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Top 10 Most Important Automobiles in History

What are the 10 most important automobiles ever produced? We’re not talking about cars that were merely brilliantly engineered, gorgeously designed or were retail superstars, but breakthrough concepts that literally changed the way we drive.

Here, in chronological order, are arguably the 10 most historically significant cars of the past 100+ years:

Ford Model T

1. The Ford Model T (1908). Before the Model T, cars were “fancy contraptions” that were hand-made and available only to the very well-off. By adapting European mass production techniques to car manufacturing, Henry Ford “democratized” the automobile and, in his own words, “put America on wheels.”

1938 Volkswagen Beetle

2. The Volkswagen Beetle (1938). Not only did the Beetle have the longest production run of any car in history (1938-2003), it became the model for every “economy car” made thereafter. It was also the first European car to successfully break into the American mass market, paving the way for Toyota, Datsun/Nissan and every other foreign automobile manufacturer.

1940 Oldsmobile

3. The Oldsmobile (1940). This was the first car to offer fully automatic transmission — dubbed Hydramatic — and thus literally changed the way we drive. Today, large segments of the American public couldn’t get half a block with a clutch and stick shift.

1940 Ford f150

4. The Ford 150 Pickup (1948). Although it would never win a beauty contest, the F-150 made the pickup truck mainstream. It’s been a best-seller for more than six decades.

1959 BMC MINI

5. British Motor Corporation Mini (1959). Small but irresistibly cool, the Mini helped make compact “fab.” Its technical layout remains the model for subcompacts to this day. (The Mini was so cool it played a starring role in both versions of The Italian Job [1969/2003].)

1964 Ford Mustang

6. The Ford Mustang (1964). Just as Henry Ford had democratized the automobile a half century earlier, Ford Motor Co. decided to make a sports car the average car buyer could afford. The result was the first of Ford’s “pony cars,” characterized by a long hood and short rear deck. It was arguably the first American “muscle car,” and it continues to be an American icon to this day.

1972 Hondo Civic

7. The Honda Civic (1972). Prior to the release of the Civic, economy cars were the automotive equivalent of generic beer: They were cheap and they did the job, but they still tended to leave a bad taste in your mouth. With the Civic, Honda proved that even economy cars could be well-engineered and, most surprising of all, reliable. It helped establish Japan as a source for cars that could hold their own against the best of the U.S. and Europe.

1974 Jeep Cherokee

8. The Jeep Cherokee (1974). This was the first mid-sized Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), and was the first four-wheel-drive vehicle to be successfully marketed as an alternative to the traditional “family car.”

1984 Dodge Caravan

9. The Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan (1984). As the ride-of-choice for soccer moms everywhere, the Voyager/Caravan introduced an entirely new breed of family vehicle — the minivan — to the American market. Its sliding doors became a required component for any vehicle hoping to appeal households needing to transport lots of little ones.

2000 Toyota Prius

10. The Toyota Prius (2000). The first successful gas-electric hybrid, the Prius not only created an entirely new category of mass market automobile, it showed that “green” could also be very, very profitable. Today, virtually every major car maker is making or developing at least one type of hybrid vehicle.

What’s next? Well, we’re about to enter the second decade of the 21st century, and we’re still waiting for our flying cars. Certainly, someone out there must be working on one …

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