Cars and clothes have a lot in common. Both have utilitarian roots, but both have also become so intertwined with style that they’re hallmarks of their eras. The fuel-efficient sedans that started to flood the roads during the energy crisis are as quintessentially 1970s as bell-bottoms.
As such, taking a long look at which cars captured the American imagination over the years — whether it’s via sleek styling or their ability to fit into a working family’s budget — can make for a fascinating trip through U.S. history. That’s why GOBankingRates compiled a list of the most popular American cars from your birth year all the way back to 1950 — apologies to the septuagenarians reading this — according to an amalgam of reviews and opinions from some of the leading publications in the auto industry.
Last updated: Dec. 24, 2019
1950: Buick Roadmaster
The most memorable Buick Roadmaster might be the early 1990s station wagon that came decades later, but the 1950 Roadmaster offered sleek styling across a variety of options — including a wagon.
1951: Studebaker Champion
This model was a champion of thriftiness. It cost less than the previous year’s model while offering better gas mileage.
1952: Ford F-Series OG
This early iteration of the Ford F-150 that has dominated the market for decades helped launch the now-iconic truck brand.
1953: Chevrolet Corvette
Speaking of cars that launched an iconic brand, the Corvette was first introduced in 1953 and has been beloved by car fanatics ever since.
1954: Willys CJ-5
Influenced by the jeeps used during the Korean War, the Willys CJ-5 was a boxy vehicle for people interested in off-roading.
Pictured: Jeep CJ-5
1955: Ford Thunderbird
The Thunderbird was Ford’s response to the Chevy Corvette’s launch two years prior. However, it opted to go for a “personal luxury” approach instead of the sporty image of the Vette.
1956: Continental Mark II
This 5,000-pound behemoth cost over $10,000 when it first came out — adjusted for inflation, that’s $95,735.45. The car was clearly geared toward those willing to pay extra for luxury.
1957: Chevrolet Bel Air
Representing the final year for the “tri-five” Chevys, the Bel Air featured those iconic tailfins that have since become a clear mark of the 1950s.
1958: Ford Edsel
The Edsel — named for Henry Ford’s son — became notorious over the years as a fantastic flop that went out of production by 1960. However, that notoriety has made the Edsel a collectible for modern Ford fans.
1959: Cadillac El Dorado
It’s fitting that the final car of the 1950s featured those tailfins that just didn’t seem to stick with future generations of cars. The sleek El Dorado helped put Cadillac on the map and immediately brings back images of soda stands and sock hops.
Pictured: 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz Convertible
1960: Chevrolet Corvair
Another car that’s more memorable at this point for its failures than its successes, the Corvair was central to Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which helped bring a new era of safety measures to American cars.
1961: Lincoln Continental
The four-door, convertible Lincoln Continental was the sort of boat that thrived in an era when gas was much cheaper. Still, it had the look of a classic, roomy American car.
1962: Studebaker Avanti
While the Studebaker was eventually absorbed by the competition, it had a long run of success prior to that — which included this beauty. The company initially made only 4,500 of these performance luxury cars, but its popularity invited further variations through 2006.
1963: Buick Riviera
While the Riviera’s reputation might have drawn more on its sense of style, the 325 horsepower, V-8 engine helped give the car some serious punch when it was needed.
1964: Pontiac GTO
Many see the 1964 Pontiac GTO as the original American muscle car, launching an era of cars that were as loud as they were fast and had a firmer suspension, special tires and a pair of hood scoops.
1965: Ford Mustang
Speaking of classic American cars with some power, the Mustang remains as much of a household name today as it was back in the early 1960s.
1966: Chevrolet Impala SS
While the base engine on the Impala was a V-6, most people opted for the meatier V-8 option to secure the extra horsepower. You could get upward of 275 horsepower depending on the option you selected.
1967: Chevrolet Camaro
Though the Chevy Camaro and the Ford Mustang have both become standards in the American automobile canon, not as many people know that the Camaro was originally created to counter the Mustang. If you had gone with the option that offered the most power, you would have rocked a 375 horsepower, V-8 engine under the hood.
