For well over a century, the United States has been offering a vast plethora of automotive innovation and advancements, and sometimes, this extended far beyond the typical realm of what you find in classic cars. Although these developments have slowed down considerably in recent decades, the cunning breakthroughs by American automakers over the years have set a pattern followed by other manufacturers worldwide.
Over the years, a select handful of specific makes and models have made a lasting impression and would ultimately become host to a crucial amount of historical significance in the American automotive industry. These are our top ten American classics of all time.
10 1960-1969 Chevrolet Corvair
If you’re reading this article, then you’re likely well aware of the Corvair’s infamous reputation following the Ralph Nader incident, when the activist reported these cars as “unsafe at any speed”. The entire fiasco ultimately led to the death of the entire Corvair lineup. What most people do NOT know that is later on, in 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), concluded a lengthy investigation that exonerated the rear-engined compact. The NHTSA stated, “The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles, both foreign and domestic.”, which goes well against the grain of the original accusations. Regardless, the Corvair and its counterparts were long dead by 1972.
This is a bit ironic as the early 1970s would quickly see a change in the American automotive industry that, due to newfound regulations, veered away from muscle cars and aimed focus to smaller, more economical vehicles…like the Chevy Corvair. Despite the staggering backlash, the Corvair had initially proven to be a commercial success. However, several problems arose from Americans’ unfamiliarity with driving rear-engined vehicles, especially when the Corvair was first introduced in the late 1950s. Of course, cars like Volkswagen Beetle were available in the US back then, but they were nowhere near as common and still acted as something of a novelty. Most Americans were simply used to large, front-engined cars with full frames and heavy curb weights.
The Corvair was a light, unibody compact with most of its weight in the rear, which obviously caused different handling characteristics, but still proved to be roughly as safe as any other American car of the era. The Chevy Corvair brought forth new ideas and innovations, even offering turbochargers in later models, as well as the Greenbriar vans and pickups which saw an entirely new level of versatility. There was absolutely nothing like it from any other American car manufacturer at the time, and General Motors still managed to sell over 1.8 million of them.
9 1957 Rambler Rebel
While the 1957 Rambler Rebel might not exactly be the first thing to come to mind when we think about the best American classics of all time, this car stands as a direct descendant of the muscle car and was the fastest-accelerating American sedan of its day. AMC had just optioned their new 327-cid V8 into the low-level sedan, which offered 255 hp and 345 lb-ft of torque. Doesn’t sound like much? Compared to the competition, it was underpowered. However, the Rebel’s lightweight construction and gearing allowed for brisk acceleration that vanquished the best of the country.
At the 1957 Daytona Speed Trials, production versions of American sedans had been pitted against each other for a series of acceleration runs, with the Rambler Rebel scoring a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds. This time beat the entirety of the competition, which included a supercharged Ford Thunderbird F-Code, a Chrysler 300C, a Pontiac Tri-Power, and a multitude of others with larger displacement and much higher outputs. The only car to beat the 1957 Rambler Rebel in the tests was a Corvette. By offering this kind of performance in such a cheap, basic package, Rambler had laid down a substantial portion of the groundwork for what would later be found in the various muscle cars of the 1960s and beyond.
8 1964 Pontiac GTO
For decades, many have considered the 1964 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans GTO to be the first muscle car. Although later entries in this list will suggest earlier entries, the Pontiac GTO was the first American car to go against previous mandates that avoided fitting big-block V8s into smaller vehicles, thanks to John DeLorean, who conceived this entire project.
While the Ford Mustang was launched during the same year and proved to be a higher commercial success, it was essentially just a rebodied Falcon without much power. With the GTO, Pontiac acted as a forerunner, which would see the rest of the Big Three, as well as AMC, offering much larger engines into smaller cars, which would ultimately lead to the legendary muscle cars of the 1960s and early 1970s.
7 1938 Phantom Corsair
The Phantom Corsair never got a chance to reach the market due to the untimely death of its creator, Rust Heinz, but the immense amount of innovation and detail are obvious just from looks alone. A strong portion of this car had been based on the Cord 810, which utilized FWD, as well as a Lycoming V8 that offered roughly 200hp, a tremendous increase over average cars of the era. This V8 was mated to a four-speed manual, which also offered an electronic pre-selector. Independent suspension was also made available, as well as the usage of adjustable shocks.
The Phantom Corsair also offered a unique seating arrangement, with room for four adults on the front bench and two in the rear. Overall, its streamlined bodywork, with flush fenders and covered wheels, added a massive aerodynamic advantage.
