Journey Through Time: Cars That Defined Each Decade

The pages of automotive history are filled with popular cars that helped define the decade they were in. Let’s see our automotive icons from every decade.

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The pages of automotive history are filled with popular cars that helped define the decade they were in. Let’s see our automotive icons from every decade.

The best decade-defining cars are listed below, with descriptions of each.

  • 1900 - ‘09 - 1903 Olds Curved Dash
  • 1910 - ‘19 - 1914 Ford Model T
  • 1920 - ‘29 - 1928 Ford Model A
  • 1930 - ‘39 - 1934 Buick Series 40
  • 1940 - ‘49 - Cadillac Series 62
  • 1950 - ‘59 - 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air
  • 1960 - ‘69 - 1963 VW Bug / ‘65 Ford Mustang (tie)
  • 1970 - ‘79 - 1972 Ford Pinto
  • 1980 - ‘89 - 1985 Dodge Caravan
  • 1990 - ‘99 - 1991 Ford Explorer

If one thing is clear after 120 years of the automotive industry, only a few rare cars will ever escape the rust heap. Even though car companies had lots of chances to build the best models the human brain can conceive, few have attained anything even close. While some rare vehicles have succeeded in capturing the affection of their owners, most cars only live for a moment and then rust away the next. But now and then, a car can become memorable, even legendary. So, how does one select a vehicle that captures the heart and mind of a generation? What makes a car or truck or SUV not just average but iconic? This article will examine the best models from each decade since the creation of the automobile.

Table of Contents


What Are The Cars That Defined Each Decade?

While we have listed our favorites below, we know some who read our choices will feel strongly about other models. There are many cars we love that we simply could not justify for our list.

1900 - 1909 - (1903 Olds Curved Dash)

1903 Olds Curved Dash
1903 Olds Curved Dash

By the turn of the century, the advent of the horseless carriage began taking hold across the nation. (By 1900, over a hundred different brands were available for purchase). Most were handmade until a man named Ransom Olds changed automotive production forever when he initiated the first car to be mass-produced, his Curved Dash Olds.

Olds outsourced the components to the car, employing smaller shops to make standardized parts that could be brought to his factory for final assembly. The steady supply meant that more cars could be worked on at the same time, and before long, Oldsmobile was cranking out 5000 units a year, ensuring that the Curved Dash Olds would become the best-selling car in America.

The Olds Curved Dash had a flat, water-cooled one-cylinder engine that created four horsepower, with a chain drive turning the wheels. Due to its lower price, the Curved Dash opened the possibility of automobile ownership to many middle-class families.

1910 - 1919 - 1914 Ford Model T

1914 Ford Model T
1914 Ford Model T

The iconic car of the 1910s was one of the first mass-produced cars made in America. Introduced in 1908, Ford turned the auto industry on its head by taking the assembly line production employed in slaughterhouses and adapting it to automobile manufacturing. When the Model T began production in 1908, the assembly line took about 12 hours to construct each car. By 1914, a Model T rolled off the assembly line every twenty-four seconds.

With the increased speed, Ford was able to cut costs. The Model T’s price fell to $440 each (1915), and by 1925, the price was a very affordable $260. Amazingly, Ford accomplished this increase in production while paying his workers $5 per day, which was more than double what the average American was earning at the time.

1920 - ‘29 - 1928 Ford Model A

1928 Ford Model A
1928 Ford Model A

Many modern innovations that we enjoy on cars today started in the 20s, like front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, safety glass, four-wheel brakes, and even electric cars. By 1924, when Ford produced its ten millionth Model T, over half of the nation’s cars were Fords. (Most people considered it a boring car). When the Model A was first released, over ten million people viewed the car in the first week (police departments were tasked with managing the crowds in some cities).

The Ford Model A was revolutionary then, with a standard clutch, brake, and throttle pedals on the floor (The Model T was not so built). The car was equipped with a 3.3L four-cylinder engine that produced 40 hp and had a top speed of 65 mph. Other improvements were four-wheel brakes, safety glass in the windshield (an industry first), taillights that incorporated backlights, rearview mirrors, and windshield wipers. Ford would sell over 4 million Model As in its four short years and have sold many more if not for the Great Depression.

1930 - ‘39 - 1934 Buick Series 40

Unfortunately, the Great Depression created havoc on the American economy and the automobile industry as sales dropped 75% virtually overnight. Still, many cars were memorable. Our pick is the 1934 Buick Series 40. When it was introduced with rear-wheel drive and an overhead eight-cylinder engine, it was Buicks entry-level model offered in six different body styles ranging in price from $895 to $925 for a model with a trunk.

The engine produced 87 hp and had a top speed of around 85 mph (although the speedometer went to 100 mph), backed by a three-speed sliding gear synchromesh transmission. The car had excellent styling with flowing body lines, improved headlights, and a dash-mounted selector that could vary the spark plug timing.

1940 - 49 - 1949 Cadillac Series 62

1949 Cadillac Series 62
1949 Cadillac Series 62

After World War II ended, returning Gis were anxious to get on with their lives, raise families, and support the American dream of a better future. Cadillac unveiled new concepts in 1948, with cars that had molded tailfins modeled after an aircraft, integrated fenders, new, more powerful engines, and other amenities. The 1949 Series 62 would impress the nation so much that MotorTrend would select it as their first Car Of The Year.

