The Most Important Car By Decade (Part 1)
The horseless carriage, automobile, car, or whatever you want to call it, has changed the world as we know it. When National Geographic asked a Library of Congress librarian to list 10 inventions that changed the world, the automobile was number 6. There is no doubt that the car has fundamentally changed the way we experience life, but merely leaving it at that is a bit vague. After all, thousands of car models have been produced all over the world. Which of these countless unique vehicles have bore the most responsibility for catalyzing vehicular evolution?
Some of these pivotal cars remain famous and lauded today, while others are mostly forgotten, or have such a poor reputation that we simply dismiss them at face value. Today, I aim to give my personal list of the most important car of each decade in the 20th century through today. So, buckle up, and feel free to disagree with me in the comments section.
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 those two criteria often 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.
This was practically a given. The Ford Model T is an automotive icon, and easily the most successful and important car produced between 1900 and 1910. Before Ford debuted the Model T in 1908, cars where still predominately a luxury item at best, affordable only to the rich and famous. At worst, they were the toys of eccentric mechanics with big dreams, or curiosities paraded in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. One of the cars that helped shift this pervasive image was the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, introduced in 1901: the first ever mass produced, more affordable automobile. However, only 19,000 were built, and it wasn’t very powerful. Furthermore, the design was essentially a horse-drawn buggy without a horse: less about practical use, and more about elegance for showing off.
The Model T, on the other hand, was a breakthrough. It was among the first to tap into the car’s potential to be a transport for the everyman, built to go just about anywhere. It was powered by a 22 HP 4 cylinder engine, with a top speed of about 40 mph. While seemingly pathetic by today’s standards, the car’s light weight meant it could cover ground in a hurry, and its large wheels could overcome almost any terrain. However, what really made the Model T important was its price. The base Model T cost around $825 (around $22,000 today,) and declined in price practically every year of production as the assembly line process was optimized. This put the Model T in the price range of many working class families who’d never dreamed of buying a car before, and Ford could barely keep up with the demand. About 15 million Model Ts were built in all, and often sold on credit to people who couldn’t otherwise have afforded one. But by the 1920s, competition was beginning to catch up and surpass the venerable T. Reluctantly, Ford conceded the need to make something new and better that offered more, and this successor to the T, the Model A, would eventually become famous in its own right. The last Model T rolled off the moving assembly line, by then the industry standard, on May 26th, 1927.
The Ford Model T is the most important car of 1900-1910 not because it was the best, but because it made car ownership possible for millions, and brought transportation to the masses on a scale not seen since the advent of the locomotive. Furthermore, it is largely responsible for sparking the fire that became the modern automotive world.
The Dodge 30/35 likely isn’t a car you’ve specifically heard of before, unless the vintage era is your specialty. It was sold contemporary to the Model T, but was more expensive, and Dodge’s output was far smaller than Ford’s. However, lower production numbers don’t detract from the industry importance of the Dodge 30/35.
The 30/35 was the first model produced by the new Dodge Brothers Motor Company. Previously, Dodge had been manufacturing components and chassis for major turn of the century automakers, like Ford and Olds Motor Company (Of Oldsmobile fame). The Dodge brothers eventually decided they could make a better car than both Ford and Olds on their own, and designed the 30/35 in 1914 with this aim in mind. The brothers considered Ford’s Model T to be an unnecessarily rough driving car: sloppy, and too basic. Dodge aimed to make something more refined and easier to drive. The 30/35 was thus marketed as an more upscale touring car alternative to the Model T. The styling presented a more sculpted, finished look, and it boasted a bigger engine than the T, too: a 4-cylinder engine making a peppy 35 HP. The 30/35 also introduced many more modern features. For one thing, it boasted an all-steel frame under the body, as opposed to a common-for-the-day wood frame under steel body panels. The 30/35 also introduced a sliding gear transmission which made it easier to drive, and a 12V electrical system which greatly improved on ineffective and weak 6V systems. Overall, the 30/35 was comparable to the legendary Model T, but improved in almost every way.
The Dodge brothers also famously started one of the first automotive rivalries through their taking aim at Ford. John Dodge said it all:
"Someday, people who own a Ford are going to want an automobile." John Dodge.
The Dodge 30/35 is the most important car of 1910s, but not on account of impressive production numbers. It comes down to more about what the car started than what it finished. The 30/35 initiated one of the first great automotive rivalries, giving Ford competition with a refined alternative. Although the 30/35 didn’t sell as well as Ford, its presence in the market forced Ford to adapt and refine its own models, and thus set the standard for healthy competition in the car market, bringing more choices and better cars for everyone. The 30/35 is obscure today, but its impact can still be felt in a broader sense.
