American cars are some of the most iconic vehicles ever made. Our Top 10 lists our favourites
The culture around American cars is so diverse, it means totally different things to different people. For many, it’s all about the mighty American Muscle Cars with their monster V8s and pumped-up styling. Other classic American car buffs love the chrome and fins of the rockin’ and rollin’ 1950s. Then there’s the Al Capone gangster period, and of course hot-rod and drag racing culture to consider too.
Some people will think of icons from closer to the dawn of motoring, such as the instantly recognisable Model T Ford. Others will immediately think of the geeky cool of the modern day electric Tesla Model S.
Motorsport has always been central to the American car dream, through machines like the Shelby Cobra and Chevrolet Corvette, not to mention the more everyday vehicles that are pressed into service in the spectacular NASCAR series.
On the road here in the UK though, it’s often the outlandish scale and style of more everyday road cars that appeals, as well as the burble of a meaty V8 engine. Classic American cars for sale reflect interest in every genre. Well-known classic models like Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Challengers attract ever higher prices, while all manner of old American cars can be found in the classifieds. Newer ones too, thanks to the recent trend of US manufacturers to ‘globalise’ their products and sell them here. Some, like Jeep, have been around in the UK for years, but Chevrolet is a relatively recent arrival, and Tesla is the newest kid on the block. You can buy a Corvette ‘officially’, and even Ford’s new Mustang is finally available here in right hand drive.
So for lovers of all American car brands, and of the new and old American cars they have created, this is our guide to 10 of our favourites.
- Ford Mustang
- Cadillac Eldorado
- Ford Model T
- Tesla Model S
- Oldsmobile Curved Dash
- Cadillac Type 53
- Ford GT40
- Duesenberg Model J
Possibly the most recognisable American car ever, the Ford Mustang is credited with the creation of the ‘pony car’ class. A coupe-style car with a long bonnet and cut-off rear, the first-generation Mustang was one of Ford’s most successful models ever. It’s the original first-generation version that started production in 1965 that’s the most iconic of all.
The Mustang range started out with a relatively small straight-six engine, but it’s the larger V8 that most will associate with the car. The unit produced between 200bhp and 375bhp, with the Boss 302 version getting the most powerful version. Hard-top and convertible versions were offered, but it’s probably the Fastback version that’s best remembered, featuring heavily in the classic film Bullitt.
Since 1965 Ford has produced various Mustang models, but none have really inspired the same response as the 1965 original. In 2013, however, the latest Mustang was revealed, and for the first time it is being sold in the UK with right hand drive – in both coupe and convertible form. It might seem like an odd decision to include a four-cylinder EcoBoost engine under the bonnet, but buyers who are after the classic experience will be pleased to know it is also available with a storming 5.0-litre V8.
The first Chevrolet Corvette was produced in 1953, a pretty two-seater sports car with a powerful engine under the bonnet. Compared to contemporary supercars, the Corvette has always been a bit of a bargain – and the more modern models have got some serious performance to back them up as well. In fact, the current Corvette Stingray introduced in 2014 is a fantastic car that outperforms almost everything else in its price bracket.
You don’t buy a car like this unless you like to be noticed, so the Corvette Stingray is unashamedly brash to look at. It retains similar proportions to its predecessor, the C6, with a long bonnet stretching out in front of the driver, a low, wide stance and short rear overhang.
The Corvette’s 460bhp 6.2-litre V8 means a savage turn of pace, plus an epic noise on full throttle – helped on by the four trumpet-like exhaust pipes on the back. If you’re feeling brave, the traction control can be switched off completely, letting you pull flamboyant tail slides wherever the track allows.
Representing the luxury side of American cars is the Cadillac Eldorado. Elvis Presley famously bought a pink Cadillac, and even though that one wasn’t an Eldorado, it helped the Cadillac brand become what most of us think of when it comes to American luxury cars from the 1950s.
The Eldorado makes its way onto this list thanks to the stunning 1959 version, which featured huge tailfins and rocket-shaped brake lights. The space race had started when this Eldorado was being designed, and the US was gripped by futuristic ideas and designs like this one. It’s a perfect reflection of American luxury cars from this period, with its huge 6.4-litre V8 and gigantic nose and tail.
