by Elisa Jordan

AS SOON AS MOTORS BEGAN TAKING THE PLACE OF HORSES, cars have become an integral part of society. They may have started out as a convenience in terms of getting from one place to another but soon enthusiasts started taking an interest in them for their engines, speed and looks. Cars soon represented freedom of the open road and an entire culture began growing up around the cars themselves as well as what they symbolized. That slowed somewhat during World War II when young men went overseas to fight for their country. Anything that could be used for the war effort was diverted to the goal of victory. Car manufacturers were now using their factories and materials to construct tanks, airplanes, guns and anything else the military needed. It was a sacrifice that the nation was more than willing to make if the Allies got the supplies they needed.

After victory was declared in 1945, the car culture not only came roaring back, it hit a high-water mark. After years of hardship brought on by the Great Depression and the war, America was now celebrating and the exuberance was reflected in the automobiles. Bright colors, flashy body styles and faster engines became synonymous with post-war prosperity.

As the 1950s rolled on, technology improved and features such as power steering and brakes, automatic transmissions and seatbelts starting making cars safer and easier to drive. By the 1960s, the Baby Boomers, who were now learning how to drive, also indulged in a passion for cars. When the Youth Culture hit its stride, America’s love for cars had blossomed into a full-blown obsession. Fast, good-looking cars were reflected in movies, television and songs. Everyone has their own favorites but here are a couple of standout models that made history.

1908-1927 FORD MODEL T
By the early 1900s, the idea of horseless carriages—cars—was becoming popular. They were easy to use but they were also cost prohibitive to the average person. In the early years, cars were made one at a time and by hand. That all changed when Henry Ford set up a production line, which instantly allowed his cars to be made quickly and inexpensively. The resulting car was the Model-T, and it is considered the first affordable car. Almost overnight, the typical middleclass family could afford to drive a Ford and it changed the way world traveled.

Photo courtesy of Motoring Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

1932 FORD
The 1932 Model B and Model 18 were new designs from their predecessor, the Model A. The redesign was in response to Chevy’s market domination and the Great Depression’s disastrous impact on sales. Though notoriously slow to embrace change, Henry Ford was left with no choice but update his car line. The Model B and Model 18 hit the market with a wide variety of body styles and with Standard or Deluxe trims. Ford couldn’t keep up with demand when it came to the 18, which was powered by a flathead V8 engine. They were so popular that they became known by a variety of nicknames, including the Ford V8, the Ford Flathead and the Flathead Ford. It was the first time such an engine was affordable for a mass audience.

Though also a good car, the Model B simply was not as popular as the 18 and its V8 engine. It did, however, receive new life after World War II when the car became popular with hotrod fans, who altered them to fit their personal preferences – so much so, that an original body is now almost impossible to find. Known as the “Deuce Coupe” because it was from the year 32, these cars were immortalized by the bastions of early 1960s popular culture, The Beach Boys, in the song “Little Deuce Coupe” (1963). A souped up Model B hotrod also appears in the movie American Graffiti, including the pivotal race scene at the end.

Photo courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was a whole new type of vehicle. Cars evolved over the years so there is no “first” muscle car, but the Rocket 88 gets the nod as one of the founding fathers of the genre. The Rocket 88 was one of the first to build a reputation thanks to the V8 engine and a two-barrel carburetor. The Rocket 88 also had 135 horsepower so it was considerably faster than previous car generations. It also looked cool with long engine hoods and buyers could choose between two- or four-door models.

This car gets another significant cultural distinction in that it inspired one of the first rock ‘n roll-style songs. Recorded in 1951 at Sun Studios by producer Sam Phillips, the rhythm and blues song “Rocket 88” is long described as a prototype for the genre of rock ‘n roll that was soon to come. Although the song was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, it was actually the Kings of Rhythm, which was fronted by a 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song. Cars and rock ‘n roll songs have a long history together; it started here.

Photo courtesy of Leena Robinson / Shutterstock.com

Perhaps one of the most famous and celebrated of all classic cars, the “57 Chevy” was considered a huge upgrade from previous models. Engineer Ed Cole wanted something completely new in Chevy car design, but manufacturing setbacks meant he had to reuse chassis, drivetrains and suspension from earlier versions of Chevys. He turned his attention instead to the body and options. New in the 1957 model were the wider front grill, dashboard, cowling, chrome-trimmed headlights and 14-inch wheels, which lowered the car. By far, though, the most significant change in appearance was the distinctive rear fins.

The 57 Chevy originally debuted with just three models but soon the line expanded and included a range of styles, including two- or four-door options, convertibles, hardtops and two sizes of station wagons. To go along with the various body types, there were also numerous engine sizes, including a six cylinder and V8s and a 283 cubic-inch V8 with a four-barrel carburetor. Some even came equipped with fuel injection. Regardless of the body type or size, that impossible-to-miss fin was prominently featured on the rear.

