While automobiles made in the US-of-A aren’t as prevalent these days, this wasn’t the case once upon a time. Wind the clock to at least a few decades ago, and you can see just how popular American cars were around the world. So much so, that some nations switch which side of the road they drive on to match their US imports. It’s easy to forget, then, the ground-breaking nature of classic American cars.
It could be the humungous town cars that gangsters and presidents wafted in. Or, how about the hot-rods and muscle cars that challenged the authorities for who ruled the streets. Maybe, it’s those race cars that dominated everything from NASCAR to Le Mans and GT-class racing. Across all spectrums of motorized vehicles, the US made the best of the bunch – cars, trucks, SUVs, wagons, and much more.
Alas, American-built cars have – relatively speaking, at least – fallen on hard times. Iconic marques like AMC, Plymouth, Pontiac, Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, Mercury, Saturn, Oldsmobile, and so many of Detroit’s finest have disappeared off the face of the Earth. What better way, we thought, to recognize and remember their accomplishments, than looking at some of the most iconic classic American cars.
Why Are Classic American Cars So Popular In The First Place?
As we begin our journey with classic American cars, why not start at the very genesis of the bloodline? How did the USA conquer much of the automotive landscape, and imbued the prominence of 4-wheel transportation as an aspiration many across the globe seek to earn? Its origins began in the late 19th-century, as industrialization brought the first automobiles to market. First in Europe, now in the US.
In 1895, the US government had registered just four motorcars driving around on American soil. Right when the First World War was coming around just 20 years later, the US registry for automobiles saw an astounding uptick. By 1916, there were more than 3.3-million motorcars in the US alone. This idea of owning a ‘horseless carriage’ was initially a luxury item. Only the rich needed to flex that much.
But sooner rather than later – and thanks to a bit of clever marketing – more people began to see this “car” thing as more of a necessity. We can thank Henry Ford for that – of the eponymous Ford Motor Company – when the first Ford Model T came in 1908. An innovator at heart, he pioneered the basic blueprint for mass-producing a car using an assembly line, instead of hand-building each vehicle.
Ford sold 10,000 Model T cars within a year. As the Model T evolved over 20 years, over 15-million of them would be made, sold, and shipped worldwide. Ford started his business in Michigan, in this little town called, Detroit. Soon thereafter, other local automakers started popping up. Then came General Motors, Chrysler, Dodge, Cadillac, Packard, Buick, Lincoln, and so on. The rest, as they say, is history.
How Did Classic American Cars Evolve Over The Decades Since?
Gradually, classic American cars evolved and changed, even as the stock market plummeted and took the whole economy down the toilet with it. The start of the Great Depression in 1929 still saw record sales of cars within the States. However, and as people were becoming less able to buy cars, fewer of them were made, as pockets dried up. Yet, at least 40% of American families still owned automobiles.
Despite the loss of jobs and the closure of a few automakers, Detroit trumped on. New technologies were adopted to make cars more streamlined and aerodynamic. This keen spirit of innovation culminated in noteworthy highlights such as General Motors unveiling the first automatic gearboxes in 1938. Or, how Packard fitted the first air conditioners in any car back in 1941, before the Second World War.
As the war began, automotive production screeched to a halt. In fact, records show that just 139 cars were built and registered in the US for civilian use during the five bloody years. Meanwhile, American carmakers were cranking out tanks, artillery, Jeeps, bombers, fighter planes, and other military armaments G.I.s needed to fight abroad. Once the war finally ended, pent-up demand for cars skyrocketed.
When 1948 came around, the American car industry built its 100-millionth automobile. Inventions like power steering, disc brakes, and power windows made their way into most vehicles. The 50s, 60s, and 70s came and went, and it seemed like classic American cars were destined to keep on rising. From V8 muscle cars to hardy pickups and family wagons, the influence of US autos was widespread.
When Did The Era Of Classic American Cars Start To Decline?
If we are to pinpoint a particular date for the (slow) beginning of the decline of Detroit’s dominance, it would be the late 50s. For the first time, Japanese-built cars landed on American soil. Their popularity rose parabolically, between cars made by Toyota, Honda, and Datsun. For once, people realized they could get affordable vehicles that are also well-built, practically engineered, and consumes less fuel.
Soon, European brands made it to America, as well. A similar attraction with Nippon autos was felt as the first Volkswagen Beetles arrived. This is followed by BMW and Mercedes, taking up the luxury end of the market. The most devastating blow to home-grown American automobiles hit during the 1973 oil crisis. The price of gas soared to all-time highs, and consumers wanted fuel-efficient cars.