The Eldorado was available as a four-door, but also as a two-door convertible. This was no sports car, however, weighing nearly two and a half tonnes and being over two metres wide. The name means “the golden one” in Spanish – which is fitting given that the Eldorado was an expensive model that sat near the top of Cadillac’s range.
Ford Model T
The Ford Model T made its debut in the US in 1908 and was soon a roaring sales success: it is often credited with being the first car that the ordinary person could afford.
Henry Ford’s famous moving production line was introduced to build the Model T and it meant that build time per car was slashed from 12 hours down to just 93 minutes. When the car stopped being made in 1927, over 15 million had been produced.
There were many models to choose from: a roadster, tourer and town car, plus pick-ups, vans and buses. With its brass radiator, carriage-style lamps, wooden wheels and exposed running boards, the T looks bizarre on 21st century roads – but it would have been a relatively common sight back in its day.
The driving experience is very odd, too – it’s nothing like cars are these days. There are three pedals in the usual place, but they don’t do what you’d expect: The right pedal is a transmission brake, the middle pedal selects reverse gear, and the left pedal is used to engage drive to the two-speed transmission.
There’s a brass lever on the steering column that controls the throttle, and a tall stick by your right leg is the parking brake, which works via drums on the rear axle. It’s incredibly confusing: to pull away, you place the handbrake in the centre position, set some revs with the throttle and gently press the left hand pedal. To increase speed you release the pedal fully and slide the handbrake lever forward to engage high ratio.
The 2.9-litre four-cylinder engine means the Ford hits a respectable speed – and slowing down is a reversal of the process: back off the hand throttle, press the left pedal to select the low ratio – and get some engine braking – then use the right pedal, which constricts the transmission bands to slow the car.
While it doesn’t drive anything like a modern car, its production techniques and mass appeal set the template for every mainstream car on sale today.
The Jeep Wrangler is the US equivalent of the Land Rover Defender. Its looks hark back to the Willys Jeep from World War II, but the Wrangler was introduced as an all-new model in 2007.
There’s talent to back up the rugged styling, as the four-wheel-drive machine’s off-road ability has to be tried to be believed. Whatever the terrain, the Wrangler will find grip, thanks to its permanent four-wheel drive and low-ratio box. Diff locks also help the Wrangler tackle just about any kind of terrain, while the short overhangs front and rear mean steep slopes are no problem. And the 2.8-litre diesel has plenty of low-down power to haul you out of the deepest ruts.
But just like the Defender, the Wrangler’s off-road prowess comes at the expense of comfort and refinement on the road – you’d have to be a diehard fan if you were going to drive one on a daily basis, as the bouncy suspension, slow steering and short gearing make for hard work.
Interior space isn’t great, either, although the hard-wearing plastics can take a beating and still look good – they’re easy to hose down. The Wrangler is offered in two or four-door body styles, with a hard top or optional canvas roof.
We don’t rate the Wrangler as a good car to buy (though for serious off-road use it might be worth a look), but the iconic looks that it shares with its WWII predecessor and the no-nonsense approach in the design that mark it out as a great American car.
Tesla Model S
Not only is the Tesla Model S the best electric American car, it’s also one of the best electric cars available today – and for a relatively small start-up company like Tesla, it’s seriously impressive that the car has made it to market in this form. The Model S is a large saloon car that runs on electricity alone – but it’s not limited to a short 100-mile range like many of its rivals. The Tesla can manage up to 340 miles on a single charge, which is comparable to some of its combustion-engined rivals on a tank of fuel.
Buyers can choose between a 70kWh battery with a 275-mile range or the larger 90kWh battery with the full 311 miles. There’s also a P90D Performance model, which drops the 0-60mph time to 2.8 seconds. Give the throttle a gentle touch and the Model S responds instantly. Get too eager and the traction control kicks in immediately to help the rear tyres place all that instant torque on the road. It’s a seriously fast car, thanks to the huge torque from the get-go from the electric motor, but it’s also luxurious and comfortable.
