Matthew Romack profile picture Matthew Romack 3 years ago
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The Most Important Car By Decade; Part 2

The Most Important Car By Decade; Part 2 - Blog

Thanks for stopping by for Part 2 of take on the most important cars by decade. This list will cover cars from 1970 to present. If you haven’t read part 1, I highly recommend you stop now and read it first.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, welcome back. Now, sit back and enjoy Part 2.

As in Part 1, some of the cars I will list below may not be iconic, but are important nonetheless. There is a difference between a car merely being iconic and being an important driving force in the automotive world, although often those two criteria coincide. For a car to make this list it must have moved the automotive world forward in a unique and measurable way, and have made a lasting impact that can be felt even today. This may not even be on account of the model itself, but merely what the car represents in the public imagination, or in terms of the company and brand that produced it.

As a side note, you may have noticed that Part 1 was completely dominated by American cars. Admittedly, I failed to explain my general reasoning in that post. My understanding is that for much of its history, American cars consistently defined the American auto industry. However, as this list will demonstrate, that started to change in the 1970s. To better understand my reasoning behind that, I recommend you read my post “Death Of The American Car” where I go into further detail on why American cars fell behind the rest of the world in the 1960s and 70s.

1970s

1970s Toyota Corolla.
1970s Toyota Corolla.

While the 1960s were a time of experimentation and innovation for American cars, the 1970s ended up becoming something of a “lost decade” for the Big Three. As a result of this setback, American automakers would find themselves playing catch up through the 1980s and beyond. The 1970s where also hard times for the average American. The Vietnam War dragged on until finally winding down in 1975, the brief national high at the finale of the Space Race was wearing off, and most importantly, an oil crisis and recession hit in 1973. The effect of the latter two factors especially shaped the mood of the automotive industry at the time. But to make matters still more difficult for manufacturers, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency was rolling out new emission regulations that made cars more expensive and required fixes that sapped power outputs. Americans were looking for cheaper, more efficient cars, they found them, not from American brands, but from once oddball imports. And the Toyota Corolla was perhaps the star of them all.

The Corolla (Latin for “Little Crown”) had technically been on sale in America since the 1960s, but it only really became popular stateside in the 1970s. The Corolla was small, light, quick, and versatile; by 1974, it became the bestselling car in the world. What little direct competition it faced, such as the Chevy Vega, was quickly found wanting. The Vega was hyped by Project Manger John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean) as a revolutionary new car, claiming to Motor Trend that the Vega would “out-handle any European sports car,” “out-accelerate any car in its class,” and “have the highest build quality in the world.” Unfortunately, the Vega was horrible. In fact: the Vega was slow, handled like a brick, and arguably had the worst build quality of any GM product to date. Few examples survive today.

Meanwhile, Toyota wasn’t trying to sell you any “car of future.” All they wanted was to sell you a car (which ironically turned out to indeed be the car of the future.) The Corolla marketed itself as small, efficient, and reliable transportation. Toyota’s humble “truth in advertising” approach, similar to Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” campaign, was a breath of fresh air compared to GM’s aggressive efforts to move the Vega out of showrooms. The Corolla was admittedly slow: its base engine was a 1.2 L four cylinder that made between 50 and 70 HP (depending on who you get your numbers from.) A 1.6 L four cylinder, making a not-greatly-improved 102 HP, was offered in late 1970.

In 1972, however, Toyota did decide to formally spice up the Corolla with the S5 and SR5 trims. Their engines produced around 113 HP, and came with a 5-speed manual transmission as standard, all wrapped in a sleek coupe body to give it a decently sporty look. In addition to the sport trims, the Corolla was offered in the standard sedan, coupe, and hatchback varieties, making it more than versatile enough to compete with pretty much any other small car. Car And Driver was so impressed with the Corolla that in 1974, they entered a SR5 into SCCA competition as their team car.

1975 brought the third generation Corolla, and with it, some noteworthy growing pains. Road and Track called this new Corolla “large and heavy,” expensive, and cramped in comparison to a contemporary VW Rabbit (not the pickup, that came later, but the compact.) But Toyota still had one trick up its sleeve: fuel economy. Toyota’s 3K engine, a carry over from the last generation, still sipped gas instead of chugging it.

The Corolla nameplate carries on to this day, and chances are, either you, a friend, or family member has owned one at some point. With over 44 million sold worldwide, it is now the bestselling car in history. The modern Corolla is still known for its entry-level price, fuel economy, and basic look and feel. Much like the Ford Model T, The Toyota Corolla brought cheap, reliable transportation to the masses, and secured Toyota’s staying power in the American market, while also outshining its American competitors for decades to come.