Big American V8 muscle was cast aside for more gas-friendly, cheaper, better-built, and oft-advanced automobiles made by foreign brands. Detroit did respond promptly by making smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles. For some, however, this was seen as coming in a bit too late. The 80s and 90s came, as US brands grew somewhat staler. Most of its cars looked alike and had few aspiring traits.
It was no longer like the early days of classic American cars anymore, as the general car-buying public never lusted over most of what Detroit was selling. Bland commodity cars were no match, and it was made worse when the Great Recession knocked on its doors in 2008. GM and Chrysler were forced to declare bankruptcy, as local US automakers were hemorrhaging tens of billions of dollars.
A Remembrance Of Classic American Cars
Nevertheless, and even in the darkest days of America’s auto industry, they still built absolute legends that have either captivated enthusiasts to this day. Or, they were so revolutionary, to a point where it turned the idea of the car upside down. In no particular order at all (well, depending on my bias), here are some of the best and the most iconic classic American cars that we’ll never, ever forget…
1. Ford GT40 – The First American Classic Supercar To Dominate Le Mans
They said it couldn’t be done, as Enzo Ferrari’s Ferraris cruised to win practically every race there is. A series of trophies later, Ferrari is close to going bust, and Ford wanted to lend a hand. However, Enzo felt insulted by Ford’s takeover agreement and refused to hand the keys to its racing program to the suits in Detroit. Challenged by this, Henry Ford II wanted to make his own world-beating racers.
The goal was simple – beat Ferrari at their own game. It wasn’t easy though, as the entire Ford GT40 program cost the company roughly $2-billion. The first prototypes saw life in 1964 but weren’t as successful. Countless issues followed through as the initial batch of GT40s dropped like flies at Le Mans. Brake failure, transmission problems, and other mechanical gremlins lost Ford the title.
But they kept at it, and finally, in the 1966 edition of the 24-hours of Le Mans, the Ford GT40 rolled to a stunning 1-2-3 finish. To note, it wasn’t merely an American triumph. The GT40’s development was undertaken by Ford’s research team in the UK. They also had a lot of help from Lotus, and engineering firms like Lola and Radford. Still, that glorious 7-liter mid-mounted V8 is all-American, from NASCAR.
2. Dodge Viper – America’s Most Angry Sports-Supercar That Can Kill You
The raciest cars in the US are typically muscle cars, made purely with big engines bundled together on top of soggy suspension and not much handling capabilities. But a few stood out as proper sports cars with the right balance of dynamics and athleticism to challenge any European supercar. Not only in a straight line, but also cope well with corners, had plenty of drama, and with an air of refinement.
Dodge in the late 80s was experimenting with many wild things, and the Viper was one of the results. It was built to match the imports, while also contending with Chevy’s Corvette for the top spot among flagship American sports-supercars. It became the brainchild of Chrysler’s Bob Lutz. To make sure the Viper was thoroughly unique in every way, it needed an engine that can one-up an Americana V8.
The solution? Turn to Lamborghini, which had ties with Chrysler at the time. The Italians duly crafted a monstrous 8-liter V10, with enough torque that could propel you towards an early grave. As much as the Viper was an outrageous concept, it was consequently tough to drive properly. And, it had an interior that was barebones at best, without even anti-lock brakes or traction control to save you.
3. Chevrolet Corvette – The First Thoroughbred American Classic Sports Car
Remember, muscle cars and sports cars aren’t in the same league. Muscle cars are as loud and angry as sports cars are deft, petite, and nimble. America’s appetite for lightweight and fun sports cars had its roots in the 50s, and it only grew stronger. To meet this demand, Chevrolet made the oh-so-pretty Corvette. As beautiful as it may be, the first-generation C1 Corvette didn’t really meet the mark.
Its V6 was unreliable and slow, which required changes to the exotic little roadster. But it can only get better from here, as the ‘Vette cemented its legacy with the C2 in 1963. It had a beefier 5.4-liter V8, a most fitting powerplant, that could manage a mighty 360hp. And unlike most muscle cars of its time that had agricultural suspension and steering, the Corvette was practically a space-age piece of kit.
The C2 featured an independent rear suspension that was bespoke engineered. This meant that folks can handle all that grunt easily in the corners. Aiding its handling attributes is a stiffer suspension, big brakes, and a specialty four-speed manual. The most distinctive aspect of the Corvette is undoubtedly its split rear window design. Since then, Corvettes have only gotten ever more performant.
