Since 1887, the automotive industry has made more car models than we can count. We've had good cars and bad cars, iconic ones and unremarkable ones, reliable ones and ones that would not go a hundred miles without breaking down. However, there have been some cars that left their mark on the industry and changed the car scene for years to come.
In this slide show, we are going to count down 40 of the most influential cars of all time. All the way from the car that made owning an automobile reality for everyday Americans to the ones that influenced the outcomes of major global conflicts. So, let's get started.
1908: Ford Model T - Cars Become Accessible
Owning your own car is one of the key elements of the American dream, and we take it for granted every day. That was not always the case. When cars first came out in the late 1890s, they were custom-made, mostly to order, making them rare and incredibly expensive.
Henry Ford introduced the concept of an assembly line, which transformed the way the car industry manufactured vehicles, increasing production and decreasing costs drastically. The average cost of a car before the Model T came along was above $1,000, but with the introduction of the assembly line, the Model T was offered for just $260, or four-month wages of an average factory worker.
1925: Rolls-Royce Phantom - The First Real Luxury Car
Even though Rolls Royce was around for a couple of decades at this point, the cars they made were nothing luxurious. The Phantom was introduced to replace the Silver Ghost and came with everything that the former did not have. From a reliable engine to smooth (for the time) suspension, it had all it took to be a luxury car.
However, Rolls Royce only sold the chassis and engine while the body was built by dedicated coach builders... and it was up to the owner's taste to equip the interior with whatever they liked. Still, the Phantom provided a platform worthy of building a true luxury car on.
1938: VW Beetle - Europe's "People's Car"
Inspired by the Model T in America, the leader of Germany wanted to have something of the kind for his people too. So, he commissioned legendary automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche to design a car for the masses - a People's Car or "Volkswagen."
The product of Porsche's design was the Beetle. First made available for sale in 1938, the Beetle became one of the world's best-selling cars. It was the first car that made having personal transport possible for the Europeans and also paved the way for many more developments in the automotive industry.
1940: Willys Jeep - First True Off-Road Vehicle
The Willys Jeep was obviously not the first vehicle to introduce the idea of a 4x4 vehicle, but it was the first one that made it to the general public and widespread use. Designed for military use in the Second World War, the Willys was nothing more than a couple of seats strapped to a motor and four wheels.
To say that this vehicle was instrumental in shaping the results of WWII would not be an understatement. When all those soldiers came back home, they wanted the same versatility, a vehicle that did not depend on roads to move. And that played a big role in giving rise to the whole 4x4 industry.
1951: Bugatti Type 101 - The First Performance Luxury Car
Bugatti had been around for quite a while by 1951, but most of their cars were focused more on performance than luxury. Rolls Royce, on the other hand, was making insanely luxurious cars with acceptable performance. The Bugatti Type 101 was the first car that balanced both.
Powered by a straight-8 engine and with the bodywork done by the most renowned coachbuilders of the time, the Type 101 (based on the Type 57 chassis) was a 4-door luxury grand tourer that also had the performance to match the brand's name. Since that time, the brand has been at the top of both luxury and performance.
1951: Toyota Land Cruiser - Off-Roading Becomes Dependable
While the Willys Jeep was utilitarian and capable, it lacked a few things. A roof and windows, for example. Toyota came up with a 4x4 that could do all that the Jeep could while also keeping you shielded from the elements. The Land Cruiser has since been one of the longest-running name plates of any brand.
It was this car that made off-road travel accessible, easy, and actually enjoyable for people. It was the king of the off-road for a very long time and was, in fact, the gold standard of the industry. Sadly, Toyota is discontinuing it in favor of its luxurious cousin, the Lexus LX.
1954: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL - The Track Car for the Road
Called by some 'the Sports Car of the Century,' the Mercedes 300 SL (Super Light) was way ahead of its time when it came out. It weighed in at just 1500kg in an era when there was no carbon fiber or titanium to be used in cars.
The structural space frame of this car was made of steel tubes and weighed just over 50kg. The rest of the car was made of aluminum to save weight. With that kind of weight and 215hp at the wheels, the SL went above 250km/h. It was this car that ushered in the era of lightweight supercars.
1955: Chrysler 300D - First Production Car With EFI
For most car users, Electronic Fuel Injection or EFI system has been around for as long as there have been cars, but that was not always the case. Back in the day, cars had a carburetor to mix air and gas. Let's just say it was not the most efficient or user-friendly system.