6 First-Gen Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager
As boring as they might seem, the first-gen Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers completely altered the course of automotive history. The whole concept of a minivan reflected an entirely new platform for passenger cars, which was originally conceived by Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca during their tenure at Ford.
After Ford rejected the idea, Sperlich and Iacocca later found themselves under Chrysler’s wing. Consequently, the plan for the minivan was reignited and ended up changing suburban transportation forever.
5 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
In terms of post-WWII American vehicles, the idea of a muscle car can be traced almost directly to the 1949 Oldsmobile 88. This was one of the fastest sedans available in North America at the time, and also reasonably priced for its day.
Although its 303-cid V8 only made 135 hp, it was still the first high-compression, OHV V8 offered in a mass-produced, passenger car. Despite its seemingly low output, the 1949 Oldsmobile 88 still offered more horsepower than virtually any other affordable sedan within its price range, and is considered to be the spiritual ancestor of the muscle car.
4 1908-1927 Ford Model T
It’s obvious why the Ford Model T made this list. From 1908 through 1927, the Model T essentially mobilized a strong portion of Americans who would’ve otherwise found themselves burdened to horses.
Cars in the early years of the 20th century had been reserved almost exclusively for the wealthy, due to their high costs and relatively new technology, as well as the funds required to service and maintain them. By offering the Model T as one of the first affordable, mass-produced cars, Henry Ford blatantly changed the automotive backdrop forever.
3 1941 Bantam Reconnaissance Car
Most enthusiasts are familiar with the Willys Jeep, from WWII, but few seem to realize that the design of this legend stemmed from American Bantam, a small manufacturer based out of Butler, Pennsylvania. In 1941, the U.S. Army first announced their need for a versatile, reconnaissance car to replace the motorcycle, 135 manufacturers were offered a chance to submit prototypes. However, the deadline was only set at a mere 49 days. Only two automakers submitted cars for evaluation; American Bantam and Willys. In the end, American Bantam’s design had won, thanks to its revolutionary four-wheel drive system.
Unfortunately, American Bantam was a small company, and despite their Herculean ability to create such an astounding vehicle from scratch in only 49 days, they could not mass produce these reconnaissance cars for the volume in which the military necessitated. As a result, both Willys and Ford ended up producing the Jeep using Bantam’s design and consequently created an American icon. After the war, Willys continued to utilize this four-wheel drive system for civilian vehicles for several years. Fast-forward to 1974 when Jeep was owned by AMC; the original Cherokee became the first vehicle to ever utilize the term “sports utility vehicle.” The trend took off and runs rampant today, and in many ways, both Jeep and modern SUVs as a whole can thank the 1941 Bantam Reconnaissance Car for their entire existence.
2 1965 Shelby Daytona
While Ford V. Ferrari loves to tell an “underdog” story about Ford’s 1966 Le Mans victory, in reality, Ford was a corporate giant with tremendous amounts of funds on tap, whereas Ferrari had been struggling to survive (which is the entire reason why they’d offered their sale to Ford in the first place). Even with the latter being purchased by Fiat, Ford was still clearly the powerhouse in this situation.
Now, 1965 was an entirely different story, once again putting Carroll Shelby in the spotlight, but without much help from the infamous Blue Oval. Based upon the Cobra, the Shelby Daytona was a GT racer built solely to take on the iconic Ferrari 250 GTO for the FIA’s World Sportscar Championship in 1964 and 1965. During the second year, the Shelby Daytona bested Ferrari outright, winning the championship and becoming the first American manufacturer to ever do so. This was a triumphant achievement for Shelby American, as the company was still very much an underdog during this time, but still managed to pull off the astounding victory.
1 1948 Tucker 48
The story of the Tucker 48 is an absolute legend. During its inception throughout post-WWII America, the majority of automakers had simply been selling virtually the exact same models they’d been building prior to the war. Innovation seemed to be an afterthought and attention to safety was almost nonexistent.
Enter Preston Tucker, a former racing engineer and military contractor who’d sought to change this by creating a revolutionary sedan, with a profound emphasis on safety and speed, and incorporating new ideas to create a car far beyond the aging models being produced by the Big Three. Sadly, only 51 examples were ever built before a vicious barrage of legal issues killed the company. It’s long been rumored that several Detroit giants used their political influence to put a stop to the Tucker, as keeping up with the technology present would’ve cost them a fortune. Although no concrete evidence has ever circulated of which, the Tucker 48 still stands as possibly the greatest American car ever built.
Sources: Hemmings, Hagerty, Heinz History Center, Smithsonian Institution