In most cases, a car is a car.
The average motorist wants something that starts, accelerates, brakes and won’t kill them in a crash – full stop. Sometimes, a variety of factors blend together to turn a tool of transportation into an icon that transcends decades as it permeates into every faction of the population. Here are some of the cars that have left their mark (for better or worse) on American popular culture.
Volkswagen Beetle (1938)
Volkswagen introduced what would later become colloquially known as the Beetle in 1938, though the first examples didn’t disembark on American shores until January of 1949. Sales grew slowly. About 35,000 Beetles were registered in the United States by the middle of the 1950s.
The Beetle competed in a crowded segment of the market. Its rivals included the Renault 4CV, the Fiat 600 and the two-stroke Saab 93. Clever advertising and a well-organized dealer network helped Volkswagen crush the competition. The brand sent 423,008 Beetles to America in 1968 alone. Families bought it as a second car; young drivers often received one as their first car. It became part of the landscape in the United States, one that only began fading away in the 1990s. (note: 1960s Beetle pictured)
Ford F-Series (1948)
The pickup truck is permanently woven into the fabric of America. It’s not a mere fad bolstered by the movie or music industry. Trucks have reigned supreme for decades, and there’s little evidence their dominance will wane anytime soon. Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge (now Ram) have historically tussled for the top spot but it’s the F-Series that has persistently come out on top. It’s been the best-selling vehicle in America for 41 consecutive years. (note: seventh-generation F-Series pictured)
Volkswagen Bus (1949)
Volkswagen didn’t design the homely Bus as an icon. It was, like other vans made during the same era, simply a cheap and robust form of transportation capable of hauling gear, people and sometimes both. Vans were in hot demand in Europe during the 1940s and the 1950s as nations took on the arduous task of rebuilding their cities and infrastructures after World War II.
In America, the Bus became a symbol of the hippie movement during the 1960s. It sometimes wore psychedelic paint jobs, a feature later adopted by another pop culture icon: The Mystery Machine that stars in Scooby Doo. The romanticized association with counter-culture helped the Bus rise to prominence on the classic car market. Ironically, it also blasted prices beyond the six-digit threshold. (note: 1960s model pictured)
Chevrolet Corvette (1953)
Chevrolet envisioned the Corvette as a head-turning concept car, not as a production model positioned at the top of its line-up. Early models sold slowly, but the Corvette grew in popularity as Chevrolet progressively made it faster and gave it more aggressive-looking lines. It continues to represent Chevrolet’s might today. If America sent a delegation to the automotive Olympics, you can bet the Corvette would be one of its star athletes. (note: 1963 model pictured)
Ford Mustang (1964)
The Mustang wildly exceeded all of Ford’s expectations when it made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair. It became America’s must-have car, the one people of all ages wanted to be seen in. It consequently starred in countless movies and television shows including Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and, famously, Steve McQueen’s 1968 movie Bullitt.
The hype won’t die. Ford recently introduced a commemorative Mustang (pictured) it designed to celebrate Bullitt’s 50th anniversary. It’s available in Highland Green, the same color as the fastback featured in the movie, and it rides on black 19-inch wheels.
Alfa Romeo Duetto (1966)
Actor Dustin Hoffman drove an Alfa Romeo Duetto in the 1967 movie The Graduate. It didn’t play a significant role in the movie. Hoffman’s character could have driven a Fiat 124 Spider or Renault Caravelle and it wouldn’t have changed anything in the plot. The movie became a hit, however, which in turn elevated the Duetto to star status.
Alfa Romeo tried making the most of the Duetto’s fame when it introduced an entry-level version of the Spider named Graduate in 1985. The name remained in Alfa’s catalog through the 1990 model year. (note: Spider 1750 pictured)
The Batmobile appeared for the first time in a comic book released in 1939. It then spawned more designs than Volkswagen’s MQB platform, regularly evolving with the times and illustrator’s imagination. On the big screen, Batman and Robin drove a Cadillac and a Mercury before upgrading to the finned, blacked-out car George Barris designed in 1966.
Barris didn’t start from scratch. Working under a tight deadline, he dusted off the Ghia-built 1955 Lincoln Futura concept sitting in his shop and transformed it into the Batmobile. The process allegedly took three weeks. Building one from the ground up would have taken months. It wasn’t the first Batmobile or the wildest, but it’s the model that made Batman’s ride cool for generations.
Dodge Charger (1966)
Dodge launched the original Charger in 1966. It’s the second-generation model that rose to international fame when it starred in the television series The Dukes of Hazzard. Called General Lee, the 1969 Charger used in the movie has spawned more replicas and toys than any movie car to date, with the possible exception of Herbie the Beetle.
If Ford managed to bring back the Mustang from Bullitt twice, why can’t Dodge build a modern-day General Lee based on the Charger or the Challenger? The hype is alive and well and replicas still draw huge crowds at car shows in the United States and abroad. However, selling a car named after a commander in the Confederate States Army (and, presumably, one with a Confederate flag proudly painted on the roof) would be an unsavory marketing nightmare.