In the mid 1920s, GM was looking to expand their corporate stables and, hopefully, increase their customer base. Thus, in 1926 GM introduced a number of new brands under the “companion make” concept. The idea was simple: fill in price gaps by offering sub-brands in-between the main car brands GM offered. Cadillac’s LaSalle is perhaps the most famous car to emerge specifically from this experiment, but one companion make, Pontiac, proved so successful overall that it actually replaced the primary brand it was associated with, Oakland. While still among the lowest rungs of GM’s stable, Pontiac was positioned above Chevy. Thus GM hoped to attract younger buyers interested in something more than a mere Chevrolet, but lacking Oakland or Oldsmobile budgets.
Pontiac wanted to hit the ground running, so they offered cars in seven different body styles. This immediate versatility appealed to many different segments of the low-cost car market, and ensured a broad appeal overall. In 1927, Pontiac introduced the Chief. The Chief came with a L-head 6-cylinder engine, which put out a competitive 40 HP. 6-cylinder engines like the Chief’s were becoming more common in cars at the time, but remained something of a novelty item. GM also performed some impressive feats with the new engine: it had the shortest stroke of any powerplant in a US production car.
But did a shiny new brand with a fancy engine translate into sales? In fact, it did. Within the first six months of production, 39,000 Chiefs were sold, an impressive feat for a brand new car at the time. By the end of its first year, Pontiac sold over 76,000 units, and by 1928 the Chief was the top selling 6-cylinder engine car in the US, and number 7 in overall sales. The Chief was selling like hot cakes, in fact, it was outselling both Oakland and Marque, Oldsmobile’s “companion brand.” The success of the Chief meant that the Pontiac brand was here to stay, and it did, until 2009, when GM shut it down forever.
The Pontiac Chief didn’t drastically change the car world, make any ground breaking innovations, and wasn’t a world first by any standard. But, the brand built upon its foundation to a spectacular degree. Pontiac went on to give us the GTO, a car that ushered in the muscle car era; the Firebird, a now classic car that is ingrained in pop culture thanks to “Smokey and the Bandit;” and the Fiero, the first ever mass produced mid-engine US production car, and a pioneer for automotive spaceframes and plastic body panels. The Chief, and Pontiac itself, may no longer be around, but their legend will live on for many decades to come.
The 1930s began with a worldwide economic depression, and ended with wars in Europe and Asia that threatened to engulf the globe. Some people lost everything in the early years of that tumultuous decade, and even for the rich, money was tight. An automotive market that was rapidly growing in the 1920s ground to a near halt as millions lost the ability to buy new cars on credit, and manufacturers focused on holding onto as much capital as possible while aiming to grab what few new car buyers remained. But one carmaker decided to push the envelope, make something new, and take chances against the worst odds in the history of automotive sales up to that point. This incredible car was the Cord 810.
The Cord was a completely new automobile, designed from scratch by some of the finest minds in automotive design and engineering to be utterly unique. The premise was the brainchild of eccentric industrialist Errett Cord, who had successfully turned around Auburn’s luxury car fortunes in the late 1920s and acquired the legendary Dusenberg marquee around the same time. But even with these gems in his crown, Cord had still greater plans for the car that was to bear his name. Auto design legend Gordon Buehrig and associates were brought in to cook up the design.
The result looked like nothing else on the road, at a time when automotive styling was stagnating and everything drove pretty much the same. Most automakers didn’t have the budget to make something new or flashy, but Cord’s Auburn Automobile Company aimed to change that conservative mindset. The Cord was extremely low, with a lean roadster profile. Its running boards were enclosed within a unibody chassis, streamlined fenders wrapped tightly around the tires, and an enormous grille ran practically the full length of the hood. Unsurprisingly, it attracted huge crowds at the 1935 New York Auto Show, who at the height of the Depression could hardly believe that such a futuristic car was actually available for purchase.
The Cord 810 came with a 288-cubic inch, 125 HP, aluminum head V8— extremely powerful for a road car at the time, especially of its size. While the V8 and even aluminum heads weren’t exactly new, the placement caused it to stand out: it sat sideways in the cavernous engine bay. The Cord 810 was among the few front-wheel drive vehicles available in an age where rear-wheel drive was the rule, and enjoyed remarkable handling as a result. The car also featured a four speed Bendix preselector transmission with vacuum/electric shifting, an early form of semi-automatic transmission. The car innovated in more subtle ways, too: it featured a horn ring in the steering wheel, which meant both hands could stay on the wheel for safety. This feature became standard equipment on American automobiles by the 1950s. The Cord also gave us the single greatest automotive invention of all time: popup headlights. They retracted smoothly into the fenders, and were operated using hand cranks in the dashboard. The hood was also rear hinged, as most cars today are— but at a time when nearly every other car had hinges on the side. The car even had variable-timed windshield wipers. Later Cord 812 models added more power through an early supercharging system, another first by Cord in a road car!
