Songs may exhaust that first thrill, films may lose their glamour, but the value of a historical car persists through time as no other cultural iconography can, as evident in the decade defining cars that collectors, dealers and enthusiasts everywhere remember with a smile of pride and wonder.
From the very first mass-produced automobiles of the early 1900s to the opulent carriages of the Roaring 20s, from the sexy sportscars of the ‘50s to the revolutionary designs at the end of the millennium, vintage cars have influenced more than just car history — they helped define each decade with every revolution of their tires.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, as Henry Ford proved in 1913 when he installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of perhaps the most legendary classic car, the Model T. Selling for less that $300 once the manufacturing process was perfected, the Model T was purchased by more than 15 million Americans, simultaneously employing thousands in Detroit and revolutionizing the industrial business forever.
Known as the Tin Lizzie and named the most influential car of the 20th century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in their 1999 “Car of the Century” competition, the Model T made car history possible by virtually democratizing car ownership for the everyday consumer.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” Henry Ford famously said as he surpassed customers’ wildest dreams with a historic car built for the masses to enjoy.
A railroad mechanic turned president of the Buick Motor Company, Walter Chrysler commissioned three engineers to design a new vehicle that would become the bedrock of his own automobile company — the 1924 Chrysler Six or the Model B-70. Sold head to head against many rival automobiles in the Roaring ‘20s, including Chrysler’s former employer Buick, the first vintage car from Chrysler broke many precedents with its revolutionary designs.
Featuring a new six-cylinder, high-compression engine, the Chrysler Six boasted a top speed of 70 mph, from which it earned its model name “B-70,” and included many other unique innovations, including hydraulic brakes, aluminum pistons, a replaceable oil filter, and more.
“No matter how proud I feel because it bears the name of Chrysler, I never fool myself that I did all this,” said Chrysler on the collaborative effort that went into bringing the historic car and his namesake company to life.
Despite the Great Depression, one luxury car excelled in the ‘30s: the quintessential 1930 Packard Eight. Boasting the sleek front fenders that epitomized the classic car of the era, the Packard Eight appeared in three models — the Standard Eight, Custom Eight and De Luxe Eight.
Though expensive and bearing many of the trademark features of the previous Packard Six, the Packard Eight was powered by an eight-cylinder internal combustion engine, found also beneath the hood of vintage racecars of its time, which helped propel the big, yet elegant automobile into car history.
Conceptualized by renowned automotive designer Harley Earl, the Cadillac Series 62 defined car history in the ‘40s with its unmistakable torpedo shape and roomy interior, easily seating six comfortably. Beneath its elegant bulk, a powerful L-head V8 engine gave the Series 62 up to 150 horsepower as well as a 4-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission, the first fully automatic transmission mass-produced for passenger automobiles.
As proof of its place in car history as a truly classic car, the Cadillac Series 62 was featured in several films and television shows depicting the era, including the TV show Wonder Woman and the 2011 movie Captain America.
Historic cars do more than appear in history — they shape it, as the 1955 Ford Thunderbird did as it launched a new segment of the auto industry as the first personal luxury car. Appearing on a U.S. postage stamp, as well as countless films and television shows, the two-seat T-Bird was the country’s second mass-produced sportscar after the Chevrolet Corvette, though it was not marketed as such.
With a 150 mph speedometer and a sleek design that few automobiles of its time could match, the ’55 Thunderbird quickly gained popularity across the country and even outsold the competing Corvette 23-to-one. Stylish and sporty, the personal luxury car arrived just in time for the consumer culture of the 1950s, securing the Thunderbird forever in classic car history.
As America strode boldly into the second half of the century, nothing lured drivers’ attention like the quintessential muscle cars of the 1960s, of which the 1964 Pontiac GTO was considered if not the first, then the foremost of the class.
According to auto editor Dan Jedlicka of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Pontiac division of General Motors developed the GTO in secret behind the backs of their conservative executives, who feared their consumer base would view the muscle car in bad taste. To their chagrin, the GTO proved wildly successful and was selected Motor Trend Car of the ear in 1968.
Behind the rock ‘n roll and flower power of the 1970s festered a desire for expression and adventure, a consumer trait that gave way to the success of the versatile Chevrolet El Camino. Blending power with personality, the fourth generation of the El Camino, produced from ’73 to ’77, boasted Chevy’s then largest and most powerful engine.
