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What the Most Iconic American Cars Cost Then vs Today

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Paul Pollock / Getty Images

You can tell a lot about a person by the car they drive. A hybrid vehicle, for instance, says you care about the environment. A vintage Trans Am says you appreciate American muscle and maybe also have a mustache. If you drive a leopard-print Audi, it pretty much exclusively says, “I’m Justin Bieber and I have horrendous taste.”

But there are so many cars to choose from — how do you know which one really represents you? Well, to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. Over the years, so many vehicles have revolutionized both the way Americans drive and how they see themselves. Here’s a look back at the most popular, beautiful cars from every decade and the cost to own them.

Last updated: Aug. 12, 2020

©Library of Congress

1905 Curved Dash Oldsmobile

  • Price then: $650
  • Price now: $18,723

When most people think about the advent of the automobile and its subsequent rise, they probably think of the Ford Model T. But the Oldsmobile was actually the first car to be produced on an assembly line in large quantities, putting it among the most popular cars in America.

That said, the car didn’t come cheap. The first models cost $650, which equates to $18,723 today, accounting for inflation.

The earliest models weighed just 700 pounds and could seat two people. To put that into perspective, the four-door Alero sedan produced in 2004 — the last year Oldsmobile was in business — weighed 3,088 pounds, more than four times the weight of its early 1900s predecessor.

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©Library of Congress

1908 Ford Model T

  • Price then: $850
  • Price now: $24,492

In 1908, Henry Ford brought the Ford Model T, nicknamed the “Tin Lizzie,” to the nation. Unlike early Oldsmobiles, which had just 7 horsepower, the Model T boasted 20 horsepower and topped out at 45 mph. And yet, its assembly line production meant it could be sold for less — the touring car version decreased in cost from $850 in 1908 to under $300 in 1925, according to Encyclopedia Britannica — making it a car for the common man. Today, that would be like going from around $24,492 to $4,449. The low, low prices meant that the Model T was used by 40% of the population at one point.

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1911 Oldsmobile Autocrat

  • Price then: $3,500
  • Price now: $97,254

Though the Autocrat might sound like it was meant solely for the president and other dignitaries, the 1911 model was actually ideal for first responders. According to Hemmings Daily, “the compact, powerful chassis … lent itself to use under police wagons and fire trucks.”

That said, it wasn’t meant for the average blue-collar worker. The runabout version of the car sold for $3,500, a whopping $97,254 today. But hey, if you have to scale burning buildings or chase down dangerous criminals every day, you probably deserve a vehicle on the spendy side.

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1916 Chrysler Maxwell

  • Price then: $655
  • Price now: $15,583

The Chrysler Maxwell was one of the most popular cars of the decade due to its superior fuel economy. In 1916, “a Maxwell beat 40 other cars in a gas consumption test held by Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School,” according to American Auto History. On average, it got 33.2 mpg when running at a speed of 19.8 mph. That’s pretty outstanding, considering that a century’s worth of technology later, something like the 2015 Chevrolet Cruze Eco — a model made with fuel economy in mind — gets a comparable 33 mpg, according to Edmunds.

According to American Auto History, the 1916 model of the Chrysler Maxwell had a starting price of $655. Because of the low cost and its stupendous fuel efficiency, ” … during the summer of 1916, Maxwell dealers reported big sales increases, vary­ing from 233 to as high as 800 per cent over previous year.”

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1924 Chevrolet Superior Series F

  • Price then: $685
  • Price now: $10,413

The Chevrolet Superior launched in 1923 and lasted four years, with each year bringing about a new series. In 1924, the Series F was released. It, like all Superior models, had a 2.8-liter, four-cylinder engine; 26 horsepower; and three-speed manual transmission. The Touring Convertible version cost $685 for a new vehicle, according to Park Place Ltd., which translates to about $10,413 today.

If you can find one and fix up the car, you might make a pretty penny. In 2015, auction house Barrett-Jackson sold a 1924 Chevrolet Superior Series F Touring for $25,850.