All of these innovative features would no doubt make the 1930s version of Doug Demuro squeal with delight. Alas, like most geniuses ahead of their time, the car was a dismal failure, and investment in her creation probably single-handedly sunk the chances for her sister marquees, Auburn and Dusenberg, to survive the Depression.
The Auburn Motor Company dissolved in 1937, and although some original Cord body dies were sold and temporarily reused in a few Hupmobiles and Grahame-Paiges, these were mere shadows of the car’s former glory. It’s worth noting, too, that there were myriad problems in the vehicle, despite the elegance and engineering marvel. The Cord was built on a shoestring budget for a new car, and the engineers didn’t have the time or money to test and tweak all the new innovations that had been piled into it. The engine was prone to overheating, and so were the brakes, which introduced the unsavory possibility that piston heads could warp and brakes fail. The transmission would also lose vacuum pressure if you left it in gear at an idle, and wouldn’t shift gears at times, with inconvenient results at best, lethal at worst. Worst of all, when something did go wrong, you’d need very good luck to find a mechanic willing to work on the car. The Cord was so futuristic, and the essential systems so unique for the 1930s, that most were scared away from even touching the mechanicals. Another problem, ironically for such an exclusive car, was the price: the Cord cost around $3000, about as much as a Cadillac of the day. But the Cadillac of the 1930s was enormous, and the Cord was a small roadster. People, then as now, wanted a big car for big money.
The Cord factory manufactured just under 3000 cars before production ended in 1937, and not many survive today. A few attempts at replica production have surfaced since the 1960s, but with little lasting success at correcting the mistake of history’s cruel blow that cut short the Cord’s brilliance. The Cord 810 was, in many respects, a car 20 years ahead of its time. The innovations that it brought us were later redesigned and used in other cars, and provide the foundations for much of what we take for granted today in automotive engineering and design.
After years of no civilian car production whatsoever during the peak of WWII, by the mid 1940s automakers had begun the process of phasing out total war production of tanks and airplanes and jeeps. But the Big Three were slow to get the ball rolling on resuming full civilian production. Oldsmobile was technically the first to produce a “new model,” but it was more or less a warmed over 1942 car. Even Studebaker, which had invested heavily during the war to produce a completely brand new car for 1946, failed to innovate much beyond trend-setting styling. Naval designer Preston Tucker had a vision for not merely a new car, but a NEW car: “The Car of Tomorrow.”
Tucker’s “Car of Tomorrow” featured a rear mounted flat six, aluminum block engine, and disc brakes on all 4 wheels— then practically unheard of even on race cars. It also had four wheel independent suspension and fuel injection, both almost unknown to 1940s car buyers. These features alone would have been sufficient to make Tucker’s dream car years ahead of anything the Big Three were making, but these were only the tip of the iceberg for Tucker’s intentions. Tucker also wanted his car to be the safest on the road, at a time when “safety” in autos was nonexistent, and generally a marketing last resort for otherwise mundane vehicles. He started with simple smart design choices: Tucker wanted all the instruments in reach of the steering wheel, for ease of access without taking one’s eyes off the road too long; seat belts for absorbing shock; a padded dash board for support during major impacts and padded door panels to match; a break away windshield for preventing injuries from shattered glass; a roll bar integrated into the roof of the car for support in overturn crashes; an area in the passenger footwell for someone to dive in the case of a impending crash; and perhaps most iconic of all, a center headlight that turned with the wheels to light the way ahead. These, combined with the advanced powertrain, would compose the “Car of Tomorrow.” Tucker got to work raising money for the car through a grand marketing campaign, and the new company was off and running.
By the time Tucker got the Tucker 48 into production, the car officially sported a 160hp flat six engine that was originally designed to power a helicopter, so the design required some modification for rear mounting, a first for an American production car. Most of the original features in Tucker’s concept made it to production, with a few exceptions. The seat belts were rejected, ironically, because management at Tucker decided it would make people think the car wasn’t safe. But despite this minor compromise, the Tucker 48 was finally a real car, and began garnering lots of interest in the automotive world.
