Since its introduction, the automobile has always been a sign of the times.
Car design has always been influenced by the current economic, political and/or popular culture landscapes. This fact is as true today as it was 100 years ago. But every once and awhile, a car stands out. Cars that exemplify their eras so well, it’s like a snapshot through time to what the world once was.
Below, we have selected 10 automobiles that have become intertwined into the very heart of their respective decades. Narrowing it down to just 10 wasn’t easy and we’d like to hear from you which cars you think best represent each decade over the past 100 years. Let us know in the comments section below.
The 1910s were a time when mass production and mobility began to transform the American landscape. What better symbol of the dawn of the automobile than the Ford Model T? It brought a much more affordable, reliable, interchangeable transportation option to the masses. Common Folk could suddenly purchase an automobile and travel farther and faster than ever before.
Honorable Mention – Buick Model 35
The 1920s are often referred to as the roaring ’20s, thanks to a long period of economic growth. The war was over, people were happy and the money was flowing. This prosperity opened the door for excessively opulent cars like the Rolls Royce Phantom. Excessive in every way, it was the antithesis of the Ford Model T and the rich elite loved it.
Honorable Mention – Cadillac Type V-63
The stock market came tumbling down hard a few months prior to the dawn of the 1930s, and it would take most of the decade to recover from the Great Depression. Despite the majority of Americans falling on hard times, the ultra-rich elite began the 1930s still enjoying the best things in life. This led to a new breed of ultra-luxurious automobiles that exemplified the great divide between the rich and the poor. The most excessive of these cars was the Duesenberg Model SJ with a 320-hp supercharged eight-cylinder engine. Fittingly, like many businesses during the 1930s, Duesenberg would go bankrupt before the decade’s end, truly becoming the poster child of the ’30s.
Honorable Mention – Cadillac V-16
After the Second World War ended, a period of renewed hope, ingenuity and prosperity emerged. Creative entrepreneurs and innovators were popping up in every facet of life and this included the automotive industry. One of the biggest dreamers was Preston Tucker and his vision for the Tucker 48. Innovative doesn’t even being to describe the car that came equipped with features like an adaptive headlight, an occupant perimeter safety cage, a roll bar integrated into the roof, a padded dashboard and a steering rack place behind the front axle.
Even if only 51 cars ever produced, the tri-headlight fascia of the Tucker 48 is still synonymous with the late 1940s auto industry.
Honorable Mention – Willys CJ-2A
It’s hard to the think of the 1950s and not immediately conjure up images of a ’55-’57 Chevy. Available in virtually any body style, the Chevrolet Bel Air was so popular at that time that it was often referred to as the “Chevy,” despite the manufacturer selling many other models.
SEE ALSO: Top 10 American Sports Cars of the 2000s
With available V8 power and classic two-tone paint options, the Bel Air definitely was the “Hot One,” as Chevrolet’s advertising called it at the time. The car’s styling also embodied the popular retro-futuristic themes that could be seen in fashion and design everywhere in the ’50s.
Honorable Mentions – Ford Thunderbird and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
The swinging ’60s were a wild time of freedom, expression and self-discovery. The status quo was replaced with anything goes and American culture underwent more change during the ‘60s than possibly any other decade in history. It’s fitting that one of the most memorable cars from this time period is the sexy, curvy Jaguar E-Type. It represents everything the decade was about and no, not just because of its suggestive shape.
Loud, stylish and ready to perform, the E-Type was very rock and roll.
Honorable Mentions – Ford Mustang and Volkswagen Beetle
The late 1970s were all about flamboyant style and there’s one Detroit muscle car that personified this better than the rest – the Pontiac Firebird. Like velour bellbottoms and feathered hair, the large screaming
chicken bird decal plastered across the Firebird’s massive hood was anything but subtle.
And the most iconic paint scheme of the Firebird is the black and gold version seen here, made famous by the Smokey and the Bandit movie franchise.
Honorable Mentions – Cadillac Eldorado, Chrysler Cordoba and Lincoln Mark IV
The 1980s were all about excess and the Lamborghini Countach was literally the poster child of excess for cars in the ‘80s. What child’s bedroom wall didn’t have a picture of a Countach or our runner up for this decade – the Ferrari Testarossa?
With V12 power and sound, a crazy wedge shape, scissor doors and massive optional spoiler, the Countach was the supercar every 8-year-old and want-to-be be ‘80s Wall Street raider dreamed of owning.
Honorable Mention – Ferrari Testarossa
The ‘90s was the decade when Japanese auto manufacturers showed the world just how serious they were about performance. Cars like the Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX and Toyota Supra could hang with the best sports cars the world had to offer. And that’s just what Americans got to sample.
SEE ALSO: Top 10 Japanese Sports Cars of the ’90s
If that weren’t enough, there were even crazier Japanese sports cars reserved exclusively for their home market like the Skyline GT-R, Mitsubishi EVO and Subaru WRX STI.
Honorable Mentions – Mazda MX-5 Miata and Mitsubishi 3000GT
As the new millennium began, a new era of ridiculous hypercars emerged. These were cars with specifications and performance capabilities that were unfathomable even 10 years ago. Top dog among these ridiculous machines was the Bugatti Veyron. With an 8.0-liter quad-turbocharged 16-cylinder engine, the Veyron unleashed over 1,000 hp. It was capable of hitting an unbelievable top speed of 253 mph and used an active air brake when stopping. It may not have been the most agile car on the road, but the sheer output and acceleration was like nothing else at the time.
Honorable Mentions – Ferrari Enzo, Koenigsegg CCX and Pagani Zonda
November 24, 2021 – Reordered images and titles. Updated 1980’s Lamborghini Countach text for accuracy