One hundred and thirty years is a long time.That’s the age, more or less, of the automotive industry and naturally, its history is steep. Thousands of makes and models have come and gone over the decades, but only a few have really revolutionized the way auto manufacturers do business.
These are the vehicles that made everyone sit up and take notice. The ones that reshaped the North American automotive landscape.
Narrowing the field down to just one vehicle per decade was not easy. We focused on cars, trucks and SUVs that changed the industry specifically in North America, although that doesn’t mean it had to specifically be a North American vehicle. So, here are the 14 vehicles that changed the world and a few honorable mentions as well.
1880s – Benz Patent MotorWagen
The dawn of the automotive industry saw people all over the world experimenting with horseless carriages. Although it may be hard to pinpoint who exactly did it first, the consensus is that Karl Benz created the first proper internal combustion automobile in 1886 called the Benz Patent MotorWagen.
Using a one-cylinder engine, the three-wheel vehicle could transport two passengers and thus, the automobile was born.
Honorable Mention: Daimler-powered Wilhelm Wafter stagecoach
That same year, another German, Gottlieb Daimler, installed his internal combustion engine into a Wilhelm Wafter stagecoach and made what’s regarded as the first four-wheel automobile.
1890s – Duryea Motor Wagon
Although only 15 examples were built, the Duryea Motor Wagon was one of the first ever automobiles commercially sold in North America.
Using a four-hp one-cylinder gasoline engine, the Duryea was also the first automobile to win a race in America in 1896.
Honorable Mention: Stanley Steemer and Pope Electric Vehicles
At the dawn of the automobile industry, many different sources for propulsion and fuel were experimented with, including electricity and steam.
The Stanley Steemer and Pope Electrics could have completely changed the history of the automobile industry as we know it had they been more successful.
1900s – Oldsmobile Curved Dash
The Oldsmobile Curved Dash is thought by many to be the first mass-produced automobile. For many years, the Curved Dash outsold every other automobile by a good amount, only to be overtaken by the Model T at the end of the decade.
Using a mid-mounted one-cylinder engine, the Curved Dash produced five horsepower and had two forward gears.
Honorable Mention: Locomobile Steam Cars
Before the Oldsmobile Curved Dash took over the sales crown, the Locomobile was the best-selling car in America to begin the decade.
Powered by a two-cylinder steam engine, early cars were unreliable and had limited range. That didn’t stop Locomobile, which sold 4,000 of these steam buggies before switching over to internal combustion engines.
1910s – Ford Model T
Debuting in 1908, it was the 1910s when the Ford Model T really took over. A sensible, affordable and practical automobile, the Model T may be the most important car in automotive history.
As the first car built in a streamlined, mass-production facility, the Model T was outselling every other car on the market combined during its heyday.
The more efficient the plant got, the cheaper Ford could sell the car. In 1910, only 19,050 Model T cars were produced at a selling price of $900.
By 1916, production was up to 501,462 units thanks to a lower selling price of just $345. The year 1917 would see production increase yet again to 735,020 cars.
Honorable Mention: Cadillac
While Ford was making a car for the masses using innovative manufacturing techniques, Cadillac was making advances in automotive technology during the 1910s.
Innovations included the first electric starter, first production V8 engine and the first standard fully enclosed body.
1920s – Ford Model A
By 1927, more than 14.5 million Ford Model T models had been sold, but it was getting long in the tooth. That year, Chevrolet had overtaken Ford as the No. 1 selling automobile manufacturer in the United States, so it was time for something new from Ford.
The answer was the Model A. A much more modern car in every possible way, the Model A was available in four standard colors and a multitude of body styles.
Once again, Ford created a vehicle that was exactly what consumers wanted and before the decade was over, millions of Model A cars had been sold.
Honorable Mention: Ford Model T and Chevrolet Series AA/AB
Even if the Model A was a hit, the Model T was still the most dominate car of the decade, peaking at more than 2 million units sold in 1923 alone. But with the arrival of the Chevrolet AA in 1927 would spell doom for the Model T, as it helped Chevrolet overtake Ford in overall sales.
The AA’s successor, aptly named the AB, would continue Chevrolet’s dominance in 1928 before the Model A would once again put Ford on top in 1929.