From Almost Famous to Anchorman and more, innumerable depictions of the ‘70s feature the El Camino as a classic car and decade-defining icon that everyone, from car collectors to nostalgic consumers, hold in their minds forever.
From the rise in science fiction and futuristic designs like the illustrious DeLorean, it was clear that Americans desired highs speeds and sleek aesthetics in this decade of many technological advances, and Chevrolet answered the call with its 1984 Corvette C4.
With engine power ranging from 205 hp in ’84 models to 230 in ’85, the C4 provided Corvette with its second-largest production run in history, as well as the return of the convertible Corvette in 1986, making it one of the country’s most desirable sports car by collectors and consumers alike.
“The new Corvette is a truly stout automobile. It is all that the fevered acolytes so desperately wanted their fiberglass fossil to be — a true-born, world-class sports car loaded with technical sophistication,” wrote journalist Brock Yates in the March ’83 issue of Car and Driver, echoing the sentiments of classic car enthusiasts for decades to come.
Though few could afford one of their own, everyone coveted the beautiful body and record-breaking speed of the McLaren F1, which pushed the boundaries of automotive science at the end of the millennium, earning its eternal place in car history.
Influencing nearly every subsequent sports car since its 1992 debut, the McLaren F1 set the record for the world’s fastest production car, reaching 240.1 mph, and remains one of the world’s fastest natural aspirated cars, according to Top Gear Magazine’s April 2017 issue.
“The F1 will be remembered as one of the great events in the history of the car, and it may possibly be the fastest production road car the world will ever see,” wrote journalist Andrew Frankel in Autocar in 1994 of the historic car.
As the new millennium began, the events of the world seemed to race faster than ever, consumer expectations rose to their highest in the technological revolution, and the 2005 Ford Mustang GT provided all that American drivers could demand or desire in a car.
Blending ‘60s muscle with ‘80s elegance, the design team created a cultural icon “up there with the Marlboro man and the Beach Boys,” Ford Group Vice President of Design, J Mays, reportedly said of the historic car. Its 4.6L V8 engine provided up to 300 hp, and sales revved to over 160,000 in 2005 after a decade-plus delay in launching any new models of the classic car.
2012 Tesla Model S
If anyone expected the technological bubble of the early 2000s to burst, they were wrong, as it has only expanded to every corner of the globe, including the auto industry, as Elon Musk’s Tesla Model S proves.
Earning recognition and awards with each charge of its battery, the Model S was the 2013 World Green Car of the Year, the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year, among Time Magazine’s Best 25 Inventions of the Year, and Car and Driver’s Car of the Century, among other distinctions.
Though facing controversies on many issues, from range limitation to power consumption and more, this historic car has altered the course of automotive history indefinitely — as has each of these decade-defining icons in their own unique way.
Throughout automotive history, speedsters of fast-moving classic cars have forced law enforcement departments to up their game and sporty police cars that at the time were pragmatic in chasing felons, but are now coveted icons for classic car buyers everywhere.
For both classic car collectors as well as American history enthusiasts, revisiting the most iconic vintage police cars through the years will accelerate your passion for classic cars.
As Pontiac advertised in ’57, their Chieftain model evolved from America’s number one road car to the county’s top police car. Appearing first in the 1955 model year as the “Strato Streak,” the V8 engine’s stroke was increased to 3.5625 inches by 1957 and Pontiac for the first time offered Tri-Power, three two-barrel carburetors with a sequential linkage, according to General Motor’s archives.
Though not as commercially successful as its classic Bonneville model released that same year, classic car buyers everywhere admire the ’57 Chieftain for both its handling and aesthetic. Even modern law enforcement officers covet the vintage car, such as Senior Constable Mauro Tonin of LaSalle Police in Windsor, Ontario, whose vehicle fleet includes a restored 1957 Pontiac police car.
“The reason we got the idea,” Tonin explained to the Windsor Star, “it gives the citizens fond memories of when the car was actually on the streets on patrol back in the ‘50s.”
When people think “vintage police car,” most will picture the Chevrolet Bel Air, a full-sized car popularized by law enforcement throughout its 30 years in production. Considered the first time that a General Motors vehicle achieved 1-horsepower-per-cubic-inch in a production vehicle, the Chevy Bel Air featured the heft and the power to intimidate any suspect in pursuit.