The public interest in Tucker wasn’t limited to the media. The car had the Big Three, and Michigan Senator Homer Ferguson, whose wife owned lots of stock in Chrysler, worried about the possible inability of the larger companies to compete on such short notice. Although there was no deliberate conspiracy, there was motivation to keep Tucker in check, and his impatient business practices provided the ideal leverage.
In his desire to start up production as soon as possible, Tucker had been raising money for his company by preemptively selling accessories for the 48 before it went into production, purchases of which guaranteed a spot on the waiting list for the upcoming car. Although this sort of rewards system is common today in Kickstarter product campaigns and the like, the practice was new at the time and sounded kinda fishy. With encouragement from Senator Ferguson, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation, leading to an indictment of Tucker and other company executives for fraud. Later, however, all charges were dropped, and Tucker and his company where cleared. But the damage was done. The investigation darkened what was meant to be a spectacular launch, this combined with the 48 having mechanical issues at launch, spelled the end of the Tucker 48. Only 51 Tuckers were ever built in the factory, and 47 confirmed originals remain today.
What the Cord 810 accomplished for innovation in automotive engineering in the 1930s, the Tucker 48 accomplished for automotive safety and design in the 1940s. The Tucker 48’s safety’s features renewed public interest in automotive safety, and automakers were forced to take notice. Many of the safety features pioneered in the 48 later became industry standards. The unworthy demise of the Tucker 48 also demonstrates the dangers of an overreaching government and regulatory web, and the real potential for companies to use the government by proxy to crush anyone they feel is a threat to their business model.
In the 1950s, the American economy was booming like never before, since the rest of the Western world was still either rebuilding all the important things they’d blown up in World War II, or else becoming an economically capricious communist satellite. The US found itself in a highly fortunate economic position, and for the first time since the 1920s, ordinary Americans had money to spare. Many chose to invest their burgeoning income in automobiles. But, despite this cash-flush domestic market, there was a distinct sports car-shaped void. Before 1953, you naturally could get a fun two seat roadster… but only from foreign automakers like MG, Jaguar, and Ferrari. These were all highly finicky and unreliable vehicles, and were either impossible or expensive to get serviced at a local auto shop. If you were, however, absolutely determined to buy a 2 seat sports car from an American brand, this was technically possible pre-1953, just so long as you were willing to become the neighborhood joke by settling for a tiny Crosley Hotshot with a 26 hp engine from a forklift. This distinct lack of American sportscars was a stain on American pride. Fortunately, GM, which was riding high on American Pride, wanted to change that, and change it they did. In 1953 they introduced a sportscar that would become almost as synonymous with America as apple pie and cheap gasoline: the Chevrolet Corvette.
GM management had three requirements for their new sports car: it needed to be a standard front engine layout, rear wheel drive, and of course, it had to be fast. It was also important, they decided, for the car to be uniquely and recognizably American. GM produced a whole new body, frame, engine, and interior bits for this new car, with little carryover from their parts bin. After flirting with the public eye as a show car in 1953, the first Corvette production car was intended to be an exclusive release to test real market interest. Only 300 Polo White Corvettes, all built by hand, were made for 1953. They were fairly fast, sleek, and best of all, they could be serviced at any Chevy dealer across the nation. The public and automotive press loved the new car, it would seem GM had restored American pride. But GM wasn’t quite done. In 1956 the Corvette got a face lift, and in ‘57, a new “Ramjet” fuel injection system was made available. This updated engine build was one of the first massed produced engines to reach 1BHP (Brake Horse Power) per cubic inch of output, a major milestone for the automotive market. This really brought the Corvette into the spotlight. By the late 50s, the Corvette had the looks, power, and handling to compete with the best from Europe: it was the whole package for GM.
The Corvette set the standard for all modern American sports cars, and it proved that there was a market for impractical two seat cars, and forced other companies to offer similar options. Even when its initial archival, the Ford Thunderbird, gave in and became a four-door sedan permanently, the ‘Vette never lost sight of its sportscar heritage. The Corvette also spiritually paved the way for great specialty cars like the Mustang, Camaro, and countless others from GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Love it or hate it, without the Corvette, the American sportscar market would look very different today.
Its the 1960s: a new generation is initiating a fight against the conventions, rules, and morals of their parents and grandparents. Times are starting to change, and that change is also coming to the automotive world. A young and ambitions group of engineers and designers were taking over and they had some pretty radical ideas. This young mindset came together to create the most important car of the 1960s: the Chevrolet Corvair.