Photo courtesy of Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Drawing on the elegance of the 1930s, the 1955 Thunderbird was a throwback to two-seater roadsters. During the mid-1950s, two-seaters were rare so the T-bird, as it was nicknamed, stood out from the beginning. It was convertible offered with two roof styles: fiberglass hardtop and fabric top. Although it came equipped with a V8 engine, the company promoted the comfort of the car as opposed to the speed. The car was considered a huge leap in making luxury vehicles more mainstream. Unlike the expensive 1930s cars it was based on, the T-bird was created with many of the components already available in the Ford Company factory, making it affordable.

Photo courtesy of Motoring Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

When the 1961 Chevy Impala 409 Super Sport (SS) arrived, General Motors knew immediately that they had something special. It had a 409-cubic inch V8 engine and 360 horsepower, but engineers made sure it was more than just another powerful engine. They had also equipped the 409 with stronger shocks that kept the car from bouncing as much as previous generations and forged aluminum pistons, which were ideal for high-performance cars. These pistons stood up better to extreme heat and allowed an engine to rev better. The power brakes had sintered metallic linings, which made them last longer and hard stops easier.

The body looked good too and signaled a change from the big-finned cars of the 1950s. The 409s were long and sleek coupes with chrome stripes lining the sides. Because the 409 was such a new type of car, not many were made but word spread fast and their reputation grew. And once The Beach Boys sang about the “real fine” 409, the car quickly became a legend.

Photo courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The 1963 Corvettes ushered in the second generation of these now-iconic sports cars. From the moment they were released, 1963 Corvettes captured the imaginations of car lovers, many of whom still cite this model as one of the most beautiful styles ever made. For starters, this was the first year that Corvettes were offered in a coupe body style. Second, and equally important, the split window drew an enormous amount of attention. They were discontinued after a year due to poor visibility so the limited number made them highly collectible. Car designer Bill Mitchell was fascinated with marine life and the influence can be seen in the 1963 Sting Ray. The gently swooping fenders are reminiscent of a stingray gliding through the water. The vents on the car’s sides were also inspired by its aquatic namesake. When looking at the Sting Ray from above, a “spine” ran down the top and came to a point at the end of the “tail.” This spine is why the window is bisected – it creates an unbroken line down the “back.” The quad headlamps were a leftover from older models but now they were hidden so they looked like “eyes” that could open and close.

But good looks weren’t the only thing going for it. Along with this second generation of Corvettes came better handling, an improved ventilation system, lighter bodies, new chassis and a 20-gallon gas tank.

Photo courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Few people could have predicted the impact the GTO would have on popular culture and the car industry when it was originally released. Thanks to the GTO, “muscle cars” officially became a trend: That is, cars with powerful engines placed into smaller, lightweight bodies. Buyers could get different engine sizes for the GTO but one option was a 389 cubic-inch with a V8. You could also get a four-barrel carburetor and duel exhaust.

The regular V8 engine could go from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds. With the tri-power engine that time increased to 5.7 seconds. GTOs were specially designed for speed and power, to the point that they were almost like race cars for the streets.

Their cultural impact was just as important. Ronny & the Daytonas sang “Little GTO” and the lyrics had details about the engine. (The Beach Boys later sang that song too.) Jan and Dean sang “My Mighty GTO.” But guys weren’t the only ones singing about GTOs. Carol & Cheryl sang “Go Go GTO” in 1965. Even years later in 1981, The Go-Go’s sang “Skidmarks on My Heart,” about a girl’s frustration with a boyfriend who spends all his time on “that Pontiac GTO pile.”

Photo courtesy of Massimo Dallaglio / Alamy Stock Photo

Chrysler always seemed to be ahead of the game when it came to performance and the Dodge Charger was no exception. When the first generation debuted in 1966, it shared its front-end sheetmetal and chassis with the Coronet. With the second generation in 1968, the Charger had a look all its own. Gone was the fastback and in was the “Coke bottle” profile, with gentle curves at the front and rear panels and a narrow center. Chargers were also offered with high-performance packages, making them ideal for street racing.

Pop culture interest followed almost immediately, first with the movie Bullitt (1968) starring Steve McQueen. In the movie, car chases between a 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback and a 1968 Dodge Charger made such big impressions on audiences that they are considered as iconic as the human characters. In 1971, a 1970 Dodge Charger was prominently in Vanishing Point. By far the most popular representation of the Dodge Charger comes in the form of the General Lee, the racecar Bo and Luke Duke evaded police in on The Dukes of Hazzard television show (1979-1985). The orange 1969 Charger was a centerpiece of the show for its entire run and remains popular to this day.

Photo courtesy of Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Demand for high-performance vehicles fell considerably in the 1970s. Increasing gas prices and insurance rates made them less affordable. New safety standards meant larger bumpers, which added weight and slowed cars down. The government was also enacting air quality regulations to decrease emissions. The Trans Am and its working-class cousin the Firebird were among the precious few that survived. Thanks to Pontiac’s creativity, these cars were redesigned with black rub strips and bumper guards to solve the bumper issue. To work within the increasingly strict emissions standards, General Motors equipped Pontiacs with catalytic converters. Both the Trans Am and Firebird went through various redesigns throughout the 1970s, but remained popular in general for the entire decade. In fact, they were featured in the TV show The Rockford Files and in the movie Smokey and the Bandit, starring as “characters” alongside leading men James Garner and Burt Reynolds, respectively.



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