10 Cars that Changed the World

Here are the 10 cars that have most impacted history, technology, culture, and industry, as named by members of the Society of Automotive Historians.
  • In the 130-year history of the automobile, many cars have profoundly changed the world. And while it’s difficult to cite a handful as the most impactful, that’s exactly what a select group of automotive historians recently did.

    The results of their effort, now on display at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, IN, is a collection of ten cars that have deeply affected how the world works, plays, and lives. The voters, all of whom are members of the Society of Automotive Historians, actually cited more than 70 different vehicles on their ballots. The Studebaker Museum then collated the results and named the top ten vote-getters.

    “We were all pretty much in agreement on the first three or four: the Model T, the Beetle, the minivan, and the Jeep,” Andrew Beckman, archivist for the Studebaker National Museum, told Design News. “But beyond that, there was no majority. No one’s ballot completely agreed with anyone else’s.”

    By virtue of the fact that only ten cars were named, many great ones were left out. The 1932 Ford V8, '55 Chevy small block, '86 Ford Taurus with its aero look, and '39 Oldsmobile with the first automatic transmission, for example, all failed to make the cut. “It was a fun exercise to see how the people noted in their field looked at this,” Beckman said.

    Here, we offer a peek at the vehicles on display in the new exhibit. From the 1901 Oldsmobile Runabout to the 2001 Toyota Prius, these ten cars have impacted history, technology, culture, and industry, as named by the members of the Society of Automotive Historians.

    Do you agree with their choices? We encourage readers to weigh in with their selections for the list of cars that changed the world.

  • Ford Motor Co.’s Model T is not only one of the most important inventions in automotive history; it is one of the most important inventions of any kind in the 20th century. The Model T changed countless American lives because it brought the automotive ownership to the middle class, motivated governments to build better roads, and doubled the wages of auto workers. Henry Ford, it was said, paid his workers more than competitors did because he wanted them to accept the repetitive nature of their jobs, and because he wanted them to be able to afford to buy their own Model T’s. His car dominated the auto market from 1909 to 1927, reaching sales of about 15 million. Shown: a 1924 Model T with a 2.9-liter, four-cylinder engine that produced 20 HP. (Image source: Design News)

  • The Volkswagen Beetle arrived in the US in 1949 and exploded in popularity in the 1950s. For the auto industry, the Beetle represented an enormous change in thinking. It initially featured a rear-located, rear-wheel-drive, four-cylinder engine that provided for luggage storage under its front hood. The design was markedly utilitarian; its transmission was a manual three-speed and its windshield wipers operated off pressurization from the spare tire. The vehicle was different in virtually every way, with its unusual bubble shape enduring for decades. Volkswagen, in fact, marketed its little car to American consumers who didn’t want a Ford or GM vehicle, saying, “We do not believe in planned obsolescence. We don’t change a car for the sake of change.” Moreover, the strategy worked. More than 21 million Beetles had been built by the time production ended in 2003. Pictured is a 1967 Beetle with a four-cylinder, 53-HP engine. (Image Source: Design News)

  • The Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans arrived in 1984, exploiting the gap between the family station wagon and full-sized commercial van. It quickly became the ultimate family car, offering a wide array of new features. Ingress and egress were simpler than a station wagon’s. Its ride was superior to that of a van. It was comfortable to drive, its front-mounted engine provided a superior crumple zone, it could handle cargo, and its sliding side door was a major innovation for parents. As such, it became a cultural icon for families, supplanting the station wagon. Shown is a 1984 Dodge Caravan with a four-cylinder, 101-HP engine. (Image source: Design News)

  • Today’s Jeeps may be known as popular four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles, but the Jeep’s world-changing role really occurred during World War II. Back then, the Jeep was “the vehicle from which commanders led their units, hauling trailers full of vital supplies across the battlefield, carrying aircrew to their aircraft…carrying litters bearing wounded troops, transporting generals and admirals to work, pulling light artillery pieces into battle, or simply allowing President Roosevelt to review troops,” wrote Col. H. Donald Capps, US Army Retired and a member of the Society of Automotive Historians. During the war, the Jeep’s ubiquitous, workhorse persona created memories that were etched into the minds of millions of Americans. From 1940 to 1945, 647,925 Jeeps were built, mostly by Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Co. Pictured is a 1943 Ford GPW with a 2.2-liter engine that produced 60 HP. (Image source: Design News)