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1929 Ford Model A

  • Price then: $385 to $570
  • Price now: $5,838 to $8,644

After producing more than 15 million Model Ts between 1908 and 1927, Ford decided to close its plants to reconfigure the assembly lines, making way for its next vehicle. The Model A, nicknamed “Baby Lincoln,” was created by both Henry and his son Edsel, and — just like its predecessor — it instantly became one of America’s most popular cars. When the Model A debuted in December 1927, 25 million Americans showed up at Ford’s showrooms within the span of a week, according to Shay History. The five options initially advertised to the public — roadster, phaeton, coupe, sport coupe and sedan — ranged in price from $385 to $570. In today’s dollars, that would be between $5,838 and $8,644. Five million cars ended up being sold between 1928 and 1931.

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1933 K-321 Convertible Hupmobile

  • Price then: $995 to $1,095
  • Price now: $19,934 to $21,938

In 1933, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression. So, as Bonhams auction house notes, Hup Motor Car Company decided it needed to “place greater emphasis on styling” to compete in the market. It released the K-321 Hupmobile series, which was not only beautiful — with sloped grilles, lengthened hoods and “cycle fenders,” or fenders that form to the shape of the wheels — but also powerful. The car had 90 horsepower, 20% greater than that of the B-316 model offered by the company the same year.

But with that beauty and power came a high cost. Prices ranged from $995 for the sedan to $1,095 for the convertible, according to HowStuffWorks. That’s between $19,934 and $21,938 today. Comparatively, the Ford Model A was around three times cheaper, though it was decidedly less fancy-looking.

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1936 Model 68 Tudor Sedan

  • Price then: $520 to $565
  • Price now: $9,732 to $10,574

The two-door, four-person Tudor sedan was the most popular car made by Ford in 1936, according to American Automobiles. It came in two styles: the Standard, which sold for $520, and the Deluxe, which sold for $565. That’s $9,732 and $10,574, respectively, in today’s dollars. The V-8 engine and 85 horsepower made it a powerful vehicle, and the fact that you could get it in nine different colors meant there was one for everyone. The company ended up selling 174,470 of the Tudor sedans, as well as 166,018 Tudor sedans equipped with trunks, according to It Still Runs.

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1941 Packard One-Twenty Convertible

  • Price then: $1,407
  • Price now: $24,779

Packard Motor Car Company was largely known for its luxury vehicles. However, mid-Great Depression in 1935, the company had to shift its business strategy to include mid-tier vehicles that more Americans could afford. Hence, the One-Twenty was born. By the time 1941 rolled around — the last year for the One-Twenty — the soft-top coupes cost $1,407, or $24,779 today. If you think this baby is the car for you, a used one is being sold right now on Hemmings for just shy of $60,000.

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1946 Ford Super Deluxe

  • Price then: $1,307
  • Price now: $17,361

Ford’s bottom line, like those of other car companies, suffered during World War II. The War Production Board and Office of Price Administration put restrictions on the output of materials and prices for parts and cars. At one point, the company was losing $10 million per month. Henry Ford II attributed the loss to the fact that it couldn’t achieve volume production goals.

Fortunately, the market was ready for a new car postwar, and Ford gladly answered the call. It hosted a “V-8 Day” on Oct. 26, 1945, and debuted the 1946 Super Deluxe, a vehicle with a V-8 engine, 100 horsepower at 3,800 rpm and a snazzy new horizontal grill that featured red striping and chrome-plated Ford wings. The interior was equally beautiful in navy and shades of gray with red accents. Nearly a half-million people placed orders on V-8 Day. The base price, according to Old Cars Weekly, was $1,307.

You can make a killing if you find one of these cars for cheap and fix it up. A 1946 Ford Super Deluxe station wagon sold at Sotheby’s in January 2018 for $62,720.