In 1952, Ed Cole was named Chief Engineer of the Chevrolet Motor Division (try fitting that on a name tag) at GM, and in 1956, he was promoted to General Manager of Chevrolet and Vice President of GM. Cole had long been pushing for a new compact car from GM, and his new position gave him the power to make it happen. But Cole didn’t want some lame compact like a stodgy Nash Rambler or Robert S. McNamara’s soberly styled Ford Falcon. He had something sporty and air cooled in mind, to compete directly with new import rivals like Porsche and VW. The young new engineers and designers went to work, and designed a new overhead-valve, aluminum, air-cooled six cylinder engine as the main powerplant. This kind of motor was completely new to GM. Adding to the novelty, engineers and designers decided to put the engine in the rear, resulting in one of the rare few (and last) mass produced rear engine American cars.
GM also put in a new swing axle rear suspension, similar to what VWs and Porsches utilized, but this was later replaced by a fully independent rear suspension in 1965, for reasons we will discuss soon. Initially, the Corvair was very well received, and quickly became a sales hit. Time magazine reported in 1960 that Chevy sold 26,000 Corvairs the first 2 days on the market. By March of 1960, the Corvair made up 13% of all Chevy sales. And this was despite issues with the fan belt popping off, and poor fuel mileage due to bad carburetors. Chevy was quick to fix these problems, and Motor Trend named the Corvair 1960’s “Car of the Year.” Time lauded:
"Its fresh engineering is hailed as the forerunner of a new age of innovation in Detroit." Time Magazine
Unfortunately, Time was wrong. Whatever “new age of innovation” that might have freely emerged from a natural development cycle of the car all came crashing down after Ralph Nader published “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965, to great infamy and acclaim.
The book primarily highlighted the possibility for crashes related to the swing axle suspension on 1st generation Corvairs, built from 1960-1964. Driving hard in turns could cause the car to oversteer, and potentially rollover. To back up his case, Nader brought in Chevy suspension engineer George Caramagna, who had fought GM management for including a front anti-sway bar as standard in 1960-1964 cars, but this request was denied. Of course, oversteer wasn’t an issue technically unique to the Corvair, but the idea of the unorthodox engine layout made it an easy target. Before long, GM found itself faced with over 100 lawsuits over Corvair crashes. Nader went to Congress to press his case, and in hearings claimed that the Corvair was “the leading candidate for the unsafest car title.”
Of course, he didn’t mention that GM already offered a anti-sway bar as an option, and aftermarket installation kits were also available. Others criticized Nader’s lack of experience in automotive engineering, in addition to the rather embarrassing fact that he didn’t have a driver’s license at the time he wrote the book. Unfortunately, GM handled the situation very poorly. Instead of dismissing him, they had Nader followed and personally threatened, and a public smear campaign was launched against his book. All of this came to a stop when Congress passed the “Highway Safety Act of 1965.” This new list of regulations brought new government safety standards and a test for new cars, the long-term results of which would change the automotive world forever.
Furthermore, the public response to the book and hearings was unsurprisingly lethal to sales. 220,000 Corvairs were built in 1965, and this number was halved down to 109,880 in ‘66. Finally, production fell to a dismal 14,800 units for ‘68. In 1969, GM put the once darling Corvair out of its misery forever. In 1972, Texas A&M University released a safety commission report that somewhat redeemed the Corvair, or at least found 1960-1963 Corvairs to have been no more dangerous than any other of its automotive competitors from the time. A NHTSA study corroborated this finding. But, it was far too little, too late.
The Corviar is the most important car of the 60s not only because of its innovative design, but also because of its death by unproven assumptions, and for unwittingly opening the Pandora’s box of safety regulations that have become only increasingly pervasive since. Automakers took one lesson from the Corvair: don’t do anything new. Innovation became too risky, as any deviation from the new government safety standards could mean hefty fines and lawsuits, even if the car was actually safer. The potential for automotive innovation in style and substance were thus forever changed and stifled, all by one man who couldn’t even legally drive a car at the time.
Note: I am by no way saying the “Highway Safety Act of 1965” was a bad thing. It did some good things, like making Seat Belts mandatory. But Nash, Ford and Volvo had been offering lap belts as optional features for over a decade (ironically, Ford had trouble selling them.) Saab was the first company to offer them standard, on the Saab GT 750 in 1958, and Volvo invented the first modern 3-point seat belt in 1959. All of these were created without government regulations, and the industry probably would have adopted them universally within the decade anyway, regardless of whether they were made mandatory. The new regulations and rules meant that more of the car development budget went to compliance with the existing rules, and less into new safety innovations.
I hope you have all enjoyed part one of my list! Feel free to let me know what you think is the most important car of each decade, or what cars should be in Part 2, in the comments below.