Honorable mention; Hond Civic

1975 Honda Civic.
1975 Honda Civic.

An honorable mention has to go to the Honda Civic. While the Civic didn’t sell as well as the Corolla, it was vastly more fun to drive, and was far closer to an enthusiast car. The Civic went on to bring us such legends as the Type R and the SI, true enthusiast cars that are still reliable and efficient enough to drive daily. While the impact of the Civic isn’t as broad as the Corolla, it deserves a spot alongside it in the history books.

1980s

1984 Plymouth Voyager.
1984 Plymouth Voyager.

The 1980s were big. The music was big, the bands were big, the hair was big, the economy was big, an actor was President, and Doc Brown and Marty McFly were traveling through time in a DeLorean in a blockbuster movie. Everything about the 1980s was big… except for the cars. As we covered, the 1970s brought us the rise of the small import car, while big American cars suffered. This forced the Big Three to reinvent, and downsize, their lineup— changing the American automotive market forever.

GM, Chrysler, and Ford all brought out compact cars in the 70s. While some sold well at first, all of them ended up as massive billion dollar flops. Chrysler had been hit especially hard by the changing market. Long the smallest of the Big Three, the Chrysler Corporation was loaded with debt, massive union contracts and pension deals, and falling sales. Everything seemed to be spelling doom, and the corporation with roots in some of the oldest brands in the business was facing certain bankruptcy.

However, in 1978, former Ford boss Lee Iacocca was brought on to bring the once great organization back to its former glory. He did everything he could to streamline the business model, but the sheer amount of unfunded liabilities was simply too much. So in 1979, Mr. Iacocca went to the US Government and asked for a loan. A big loan. After several televised hearings, the Government threw Chrysler its lifeline, and gave them $1.5 billion to stay afloat long enough to make good. Chrysler took the money, and used it to develop the revolutionary “K Car:” not a car model in itself, but a remarkably versatile unibody platform that could be adapted for numerous different types of cars and thus save enormous amounts of time and money on factory tooling and engineering. The smaller “K cars” were a hit, and their contributions to Chrysler’s brands started flying off dealer lots. But Mr. Iacocca wasn’t quite done yet, he had his eyes on another prize.

The Station Wagon had been a staple of family transportation for decades. They roamed the highways and byways of America, beloved by small businesses but more often filled to the brim with large families that had outgrown even full-size sedans. Chrysler, however, had a concept that looked to change that state of affairs. Not merely by inventing a new model car, but a whole new automotive segment. In 1984, Chrysler introduced the Minivan to the world.

When Mr. Iacocca first drove the new Plymouth Voyager on stage, onlookers were blinded by the nonstop camera flashes. The excitement filling the room briefly shifted to nervous tension as Mr. Iacocca couldn’t open the sliding door. The other Chrysler executives had accidentally activated the child lock backstage. Laughing, Iacocca finally did get the door open, and other Chrysler executives poured out behind him. Despite the slightly awkward launch, the new minivan took off instantly.

As the new Minivan was naturally built on the perennial K platform, it was easily adapted with siblings in every brand in Chrysler’s stables: the Plymouth Voyager, the Dodge Caravan, and later the Chrysler Town and Country (which ironically appropriated its name from a station wagon.) The remarkable new vehicles brought welcome change to family transportation everywhere. The average Chrysler minivan could seat up to 8 people, if properly equipped, and enough cargo room to hold everything a family needs for a vacation. Alternatively, one could remove the seats and carry just about anything. Unlike boatlike station wagons, the new minivan could fit in even the smallest garage, but most revolutionary of all— the piece de resistance: built in cupholders! These new vans also had a compact appetite for gasoline. The 2 barrel carbureted inline 4, supplied by Mitsubishi, meant that you could cruse past endless gas stations filled with station wagons.

The Minivan was an immediate success, with over 209,000 sold in its first year. By 1985, Ford, Chevy, and Toyota all quickly developed their own minivans, though Chevy called theirs a “Midvan” to compete with Chrysler through a larger package. But Chrysler came out ahead: they were more stylish, efficient, and well-rounded.