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1953 Chevrolet Corvette

  • Price then: $3,498
  • Price now: $33,899

Chevrolet realized American soldiers returning from war were gravitating toward European cars, specifically two-seat sports coupes, and that it needed to make one if it was going to compete, according to Corv Sport. Thus, in January 1953, the Corvette debuted at the Motorama Auto Show. It received so much positive feedback from the public that General Motors decided to put the vehicle into production. A limited run was released to the public later that same year and advertised as “America’s sensational sports car” and “revolutionary.” And indeed it was. The Corvette became the “first mass-produced fiberglass automobile from a major manufacturer,” according to Sotheby’s.

Vette Vues Magazine estimates that only 225 existed as of 2017. If you can get your hands on one of these gems, they’re worth a lot. Though the original price was $3,498 — about $33,899 today — in 2018, a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette sold at Sotheby’s for $250,000.

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1959 BMC Mini

  • Price then: $1,400
  • Price now: $12,451

The BMC Mini was the British Motor Company’s answer to the Suez fuel crisis, which caused gasoline to be rationed across the United Kingdom. The public needed a small, fuel-efficient car that didn’t look as ridiculous or cramped as the previously introduced bubble cars, such as the Isetta. BMC used many space-saving strategies when designing the Mini — like mounting the engine transversely — to make the interior feel roomy.

The resulting vehicle was popular with cost-conscious folks and celebrities alike, particularly throughout the ’60s. Notably, all four of the Beatles had one. The car cost roughly $1,400 at the time, according to Automobile Mag, which would be about $12,451 today.

Unfortunately, the car never truly caught on in the U.S., selling just 10,000 models. This was primarily due to emissions standards that forced BMC to end shipments. However, when BMW took over the car’s production in 2000, things changed. The Mini, specifically the Mini Cooper, gained a following. In 2018 alone, 26,119 Mini Coopers were sold in the U.S., according to Good Car Bad Car.

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1966 Ford Mustang

  • Price then: $2,368
  • Price now: $18,922

The ’60s brought so many iconic cars, like Dodge Chargers, Pontiac GTOs, Chevy Camaros, Chevelles and Impalas — there was a lot of gorgeous American muscle going on. Perhaps none represents the era quite as well as the Ford Mustang.

After a successful debut at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Ford expected to sell around 100,000 Mustangs by year’s end, according to CJ Pony Parts. But the company ended up selling over 418,000, which became Ford’s most successful launch since the Model A. The original price of the vehicle was $2,368, or $18,922 today.

In 1966, Ford ditched the previously used honeycomb-patterned grill for one with horizontal inserts and chrome edges. The new model came in over 30 different interior colors and styles, so there was no shortage of options. Ford ended up selling roughly 550,000 Mustangs in 1966, as well as its 1 millionth Mustang overall in the same year.

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1968 VW Beetle

  • Price then: $1,699
  • Price now: $12,662

The U.S. was introduced to its first Volkswagen Beetle in 1949, post-WWII. You’d think that its German origins would have made it an unpopular car — the German Shepherd, for instance, suffered a decline in popularity in America after WWII — but it beat the odds. In fact, its popularity grew steadily over the years. In 1968, thanks to the Disney movie “The Love Bug,” VW sold 423,000 units at $1,699 a pop. In 1972, VW produced its 15,007,034th beetle, eclipsing the Ford Model T as the most highly produced car in history at the time.

Sadly, VW announced that it would discontinue the iconic Beetle after a good 80-year run. The last one was produced in July 2019.

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1970 Ford Torino

  • Price then: $3,105
  • Price now: $20,732

In the early ’70s, before fuel economy became a major concern for most Americans, the midsize Torino was extremely popular. The car had originally been a subset of the Fairlane series but later became a series in its own right. With its sleek design and impressive power — the GT hardtop hit 60 mph in eight seconds and boasted 300 horsepower — the Torino was named Car of the Year by Motor Trend and became NASCAR’s official pace car.

Unfortunately, the car’s prodigious run was to be a short one. In 1972, the Torino model was oversized, overweight and a gas guzzler. Two years later, the 1974 model was equally disappointing.