The modern EFI system that all cars depend on today debuted in this, the Chrysler 300D. So, it is safe to say that without the bold step towards modernization by Chrysler in the 1950s, we would not have incredibly fuel-efficient cars down the line.
1959: Volvo PV 544 - First Car to Feature a Seatbelt
The PV 445 is not a very remarkable car, as far as remarkable cars with industry-wide impact go... but it has earned a spot on this list due to one reason; seat belt. Even though the seatbelt has been in use since 1949, that design was inefficient and inconvenient.
Engineer Nils Bohlin invented the first three-point seat belt in 1959, working for Volvo, and the PV 544 was the first Volvo model to feature that. Bohlin was not only an inventor but also someone who deeply cared for human lives. He made his patent for the seat belt free to use, leading to the adoption of his superior design by every single car maker, saving countless lives.
1959: BMC Mini - An Icon of Affordable British Cars
The US and Germany had their own version of the 'People's Car' in the form of the Ford T-Series and VW Beetle, respectively, but Britain had nothing of that sort until Sir Alec Issigonis designed the Mini for the British Motor Corporation. Seemingly unremarkable, this car had a major design advancement.
This was the first car to have a front-engine front-wheel drive system with a transverse engine layout. Those innovations freed up as much as 75% of the floor space of the car for passengers. If you see any compact or subcompact economy car on the market, the roots of the very basic design can be traced back to this one.
1962: Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta SWB - European Sports Cars Get Serious
Revealed in 1959, the Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta was the first true race car for the road. It was the car that you could take on a cross-country leisure trip or to a race track, and it would not disappoint you in any of the roles.
Powered by a 3.5L V12, this car started the era of low-displacement high-cylinder engines, the type that is known to sound and perform the best. Even though there were notable Ferrari models before this one, it was this Ferrari that can be thought of as the direct predecessor of the modern flying horse we all love.
1963: Porsche 911 - The Greatest German Sports Car Ever
The 911 has been in production for the last 60 years and has largely the same shape and the same engine formula, even though it has become much more powerful now. The 911 was the first car that went on to prove that you do not need to have a lot of power to go fast.
This marvel of German engineering proved that precision and innovation will always win over raw brute force in a race for excellence, speed, and refinement. The 911 did all that without being an overly complicated vehicle and will seemingly continue doing that for the foreseeable future.
1964: Ford GT 40 - America Wins Le Mans
Designed by Carol Shelby, test-driven and refined by Ken Miles, and commissioned by Henry Ford II, the GT40 went down in history as the most dependable and capable American sports car ever. It was this car that won the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1966, an era when the Europeans dominated endurance racing.
Legend has it that Henry Ford offered a generous budget and unlimited resources to Shelby and his team to come up with a car that could win his personal war with Enzo Ferrari; yes, THAT Enzo. And develop a car they did, winning in Le Mans not once but four times in a row.
1964: Ford Shelby Mustang - The Daily-Driver Track Car
Designed and engineered by Carol Shelby, the Ford Shelby Mustang was developed to rival Chevy's Camaro, and it went down in history as the only pony car that has been in continuous production ever since. This car, in the most literal sense, is in a class of its own.
Based on the lessons learned from the GT40 but modified enough to actually be a viable road car for everyday use, the Ford Shelby Mustang was the first American car that could serve as a daily driver to the office and could smoke anyone on the track or at a traffic light stop if need be.
1965: Shelby Cobra 427 - The Most Iconic American Sports Car Ever
If the Ford Shelby Mustang was too tame and docile for you, Shelby American offered another, even crazier one that could satisfy all your needs for power and performance. The Shelby Cobra 427 was powered by the Big Block 7.0L V8 and was designed to go as fast as possible.
Regarded by many as the most iconic American sports car, the Cobra was purely meant for the track and competed with the leading models of the time. To fit that ginormous motor in the Cobra, Caroll Shelby completely redesigned the chassis and suspension and tuned it to handle like a dream on the track.
1966: Lamborghini Miura - The First True Supercar
Regarded by many as the first true modern supercar, the Miura was developed in secrecy by three engineers, Giampaolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani, and Bob Wallace, as a car with a racing pedigree that could be driven on public roads by enthusiasts. The Miura even looks relevant to this day; imagine how many heads this thing would have turned back in 1965 when it first came out.
