The USA is one of the most important nations in the history of the automobile, in spite of the reality that a good 90 per cent of its models haven't really ventured beyond North American borders. In fact, many of us Europeans know America as a proprietor of generally worse quality, worse engineered, worse handling cars that do their best work in a straight line. Of course, such a generalisation is wildly inaccurate. There’s also the fact that there are many parameters by which we judge something to be ‘good’. With all this in mind, we’ve listed what we think can fairly be argued as the ‘best’ American cars of all time, for various reasons.
The 13 best American cars of all time
Ford Model T
We begin in 1908 with the Ford Model T. Described as “the car that put the world on wheels”, the Model T was the first mass-produced and thus widely available and affordable motor carriage. Today, driving one on the public highway would be dangerous and mastering its controls is akin to patting your head while rubbing your tummy and hopping on one leg. Nevertheless, for its role in bringing the car to the masses, its place on this list is assured.
Duesenberg Model J
The Model T is joined, for quite different reasons, by the Duesenberg Model J, the decade-long crescendo for a company whose business was the finest and most expensive automobiles on Earth. It cost around $22,000 in 1930, the equivalent of £246,000 today, in a time when the average house price was the equivalent £72,000 and on the eve of the Great Depression no less. It was a car very much unfit for the times, so why was it one of America’s best? Well, it’s the above. Monster engines and an incredible standard of engineering and innovation. A car that each owner was in on through the process of creating, from design blueprints to coachbuilding. Duesenberg buyers wanted the very best car in the world and that’s what they got. The Model J’s 245PS (180kW) four-valve DOHC straight-eight engine was race-proven and could push it up to 120mph. By 1937, the very last supercharged SSJ Deusenbergs were reaching 400PS (294kW)! It probably speaks volumes for the J that the depression didn’t kill Duesenberg in a night. These cars were selling – albeit slowly – for ten years before time was called.
The Willys Jeep has a lot to be thanked for in terms of its wartime service. It was after all the primary light wheeled transport vehicle for the US military, with Dwight D. Eisenhower once calling it “one of three decisive weapons the U.S. had during WWII”. We can also, however, thank the Jeep for everything that followed. Yes, all utility vehicles, near enough. The first Land Rover was inspired by the Willys, obviously the entire Jeep company and the Wrangler they still produce broadly in its image. All the qualities that made it good we now associate with why big chunky SUVs appeal to so many today – all-wheel-drive, rugged, capable and numerous. One of the best-ever American cars both for what it was, what it did and the legacy it left.
Should an American take on a British car make it on to a list of the best American cars? Absolutely. Because Americans are ingenuitive, demonstrable in Carrol Shelby rightly seeing the race-winning potential in a beefier V8-powered version of the diminutive AC Ace. It was also the car that taught us the potential of hot rodding and that a car can be transformed by a change of engine. It was a boon for 1960s racers and has been a prominent grid packer for us here at Goodwood in our 20-plus years of historic racing. Of course, racing should have no bearing on the perceived greatness of a road car. So then comes the oft-told tale that a Cobra was responsible for the creation of our 70mph motorway speed limits in the UK, to help it to its place on this list…
Ford Mustang GT
This is very much more the American car we know and love, perhaps the first of its kind. The Mustang on its release in 1965 was a smash hit. Why? It did something few to no other cars had managed. It was attainable and desirable. It egalitarianised the automobile as an object of want, not need, to the tune of more than tripling projected sales in its first year and reaching the one million mark within two years. It also happened to be pretty fast, when equipped with the 210PS (154kW) V8 it was upgraded with in the first year. This was a car that was as suited to racing as it was being a youngster’s runaround. Given the sales, it’s no wonder a torrent of pony car rivals followed, none matching the success of the ‘Stang.
The best-selling motor vehicle on Earth is considered good. In other news, water is wet. In all seriousness, the F-Series Ford has rightly been called the backbone of America. In its 70-plus years on sale, it’s been as much a family hack as it has a commercial workhorse, to families, labourers and workers of America. It’s had its ups and certainly its downs, so we’re picking the beloved 1993 ninth-generation F-Series F-150 as the representative. These are still numerous on American roads with some having clocked over 300,000 miles. Reliability and dependability are the remits for this truck and are part of the reason it’s so popular.