1968: Dodge Charger
Driving a car that got terrible gas mileage was a lot easier before the energy crisis, which explains why the enormous American muscle car was so dominant in the 1960s.
1969: Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II
Another relic of the muscle car era, the Cyclone wasn’t built with utility at top of mind — at least not in the sense of being able to drive around town. The car was built through consultation with two NASCAR drivers.
1970: Dodge Charger
If you’re thinking that the Charger looks familiar, it should. It was a Charger that played the General Lee on the classic television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
1971: Stutz Blackhawk
In 1971, it was hard to find a better option than the Blackhawk for a luxury boat to cruise around town in. The cars were extremely expensive, but that didn’t stop celebrities like Lucille Ball, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley from owning them.
Pictured: Elvis Presley’s 1971 Stutz Blackhawk at Graceland
1972: Ford Ranchero
While the open-bed car never enjoyed the popularity of the station wagon, it was nonetheless a uniquely useful vehicle for many consumers. Not to mention, there weren’t a lot of station wagons that could boast the sort of punch provided by the Ranchero’s V-8 engine.
1973: Chevrolet Monte Carlo
The stylish Monte Carlo was made while famed auto designer John DeLorean still worked at General Motors. As such, the sleek fender lines and attractive style helped make the coupe an instant classic.
1974: Ford Cortina MK III
The Ford Cortina spent many years near the top of American car lists, and the third generation that launched in the early 1970s only helped cement its reputation. The Cortina was so popular that it helped launch a nine-year streak in the United Kingdom where the top-selling car was a Ford.
Pictured: 1974 Ford Cortina L MK III
1975: Ford Cortina MK III
Since the Cortina remained a bestseller across many years, it doesn’t have a single model year that really stood out. Each update was popular with consumers.
1976: AMC Pacer
Nowadays, when most people hear “AMC,” they tend to think of the movie theater company or the cable channel. It’s a sign that the memory of the American Motors Corp. has faded since the company went under about three decades ago. The AMC Pacer was a hatchback that found popularity back in the day, among many other companies and cars.
1977: Pontiac Trans Am
The so-called “screaming chicken” on the hood has since become iconic, but few cars have come to symbolize the 1970s like the Trans Am. Here’s a fun fact for movie fans: The Trans Am was the car driven by Burt Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Pictured: Replica of 1977 Pontiac Trans Am from “Smokey and the Bandit”
1978: Oldsmobile Cutlass
Oldsmobile sold over half a million Cutlasses in 1978. The car would remain the bestseller in the United States into the early 1980s.
1979: Buick Riviera
While front-wheel drive has become the norm for everything but sports cars and trucks with four-wheel drive, it was a relatively novel concept in the late 1970s. The Riviera was among the early vehicles that helped pioneer the trend.
1980: AMC Eagle
Can you build an off-road station wagon? If so, the Eagle might be it, as AMC also owned Jeep during this era. This station wagon could have been the blueprint for today’s Subaru.
There’s not a lot left to say about this space-age car that came from famous engineer John DeLorean after he tried to launch his own auto company. Of course, it received an enormous boost in fame when Doc Brown used one for his time machine in “Back to the Future.”
1982: Buick Grand National
It’s interesting to note just how much crossover there has been between NASCAR and auto production lines over the years. The 1982 Buick Grand National was built to capitalize on the popularity of the Regal that Darrel Waltrip drove to win the Grand National championship in 1981.
Pictured: 1986 Buick Grand National
1983: Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme
While it was briefly eclipsed by the Ford Escort in 1982, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was right back in the top spot for total sales in 1983, with over 330,000 units moved from assembly lines to garages.
Pictured: 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham
1984: Chevrolet Cavalier
Of course, 1983 was also the last year that Oldsmobile could claim the nation’s bestselling car. In 1984, the company was outstripped by the 380,000-plus Cavaliers sold by Chevy, and it hasn’t returned to the top of the list since.
