17 Best Classic American Cars
These exciting automobiles prove that America has produced some of the best cars in the world
It seems safe to write that millions of people love classic American automobiles. The beauty and technological achievements of these cars has dazzled folks since the early 1900s. Fortunately, rather than discard these cars in junk yards, many people have restored these precious automotive marvels so future generations can gaze upon them.
The following is a list of the 17 best classic American automobiles – and they were all made in America, not some other country such as Japan, Korea or Italy. Cars from these countries are fine, but they aren't American cars.
Moreover, it’s possible some impressive old models may not be in this compilation, since there are so many contenders, but this list could represent a pleasing approximation, and that’s good enough for this writer.
Please keep reading!
1. 1949 Mercury Eight Custom Coupe
The Mercury Eight, whose advertiser’s penned the tagline: “The car that truly dares to ask ‘Why’?,” essentially boasting that this automobile offered both power and economy. The car’s engine was a version of the Ford flathead V8; it could push the vehicle along with 95 hp and attain up to 20 mpg in fuel efficiency, not bad even by present standards. In those days, you could buy a “Merc” for about a thousand dollars, making this a very practical car, and many thousands of people coughed up the dough to buy it.
Over the years, the Mercury Eight has become a favorite of hot rod enthusiasts, as the accompanying photo to this article will attest. Many customized versions of the Mercury Eight can be seen on the road as well. By the way, various Mercury Eights make appearances in the movies “Rebel Without a Cause” and “American Graffiti.”
2. 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Tri-Five
The Tri-Five Chevys, as they were called, manufactured from 1955 to 1957, are some of the most collectable cars on the planet, and perhaps the greatest of these illustrious Chevrolet autos is the 1957 model, with its distinctive, jutting tailfins, “twin rocket” hood design and tri-color paintjob. Perhaps even more impressive is that the 1957 Tri-Five models offered the choice of seven different V-8 engines, including a Rochester, fuel-injected, high-compression 283. Also sporting 283 hp, this is the first production line motor to achieve 1 hp per cubic inch, making this notable auto a production line hot rod!
Needless to point out, “rod rodders” and customizers love the Tri-Five Chevys and countless ones can be seen on the road and in car shows. After all, millions of Tri-Fives were bought by people around the world. Maybe you own one.
3. 1965 Ford Mustang
The first-generation Ford Mustang was billed as a pony car, - a compact passenger vehicle that emphasizes stylishness, affordability and performance. Among other pleasing aspects, the interior of the Mustang offered bucket seats and a floor shifter, both very popular with folks in those days. Priced at about $2,300, the Mustang was a bargain and its swept back look proved quite popular with buyers. The available engines varied somewhat, but the most popular seemed to be the 289 cubic-inch V8 with either a two-barrel or four-barrel carburetor.
The introduction of the pony car spawned many imitators, including Chevrolet’s Camaro, Plymouth’s Barracuda and AMC’s Javelin. Understandably, there are still many first-generation Mustangs on the road, while many of its imitators are rusting in junk yards.
4. 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood El Dorado
At least one full-size personal luxury car belongs on this list. The Fleetwood El Dorado was a two-door convertible with a plethora or accessories, including front and rear safety belts, variable ratio steering, optional heating pads beneath the front seats and seatbacks, headrests, reclining seats and an AM/FM stereo system. The engine was a 429 cubic-inch V8 with 340 hp, which included a patented quiet exhaust system. Moreover, this model had a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission, first used in 1964 Cadillacs.
For luxury, power and performance, the Cadillac El Dorado was pretty much top of the line, with the exception of the Buick Riviera and the Lincoln Mark series. Nobody makes these beautiful cars into hot rods, of course; when possible, they keep them in mint condition purely to impress.
5. 1964 Pontiac GTO
Although the first muscle car may have been the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, the Pontiac GTO was one of the more prominent muscle cars to emerge in the American car market in the middle 1960s. With numerous options available for the 1964 “Goat,” as it was sometimes called, maybe the best package included a 389 cubic-inch engine, with a four-speed manual transmission and 3 two-barrel Rochester carburetors, comprising a “six-pack,” as they were nicknamed. This car could reach 60 mph in about six seconds or around a 100 mph in the quarter mile.
Some GTO models included a Bobcat kit, providing higher compression and advanced timing, adding 30 to 50 hp to the vehicle, as long as high octane gasoline was used. When properly tuned and maintained these Goats were monsters of the road.
6. 1953 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible
General Motors began production of their Chevrolet Corvette sports car in 1953. Included in the C1 series of Corvettes, which were built from 1952 to 1962, these ‘vettes as they were called, utilized a “Blue Flame” six-cylinder 235 cubic-inch engine and a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission; and, to save money on tooling costs, the body was constructed of fiberglass rather than steel. This early Corvette could generate from 105 to 150 hp (depending on modifications) and hit 60 mph in about eleven seconds.
Eventually, the Corvettes became perhaps America’s most popular domestic-built sports car, and anybody who owns one of these early ‘vettes certainly has a prize vehicle to show off at car extravaganzas.