Chevrolet Corvette C5
Why no Corvettes until now? Because pretty as they were, they were never the best. The C5 changed everything, pulling a similar trick to the Mustang in the ‘60s. It was affordable, desirable and offered great near class-leading performance for the money. It was a sportscar that could take on and beat contemporary Europeans at a discount such that you could buy a daily alongside it with the savings. A 911 Carrera in 1997 cost $64,000 in America. By contrast, the C5 started at $38,000. The LS – an engine family now so popular it has an entire festival named after it – got its debut in the C5, outputting 345PS (253kW), making this 1,439kg (kerb) car potent. It had good weight distribution and a sturdy manual transmission in the Tremek T56 six-speed. It took just over five seconds to get to 62mph, on the way to a top speed of over 174mph.
The platform too made for the basis of a Le Mans-winning racer and the start of a monster Corvette racing programme. The formula worked so well that the C6 and even the C7 are modernisations and updates of the principles the C5 championed, including using later iterations of that dependable alloy small-block. This car was probably the start of a wider performance car revolution for American manufacturers and consequently, the start of the second half of this list…
Dodge Viper SRT-10
The Viper had been around for over a decade before it matured into something we could call objectively good, rather than somewhat murderous. For the SRT-10 of 2003, the V10 engine grew to eight litres, the looks were refined and the cabin was updated. Underneath, the car was more rigorously developed to drive and handle the way a 500PS (367kW) supercar ought to. It was sort of without a rival on its debut but the legacy was clear, going back to the original and indeed the AC Cobra it was designed in the image of. Big power in little cars – something we don’t need to tell you the Americans are good at…
By 2005 the high-performance renaissance for the motor industry in America was plain to see. The Corvette was in great form, the Viper a supercar to scare the Italians. Where was Ford? Since the concept in 2000, the world waited with bated breath for the Ford GT, a road-going supercar that was as much a tribute to the Le Mans-winning GT40 as it was a 100th birthday present to FoMoCo itself. There was every chance this thing could have been a joke compared to contemporary supercars. It wasn’t. It was in fact, as is widely reported, one of the finest driving cars of its generation. A sweet gearshift, a gorgeous alloy chassis, a willing 550PS (404kW) supercharged V8 engine and finely calibrated suspension made for what many in the know consider to be an all-time great supercar driving experience. It was also significantly cheaper and faster than comparable European machinery. Because that’s how Americans do performance cars.
The first-generation CTS-V of 2004 was great… but it could have been a fluke. The 2009 CTS-V proved that theory wrong, with a 550PS (404kW) supercharged Corvette V8 and a Nürburgring-honed chassis, it trampled the BMW M5 for two-thirds of the price and if we’re honest, it looked way better too. There’s a theme emerging to these more modern American greats, which excellent successive CTS-Vs and indeed the brand new CT5-V Blackwing have also stuck to.
Tesla Model S
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Tesla is an important name in the history of the car. As the Ford Model T brought cars to the masses, so too did Tesla the idea of electric cars. The Model S was a fabulous – albeit quite pricey – executive saloon with breathtaking performance, incredible tech and smooth looks. The cheaper Model 3 was Tesla’s super spreader but the Model S was, to use a vastly overused word, the disruptor.
Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
Chevrolet began the crescendo to this breathtaking era of American performance cars, with the Camaro Z/28 of 2014. It was widened, lightened, powered by a 7.0-litre 500PS (367kW) LS7 V8, suspended on high-tech Multimatic DSSV dampers and shod with 305-section cut slick rubber. A bloody serious performance car proposition if all the changes sat well with the base Camaro platform… which they did. It was lauded by even the UK press, to the point that Top Gear’s Chris Harris spent his own money on one. It’ll surely be remembered as an all-time great American car, as niche as it is.
Ford Mustang GT
An appropriate place to end, for now, we think. There are great American cars that have come since but none that have made their stamp like the most recent Mustang. See, as we said at the opening, American cars no matter how good or bad, have rarely seen action overseas. The 2015 Mustang changed that, debuting as the first ‘Global’ Mustang. From Australia to the UK (in right-hand-drive) it was curvier and more sophisticated to drive but still packed that monster V8… and for a bargain price, too. A great Mustang, a great American car, a great car full stop.
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