The guys developing the Miura, under the code name P400, thought that the car would serve as a good marketing tool at most, showcasing Lamborghini's capabilities in developing reliable race cars, and the rest is history.
1969: Dodge Challenger - Start of the 10-Second Life
The '69 Challenger was not the first muscle car (that would be the Oldsmobile 88 Rocket from 1949), but what really gave momentum to the whole muscle car scene was the creation of this vehicle in Detroit. The Challenger came out in 1969, and with the eight cylinders of screaming freedom, it just dominated the scene.
To this date, the Challenger remains the fastest-accelerating gas-powered street-legal car. Even though Dodge is now moving towards electric muscle cars, their legacy will always be making the craziest gas-powered machines to ever hit the tarmac.
1967: Toyota 2000GT - The Only Japanese Muscle Car
Before the 2000GT, Toyota was thought of as a brand that only made low-power economy passenger cars and had no business in the sports car world. The Japanese brand, however, proved everyone wrong by creating the 200GT, which was also known as the muscle car from Japan.
Powered by a 2.3L I6 and having all the cutting-edge technologies of the time, the 2000GT was the car that started Toyota's sports car journey. Whether it is the Supra, the GR86, or the rally car versions of Corollas and Camrys, all can trace their roots back to the 2000GT, the first purpose-built sports car from Toyota.
1972: Honda Civic - Start of Fuel Efficient Cars
It is crazy that global politics dictate the sizes of car engines. It was the early 1970s, and everyone was roaming around with big-honking V8s under the hood when suddenly, the guys over in the Middle East decided to stop selling oil to the West.
Japan saw the opportunity to develop a series of fuel-efficient cars that could offer matching features while being light on the gas. The Civic was the first step in that effort, followed by the Corolla from Toyota and the Accord from Honda.
1975: BMW E21 - The First Affordable German Project Car
The first generation of the 3-series BMW is still regarded as one of the, if not the best German project cars if you want to get the most performance out of your dollars. With a bulletproof inline-6 under the hood and a timeless design, the E21 was and is a tuner's dream.
The car gave rise to high-performance low-budget cars from European manufacturers in addition to a large part of the tuner culture of modern times. It is still one of the most sought-after BMW models, and people have these things tuned up for everything from drifting to drag racing.
1976: Honda Accord - Fuel Efficiency Combined With Luxury
For the people used to land yachts with V8s and whatnot under the hood, the Civic was obviously too small and powerless a car, so Honda came up with the Accord - a slightly better, bigger, more powerful, and comfortable car than the Civic, that was still fuel efficient and reliable.
Not saying that the Accord rivaled Mercedes or Lincoln in terms of luxury features, but it was a fair compromise between price, fuel efficiency, and comfort. Honda's formula of keeping it simple yet making it interesting did pay off, and the Accord went on to become one of the most iconic everyday cars ever.
1979: Mercedes G-Wagon - The Best Off-Road Machine
As far as iconic SUVs go, none beats the G-Wagon. Very few people know that it was originally commissioned for King Reza Shah of Iran, who owned significant equity in Mercedes. He ordered these SUVs for the Iranian Military, and the requirements were quite simple; the SUVs needed to be able to conquer any terrain and keep doing it without fail.
However, the King's reign came to an end before the civilian versions of the car came out in 1979. The G-Wagon is the only SUV to have three locking differentials, a setup far superior and simpler than any electrical contraption used to get the same effects by any other SUV.
1981: DMC DeLorean - A Car from the Future
The DeLorean DMC-12 was in a class of its own. Even though it was a commercial failure, this car, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, featured a number of innovations, some of which feel like they are from the future even today.
The DeLorean's iconic gullwing doors, wedge-shaped design, and small but powerful V6 can still turn some heads. It was not that the car failed due to being poorly designed; rather, the company was in financial trouble due to other reasons, which led to it being insolvent and going out of business. This model, however, still remains an icon of the 1980s.
1982: Mercedes W 201 - The OG Baby Benz
This car belonged to an era when Mercedes was known to make over-the-top expensive and feature-packed luxury vehicles with engines that could power an aircraft carrier. The W 201 was the entry-level Benz that made the brand accessible to the masses.