The Series 62 was offered in three body styles, a convertible, a two-door Club Coupe, and the five-passenger Touring (the Series 62 Coupe De Ville was a late entry in 1949). With leather seats, hydraulically controlled power windows, padded dash, wide-open windows with narrow pillars, and many other amenities.

The 1949 Cadillac came with a new OHV 5.4L V8, which produced 160 hp and had a top speed of 100 mph. The engine design was built for a cleaner burn to provide additional power. While a three-speed manual came standard, most owners opted for the Hydromatic automatic transmission.

An early brochure commented that the Coupe De Ville “strikes a new note in smart sophistication.” The car was an instant success for Cadillac, producing over 55k models and accounting for nearly 60& of its production. Further, it solidified Cadillac’s reputation as the top luxury brand in America.

1950 - ‘59 - 1955 Chevy Bel Air

1955 Chevy Bel Air
1955 Chevy Bel Air

The award for decade-defining cars in the 1950s belongs to Chevrolet. Chevrolet broke new ground with an American sports car, “Corvette.” As crucial as that car was, our vote is for the ever-popular Bel Air, with its second-generation styling in 1955.

The Bel Air was equipped with a new 4.3L OHV V8 so well made that Chevy continued making it in one form or another for decades. The engine produced 162 hp with a regular 2 bbl carb (180 hp with a 4-bbl and later even more hp with the “Super Power Pack option). The car had a standard three-speed Syncro-mesh transmission, with a Power-glide automatic as an option.

The interior of the Bel Air was roomy and spacious, with ample room for the family. The Bel Air sold over 800,000 units in 1955 and has become an iconic example of modern automotive excellence.

1960 - 69 - VW Beetle/Ford Mustang (tie)

1969  VW Beetle
1969  VW Beetle

The VW Bug had been on American shores since the 1950s, but it came into its own around the turn of the decade. Advertising encouraged potential customers to think small, and they did. The small compact had an air-cooled four-cycle engine that produced 60 hp and had a top speed of 75 mph. Early VWs had no gas gauge, terrible suspension, heaters that didn’t work, and no trunk space, and Americans loved them. An early advertisement released in 1959 showed single image of a Bug in the distance with a caption of “Think Small.” During the sixties, the VW became a famous symbol of young American counterculture because the Bug required virtually no maintenance and excellent fuel economy and could putter around with a noisy engine everywhere they went.

The Mustang emerged in 1964 and was introduced at the World’s Fair in NYC. The little pony car was aimed at attracting younger, more affluent buyers. It was so popular that over 400,000 models were sold in the first year and over 1 million in less than eighteen months. As the decade progressed, designers worked at expanding the size and scope of the Mustang, and gearheads were constantly looking for ways to increase its power and speed. When the 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 chased the 1968 Charger RT in Bullitt, the car had already cemented its place in muscle car status.

1970 - 79 - 1972 Ford Pinto

Economic times and gas lines became long when an oil embargo hit American wallets in 1973. With inflation over 11.74% in 1974, Americans parked large V8s and focused on cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars. Japanese cars began to make inroads into the American market, forcing American automakers like Ford to release smaller cars like the Escort and the Pinto.

While the Pinto is best known for its exploding gas tanks, the car did define the decade by offering a cheaper alternative to the large honking V8s of the sixties. Initially, the Pinto was marketed as a “runabout” with a standard 1600 cc four-cylinder engine (a 2000 cc was an option) and a three-speed manual or the Select-Shift Cruise-O-Matic. While the car didn’t set any speed records (86 mph top speed), it did get decent gas mileage at almost 30 mpg on the highway.

Ford churned out nearly half a million Pintos each year during 72 - 74, and for a couple of years, it competed well with the rising flood of imports. While it struggled with mechanical and safety issues, we included it because the decade was a disaster (if you lived through it, you know. Feathered hair, disco, leisure suits, tie-dyed T-shirts, just a few things we’re trying to forget).

1980 - 89 - 1985 Dodge Caravan

As the eighties progressed, Americans were busily engaged with daily living, raising their families, and working hard for better lives. As families grew, so did the need to transport them. When Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager, the automotive world would never be the same.

The mini-van was an instant hit. Access to the second and third rows (LE model) was through sliding side doors, and if customers needed, both back seat rows could be removed to allow for additional cargo space.

Powered by one of two four-cylinder engines, the Caravan could scoot around town, hauling the kids to ball practice, dance recitals, or anywhere else. A manual transmission was standard on the smaller four-banger, while the automatic was offered as the only option for the 2.6L. The Caravan sold so well that for the next fifteen years, Chrysler would be responsible for selling nearly 1.4 million of them.

1990 - 1999 - 1991 Ford Explorer

In the nineties, the minivan moved over to make way for the newest people mover, the Sports Utility Vehicle. The Ford Explorer led the charge with the Chevy Blazer and the Jeep Cherokee, outselling them in 1991 to eventually become the top-selling SUV in modern automotive history.

The Ford Explorer was equipped with a 4.0 L V6 in two-wheel or four-wheel drive (push-button ) in 2 door and 4 door models. Unlike the Bronco II, the Explorer was built on the Ranger platform and was designed to be a family mover first and an off-road vehicle second. The trim levels were XL, XLT, and the luxurious Eddie Bauer trim, modeled with upscale features.

Today, SUVs account for nearly half of all car sales, and the Explorer remains one of the top-selling models.