We're car people and it's the Fourth of July, so you'd better believe we're going to round up some American cars that mean something to us. These are ordered by date of manufacturer and are cars that stand out as fundamentally American and also important in some respect to automotive history.
We're starting with the Viper, because Lee Iacocca is on our mind, having just recently passed away. As chairman of Chrysler, he greenlit the Viper project in 1990, producing one of the most unapologetically brash American cars of all time. The original Viper was uncouth, with a gruff V10 and side-exit exhaust that'd BBQ a steak, but it captured folks' imaginations and lit a fire under its competitors. Without the Viper, would the Corvette (and everything else sporty and American) be as good as it is today?
Enjoy the gallery and have a happy and safe Fourth of July.
Image Credit: General Motors
1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire
What if I told you that years before Saab or BMW even thought about turbocharging their little sport sedans, there was a unibody hardtop packing an all-alloy V8 and a single turbocharger? Moreover, it packed water-methanol injection and wedge-shaped combustion chambers, making 220 lb-ft of torque at just 2,400 RPM. Yup, that was just how wild GM was in the early 1960s. The Corvair’s turbocharged flat-six came a month later, so the Jetfire – a hardtop Cutlass with a Turbo-Rocket 215 variant of the famous Buick aluminum V8 – was the first turbocharged engine to reach production. It wasn’t a success, but look around you today – unibody sedans with turbocharged aluminum engines are wildly popular. And the Jetfire showed the way. — Senior Editor Alex Kierstein
Image Credit: General Motors
1964 Pontiac GTO
America will forever be linked with big engines, and the 1964 Pontiac GTO is the vehicle that is most directly responsible for that association. It's the first muscle car, and its immediate popularity sent competitors scrambling answers. The ripples it sent through the industry are still felt today — if you love the idea of getting the biggest, most powerful engine in the lightest possible shell, you owe The Great One a debt of gratitude.
The silver '64 you see above is currently owned by General Motors. Two engines were offered in the GTO's first year, a 325-horsepower 389-cubic-inch V8 with a 4-barrel carburetor or a 348-horse version with a trio of 2-barrel carbs. I happen to think the '65, which introduced stacked headlights, is the best-looking GTO, but it's the '64 that deserves inclusion on this list. — Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
Image Credit: Ford
1966 Ford GT40
Winning at Le Mans is a major achievement. Winning four years in a row is almost unbelievable. But that's exactly what the Ford GT40 accomplished, the first two years under the direct factory supervision of Ford's Shelby American racing outfit and the last two by the John Wyer Automotive Engineering team.
The victory at Le Mans in 1967 is especially noteworthy as an all-American effort. The GT40 MKIV was built in America, and driven by a pair of Americans, Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt. — Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
Given the choice between a Mustang and a Camaro, I’m going to pick the Mustang every time. Every time, that is, except for the 1967 Camaro Z/28. This Camaro was different than any other, and there’s a reason you see non-Z/28s rocking the “Z/28” badge all the time: The Z is freaking awesome. Chevy made the model to fulfill homologation requirements necessary to compete in the SCCA Trans-Am races, and it resulted in an engine I’ve revered ever since first learning about it.