Had you purchased the Torino in 1970, you would have paid $3,105 — $20,732 in today’s money. However, if you’re interested in reliving the glory days, one is being sold right now on Hemmings for $70,900.

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1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Super Duty

  • Price then: $4,204
  • Price now: $24,532

Though many believe 1972 to be the true end of the muscle-car era, the following year actually marked a huge milestone. In 1973, Ford released one of the most powerful, street-legal performance engines of all time — the 455 Super Duty — and the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was its perfect home. A very limited run of these cars was done initially, but the engine garnered such attention that Ford made over 900 Firebirds in 1974, and nearly half were outfitted with the Super Duty, according to GM Authority. The original MSRP of the vehicle was $4,204 — $24,532 today.

Trans Ams rose even more in popularity over the years, due in large part to being featured in movies like “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Hooper” and “Rocky II.” In 1980, the Firebird Trans Am was also made the pace car for the Indianapolis 500.

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1984 Dodge Caravan

  • Price then: $8,280
  • Price now: $20,624

Want to take your family of seven to the beach? Back in 1984, Dodge had you covered. The Caravan — in concurrence with sister model the Plymouth Voyager — introduced the world to the minivan for the first time. The vehicle was shorter than a full-size station wagon but offered 125 cubic feet of cargo space, or room for up to seven passengers. It also got an impressive 37 mpg on the highway and 24 mpg in the city.

The minivans sold incredibly well. In fact, in their debut year, nearly 210,000 of the 1984 models sold in North America, according to Allpar. The cost? Just over $8K.

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1988 Ford Mustang GT

  • Price then: $12,500 to $17,500
  • Price now: $27,347 to $38,285

Yes, the Ford Mustang is back on the list, with the third-generation Ford Mustang GT. In 1988, around 211,000 of these beauties were sold. The Mustang GT 5.0 cost anywhere between $12,500 and $17,500, which would be between $27,347 and $38,285 today.

The price might have been well worth it. The car featured “precise steering,” “lack of body roll,” “rock-like stability” and the ability to handle corners like a champ, according to Motor Week. The car won several accolades, too. In 1988, Car and Driver included the GT on its list of 10 best cars, marking the third time it had earned a spot. The publication reported, “The 1988 V-8 Stangs are ripsnorting stallions.”

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1992 Ford Taurus SHO (Gen II)

  • Price then: $23,839
  • Price now: $43,992

In the early to mid-1990s, Ford Tauruses were selling well. In fact, a commercial at the time stated that the Taurus was the best-selling car in America. One of the versions — the sporty Super High Output (SHO) Taurus — was especially popular. Thrill-seeking drivers loved the V-6 engine and 220 horsepower, and dealerships were having a hard time keeping the car in stock. From 1989 to 1999, over 106,000 Ford Taurus SHOs ended up being produced, according to Ford Muscle. The base price for a ’92 Ford Taurus SHO four-door sedan was just shy of $24K.

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1998 Subaru Legacy Outback

  • Price then: $22,495 
  • Price now: $36,009

In 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed Tim Mahoney — described as “one of the principal players in the (Legacy Outback’s) genesis” — about the legacy, so to speak, of the vehicle. He claimed that the introduction of the Outback saved Subaru, which had been experiencing poor sales up to that point. “(It) certainly helped us redefine ourselves and have an effect on other companies,” he said.

The vehicle was definitely a big deal. Advertised as the “world’s first sports utility wagon,” the rugged automobile initially offered drivers a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine with 135 horsepower. Later, it would be raised to 165 horsepower after an upgrade to a 2.5-liter engine, according to Auto Guide.

Actor Paul Hogan, “Crocodile Dundee” himself, became the Outback’s Aussie spokesperson in what was clearly a stroke of synergized marketing genius — and Subaru’s commercials took no prisoners. Hogan said in a 1998 commercial that the vehicle had “more headroom than a Cherokee,” the “ground clearance of an Explorer” and “more stability in a turn than a Chevy Blazer.”