Chrysler’s minivan sales continued to grow throughout the 90s. Dodge Caravan sales steadily increased from 1990 to 1996, and in 1997 dipped by a whopping 117 units. Demand stayed strong though the early 2000s, with sales remaining in the 200,000 unit range until 2007. Interest has slumped since, thanks to the rise of the crossover and SUV, but the Minivan nonetheless remains a staple of the American family. Time will tell if it will last, or be upended like the station wagon, it dethroned.

Chrysler’s Minivan created a whole new segment in the American auto industry, redefined family transportation, and most importantly, for the first time in a decade, an American auto maker did something new and initiative. Fortunately, this innovation also helped save Chrysler from certain doom.

Honorable Mention; Pontiac Fiero.

1986 Pontiac Fiero GT
1986 Pontiac Fiero GT

I wont say too much about the Fiero here, as I’ve already covered it in depth on this website! I’ll link my article on the Fiero for you below.

To give the nutshell version, Chrysler wasn’t the only company looking to change things up in the 80s. GM actually built one thing that was new and innovative. The Fiero was a sophisticated update to the old muscle car formula: midengined, lightweight, and built on a new space frame with plastic body panels that wouldn’t dent like metal. While the Fiero was cursed by a horrible launch, with countless recalls and engines catching fire, the car’s run ended on a high note with the V6 model ascending to the heights of a true spots car.

Doug Demuro voice For more of my thoughts on the Fiero, click the link below to visit Autotrader.com/oversteer (JK it’s just my blog sorry.)

The 1990s

1991 Ford Explorer
1991 Ford Explorer

The 90s brought us the rise of the internet, video games, and housing prices on speculation! Everything was getting bigger, including the automobile. The era of small cars was over. The oil crisis was now a distant memory, and America once again wanted cars as big as the scandals in the White House.

Ford traditionally hasn’t had the best luck with designing particularly brilliant passenger cars. The Edsel, Pinto, and Aspire were all awful at worst, forgettable at best. However, one vehicle that Ford has always excelled at making is their pickup trucks. The Ford F series, starting with the 100, later renamed F150, were always reliable, tough, and capable. By the 1990s, Ford hoped to adapt the formula that made their trucks successful into another rising class of automobile: the Sport Utility Vehicle.

Ford already had a big success in proto-SUVs on their hands with the Bronco. You know, the big brick-shaped truck thing OJ road in to escape the cops. But Ford needed something a bit more family friendly than a rugged niche off-roader. You see, as automakers were seeing minivans fly off of dealer lots, they noticed that their larger truck-based vehicles were becoming popular too. But why? Traditional off-road vehicles were square, boxy, and rough— a far cry from the sleek, smooth, and soft ride you could get in a comparable minivan. But, as it turns out, many families liked the option of having a big vehicle that could go places a minivan simply can’t. Want to take your kids on a camping trip, but don’t feel like hiking a mile to the camp site? Now you could buy an SUV. Want to drive in the rain though the mud of the dirt road that you live on? Buy an SUV. The family hauling minivan’s low ground clearance may have improved aerodynamics, but it also meant that going off-pavement was very difficult. Ford saw an opportunity to expand their lineup by taking advantage of this consumer trend, and increase sales in the process. In 1990, Ford debuted their new family-centric SUV, and gave it a fitting name: Explorer.

The 1991 Ford Explorer was only technically “brand new.” It was actually based directly on the existing Bronco 2, and also shared a dash, grill, headlights, hood, and lots of other parts with the Ranger pickup. But the resulting combination worked remarkably well. The Explorer could also still be had with either 2 and 4 doors, which helped it appeal to individuals as well as growing families. The standard and only engine was a 4.0L V6, and the transmission choices were a Mazda-supplied 5 speed manual and a Ford 4 speed overdrive automatic. While neither combo made for a fast or exciting drive, they got the job done. The real star of the show for the Explorer was Ford’s 4WD system, which was advanced for the time. Owners had access to a push button “shift on the fly” system, that allowed the driver to shift between 4-wheel high and 2-wheel drive at any speed, while low gear 4WD could be selected at a stop.

In 1994 Ford redesigned the Explorer, giving it a softer, less truck-like appearance. The Explorer was still offered in 2 and 4 doors, but this time rear wheel drive was made standard and 4WD was an option. The original V6 engine from the first-generation Explorer was carried over to the second generation, and a 5.0L V8, making 210 HP, was offered. The engine was later reengineered to make 215 HP, and in 1997 Ford added a dual overhead cam V6 to the engine lineup.