The great thing about this car was that Mercedes made the car affordable without cutting any corners and making a lot of innovations on the way. This car started an era of relatively affordable cars from luxury brands that we see today in the form of the BMW 1 series, Audi A3, and Mercedes A-series.
1983: Land Rover Defender - The Icon of Reliable Off Roading
The G-Class was for the rich, a luxurious Mercedes that had amazing off-road qualities... what if you needed to go off-road but could not spend that kind of money? Well, that was made by Land Rover in the form of the Defender. It was the next best thing in terms of reliable off-road performance that you could get at a much lower price point.
That is not to say that Land Rover was a cheap car maker, they were not, and they are not to this day. But the Defender, developed for the military and adopted for civilian use, was a relatively affordable vehicle that did not need a road to travel.
1983: Toyota Camry - Premium Travel at a Discount
While Honda was making waves with their iconic Accord, Toyota needed something to rival it, and they did that with this; the Camry. A family sedan that was meant to transport people from Point A to B without fail, day in and day out.
The Camry went on to become the best-selling sedan in the US and many other countries and is still the car of choice for everyone from Uber drivers to small families and from mid-level executives to even the police in some places. Influence of the Camry on the car industry? It is synonymous with no-nonsense premium everyday transport.
1989: Lexus LS 400 - The Start of Japanese Luxury Cars
There is a thing about the Japanese in general and Toyota in particular; "Do it the right way, or don't do it at all." That was the thinking that led to the creation of the first Japanese luxury car under Toyota's luxury vehicle division, Lexus.
The project that led to the development of this Jewel of the East was initiated by none other than Eiji Toyoda, the then-chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation, as an F1 (Flagship 1) project in 1983. After six years of development, the team came up with what can only be defined as the perfect sedan, earning Japan a seat at the luxury table.
1989: Mazda Miata - Tuner Car for the Poor
Before the Miata came along in 1989, the only options people had for sports cars were too expensive for ordinary people to afford. The Miata was launched at a price of just over $13,000 and came with everything from rear-wheel drive to a limited-slip differential.
With just a 1.8L engine (that later got upgraded to 2.0), the Miata did not have a lot of power. But, what it did have was a lot of potential to be tuned. From ECU flashes to turbochargers and performance exhaust, this car can take a lot, making it a budget-friendly tuner car for everyone, from college kids to not-so-rich enthusiasts.
1990: Acura NSX - The Best Sports Car From Japan
When Honda planned on opening a luxury division, they wanted to make a halo car for the brand, one that would communicate the strong attention to detail, reliability, and performance Honda is all about. The NSX team spared no expense in making sure they came up with the best possible car.
From taking the input of Ferrari F1 driver Ayrton Senna to using the most cutting-edge materials available at that time, Honda did everything to create a legend. The first-generation NSX went down in history as the most refined and well-tuned sports car to ever come from Japan.
1991: Dodge Viper - Brut Force Can Outrun Anything
Dodge is known for making some of the most bonkers cars in history. That includes the Hellcat, the Demon, and the first-generation Charger and Challenger, but their greatest creation was; the Dodge Viper. Powered by a naturally-aspirated 8.4L V10 and designed only to go fast, the Viper was in a class of its own.
When this car first came out, it was so focused on performance that door locks, a roof, and even ABS were not considered necessary. The Viper might have been discontinued, but whenever the craziest American sports cars are counted, this one will have a pretty high spot on that list.
1992: Hummer H1 - Military Vehicle for the Public
Another of the SUVs that were designed for the military but made their way to the civilian market, the Hummer is the physical embodiment of the US. GM made 55,000 of these in 1985 to help the Marines deliver freedom to the desert. Some of the significant features of the Hummer included tread width matching that of a tank to follow the tracks where there's no road and hooks for airdropping it from a helicopter.
Then, one of these caught the eye of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who asked GM to make him a civilian version of the vehicle, and that started the journey of the Hummer into the mass market.
1992: McLaren F1 - The Best Track Car Ever
The McLaren F1 can only be defined as a car designed around the driver. It's the only street-legal car that seats the driver in the middle and has two passenger seats flanking them from either side. The F1 was the car that highlighted the importance of precision in car design.
With 618 horsepower, the F1 is not a crazy powerful car, but thanks to awesome handling, this car broke record after record at test circuits around the world, starting an era where sports cars were focused more on precision and efficient use of power than just producing lots of power and not knowing how to put that to use.