1985: Ford Escort MK III
Car fanatics might assume that everyone’s version of a great car is going to revolve around sleek styling or a massive, powerful engine. But American carmaking has always had its “Model T” — the inexpensive family car focused on utility and cost for middle- and working-class buyers. The Ford Escort is clearly an automobile in that vein.
1986: Chevrolet Celebrity
The Celebrity was a slightly larger version of the Cavalier, and it quickly eclipsed its cousin car. Over 400,000 were sold in 1986, making the Celebrity the top seller of the year.
1987: Ford Mustang GT
That’s right, over 20 years after it first burst onto the scene, the Mustang was still capturing the American imagination. And, while the 1987 version had some decidedly 1980s touches, it was also still a Mustang at heart with its 225 horsepower, V-8 engine.
1988: Ford Escort
Yes, you were allowed to drive this car on your own. In fact, a lot of people did: The Ford Escort was the top-selling ride of 1988, with nearly 400,000 units sold.
1989: Ford Escort MK III
The Escort was, in many ways, the next generation of the Ford Cortina. The Escort filled a similar niche for car buyers primarily interested in going from point A to point B, and it eventually eclipsed the Cortina in sales.
Pictured: 1988 Ford Escort MK III
1990: Ford Fiesta
The Ford Fiesta marked the dawn of the 1990s, offering an affordable hatchback to the masses. The Fiesta might not have been a wild ride, but it was a top seller.
1991: Dodge Viper SR1
If you were looking for a wild ride, the Dodge Viper was more than ready to oblige you. Its engine was a V-10 — not a typo — so fans of performance sports cars were likely happy to have this car available as an option.
Pictured: 1992 Dodge Viper
1992: Ford Taurus SHO
While it’s not a Dodge Viper, there was a surprising 220 horsepower under the hood for the 1992 Ford Taurus SHO, coming from its Yamaha V-6 engine.
1993: Chrysler LH Sedans
Chrysler had gone about 10 years since its last all-new release when it launched the LH line of sedans. They were popular for the extra room inside created by the cab-forward design.
Pictured: 1994-97 Chrysler LHS
1994: Ford Escort
The Escort landed on a design so fundamentally sound that Ford kept the same name rolling along over multiple decades.
1995: Ford Taurus
From 1995 to 2000, the Taurus spent five years as the top-selling car in America, racking up nearly 2 million units sold during that period.
Pictured: 1994-95 Ford Taurus GL
1996: Dodge Viper GTS
The Viper GTS boosted the car’s performance up to a monstrous 450 horsepower, helping maintain the model’s reputation as a favorite among those buying based purely on power and speed.
1997: Ford Fiesta
Ford boasted the bestselling car on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1990s. The Taurus topped the list on U.S. soil, while the Fiesta was the bestselling car in England.
1998: Lincoln Town Car
Lincoln was Ford’s luxury brand, and it proved to be very popular among people running a car service. Not only did the Town Car offer a comfortable ride, but many professional services also found that they could clock as much as 300,000 miles on the car thanks to its outstanding durability.
1999: Ford Focus
If you really want to drill down into one Ford model, you might choose the Focus. It replaced the Escort and served a similar role in giving many consumers a reliable, inexpensive ride.
2000: Pontiac Aztek
The Pontiac Aztek has since gotten a second life among collectors after appearing as Walter White’s car on “Breaking Bad,” but it was something of a flop prior to that. Built on a minivan chassis, it had an odd look and didn’t perform as well as many would have hoped.
2001: Ford Focus
The Focus remained among the more popular American car models for some time, with the bubbly shaped cars visible all over the roads in the early 2000s.
2002: Ford Focus
From 1998 to 2008, the Ford Focus was also among the most popular rides in England, spending a decade as the top-selling car there.
Pictured: 2002 Ford Focus Ghia
2003: Ford Focus
After a reign of popularity for a good portion of the 21st century, the last Ford Focus manufactured in North America rolled off the assembly line in Michigan in 2018, as the company shifted resources to other models.