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2007 Honda Fit

  • Price then: $14,000
  • Price now: $17,687

Though the Honda Civic and Honda Accord are certainly some of Honda’s most popular cars — and best-sellers in general — there is another car worth celebrating that shined in the 2000s. In 2007, the Honda Fit, newly introduced in the U.S., offered drivers good fuel economy — 33 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway — at a time when gas prices had just reached about $3 per gallon, a high at the time. It was reasonably priced, too, at about $14,000, or $17,687 today. At the time of its release in the U.S., the Honda Fit had already proven itself overseas, selling over 1 million units worldwide.

The fuel economy wasn’t the only draw of the car, either. While it appeared small on the outside, it was roomy on the inside. During a 2006 preview of the vehicle, MotorTrend noted that by putting the back and passenger seats down, you could fit a nearly 8-foot surfboard inside.

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2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8

  • Price then: $37,995
  • Price now: $46,244

In late 2007, Dodge announced it would breathe new life into one of its ’70s V-8 beauties with the third-generation Dodge Challenger. It was an instant hit, with Dodge reporting to Inside Line that it had been swamped with 6,600 orders in the three days since it had started taking them. The company had also taken down the information of 50,000 potential buyers interested in the vehicle. Dodge priced the car at $37,995, according to Edmunds, or $46,244 today.

The Challenger played into not only people’s nostalgia but also the need for a little adrenaline boost. Thanks to its big V-8 engine, the SRT8 got to 60 mph in an estimated 4.9 seconds and did a quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds, according to Car and Driver. It also offered an astounding 425 horsepower. The publication put it best: “Some things don’t really change. They just get faster.”

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2010 Toyota Prius Hybrid

  • Price then: $21,000 to $32,530
  • Price now: $25,258 to $39,126

In 1997, the Toyota Prius was unveiled to the public in Japan but wasn’t sold in the U.S. until August 2000. When it did come stateside, however, the hybrid vehicle quickly became popular among both the average Joe and the Hollywood elite — especially those who were eco-conscious. Celebs such as Salma Hayek, Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Emily Blunt and Tom Hanks have owned Priuses.

In 2010, 140,928 Toyota Priuses were sold in the U.S. alone, according to Good Car Bad Car. Furthermore, sales peaked globally in 2010 at 509,000 units sold. The starting price for the Prius that year was $21,000, but could get up to $32,530 depending on the trim and other bells and whistles.

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2016 Chevy Volt

  • Price then: $38,345
  • Price now: $40,772

Car and Driver describes the look of the 2016 Chevy Volt as “contemporary windswept sensuality.” The numbers back up that description. It does zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and zero to 100 mph in 23.4 seconds, and tops out at 101 mph. Of course, with any hybrid car, a huge draw is fuel efficiency and a lowered carbon footprint. The Volt gets 43 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway when using gas only, and 106 mpg across the board if you’re using solely electric. The base price for the vehicle was $38,345, which — though 2016 was just a handful of years ago — is $40,772 today.

©ElectraMeccanica

2020’s Most Popular Cars

Since the decade has just begun, only time will tell which cars define the 2020s. There’s evidence as technology advances that more futuristic-looking vehicles could be popular. The funky, three-wheeled Electra Meccanica Solo, for instance, is one of 2021’s most anticipated vehicles. Tesla, a brand that prides itself on innovation, also recently usurped Toyota as the world’s most valuable carmaker. If its now-infamous cyber truck is any sign of what’s to come, the world might be looking at a surge in “Total Recall”-style vehicles.

Then again, cars like the Nissan Altima, Toyota Corolla, Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu continue to be perennial favorites across the U.S. As long as car manufacturers keep producing safe, affordable and fuel-efficient models, America’s taste in vehicles could continue to skew more 2000s than 3000s for a while.

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Photo Disclaimer: Please note photos are for illustrative purposes only. As a result, some of the photos might not reflect the automobiles listed in this article.