In corners, the heavy Tesla feels numb and responds lazily to inputs. But with the 7,000-cell battery incorporated into the floorpan, the mass is low down and the Model S feels stable, while the optional Performance Plus pack’s stiffer anti-roll bar ensures body control is decent.
With no engine, and the batteries and electric motor mounted low in the chassis, the Tesla is really practical. In the back, there’s plenty of legroom, you get three ISOFIX mountings and there’s also no transmission tunnel to be climbed over. You can even have a £2,100 set of rear-facing jump seats in the boot for kids under 10. Without them, there’s a huge amount of space to store your luggage, too.
Oldsmobile Curved Dash
Although the success of the Ford Model T is often attributed to its early use of mass production on a moving assembly line, in fact the honour of being the first car built this way falls to the Oldsmobile Curved Dash model introduced in 1901. It lasted until 1907, and due to its affordable price and reliability the two-seater runabout sold well with 19,000 produced. The Model T was launched in 1908, and by 1927 had sold 16.5 million, but it’s fair to say the Oldsmobile showed the Ford the way!
The Curved Dash runabout was tiller steered, and powered by a single-cylinder 5hp engine with a top speed of 20mph. Runabout meant a basic style with no windscreen or doors. It also often placed the engine under the body, which in the case of the Oldsmobile Curved Dash had to be removed for access.
Cadillac Type 53
Not many people have heard of the Cadillac Type 53. For starters it was designed, built and sold mainly in the US, second it was only available for a single year in 1916. Thirdly, it wasn’t even very popular!
Every modern driver owes the little-known Cadillac a debt of gratitude though, because it was the first car to introduce driving controls in the layout we use today. That means with three pedals for accelerator, brake and clutch (set out in the right order), and a gear lever and handbrake located between the seats.
The layout was soon copied by other carmakers, and not least by the little Austin 7, which arrived in 1922 and had a global impact as well as inspiring versions built by BMW in Germany, and Nissan in Japan. Sadly Herbert Austin didn’t copy the Caddy’s big 77hp V8 for his diminutive 7, but he did help to put the motorcar in reach of more people than ever, thanks to its low cost.
Commissioned from Eric Broadley, the owner and design guru of successful English racing car builder Lola Cars, the legendary Ford GT40 was developed purely to beat Ferrari in sports car races.
The two brands weren’t natural competitors, but Enzo Ferrari famously upset Henry Ford II after unilaterally pulling out of talks about a possible takeover of Ferrari. Ford had already spent a fortune on putting the deal together, and wasn’t a happy bunny.
Determined to humiliate the Italians on the track where it would hurt the most, money was pumped into the new GT40 project which took shape first in the Lola Cars factory in Bromley, and then at a new Ford Advanced Vehicles facility in Slough. Powered by various mid-mounted Ford V8s starting with a 289 cubic inch unit, after a tricky first couple of years the GT40 became one of the dominant forces in endurance racing.
In an original press release from 1966, Ford says “it is probable that during the year a road version with a variety of owner amenities, will be introduced to supplement the existing design.”
In such low-key tones, the arrival of one of the most exciting supercars of the 1960s was heralded. In spite of its legendary 1-2-3 race win at Le Mans in 1966, just 30 GT40 road cars were built, although it spawned many replicas and even the Ford GT tribute car that we’re all so excited about today.
Duesenberg Model J
The Duesenberg Model J is revered amongst enthusiasts as it was once considered the finest car on sale. It’s certainly true of American manufactured models, but not such a clear-cut case when you factor in European rivals such as Rolls-Royce, Bugatti or Maybach.
Still, there’s no doubting the Model J’s magnificence. The car even inspired an expression occasionally still in use for wonderful things today – it’s a doozy!
Following its launch in 1928 – ironically a year before the great depression – the Model J rapidly became the must have status symbol of the rich and famous. Notable owners included Al Capone, Great Garbo, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Clark Gable, as well as various European royals.
It’s easy to see why they liked the car so much, as it featured the most powerful engine available from any US maker – a ‘straight eight’ work of art boasting almost 7.0-litres and making 265bhp. As such, it was both the fastest and most expensive American car of its era, made more so by the fact that it was supplied only as a rolling chassis so customers had to order a bespoke body from the coachbuilder of their choice.