Pictured: 2003 Ford Focus Zetec
2004: Ford Focus
It should be clear just how fixated the American car-buying public was with the Focus when you consider that Ford sold over 200,000 units in 2004 alone.
2005: Ford Mustang
This list covers three different iterations of the Mustang, each about 20 years apart. The 2005 model included a successful effort to work retro, 1960s styling into the car, helping reinvent it for new — and old — generations of drivers.
2006: Chrysler 300 SRT8
If you want a sedan that packs some serious punch, the Chrysler 300 SRT8 might have been the car for you. It generated 425 horsepower and 420 pounds of torque.
Pictured: 2006 Chrysler 300-C SRT-8
2007: Ford Focus
Ford sold about 170,000 Focuses in 2007, which clearly means the car remained a popular model with many drivers.
2008: Dodge Challenger SRT8
While you might mistake the Dodge Challenger for a 1970s muscle car — it had a 425 horsepower Hemi V-8 under the hood, after all — it was actually launched in 2008.
2009: Ford Fiesta
Another car that found a market overseas, the Fiesta has been the top-selling car in England since 2008.
2010: Ford Fiesta
Initially launched in Europe, the Mexican-made Fiesta first hit lots in the United States in 2010. The model was available in Europe for years before it was finally released on this side of the pond.
2011: Chevy Volt
The plug-in hybrid Volt had the best of both worlds. It provided commuters with 25-50 miles of range on battery alone, but it could run for many more miles on its gas-powered engine.
2012: Tesla Model S
Tesla’s Model S completely changed the game for electric cars, thanks to its 265 miles of range and luxury stylings that helped everyone rethink what an electric car could be.
2013: Ford Fiesta
There’s a good reason why the Fiesta has been among the most popular American car models year after year. Small and fuel-efficient, the Fiesta is hard to beat for people looking to get value without sacrificing too much in terms of the driving experience.
Pictured: 2013 Ford Fiesta Sport
2014: Chevrolet Corvette
If you were looking for the exact opposite of the Ford Fiesta, the Chevy Corvette had to be near the top of the list. The seventh generation of the legendary muscle car hit the streets in 2014 and continued to crank out the power with its 455 horsepower, V-8 engine.
2015: Dodge Challenger Hellcat
This car could have made the list based on its name alone, but that’s just a part of the story. The Dodge Challenger Hellcat’s mind-boggling 707 horsepower meant it was among the most powerful options on the road.
2016: Tesla Model X
The Model X, a crossover SUV with 100 kilowatt-hours of power, was the second all-electric vehicle that Tesla pumped out.
2017: Chevrolet Bolt EV
While Tesla might deserve credit for pioneering much of the electric car market, the Chevy Bolt EV beat Tesla’s Model 3 to market as the first all-electric family sedan. With 238 miles of range and a price that went under $30,000 with subsidies, it was a feasible option for middle-class drivers who didn’t want to pump gas anymore.
2018: Tesla Model 3
While Tesla’s struggles with getting the Model 3 on the road at a consistent pace are well known, the car itself has a lot going for it. With an MSRP starting at $35,000, a range of 300 miles and the ability to go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds, the Model 3 comes with top-tier performance at a doable price.
2019: Ford Fiesta
It’s always a party when you’re in a Fiesta. For many drivers, it has remained the American car of choice over the decades.
More From GOBankingRates
- What Is a Pension Plan and How Do They Work?
- Citibank Review: One-Stop Banking
- Best Checking Accounts of 2020
- Retirees Confess What They Wish They’d Done With Their Money
Methodology: GOBankingRates determined the most popular cars the year you were born by sourcing from various car publications, including Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, Business Insider, Leasing.com and All Collector Cars. All data was compiled and verified on Aug. 9, 2019.
Photos are for illustrative purposes only. As a result, some of the photos might not reflect the actual model year and trim listed in this article.
About the Author
Joel Anderson is a business and finance writer with over a decade of experience writing about the wide world of finance. Based in Los Angeles, he specializes in writing about the financial markets, stocks, macroeconomic concepts and focuses on helping make complex financial concepts digestible for the retail investor.