1930s – Tatra 77
Although the Tatra 77 was never offered in North America, it defines the phrase ahead of its time. Featuring innovations that wouldn’t become popular until decades later, the Tatra 77’s most obvious advancement was its aerodynamics.
During a time where few cared about how aerodynamically shaped their cars were, the Tatra 77A boasted a drag coefficient of just 0.212. For reference, the most aerodynamic cars on sale today, like the Toyota Prius and Tesla Model S, have a drag coefficient rating of just 0.24.
But the Tatra 77 and 77A were more than just a sleek shape. It had an independent suspension at all four corners as well as a rear-mounted V8 engine with hemispherical combustion chambers constructed in part using lightweight magnesium alloy.
Honorable Mention: Chrysler Airflow
Tatra wasn’t the only manufacturer experimenting with aerodynamics in the 1930s. Chrysler also introduced a streamlined passenger car called the Airflow.
Like the 77, the Airflow was ahead of its time but unfortunately for Chrysler, it was a commercial failure as people were not ready to embrace such rounded, aerodynamic shapes yet for automobiles.
1940s – Willys CJ-2A
Would the war have been won by the Allies without the Willys MB? Hard to say with certainty, but the Willys MB Jeep did go a long way to helping the Allies in the Second World War.
As the war was ending, Willys turned the brand’s attention towards building civilian version of the military grade MB. Designed as a 4X4 workhorse, the CJ-2A went into production in 1945.
Aside from a tailgate, side mounted spare tire, larger headlights and smaller grille, the CJ-2A didn’t differ that much from the MB. Transmissions were upgraded and a host of accessories could be added to the civilian Jeep.
It’s safe to say that there was a market for such a vehicle, as the spirit of the CJ-2A lives on to this day as the Jeep Wrangler.
Honorable Mention: Tucker 48
What could have been if Tucker had been more successful? Despite only 51 cars being built, the Tucker 48 included innovations that wouldn’t find their way into other cars until years after its introduction.
An adaptive headlight that could change directions, an occupant perimeter safety cage, a roll bar integrated into the roof, a padded dashboard and a steering rack placed behind the front axle were just some of the safety features.
The doors extended into the roof for the Tucker 48 and there was even a thought towards theft protection as the parking brake could be locked with a key.
Tucker had many other innovative ideas including a monstrous flat-six engine, but these never came to be before bankruptcy forced Tucker to close shop.
1950s – Volkswagen Beetle
The Volkswagen Beetle can trace its roots back to the 1930s, but it was the 1950s when the car became a worldwide phenomenon.
Redefining what affordable, reliable motoring was all about, the Beetle was, in many ways, the 1950s equivalent to the Ford Model T.
Gaining momentum through the decade, people came to appreciate the Beetle’s simple mechanics and no-nonsense approach to automobile manufacturing.
It proved to become overwhelmingly popular over the next 20 years, selling millions of copies in the United States alone.
It was so successful that it made many American automakers rethink their small car strategies and some would even try to copy the Beetle’s formula.
Honorable Mention: Chevrolet Bel Air and Buick Skylark
The 1953 Buick Skylark is considered by many as one of the most beautiful cars ever made. It ushered in an ear of over-the-top style that would dominate the rest of the 1950s car design.
And although it may not be the most stylish, it’s hard to think of 1950s automobiles and not recall an image of the Chevrolet Bel Air. It’s the poster child of 1950s motoring and would influence car design for decades to come.
1960s – BMC Mini
In 1959, the British Motor Corporation introduced a car that would become an icon of the 1960s and revolutionize the automobile industry as a whole. Fittingly referred to as the Mini, the tiny two-box re-established how passenger cars would be built in the future.
Using a transversely mounted engine with an integrated transmission lubricated by the engine’s oil, the Mini was a packaging marvel. It allowed a car as small as the Mini to fit four adults.
But more importantly, the transversely mounted engine design would become the norm for front-wheel drives from here on out, although most would feature a separately encased transmissions.
Honorable Mention: Ford Mustang
In North America, the 1960s were all about muscle cars. Although the Ford Mustang was not the first high-performance American ground-pounder to be released in the 1960s, it was easily the most successful. Spawning a whole new sub-segment of pony cars, the Mustang became an instant icon that lives on today.
To better understand just how crazy Mustang mania was in the 1960s, 559,451 Mustangs were sold in 1965 alone and another 607,568 were built in 1966.