4. Shelby Cobra – America’s Taste Of Demonic Speeds And Performance
One character that we didn’t mention in our explainer of the GT40 was a fellow named Carroll Shelby. He was, for all intents and purposes, America’s own Enzo Ferrari, who made racers that won races left and right. Mr. Shelby also proved that he was a capable racing driver, being the first American to win at Le Mans. Before he worked for Ford though, Shelby had his own performance skunkworks outfit.
In the early 60s, Shelby caught a flight to the UK and took a peek at some of the offerings by British sports car maker, AC. Shelby asked them, politely of course, if AC would be willing to lend him a few cars, so he could fit an American-borne V8 in it. AC agreed, upon the condition that Shelby would at least find a good motor for it. Well, Shelby didn’t find one, but built and tuned that V8 himself.
Okay, so it’s a Ford engine. But what Shelby did to it was magical. The AC Ace was a small, light, and plucky sports car. Shoehorned into its small frame was a small-block Ford V8. In a competition guise, it could output a mind-boggling 485 horsepower, which was absurd given how tiny the Ace was. The legend of the Cobra was born, and it was a fantastic (albeit somewhat dangerous) car to master.
5. Ford Mustang – A Blue-Collared Pony To Kick Start The Rise Of Muscle
Okay, so you’ll be seeing a lot of Fords here. Going back to the 60s once again, Ford was desperately looking to add a bit of spice into their line-up. For the most part, their existing cars were rather dull, which more or less appealed to the older generation. It wasn’t a surprise that the young and sprightly customers were jumping ship to other brands. Ford needed to act fast and needed something fun.
In came the Mustang, which added zest to its range, and became its most performant model prior to the GT40’s inception. Ford’s Mustang is the quintessential Pony car and is no doubt in my mind the most iconic classic American muscle car of all time. It’s still with us till this day, through which it went through numerous evolutions. The Mustang also landed in the workshop of one Carroll Shelby.
At the very zenith of fast Mustangs, even compared to the already racy Shelby-tuned variants, is none other than the Boss 429. You might’ve been familiar with it already, courtesy of its appearance in the John Wick movie. Its 429-cubic inch V8 could handily output 375hp, courtesy of all-aluminum intake manifolds and uprated carburetors. Paired with an uber-aggressive bodywork, it drove like a rocket.
6. Pontiac GTO – The Most Unexpected Classic American Muscle Car
We harped a lot on the Ford Mustang, but you might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t the first true muscle car. This is a debate that will rage on for centuries, but I think it’s fair to give this accolade to the Pontiac GTO. We call it ‘unexpected’, as Pontiac was at the time General Motor’s division for ‘old people cars’. Yet, the GTO catered for an obviously young, hungry, and excitable demographic.
The aim is simple – put a big engine with ludicrous power into an affordable car. And then, market it as a performance model for the masses, and that’s a job well done. It was a rebellious move by those scheming Pontiac executives, breaking the corporate conservatism of General Motors at the time. For example, GM had limitations on how big of an engine you can install in smaller automobiles.
Pontiac’s engineers clearly weren’t listening, as the original GTO had a gargantuan 389-cubic inch V8. 348hp doesn’t sound like a lot today, but it competed handily against Ferraris of the mid-60s for sheer power. Audaciously, Pontiac “borrowed” the famed GTO nameplate used by Ferrari. While the Pontiac wasn’t a homologated race car as a pure GTO is, it was a lovable hot rod that defied conventions.
7. Dodge Charger – The Cosy Grand Tourer That’ll Light Up A Drag Strip
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a conventional grand tourer that you understand from European circles. Do you remember how we mentioned just how intoxicated Dodge was with speed? Well, the Viper wasn’t their first rodeo with the top-end of performance vehicles. The late 60s saw the peak of the old school muscle cars, and Dodge just had to dip their toes in… And beautifully, as is proven with the Charger.
It was a jack of all trades, and the Charger masters it all. It had gorgeous bodywork, sleek and sexy, with a timeless appeal that still gets my heart racing to this day. In addition, the Charger also doubles as a good long-distance cruiser, with comfy and luxurious leather appointments inside. Best of all, the folks at Dodge must be having a laugh when they said, “Yeah, let’s install the biggest V8 we can find”.
