the view through the windshield car blog
Ten Cars That Changed Everything

I have compiled a list of ten automobiles which have had the most impact on the auto industry (and, in many cases, society). These aren't necessarily my favorite cars (they're probably not all your favorites either) and many weren't automotive best sellers. That's OK, because this isn't a popularity contest. Rather, it is a recognition of those cars which had the most profound impact.

And the winners are (in no particular order):

ten best cars

1. Model T Ford: Before the T, cars were mere playthings for the rich. Henry's T didn't just put America on wheels, it put the world on wheels. The Model T was the first truly affordable car for the working man. Initially priced at $850 in 1908, the price dropped to $390 by 1914 due to production efficiencies. By 1927 a new Model T could be had for as little as $260. At its peak popularity, 1.25 million Model Ts were sold each year.

The Model T was effectively the first global car By 1918, Ford's American market share was an astonishing 49%, while 40% of the cars on British roads were Ts. By 1921, the Model T commanded 60% of the new car market around the world. Over 15 million Model T Fords were eventually produced.

Auto scribe/engineer/philosopher L. J. K. Setright wrote, "So profound was the effect of the Model T Ford on America, so much did it change the nature of the nation … its art, its music, its social structure …, that Henry Ford, who was responsible for it all, must be seen as the most effective revolutionary."

In 'Cannery Row', John Steinbeck wrote, "Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford ... planetary systems of gears than the solar system of stars."

2. Ford V8: While the 1932 Ford wasn't the first V8 produced, it was still such a new idea that people worried that gravitational forces might cause the bottoms of the slanted cylinder walls to wear out. They were wrong and every male in America lusted after the distinctive rumble which only a V8 can produce.

That's why V8s are still made today. And how could early hot rods have been developed without a flathead Ford V8 to move them?

3. 1947 Studebaker: After $11 million was spent on its development, the 1947 Studebaker - unveiled in June 1946 - rocked the automotive world. Its breakthrough styling instantly made every other new car look old-fashioned and forced every other car maker play to catch-up. The same envelope-bodied, three-box shape can still be seen in many of the designs of today's cars. Its breakthrough styling instantly made every other new car look old-fashioned and forced every other car maker play to catch-up.

Industry analysts of the period described the car as "years ahead of the competition." And, indeed, it was. The same envelope-bodied, three-box shape can still be seen in the designs of today's passenger automobiles.

4. Jaguar XK120: This all-new postwar car popularized the sports car movement in America. Its sleek body, tuned chassis and powerful engine made everyone want one. Or want to copy one. The XK120 was GM's 'bogey' for the 1953 Corvette, although the Chevy missed the target by a country mile. If there hadn't been a Jag XK120, there probably would have never been a Corvette of any kind. Or a two-seat Thunderbird, either.

5. 1961 Lincoln Continental: It stopped the chrome-laden, tri-color, tall-finned era dead in its tracks and reintroduced elegance to the American car market. I've met people who know nothing about cars yet fondly recall their parents', neighbor's or uncle's Lincoln four-door convertible. Lincoln's clean looks were envied and copied by other U.S. car manufacturers. This car defined the Kennedy-era; it represented a New Frontier in auto design.

6. 1963 Corvette Sting Ray: The first American-made production sports car which could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Europe's best. Independent rear suspension made it handle; the bulletproof 327 Chevy V8 made it roar; a four-speed Muncie tranny made it go and the striking styling was GM at its best and made the Corvette zoom out of the showroom. It was the embodiment of the same 'can-do' American spirit that put men on the moon. (The Corvette was the preferred ride of U.S. astronauts, by the way.)

7. Volkswagen Beetle: Small, technically obsolete and homely, it's a flawed but timeless car. Overwhelmingly successful in over 150 countries across the world, the air-cooled Beetle lived on until July 2003, when the last one rolled off the line at VW's Mexico plant. In total, 21,529,464 were produced, easily topping the 15 million record set by the Ford Model T in the 1920s.

The VW Beetle taught American consumers that low-priced, reliable cars could be produced with a high quality of fit and finish. It made people rethink their car values - perhaps other values, too. It may have spawned a cultural revolution: did people become hippies, forsaking material values, because they bought a Beetle or did hippies just decide to buy Beetles, forsaking other kinds of cars? Hmmmm.

8. Datsun 240Z: The first affordable and reliable sports car. At $3,500 in 1970, it cost 35% less than a Corvette. It looked great, handled well and offered unmatched quality. Less temperamental than Triumphs, Porsche 914s or MGs, it killed-off these mid-priced Eurosportsters, yet helped to keep the sports car movement alive in the U.S. during the downtrodden Seventies.

9. Honda Civic: In the midst of the 1973 gas crisis, the diminutive Civic offered a low price, decent build quality and a tiny, fuel-efficient engine that not only performed well, but could burn fuel cleanly. The little Civic's CVCC engine met the tough 1975 federal emission standards without a catalytic converter. It forced American car manufacturers to stop whining about government regulations and build better cars. If Honda hadn't built the Civic, Ford and GM would probably still be trying to sell us crappy Pintos and Vegas.

10. Lexus: Introduced in 1989 at a price 40% less than Mercedes and only 10 to 20% above Lincoln and Cadillac, this car (with no history and no heritage) rocketed past its pedigreed competitors to become the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. And, amazingly, it was all done without rebates or rental car sales. Lexus has forced its competition to make better cars. By 1999, Lexus was outselling every luxury car brand in the U.S., except Mercedes and Mercedes annual sales were less than 4,500 more (190,382 vehicles versus 185,890 vehicles) than those of upstart Lexus.

One hundred years from now, they'll still be using the Lexus Marketing Jihad as a business case study at the Wharton School and at Harvard.

I limited my list to ten but, if I expanded it, the eleventh spot would have surely gone to Jeep - for obvious reasons. It helped win a war, for one thing.

The twelfth spot would have gone to the original Mini. It popularized front-wheel drive and set the standard for small car packaging. Every FWD American subcompact of the 1980s owes a great debt to Alec Issigonis. (posted 10/3/07)

Other Pages Of Interest

copyright 1999, 2007, 2012-20 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


The facts presented on this website are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive.

If I have slandered any people or corporations, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.

Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.