As with any “new” product, some controversy and scandal around the SUV’s newfound popularity ensued. Most SUVs are fairly narrow, tall, and have relatively short wheelbases. Thus they have a high center of gravity, and this increases the chances of a rollover crash during sharp turns at high speed. The Explorer (and Bronco 2, which shares its platform,) is very prone to rollovers for this reason. Ford started facing lawsuits over the problem, which eventually resulted in 240 deaths and over 3000 injuries. In response, when Ford engineers and designers were busy working on a redesign for the 95 model, the engineers suggested lowering the ride height and increasing the width by 2” to reduce rollover risk. However, in keeping with Ford’s tradition of bean counting since the Pinto, accounts crunched the numbers and determined the redesign would be too expensive: it was determined that Ford would actually save money by settling suits out of court in comparison to the price of engineering and testing a whole new platform for the SUV. Fortunately for Ford, the company was able to partially deflect blame through a possible scapegoat: Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

Firestone had a long relationship with Ford, supplying them with tires for over 90 years. But a lack of quality control, what Ford would later argue as “downright reckless business practices,” at the Decatur Illinois tire plant was resulting in substandard tires being sold. In hot climates, while traveling at speed, the tires could overheat, causing the tread to separate from the sidewall resulting in a blowout, which could result in a rollover crash. This problem wasn’t helped by Ford’s recommended inflation of 26PSI, which lowers the ride height and causes more tread to have contact with the road for better handling and traction. Unfortunately, this also causes the tires to operate at much higher temperatures than normal, and combined with the defective tires could lead to disaster.

In May of 2000, Ford and Firestone representatives both appeared before Congress to try and sort things out, or mostly just blame each other. Ford claimed the faulty tires were the culprit, while sending out new tire inflation stickers and notices to inflate tires to 30PSI, at the same time. Firestone blamed Ford’s design flaws and their recommendation for low tire inflation. All and all, neither company came out clean. Firestone spent over $1 billion on the legal battles, nearly bankrupting the company, while Ford also spent $500 million. Both companies reputations were severely tarnished, and the whole legal saga resulted in the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, or TREAD Act being passed in 2000.

Nonetheless, the Explorer still sold over 1 million units from 1990 to 2000, making it among the best-selling cars of the decade, and still one of the most popular SUVs on the market. The Explorer became the cultural face of the America’s growing love of the SUV and cheap gasoline. This, combined with the scandal and new consumer protection laws, is why the Explorer is the most important car of the 1990s.

Honorable Mention; Mazda Miata.

1990 Mazda Miata.
1990 Mazda Miata.

While the Explorer was showing how Americans love big SUVs, Mazda’s new Miata proved how much Americans also love small, slow sports cars. The Miata was an instant sales hit, with demand far outweighing supply, and saved Mazda from shutting its doors in the US for good. The Miata was hit with critics too: it handled like a Porsche, but cost half as much, and came with Japanese reliability. The Miata has gone on to become the bestselling car in its class, and shows no signs of slowing down. Click the link below to read my article on the only performance Miata, for a more in-depth look at this fascinating car.

The Most Important Car By Decade; Part 2 - Blog

While the 90s gave us the rise of the SUV, it also birthed the modern environmental movement. While popular environmental consciousness had been around for decades, it started to really gain momentum and mainstream media attention in the 90s. And much like the big SUVs, it was a bit in-your-face. Like, “setting fire to Hummers at a California dealership” kind of in your face (this actually happened.) The automotive industry had made a few attempts at ecofriendly cars before. GM developed the fully electric and streamlined EV1 in the 90s, but it was only available for very limited lease to test the waters, and when the lease was up, GM destroyed nearly all functional examples. Then in 2000, marking a new “green century,” Toyota introduced the Prius for worldwide sale.

The Prius’ initial release in 1997 release was Japan-only, and was the first ever mass-produced gas-electric hybrid car. Since the gasoline engine was only there to produce adequate power for keeping the battery charged and the car running smoothly at high speeds, the Prius could boast remarkable fuel economy figures. After a successful run in Japan, Toyota introduced the Prius into the American market in 2000, making it the second mass produced gas electric hybrid for the American market (the Honda Insight had just beaten Toyota to the American market) However, the Prius had a few tricks up its sleeve to beat out the Insight. Firstly, the Prius was a sedan that seated 5, and with a small but usable trunk. The Insight was available as a 2-seater coupe only, with an even smaller, less usable trunk. This severely limited the Insight’s appeal— a car for you and one person you’d better like— while the Prius was free to market itself as a family sedan.