With a 426-cubic inch Hemi V8, the Charger could happily crank out 425hp, which are ridiculous stats back in the day. So handsome was the Charger, that it starred in Bullitt, The Fast And The Furious, as well as The Dukes Of Hazzard. Fun fact, the specially modified and aerodynamically-potent Charger Daytona – you’ll recognize it with the biggest of wings – was the first in NASCAR to go over 200mph.
8. Chevrolet Camaro – The Dullest Of Muscle Turned Into A Monster
Chevrolet first came out with the Camaro to compete with the Mustang, and it was, uhm, interesting. The first production Camaros were lethargic, at best, and was deemed a half-hearted attempt by the Chevy brand. But they didn’t give up, and Chevrolet’s suits even took inspiration from the work done by third-party tuners. It took a little while, but they finally created something worthy of a mention.
A few muscly versions of the Camaro came and went, with proper power under the hood to back its brawny looks. The most potent among them is the 1969 Camaro ZL-1. You’d have to be quite special to order one though, as this model could only be ordered through Chevy’s COPO office. This being its racing department, requiring a special order be made. Just 69 of them exist in the world today.
It was practically an out-of-the-box drag racer, with a massive aluminum block 427-cubic inch V8 fire breathing engine. Although Chevy claims an output of 430hp, most think that’s conservative. Bring it in for a modern dyno test, and the actual count is somewhere around 500, or even upwards of 550hp. If that’s too rare for your taste, the “lesser” Z/28 Camaro still had at least 360hp to play with.
9. Plymouth Barracuda – A Classic American Track Monster
I suppose you could technically consider this as the Dodge Charger’s smaller sibling. It adopted the same Chrysler-built underpinnings and has a similar silhouette from a distance. Crucially, however, it was born with a smaller price tag, hence more folks could enjoy that sweet, sweet Hemi power. They came in at the peak of the muscle car arms races of the 70s, as each brand was one-upping the other.
The Barracuda came squarely toe-to-toe with the meatier Mustangs and Camaros of the era. Looking at the other two, Plymouth’s idea of a muscle car clearly had them beaten as far as raw power goes. Their beloved ‘Cuda had a ginormous 426-cubic inch Hemi V8. If you’ve been paying attention, that’s the same motor inside the Charger. Output is also identical, at 425hp. Ah, but the ‘Cuda was lighter.
On top of that, those Hemi engines were infinitely modifiable, which meant that aftermarket tuning is always an option if you wanted a taste of more. Bigger intakes, headers, beefed-up carburetors, and a free-flowing exhaust will do the trick. Be it a Barracuda or a Charger, they’re both incredibly strong contenders on the track. Or, maybe consider the even more powerful 180+mph Barracuda Superbird.
10. Buick Skylark – Speed Comes As Standard In This Americana Classic
These days, Buick is most known for its practical crossovers and family-friendly SUVs. Although, there was a time when Buick wasn’t shy of flaunting its desire to chase maximal speed. Buick’s Skylark is as innocent as a car can be… Cozy, comfortable, and good-looking. Just wait until they’ve given it a taste of Detroit muscle, you’ll realize just how fast a Buick can be. The Skylark had quite a few of these.
Early on, Buick tuned the Skylark GS 455 to be a track-honed monster, which was sufficiently capable of putting actual race cars on its hit list. Not feeling content with that, Buick then upped their game in the form of the Skylark GSX Stage 1, which was even more highly strung and powerful. Under its hood is a mighty 455-cubic inch, easily putting out 350hp. What’s more impressive is its torque output.
510lb-ft of grunt – at the ready as low as 2,800RPM – is unthinkable for the 1970s. Even in the 2020s, it’s a mind-blowing figure that many supercars today still can’t match. Indeed, the Skylark GSX Stage 1 held the record for the most amount of torque produced in any American production car until 2013. If you want one though, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Only 687 of them were ever made.
Final Thoughts On Classic American Cars
And there you have it, our Top-10 list for the most legendary, magnificent, and outright insane classic American cars. From dainty sports cars to brutish muscle cars, my love for old Americana still burns in my heart, brightly so. Okay, okay, I know you’re going to scold me because there’s so much more that I haven’t yet covered. How about the Challenger, Chevelle SS, Firebird, Nova, or the AMC Javelin?
To be fair, a thorough list of the most iconic classic American cars would truly be bottomless. It’s not just the muscle cars, either. What about all the town cars, limos, station wagons, trucks, off-roaders, and the like? As I said, endless. For now, though, I’ll leave it here, as the rest is up to your imagination. How about you… What’s your favorite classic American car? Be sure to leave a comment below!
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