Toyota Corolla (1966)
The original Toyota Corolla arrived in 1966. At the time, few suspected its star would rise over the subsequent decades and it would become one of America’s favorite cars. It won’t win the hearts of enthusiasts; the Corolla hasn’t been exciting in recent memory. It’s an honest, reliable form of transportation that ticks all the right boxes for motorists who want a fuss-free way to get from A to B. (note: late-1980s model pictured)
Honda Accord (1976)
Ford introduced the original Taurus to fend off competition from Japanese sedans like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. The Taurus sold well, it topped the passenger car charts in the late 1980s, but it couldn’t stop Honda’s offensive. The Accord became America’s best-selling car in 1989. (note: fourth-generation model pictured)
DeLorean DMC-12 (1981)
DeLorean’s DMC-12 could have been the type of obscure, esoteric car that stands out only through the scope of its failures. Instead, it achieved icon status when it became a time machine in the 1985 movie Back to the Future. The car used in the movie is electric, and it needs to hit 88mph to activate the flux capacitator. The regular-production DMC-12 settles for a 2.8-liter V6 engine shared with numerous Renault, Peugeot and Volvo models.
Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager (1983)
Chrysler pioneered the modern minivan when its Dodge and Plymouth divisions introduced the Caravan and the Voyager, respectively, in 1983. Up until that point, families with kids, dogs and gear to haul bought a station wagon. The minivan offered more space inside thanks to its taller roof line, the added functionality of a sliding rear door and car-based underpinnings that helped drivability and fuel economy. Soon after, the Chrysler group’s minivans (and the numerous rivals they inspired) became the de facto family cars in America.
Yugo GV (1985)
The Yugo GV went on sale in the summer of 1985 as a 1986 model. It cost $3990, a sum which represents about $10,000 today. It was the cheapest car sold new in America, the shortest and also one of the slowest. That didn’t stop nearly 36,000 American motorists from buying a Yugo in 1986. That number went up to 48,812 the following year.
It entered popular culture in the worst possible way: as the butt of every joke about reliability. “How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill up the tank!” The company’s 1989 bankruptcy did little to help the GV’s reputation and sales ended after the 1990 model year.
Jeep Wrangler (1986)
Designed to replace the CJ, the Wrangler remains the quintessential Jeep. Ask a three-year old to draw an off-roader and he’ll undoubtedly hand you a sketch that looks like a Wrangler. Its styling has evolved since the original model arrived with square headlights in 1986 but it has always remained true to its roots. It’s also one of the few models that time, regulations and executives haven’t watered down. It’s still rugged, it still boasts body-on-frame construction, its top still comes off and it’s still affordable.
Ford Explorer (1990)
Ford unveiled the Explorer in 1990 and sales began with the 1991 model year. The original line-up included two- and four-door models to compete head-on against the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) and the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer. It immediately became one of America’s most popular SUVs. During the 1990s, there were entire neighborhoods with at least one Explorer parked on every street.
In the original Jurassic Park from 1993, a fleet of Explorers modified with a panoramic roof takes visitors on a tour of the park. Spoiler alert: one of them has a nasty encounter with a T. rex.
Ford Crown Victoria (1991)
Like its predecessors, the Ford Crown Victoria introduced for the 1992 model year was an old-fashioned (read: really big) sedan that refused to move away from the tried-and-true body-on-frame architecture. Its target audience included pensioners, taxi drivers and every law enforcement agency in America.
Rivals like Chevrolet gradually downsized as they shifted towards unibody construction and front-wheel drive for cost and demand reasons. Ford stayed the course. By the end of the 1990s, the Crown Victoria had a near-monopoly on the lucrative law enforcement and taxi segments. It was V8-powered, rear-wheel drive and, above all, durable. Seeing a yellow one meant you had found your ride home. Spotting one in your rear-view mirror often meant trouble. (note: early-2000s Police Interceptor model pictured)
Toyota Prius (1997)
Toyota introduced the Prius in America in 2000, three years after the model went on sale in its home country of Japan. It wasn’t the first modern gasoline-electric car sold in the United States; that honor goes to the Honda Insight. It was undoubtedly the most eminent early hybrid, though.
No one knew what to make of the original Prius. Some predicted it was the next big thing while others speculated it would follow the General Motors EV-1 as an interesting also-ran that never made it. As they say, the rest is history. The Prius rose to prominence as the poster child of the hybrid car sector.
Pontiac Aztek (2000)
Pontiac billed the Aztek as “quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet.” The company had a point. As a quasi-SUV with rugged-looking plastic cladding, it was a decade before its time. An optional camping package that included an inflatable mattress and a tent bolstered Pontiac’s claim of versatility.
It likely would have gone down in history as a pioneer had it received a more palatable front end. Instead, it’s remembered (unfairly, according to some) as one of the ugliest cars of all time. There’s a twist in the plot, though. As it approaches its 20th birthday, and helped along by antihero-owner Walter White, the Aztek is starting to become hip.
Hummer H2 (2002)
With the H2, Hummer tried splicing the H1’s genes into a smaller (but still massive) package that would appeal to a broader audience. It almost worked; annual sales peaked at 34,529 units in 2003, a year after its introduction. The H2’s mammoth dimensions, ostentatious design and abysmal fuel economy earned it a reputation as a merciless reamer of the planet’s ozone layer that it never managed to shake.
The public’s vociferous condemnation of the H2 fueled the Hummer brand’s demise as GM flirted with oblivion at the end of the noughties.
Tesla Model S (2012)
Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, used the bones of a Lotus Elise. Company co-founder and CEO Elon Musk decided to develop the Model S entirely in-house instead of borrowing components from another auto-maker. It was an expensive decision that could have broken the brand. It didn’t; it paid dividends (quite literally, for shareholders) in spite of teething problems. More than just a car, the Model S became the global symbol for affluent eco-friendly motorists and well-heeled early adopters.