The automotive landscape of any given year is truly a snapshot of the time period. Cars are excellent barometers of trends, styles and shifts in American culture. Curious about what cars were the big deal the year you were born? Read on.
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1918: Ford Model T
The very first Ford Model T rolled off a very new automotive assembly line in 1908 and truly gave America its first affordable wheels. A decade later, only 1 and 13 families owned a car, but it’s very likely that car was Ford’s wildly successful Model T.
The 20 hp engine was modest with a top speed of around 45 mph. But speed mattered little to Model T buyers because the car was almost half of all cars sold in the U.S. The Model T got less expensive as it got older and continued to be a strong seller with 15 million finding homes until 1927 when the car was replaced by the Model A.
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1919: Dodge Brothers Model 30
The Dodge Brothers, Horace and John, were a force in the early automotive industry, supplying engines for Oldsmobile and actually building complete cars for Ford. Their first car arrived in 1915 with a modest 35 hp four-cylinder engine. In 1919, the company introduced its first four-door enclosed steel roofed sedan. Sadly, both Dodge brothers died just one year later. And in 1928, the company was sold to the Chrysler Corporation.
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1920: Detroit Electric
Detroit Electric produced some of the earliest EVs and could travel about 80 miles between charges. One modified Detroit set a record, traveling 241 miles on a charge. These EVs only had a top speed of around 20 mph, so they were mainly used as dependable inner city transportation. Sales of the Detroit Electric would slide throughout the 1920s thanks to improved internal combustion engines. By the time the company finally ceased operations in 1939, it had produced around 13,000 EVs.
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1921: Lincoln L-Series
After spending its earliest years producing Lincoln aircraft engines for WWI, the company began automobile production. The very first Lincoln, the L Series, rode on a long 130-inch wheelbase and was powered by an 81 horsepower V8. Although this was a brand-new car company and a brand-new car, the design was dated as soon as it hit dealers and sales weren’t strong. Just one year later, the company was in rough shape financially and was sold to Ford who turned it into a luxury car powerhouse, including this coupe designed by Brunn & Company in 1923.
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1922: Doble Steam Car
In the 1920s, America was flirting with alternative fuels—and steam was one of them. The Doble Steam Motors Corporation began production of their cars in 1922, but just 36 were built through 1931. One of them is owned by Jay Leno.
There’s no need for a transmission thanks to the steam engine’s incredible torque. Leno once wrote in PM, “Open the hand throttle and acceleration from a dead stop is smooth and continuous. The Doble just continues to pull all the way. It only has about 150 hp, but the torque output is huge: 2200 lb-ft at the rear wheels.”
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1923: Lancia Lambda
The new Lambda was a technical masterpiece for Lancia. Most notably, the Italian sports tourer pioneered the use of monocoque construction instead of the heavier body-on-frame designs that were the norm at the time. The Lambda was the first with this weight-saving engineering and decades ahead of other carmakers. The Lambda also broke new ground with its independent front suspension system, and was the first automaker to use a V4 engine. Lancia would use V4 engines in cars through the 1960s.
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1924: Oakland 6-54
Oakland, part of the GM empire at the time, was one notch up from Chevy and was a strong seller. Oakland received updated bodywork for 1924 as well as some technical innovations like a new quick-drying paint from Dupont and four-wheel brakes—very rare at the time. Oakland’s new six-cylinder was less “advanced” than the one it replaced but offered greater reliability.
The first Pontiac was actually an Oakland model. And the strong sales of those earliest Pontiacs convinced GM it should become its own brand. That eventually led to Oakland ceasing production.
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1925: Rolls-Royce Phantom I
The Phantom replaced the legendary Rolls Royce 40/50 (Silver Ghost) which had been in service for almost 20 years and had a well-deserved reputation for luxury as well as reliability. The new Phantom was elegant, modern and had an improved 7.7-liter six-cylinder engine as well as disc brakes. A Springfield, Massachusetts factory had been building Rolls Royce cars since 1921 and produced the new Phantom. However British built Phantoms had unique equipment and options compared to their American counterparts.
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1926: Chrysler Imperial 80
Imperial models were the pinnacle of Chrysler’s lineup and aimed to compete with luxury marques like Cadillac and Lincoln. The first Imperials were available as a roadster, sedan, a four-door convertible Phaeton and a limousine. They were powered by a 92 hp (very strong at the time) six-cylinder engine. Chrysler “guaranteed” these cars could cruise at a steady 80 mph—hence the car’s name. The Imperial 80 was selected to be the pace car for the 14th running of the Indy 500 in 1926. Imperial officially became its own brand from 1955-1975.