1993: Toyota Supra - The Car That Started Tuning Culture
Think of this as a Miata but on a much larger, more expensive, and more powerful scale. The Supra name was around for a couple of decades at this time, but the fourth-generation, colloquially known as Mk4 Supra, was the one that immortalized this model.
With the legendary 2JZ-FE inline-6 engine under the hood, this coupe had virtually no limits as far as tuning goes. People have these things tuned to produce upwards of 5,000 horses with turbos and superchargers. Anyone can go and buy a Lambo or a Ferrari if they have a couple of million bucks, but if you want to find a real car guy, look for a modded Supra throwing flames out the back.
1997: Toyota Prius - First Commercially Viable Hybrid
The Prius was not the first hybrid vehicle by any means. The concept was proven in the form of the Lohner-Porsche Mixte in 1899, but the idea could not be made commercially viable until 1997. Toyota's development of the Prius in 1997 was way ahead of its time, making it the first successful hybrid for the masses.
From multiple motor generators to advanced batteries and a sophisticated computer program to run it all, the 1997 Prius is a complicated piece of engineering even by 2023 standards. The Prius was the car that sparked the development of hybrids and can rightfully be called the ancestor of all modern gas-electric hybrids.
1998: Nissan GTR R34 - The Analog Super Car
Unveiled in 1998 and produced between 1999 and 2002, the R34 GT-R, aka the Godzilla, might not have done anything particularly new in terms of performance, but it proved that you can keep a car simple and still have it perform extremely well.
While the NSX and LFA are loaded with tech and new features and gimmicks, the GT-R keeps it simple, and that is true to this day and the latest GT-R. It just has a twin-turbo V6 that produces lots of power and puts out some really impressive performance stats.
2003: Toyota Scion - The Most Affordable Sports Car Ever
The Miata is a good sports car for beginners, but it lacks power and looks. The Scion, now known as the GR 86, was co-developed by Toyota and Subaru as the cheapest complete sports car. It comes with Subaru's signature boxer engine, rear-wheel drive, and a limited-slip differential to make things fun.
The Scion, honestly, was not a huge commercial success like the Supra or Miata, but it was a significant car in the history of automobiles as it made enjoying a reliable sports car affordable for many without having to go through the trouble of tuning and all.
2009: Lexus LFA - The Best Japan Could Make
The LFA was a car that everyone loved, but no one wanted to buy. That is not to say that there was something wrong with this vehicle. Toyota made 499 examples of this to showcase the very apex of their abilities. The LFA (Lexus-Fuji-Apex) project was commissioned with an unlimited budget and no time frame.
The LFA, to this date, is the most perfect sports car to come from Japan, and it might not have been a great commercial success, but the technologies and innovations that started with it are still visible in the DNA of Lexus and Toyota to this date.
2012: Bugatti Veyron - First Car to Go Above 1000HP
The Veyron is proof that if you have enough power you do not need to do anything to break records. The first production vehicle to have 1,000+ horsepower, the Veyron was the car that sparked the hypercar era across the world.
There are cars that can go fast, but they often have to delete even the air conditioning to achieve mind-blowing speeds. Not the Veyron! Bugatti proved that as long as you have a ton of power, you can go fast and still get to keep all the luxury.
2012: Tesla Model S - The First Commercially Viable EV
Just like hybrids, making an EV was not as much of an engineering challenge as it was an economic one. Even though William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, created the first working EV in 1890, it was not until the Tesla Model S that EVs were thought of as an actual mode of transportation and not just a gimmick.
Elon Musk, a man with a reputation for making the impossible possible, was behind this. Tesla is not only an awesome car manufacturer, but any other company can access their patents and use Tesla tech in their own cars. That's the biggest leap towards a cleaner and greener future.
2019: Koenigsegg Gemera - Hypercar for the Whole Family
The Gemera might not be available to the public yet, but it is still one of the most revolutionary cars. Koenigsegg's concept with this car was simple - to mix the looks and driving feel of a 2-seater hyper car with the practicality of a 4-seater family car.
Making that possible was not simple. Still, the working prototype can easily seat 4 full-grown adults in comfort, carry 4 bags, and produce 1,700hp from a combination of a gas engine and couple of motors. If this car is successful, we'll see the likes of Lambo Ferrari, and Pagani scrambling to make family hypercars.