At the time, Chevy had 327 and 283 V8 engines. The series had a 305 cubic-inch limit for V8s, so Chevy needed something in the middle to meet the regs. Because of this, the Z/28-only 302 cubic-inch V8 was born from the two V8s GM had lying around. It revved to 7,000 rpm, which was shocking for a car of its ilk at the time. Chevy rated horsepower at 290 ponies, but dyno tests revealed it was pushing 350+ horsepower. It was exclusively mated to a close-ratio four-speed manual, had power disc brakes and a heavy-duty race suspension among other performance bits. The Z/28 was truly a racecar you could buy from the dealership, and I’m always a sucker for a special engine like the 302 in this one. — Assistant Editor Zac Palmer
1968 Ford Mustang
The first-year Mustang (1964 1/2) was more important, but this is about the best. This wasn't even the first year for the facelifted version (1967), which introduced a look I prefer, a variety of other improvements, and most importantly, it had a larger engine bay that allowed it to swallow a big-block V8 (first the 390 cu-in from the Thunderbird, and a year later, the mighty Cobra Jet). I'm saying the 1968 is the best, though, because it represents the Mustang peak. Virtually everything done in the three-plus years prior resulted in this better car, whereas virtually everything after signified a gradual decline into fat old age. The 1968 saw the introduction of the very cool California Special and the 302 V8. It was also the year of Bullitt. However, ultimately the reason I've chosen the Mustang, be it '68 or any year in the '60s, is the egalitarian nature of it. Sure, car people go gaga for it due to its performance potential, but at the time, it was also a mass-market car. People bought them like they buy a Honda Civic or Chevy Equinox today. Hell, my grandmother owned a '66. She would've agreed with this choice. — West Coast Editor James Riswick
Image Credit: Chevrolet
1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1
If you know me, then you shouldn’t be surprised at all that I picked the original Corvette ZR1. I’ve wanted one for as long as I can remember. As a kid in the ’90s, I had two posters on my wall: a purple Lamborghini Diablo and a red Corvette ZR1. When the C4 debuted in the mid ’80s, it marked a new era for both Chevrolet and Corvette, moving the latter beyond the realm of pure American muscle into the same space as European cars like the Porsche 911. Thanks to Lotus and a screaming DOCH 5.7-liter V8, the ZR1 pushed things to another level.
I grew up in a GM household. My Dad owned 17 Corvettes. The first car I ever wrenched on was a C2. The ZR1 is a huge part of why I became an automotive journalist. Nothing else even comes close for me, save for maybe the 1969 Plymouth Road Runner. My Dad had one of those, too. Maybe you’re sensing a theme...
1997 Jeep Wrangler
You can't have a discussion about important American cars without mentioning the Jeep Wrangler. The example above is from 1997, and it's a favorite among Jeep faithful. With round headlights, a 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine mated to a proper manual transmission and a removable roof, it's a perfect example of why the Wrangler has for so long been synonymous with freedom. — Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
Image Credit: Tesla
2013 Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S is the most modern car on this list by a mile. It's the only electric car, the only one with a massive LCD touchscreen, and the only one that accepts over-the-air updates.
One thing it shares with most of the rest of this list, though, is speed. In some configurations, the Model S is ludicrously fast.
Put simply, the Tesla Model S — and by extension Tesla's entire lineup of electric vehicles — is responsible for kicking off an entire new segment of the automobile industry. — Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
Image Credit: Fiat Chrysler
2019 Dodge Grand Caravan
I hate to throw cold water on this celebration of best cars, but sad to say, the decidedly uncool Dodge Caravan is the best American car by every measure that is not handling, acceleration or sex appeal. First, it is the "most" American vehicle there is, with the highest domestic content of any car on the Kogod Auto Index. Thirty-five years on, it is the direct descendant of a long line of Chrysler minivans, a uniquely American category invented by recently deceased Lee Iacocca to help revive a flailing Detroit auto industry. And it performs that greatest of American chores, hauling incredible loads of our little American offspring and our mountains of American possessions.
And above all, it is good-old cheap American transportation, with a starting MSRP of just over $27 grand. That's a lot of capacity for not much money, and about $10,000 less than competitors, including its stablemate the far more sleek and sophisticated Chrysler Pacifica. Americans love a bargain, which is why the Grand Caravan, as old and forgotten by most of us as it may be, remains the best-selling minivan — by far. This in an era when the rich are getting richer and working Americans are decidedly not, when we're being sold $50,000 SUVs and $70,000 pickups on seven-year notes, and when more affordable American car models are being discontinued. There are better cars, but this one counts as best because generations of Americans have declared it "good enough." The Dodge Grand Caravan really is the most democratic of vehicles.
This is the car that hauls the American Dream. — Managing Editor Greg Rasa
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