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In the 1920s, General Motors attempted to woo price-sensitive car buyers with new marques that filled the space in-between the company’s existing brands. LaSalle was born to attract customers looking for a more upscale car than Buick offered but one that was also less expensive than a Cadillac. LaSalles were downright gorgeous machines and the very first one was designed by Harley Earl who would go on to direct GM design for decades. LaSalles shared many parts and assemblies with Cadillac. So, in many ways these cars were more stylish Cadillacs at a less expensive price point. LaSalle lasted until 1940.
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1928: Duesenberg Model J
The elegant Duesenberg Model J was an exotic sports car and fashion statement all wrapped up in one. The standard eight-cylinder engine produced an astonishing 265 hp. But with the supercharger, optional on later cars, that number rose to a staggering 320 hp. A supercharged Duesy was quick.
The car’s bodywork came from a variety of custom coachbuilders around the world, so no two were exactly alike. The most expensive ones touched $25,000 at the time and were so exquisitely crafted they drew movie stars and industry moguls as owners.
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1929: Chevrolet Series AC International
By the close of the decade, 4 out of 5 families now owned a car. And low-priced cars were the backbone of the auto industry. Chevy launched into this market the AC International with a new “Stovebolt” six-cylinder engine upstaging Ford’s four-cylinder models. The Stovebolt nickname came from the bolts on the inline-six’s cylinder head that resembled those on a wood-burning stove and offered smoother, quieter operation than its four-cylinder rivals.
Still, Ford dominated sales in 1929 pushing the new Chevy slightly behind to the number 2 spot.
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1930: Bentley 8 Litre
The 8 Litre was the last car designed by company founder W.O. Bentley and it was the final car launched before Bentley was purchased by Rolls-Royce. The 8 litre’s massive 7.9-liter straight-six engine was a beast, delivering approximately 230 hp and a top speed of just over 100 mph in this luxurious grand tourer. In fact, Bentley promised every 8-Litre would hit 100 mph no matter what bodywork the car wore. At the time Bentley himself claimed the car was “dead silent” at 100 mph.
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1931: Marmon Sixteen
Marmon’s reputation for speed came from its 1911 win of the inaugural Indy 500 with the Wasp roadster. Throughout the teens and early 1920s, the aluminum-intensive Model 34 was the sports-tourer of choice for those that were attracted to style and performance.
But the pinnacle of speed and prestige came when the company built the Sixteen. The V16 engine was nearly 500 cubic-inches and delivered a solid 200 hp. It was as beautiful as it was expensive and by 1933 Marmon had only moved 400 of them. That year, the company produced its final cars.
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1932: Ford Roadster
This is the car that started Americans down the path to hot rodding, land speed racing and drag racing. The “Deuce” had an immeasurable impact on car culture. What made it so popular? The little Ford not only had handsome lines and a cheap pricetag but had an optional flathead V8, which made them quicker than the competition. And that encouraged backyard mechanics to tinker, modify and race these cars. Even today, 1932 Fords are the mainstay at any hot rod meet.
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1933: Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow
In the early 1930s, production cars were beginning to wear sheetmetal influenced by aerodynamics. The Silver Arrow’s fully enclosed fenders and streamlined bodywork looked like the future. The big V12 engines packed 160 hp and could take the slippery Silver Arrow to a top speed north of 115 mph. Only a handful of these $10,000 machines were ever built. Considering the country was ravaged by the Great Depression—it’s no surprise why.
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1934: Chrysler Airflow
Most of the country’s automotive production took a dive during the Great Depression. But Chrysler not only saw an uptick in 1933 but was ready to unveil its radical and inspiring Airflow. The Airlflow’s design was not only shaped by the wind tunnel but it showed the way cars would look in the decade to come.
The Airflow wasn’t a hit with the public, many buyers at the time preferred a more traditional look.
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1935: Chevy Suburban Carryall
Today’s SUV and crossover craze owes its very existence to the Suburban. Plus, this Chevy is the oldest continuously produced automotive nameplate in America. The original 8-passenger enclosed wagon was built upon a light truck chassis as it is today. However, the first ones only had two doors and a tailgate. The 90 hp six-cylinder engine certainly didn’t have an easy time moving the heft but that didn’t hamper the Suburban’s capability. And through eleven different bodystyles the ‘Burban thrived for the next 83 years.
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1936: Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic
It’s easy to see why the Type 57 Atlantic always occupies a top spot on every “World’s Most Beautiful Cars” list. It’s a stunner and worth north of $40 million. Only four of them were ever built, so it’s unlikely your great grandparents ever saw one of these cruising through town. The aluminum-bodied car was light and fast, thanks to its 210 hp supercharged straight-eight. Many consider this Bugatti to be the very first “supercar”.