A highly desirable vehicle by collector car buyers, the ’57 Bel Air is widely reproduced as a model toy car to further highlight its timeless repute. Additionally, popular video game Grand Theft Auto even featured a modification to upgrade the police simulations to this classic car model.
Comparable to the Chevrolet Bel Air and the precursor to the Crown Victoria, the 1961 Ford Fairlane is a classic car popularized for fleet use by taxi drivers and law enforcement alike. Featuring the manufacturer’s big-block 390 CID V8 engine, the top-horsepower option at the time, the Ford Fairlane emerged amid the “horsepower wars” that raged between automakers of Detroit in the 1960s.
To further memorialize the Ford Fairlane as a classic police car, stars of the equally classic television show The Andy Griffith Show, Andy and Barney, patrolled the town of Mayberry in this vintage vehicle.
As the official blog of Dodge explains, the 1970 Dodge Coronet is “one of the most distinctive-looking muscle cars of the era.” This coveted collector car featured the 440 Magnum V8 engine from Mopar motor parts organization, yielding 400 horsepower to this classic cruiser.
Its appearance in 1974 American action film Gone In 60 Seconds helped establish the Dodge Coronet as a truly vintage police car and a favorite among classic car buyers. As the film’s police chase depicts, the signature headlight design of the 1970 Dodge Coronet 440 inspired both awe and anxiety in any driver who spied this police car in their rearview mirror.
Indistinguishable except for their dissimilar grills and tail lights, the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury were popular police cars throughout the 1980s. Their competitively low price points made them a common purchase for law enforcement fleets across the country, and their 318 V8 engines, common in most M-body cars, permitted officers to drive at speeds up to 120 mph.
As any fan of action films from the 1980s and ‘90s will recall, the utility of the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury came as much from their moderately high speed as their renowned durability. The vintage police cars made hundreds of appearances in film and television during this time, primarily as police cars for dangerous and high-speed chases. From hurtling over highways to exploding in fire, the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury endured as much abuse on screen and off. Now, their reputation continues in the garages of car collectors everywhere.
Considered an upscale performance car, the 1955 Buick Century featured the manufacturer’s largest and most powerful 322 cubic inch V8 engine, which, combined with its lightweight body, allowed the classic car to produce up to 236 horsepower. Its performance attracted the interest of California Highway Patrol, which, in 1955, commissioned a fleet order for 268 Model 68s, its 2-door body style, of which only 270 were produced that year.
Though most prominent along the West Coast, the 1955 Buick Century became an instant classic police car with its appearance in the popular crime drama, Highway Patrol, starring actor Broderick Crawford. The show heavily dramatized high-speed chases along California’s scenic highways, forever imprinting the image of a high-flying Buick Century driven by the husky-voiced police chief in the memories of an entire generation.
A mid-sized car produced by manufacturer American Motors Corporation, the AMC Matador was powered by a 401 cubic inch V8 engine that, when put head-to-head with a 2006 Hemi Charger police car, matched the modern copper’s zero to 60 miles per hour times of within 7 seconds. This high-performance muscle car was commissioned by many law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the largest reported user of Matador patrol cars.
Due to its prominence as a popular police car, the AMC Matador appeared in numerous film and television shows throughout the 1970s, including Police Academy and The Rockford Files. The Matador coupe was even featured in the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun, making it even more popular among classic car buyers.
“The Matador was an extremely good police car,” said Jerry Bush, an LAPD driving instructor, in a 2005 interview with Hemmings Muscle Machines. “It was fast, it had superior brakes to the Plymouths, and it handled pretty well.”
Popularized throughout the mid to late-20th century, the Chevrolet Nova was a compact car first introduced by General Motors in 1962. Most Baby Boomers will remember its success throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, but purveyors of collector cars seek the Nova, otherwise known as Chevy II, for its high-performance 9C1 model. The first compact car certified for police duty, the Chevrolet Nova 9C1 was first developed to be used by the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department as a prototype in 1974.
“[It] is the most important police car Chevrolet ever made,” writes one autoblogger. “The Nova 9C1 revolutionized the police use of mid-size patrol cars in exactly the same way as the special service package Ford Mustang got copy to rethink pursuit cars.”
All classic car collectors share the same reverence for automotive achievements throughout the years, but police car enthusiasts further epitomize this characteristic nostalgia. Their twin roles in American culture and automotive history make chasing vintage police cars an indelible pursuit for any classic car collector.