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 classic 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 and classic 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 classic car icons in their own unique way.