The Prius was originally powered by an inline 4 making 70 hp, while the electric motor offered the capability of adding an additional 20 hp. The first gen Prius also boasted standard tech that the Insight simply didn’t have, or you had to pay extra for. The base Prius had air conditioning, remote keyless entry, a cassette stereo, power windows/locks/mirrors, height-adjustable front seats, and 14-inch alloy wheels. This made the Prius not merely a high-tech novelty, but a genuinely usable and livable car: a real family sedan that, when driven conservatively, could make over 40 MPG on the highway, and 50 in the city! These numbers were simply unheard of for gas or even diesel powered cars of the time. By 2003, Toyota was ready to launch off the successes of the first gen with a significant update.

For the Prius’ second generation, Toyota completely redesigned the car. The sedan format was dropped entirely in favor of a more practical and aerodynamic liftback, while also lengthening the car by 6in overall for added interior space. The sleek new design and optimized engineering meant that the new Prius had a remarkably slippery drag coefficient of 0.26, which granted even better fuel efficiency. The EPA now rated the Prius at 59 mpg city, and 51 highway, making it one of the most fuel cars efficient ever mass produced up to that point. The Prius also had lots of advanced (for the time) tech available: keyless entry, a DVD-based sat-nav system, HID headlights… all on a compact family sedan that could easily cut your gasoline bill in half.

In terms of Toyota’s broader lineup, the new Prius was slotted in-between the Corolla and Camry in size, and the price was also very attractive, starting at just 20k for the base model. To further incentivize car buyers who wouldn’t have otherwise considered such a vehicle, the Prius also came with a long warranty for the hybrid powertrain. Through subsidies, Priuses for sale in California had their hybrid battery packs covered for 150,000 miles or 10 years— a warranty length utterly unheard of in any other car. And, should the battery pack go out, there are plenty of aftermarket companies that will rebuild the pack, or ship you the parts— just ask Tyler Hoover.

This helped the Prius double its sales in 2003. And rising gas prices in 2005 meant that sales doubled again. Americans were starting to dump their big SUVs in favor of smaller, more efficient cars, and the Prius benefited greatly as gas prices soared and the economy dipped into extended recession. In 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Prius outsold the Ford Explorer— America’s SUV and the face of the 1990s— by a wide margin, in some cases achieving twice the Explorer’s sales despite the recession. Prius sales have so far peaked in 2012 and 2013, selling over 230,000 units, but has since seen a considerable sales slump, selling just over 87,000 units in 2018, likely on account of more efficient traditional gasoline engines being developed and lower gas prices making large cars and crossovers more attractive. Despite this, Toyota hasn’t lost faith in the Prius. It now boasts several different bodystyles, including a wagon, and was given a facelift in 2018.

The Prius brought the gas-electric hybrid car to the mainstream market, and it quickly became a face of the green car and environmental consciousness movement. Its relatively low price made it accessible to everyone, not merely rich celebrities with a conscious. Today it has become a staple of American roads, and a point of contention in American culture. It moved the industry forward, and brought a load of new automotive tech to the forefront. Although time will tell how successful and widespread hybrid tech will become, as much as it pains me to say it, the Toyota Prius is the most important car of 2000-2010.

Honorable mention. Tesla Roadster

2009 Tesla Roadster
2009 Tesla Roadster

While Toyota was taking the slow and, well, most boring approach to making eco-friendly popular. Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning had a different idea. They founded Tesla: a new tech company that aimed to make fully electric cars. When Elon Musk joined the company in 2004, Tesla aimed to make monetary green and green cars, fast. After 4 years of development and fundraising, Tesla went 0-60 in 3.9 seconds in a sleek and stylish package known as the Roadster— an all-electric sportscar based on the Lotus Elise. This stirred up public interest in the small company, and soon Tesla introduced their second and first car manufactured entirely in-house: the Model S. The sleek and futuristic Model S bought the electric car into the public eye once again, and this time, ordinary people could actually own one. Despite the disadvantages of being an independent manufacturer, Tesla continues to innovate today, they are reshaping the industry one car and quality control problem at a time.

The only decade I haven’t covered yet is 2010-2020. But given it’s still 2019, I think it would be more fun to see what y’all think. In the comments below, tell me what you think the most important car of 2010-2020 is, and where you think the industry is going. We are all what makes the car community great, and why I’m glad to be involved. Lastly, thank you all for reading, I really enjoy doing this, and y’all make it worth it, Until next time!