  • The Toyota Prius wasn’t the industry’s first hybrid vehicle, but it ushered in a new era by popularizing the electrified powertrain. Using an electric motor, a 1,500-cc gasoline engine, and a generator, the stubby-looking Prius could run entirely on electric propulsion or it could operate on a combination of electricity and gasoline combustion. In effect, it created a market for eco-conscious consumers who were leery of the lack of driving range offered by pure, battery-powered electric cars. The liftback Prius entered the US market in 2000, reaching sales of about 5,600. By 2012, those US sales hit an annual peak of about 147,000. At the same time, it has reached elevated status among consumers for its reputation for stellar reliability, despite its dual powertrains. Shown is a 2011 Prius driven by a 1.5-liter gasoline engine and a three-phase AC motor. (Image source: Design News)

  • The 1901 Oldsmobile Runabout was notable for its curved dash, but its real contribution to automotive history was that it was the world’s first mass-produced motor car. At the time, its claim to fame was that it was simple and dependable. Even its curved dash was utilitarian, existing primarily to deflect road debris from passengers. But it used a water-cooled, single-cylinder engine that produced 4.5 HP and it had a transmission with two forward speeds and one reverse. Weight was about 700 lbs, and the Runabout had a top speed of 20 mph and sold for $650. Pictured is a 1901 Oldsmobile with a 1.6-liter, 4.5-HP engine. (Image source: Design News)

  • The Ford Mustang’s lasting legacy is not its technology, but rather that it was a triumph of marketing. Ford executive Lee Iacocca, the “father” of the Mustang, knew his young audience and tailored the car’s look, performance, and even its name to appeal to them. The car featured a long hood, suggesting power, and a cut-off rear deck, evoking images of speed. But a smart, well-targeted design wasn’t enough for Iacocca. Once the design was cast, he opened the publicity spigot, launching the car at the New York World’s Fair and running ads in 2,600 newspapers across the country. Ultimately, the Mustang made the covers of both TIME and Newsweek. By late 1965, it had exceeded all sales projections, hitting a figure of 681,000. Today, it continues to be a mainstay in Ford’s lineup, even as the automaker moves toward trucks and electrified cars. Shown is a 1966 Ford Mustang with a 4.7-liter V8 engine. (Image source: Design News)

  • Citroen’s DS Series is notable in automotive history for the amazing technological foresight of its developers. The DS featured a self-leveling suspension, front-wheel drive, disc brakes, and a streamlined aerodynamic design that was decades ahead of the Ford Taurus. Its design was especially remarkable, highlighted by a front axle that was wider than the rear and a face that had no grille. Its turn signals were also fixed to the roof in the rear and it used a single-spoke steering wheel wrapped in plastic cord to enhance safety. The self-leveling independent suspension, too, was unique; it enabled the car to be raised and lowered at will. Approximately 1.5 million units were produced between 1955 and 1975, but the car’s real claim to fame was that many of its features were later adopted by scores of other manufacturers. Pictured is a 1969 Citroen DS21 with a 2.1-liter, four-cylinder engine that produced 155 HP. (Image source: Design News)

  • The Mini was groundbreaking when it emerged on the automotive scene in 1959. It featured a compact front-wheel-drive powertrain that served as the model for millions of compacts that followed. And it was notable for its use of space. With no driveshaft, the car’s floor could suddenly be flat and the vehicle cabin had more space than ever before. The Mini employed tiny 10-inch wheels, reducing wheel-well intrusion and freeing up more space for its unique drivetrain. The Mini also used simple external hinges and sliding windows to free up the hollow door panels for use as storage space. The Mini remained in production from 1959 to 2000, reaching sales of 5.3 million units. Shown here is the 2000 Rover Group Mini-Cooper with a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine. (Image source: Design News)

  • It’s hard to imagine today, but when Cadillac incorporated the electric self-starter on its 1912 Model 30, it marked a major change in the history of the automobile. Until the electric starter made its debut, car owners had used hand cranks to start the engine, often with disastrous results. Hand crank problems ranged from mere difficulties to broken bones to deaths. The emergence of the self-starter changed all that, making ignition as easy as pushing a button. With the advent of the self-starter, gasoline-powered vehicles suddenly began stepping up as potential replacements for horse-drawn carriages, and sales began to soar. Pictured is the 1912 Cadillac Model 30 with a 4.2-liter, 40-HP engine. (Image source: Design News)

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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