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.
1970s – Honda Civic
Although Japanese automobile manufacturers were selling cars in America long before the 1970s, this was the decade when things really took off. Aided by a massive oil crisis, consumers flocked to smaller, more efficient cars, like the Honda Civic.
This started a revolution in North America that would catch the domestic automakers off guard and propel Japanese auto manufacturers from novelties to mainstream.
By the end of the decade, the Honda Civic was a household name as front-wheel-drive compacts were becoming the norm. And by the end of the next decade, rear-wheel drive passenger vehicles of any kind were becoming a scarce commodity.
Honorable Mention: Chevrolet B-Body Cars
Honda may have benefitted from “right-place, right-time” during the 1970s oil-crisis, but Chevrolet was one of the best manufacturers to react to the need for more efficient automobiles.
During this time, full-size cars were still very much in demand, but their insane thirst for fuel was not.
For 1977, Chevrolet redesigned the brand’s full-size cars, making them shorter, taller and narrower than before. This stripped some 600-800 pounds from the car’s curb weight, yet still increased headroom, rear legroom and trunk space.
They also wore new squared-off styling that would become a staple for the industry over the next decade.
1980s – Dodge Caravan
In the 1980s, big heavy station wagons were falling out of favor as the family car of choice. But consumers still needed something capable of hauling around a lot of people and a lot of stuff. Chrysler came up with the answer in 1984 – the minivan.
Based on a car platform instead of a truck, minivans were smoother, more efficient and easier to drive than full-size vans while still being capable of seating seven to eight passengers.
So successful was the Dodge Caravan and its siblings that soon every major auto manufacturer was scrambling to produce a minivan of their own.
Honorable Mention: Ford Taurus and Ford F-150
In 1986, the Ford Taurus revolutionized mid-size sedans in terms of design. More rounded and aerodynamic, it allowed a car of the Taurus’ size to achieve much better fuel economy, which led General Motors and Chrysler to adopt more rounded mid-size designs in the years to come to meet tougher CAFÉ standards.
The interior was also ahead of its time and redefined how user friendly a car could be. Also of special note is the rise of the pickup truck in the 1980s. This was the decade that the Ford F-150 would become the best-selling vehicle in America – a title it hasn’t relinquished to this day.
1990s – Ford Explorer
Consumer tastes are fickle and by the 1990s, minivans were already falling out of fashion. Stuck with a “soccer mom” stigma, the next craze in family vehicles emerged during this decade; the sport utility vehicle.
Suddenly, everyone wanted a raised-up, 4X4 SUV to haul the kids to soccer practice and the malls on weekends.
The poster child for SUVs during this craze was easily the Ford Explorer. Right sized and widely popular, it seemed every street corner had an Explorer parked on it by the end of the 1990s. With Ford selling nearly half a million per year by the decade’s close, maybe there actually was one on every corner in America.
Honorable Mention: Lexus LS
When the Lexus LS arrived at the start of the decade, many people laughed at the idea of a Japanese luxury car. But the Lexus LS was so well-built and well-engineered that it proved luxury automobiles were not the exclusive property of the Germans.
By the end of the decade, many other Japanese manufacturers were selling luxury cars of their own.
2000s – Toyota Prius
Although it wasn’t the world’s first hybrid, the Toyota Prius in the 2000s completely changed the automotive landscape. Thought of a novelty at first, hybrid drivetrain technology entered maturity in the 2000s and became wholly mainstream.
The Prius changed what consumers expected from efficient cars and no car has done more for gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles.
Since its introduction, more than five million Prius have been sold. Without that kind of success, would hybrid sports cars, pickup trucks and luxury sedans have ever made it to production?
Honorable Mention: Honda CR-V
As the 2000s rolled in, body-on-frame SUVs were already falling out of favor. It was now the crossover’s time to shine and sparkling brightest amongst them was the Honda CR-V.
Always seeming to offer exactly what consumers wanted, the car based CR-V would become the number one selling utility vehicle (SUV or CUV) by the decade’s close.