arguably the quintessential sports car of the 1960s. While it wasn’t a financial success in its day, the Cobra is fast even by today’s standards, and collectors are willing to pay a premium for them. This 1967 “Semi-Competition” Cobra was sold by RM Sotheby’s for $2,117,500 at this year’s Amelia Island auction.
5. Ford Mustang
Sure, affordable sporty cars came before the Mustang, but nothing has ever matched its level of success and timeless appeal. Introduced at 1964 World’s Fair, the Mustang perfectly tapped into the emerging youth market, and kicked off the great pony car arms race of the 1960s. By 1967, the Mustang had been joined by competitors like the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Plymouth Barracuda, and AMC Javelin. Despite a suddenly crowded market, Ford had already sold 1.7 million Mustangs in its first 36 months. Now in its fifth decade, the Mustang is still at the center of the red-hot American muscle car market.
6. Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird
Along with the nearly identical Dodge Daytona, the Roadrunner Superbird was Plymouth’s aerodynamically-enhanced homologation special for the 1970 NASCAR season. While its pointed beak and comically large rear wing made a difference on the track (top speed was upwards of 180 miles per hour), it’s polarizing looks, Loony Toons decals (Plymouth licensed the Road Runner character from Warner Bros.), and 18.4-foot length made it a sales dud, and unsold Superbirds sat on dealer lots until the mid-’70s. With fewer than 3,000 built, the rare and iconic ‘Bird represents the peak of muscle car madness. This car sold for $363,000 by RM Sotheby’s in 2013.
7. AMC Eagle
American Motors Corporation may be long gone, but its last great idea has grown to become one of the most successful segments in the auto market. In 1980, the struggling automaker introduced the Eagle, a lifted sedan and station wagon with a four-wheel drive system borrowed from its Jeep brand, creating the world’s first crossover SUV. The car was a rare bright spot for AMC in the ’80s, selling in respectable numbers until it was absorbed by Chrysler in 1988. While AMC is long gone, its engines lived on in Jeep products well into the ’90s, and after years of semi-obscurity, the Eagle is finally beginning to get its due in the pages of automotive history. As all-wheel drive crossovers continue to explode in popularity, they can all trace their roots directly back to this offering from America’s last major independent automaker.
8. Saleen S7
Saleen had long built its reputation on tuning and supercharging Mustangs, and while the S7 was built around Ford performance parts, it was no mere tuner project. Introduced in 2000, the car’s unique hand-built chassis and 7.0 liter Ford V8 mounted amidships made the S7 a true world-class supercar. It could rocket from zero-to-60 in the low-three second range, and competed in the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans races. In 2005, two turbochargers were added to the car, boosting the engine from 550 to 750 horsepower. Production ended in 2009, but with a top speed of 248 miles per hour, the S7 is still one of the first American supercars that could to stand up to Europe’s best.
9. Ford GT
Built between 2004 and 2006, the GT was a modern incarnation of Ford’s iconic GT40 racer of the late ’60s. That car’s looks were so timeless that even though the GT40 and GT were built 40 years apart, they shared more than a passing resemblance. The 21st century GT was powered by a 5.4 liter supercharged V8 and rocketed from zero-to-60 in the mid-three second range. Even though the GT was a high profile halo car for Ford, production ended after only 4,038 of the mid-engined supercars were built. An all-new GT was unveiled at 2015’s Detroit Auto Show, and Ford plans to enter the car in the 2016 endurance race at Le Mans — exactly 50 years after the GT40’s historic 1-2-3 finish.
10. Hennessey Venom GT
In 2005, the Bugatti Veyron transformed the performance car landscape by becoming the fastest and most powerful car ever built. Refusing to be outdone, Texas-based Hennessey Performance Engineering unleashed the 270 mile per hour Venom GT, boldly snatching the title away from the French-German company. Following the same basic blueprint set by Carroll Shelby with the Cobra, the Venom GT starts with a lightweight body and chassis from the British Lotus Exige, and crams an American 1,244 horsepower 7.2 liter turbocharged V8 (from General Motors) behind the seats. While the Veyron was limited to 450 cars, Hennessey plans to produce only 10 of the $1 million cars a year, making the Venom GT one of the rarest hypercars in the world.
From luxury to ingenuity to speed, these American classics played a significant role in the evolution of the automotive industry, and each earned their place in history. From well-known titans like the Ford Mustang to nearly-forgotten trailblazers like the AMC Eagle, the modern automotive landscape wouldn’t be what it is today without these icons.