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1937: Cord 812 Phaeton
The front-drive Cord 810/812s were innovative high-performance cars in their day. When equipped with the optional Lycoming supercharger, the Cord boasted 170 hp (although some say that number is closer to 195 hp) and went on to set a 24-hour speed record of 80 mph at Indy. Even today, the Cord’s sleek bodywork with covered headlamps look like nothing else on the road. Sadly, this gorgeous car was only produced from 1936 to 1937, when Cord went out of business.
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1938: Cadillac V16
Cadillac led the world with a V16 engine in 1930, and the engine and car itself received thorough redesign in 1938. Horsepower rose to a very healthy 185. These massive cars hit the scales with an SUV-like 5,700 pounds but were still some of the quickest of their time. The big sixteen cylinder engines were known for their smoothness as was the ride of the Cadillac’ chassis.
Sadly “sixteen” production ended in 1940 as did the La Salle sub-brand. From that point until the 1980s, all Cadillacs used V8s.
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1939: Packard 120
This second generation of Packard’s mid-range luxury car line, named “120” after it’s wheelbase, was redesigned for 1939 but lost none of the original’s rugged reliability. Packard’s 120 hp straight-eight provided solid performance, especially with the new “Econo-drive”, a primitive electronic overdrive supplied by Borg Warner. The transmission shifter itself was moved to the steering column, freeing up floorspace. Engineers also used a “fifth” shock absorber mounted in the center of the chassis to damp out unruly road conditions.
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1940: Graham “Spirit of Motion”
The Graham “Sharknose” models were in their final year by 1940 but still looked radical. The forward cant of the car’s frontend made them appear fast and aggressive, even while parked. The plain-vanilla models had 90 hp but supercharged six-cylinder cars offered 120 hp. The car’s original and avant-garde design didn’t resonate with mainstream buyers. So, it was replaced for a more traditional (boring) style. Today, these are rare cars—even at the biggest collector car shows.
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1941: Buick Century
Though the captivating Century already had a reputation as a stylish performance car, the Buick gained more power for 1941. The Fireball straight eight-cylinder engine made 165 hp thanks to “compound carburetion” (dual carbs), and that meant this Buick was one of America’s most powerful cars. It could top out at over 100 mph and cruise comfortably at 80 mph, which was certainly impressive for the time. The Century helped establish Buick as a performance brand for GM.
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1942: Lincoln Continental
The 1942 model was the Continental’s last year before automakers halted production to supply parts and vehicles for WWII. But this Lincoln was one of the few that year that saw some minor design revisions, including redesigned frontend sheetmetal. Under the hood, Lincolns big 292 cid, 130 hp V12 remained. It’s estimated that just 136 of these beautiful Continentals were built in 1942.
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1943-1945: Willys MB/CJ-2A
Since the world was at war, global new vehicle production for civilians was paused. And certainly, the most significant new vehicle to come out of this period was built for the U.S. military— the Willys MB. Of course, the “Jeep” was central to the success of the allied war effort. But post war, 1945 Willys production shifted to the civilian CJ2A which became popular with farmers and ranchers. The first CJ models retailed for just over $1,000 and of course went on to become the granddaddy of all 4x4s and the genesis for the Jeep brand we know today.
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1946: Chrysler Town and Country Convertible
Before the nameplate was synonymous with 1980s minivans, Town and Country meant “woodie”. The Town and Country was a steel-roofed station wagon prior to WWII with real wood siding and a third row of seats. But when the Town and Country returned for ’46, it was launched as a stylish convertible using white ash wood and mahogany. In 1947, some of that wood trim was replaced with a faux material. The last woodies of this era hit the road in 1950.
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1947: Chevrolet Fleetmaster
The Chevrolet Fleetmaster didn’t change for the 1947 model year and this mainsteam sedan carried styling that really echoed the late 1930s. But the country just didn’t care that it looked old. Car buyers were eager for new cars and surprisingly, this Chevy was America’s best-selling car for 1947. General motors moved a whopping 684,145 of them.
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1948: Tucker 48
The revolutionary Tucker Torpedo was short-lived (just one year and only 51 cars produced) but it was packed with promise and innovation. The car had an aero bodyshell, a rear-mounted flat six-cylinder engine and a four-wheel independent suspension. The Tucker was brimming with safety tech too: a third headlight pivoted when you turned, disc brakes were standard and almost unheard of at that time, a padded dash as well as a pop-out windshield were there to protect occupants’ heads during a collision. Today these rare Tuckers can sell for upwards of $3 million.
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1949: Mercury 8
Few cars were embraced more strongly into custom car culture than the 1949 Merc. The streamlined sedan was a radical break from the previous year’s model, which still had pronounced fenders and a large, peaked hood. The smooth new Merc had an upsized Flathead V8 and that helped it triple the sales of the old model. This Merc is still popular for the hot rodders that modify them today.