7. 1962 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport
The Third Generation of Chevrolet’s Impala featured the 1962 Impala Super Sport, a somewhat sportier model than the standard Impala. (Perhaps the most distinctive difference for the SS was its bucket seats in the front.) Most versions of the Impala offered various V8 engines - the 283, 327 and awesome 409. Interestingly, The Beach Boys produced a hit single entitled “409,” which immortalized the virtues of muscle cars for a generation of car enthusiasts. But the only automatic transmission available for these cars was the two-speed Powerglide.
By the way, the Third Generation of Chevy Impalas is very popular with the Hispanic people of California, as well as folks in countries such as Cuba. Just put one on the market and they will come!
8. 1940 Ford Coupe
The 1940 Ford Coupe was a simple and cheap car – sold at $600 brand new in those days (equivalent to about $9,200 in present dollars). This proverbial blue collar automobile featured a 136-cubic-inch, in-line six-cylinder engine, though many people preferred the 221 cubic-inch flathead V8, which generated 85 hp and 157 foot-pounds of torque. To modern enthusiasts, these are not impressive numbers, but the coupe was a great car in olden times. Just ask your father or grandfather.
These days, many 1940 Ford Coupes, and other similar models, have been hot-rodded and customized about as much as any other American car and, because of this, the 1940 Ford Coupe may be considered the quintessential classic American car.
9. 1968 Plymouth Satellite
The Plymouth Satellite models emphasized performance – you couldn’t buy one with anything less than a V8 engine. Perhaps the most popular Satellite engines in those days were the Commando 383 with a four-barrel carburetor, offering 325 hp; the 426 Hemi V8 that pumped out over 400 hp; and the monstrous 440 Magnum V8, introduced in 1967. Astonishingly, the 1966 Satellite “Street Hemi” engine included two four-barrel carburetors, generating a mind-boggling 425 hp!
The Plymouth Satellite, particularly with the ones with large V8s, was an impressive muscle car with which one could “smoke the tires” all day and night. It’s easy to understand why many of them are still chewing up the asphalt.
10. 1955 Ford Thunderbird Convertible
The First Generation of Ford’s Thunderbird models captured the fancy of many American car aficionados. Billed as the answer to Chevy’s Corvette and labeled as a “personal luxury car,” this early Thunderbird was a two-seat convertible with a removable fiberglass hardtop (a fabric convertible top was an option). This T-Bird as many called it, offered a 292 cubic-inch Ford Y-Block V8 engine with a four-barrel carburetor, which could blast the car forward at 110 to 120 mph. It was also an economy car of sorts, getting as much as 18 mpg.
Often nicknamed “Little Birds,” the cars of this First Generation of Thunderbirds have become an iconic make of American cars. Early sales of these cars were brisk, and if you own one in good or even bad condition and wanted to deal it, your sale would probably be just as easy.
11. 1957 Buick Roadmaster Riviera
Rear fins were “in” for the 1957 Buick Roadmaster - and many other American cars from the late 1950s to early ‘60s. The 1957 Buick Roadmaster featured rear chrome fins and chevrons; it also sported turbine style wheel covers, a wrap-around windshield and many other jet age design motifs, making for an eye-popping spectacle for car aficionados. This car had a 364 cubic-inch V8, pushing 300 hp at a top speed of 112 mph, and the Dynaflow two-speed automatic transmission had variable pitch blades, which changed their angle like those of an airplane propeller.
The Buick Roadmaster model debuting way back in 1936, the 1957 Buick Roadmaster Riviera was the crème de la crème of this model; it resembled a space ship blasting off in one of those special effects-laden sci-fi flicks back in the 1950s.
12. 1935 SJ Duesenberg La Grande Dual-Cowl Phaeton
Founded by the Duesenberg brothers, Fred and Augie, the Duesenberg Motors and Automobile Company operated from 1913 to 1937, specializing in the production of racing engines and cars and luxury autos such as the 1935 SJ Duesenberg La Grande Dual-Cowl Phaeton, one version of which had a supercharger with 320 hp and could hit a top speed of 140 mph. Unfortunately, you almost had to be a famous movie star such as Gary Cooper or Clark Gable to afford these marvelous cars, which could cost more than $20,000, at a time when doctors made about $3,000 per year.
Simply owning a “Duesy” as they were often called gave a person high status, and eventually any great looking car could be called a Duesy, a nickname that survives today. But during the Great Depression, fewer people could afford such luxurious transport and Duesenberg Motors went bust in 1937.
13. 1963 Corvette Sting Ray Split-Screen Coupe
Chevrolet’s second generation of Corvettes hit the market from 1963 to 1967, and perhaps the prettiest of these models was the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, one option of which was snazzy split-screen rear window; it also had a new design and improved handling. The standard model of Sting Ray at this time had a 327 cubic-inch V8 engine with 250 hp; also available were 396 and 427 cubic-inch engines; and other options included Rochester fuel injection or electronic ignition, the latter of which quite new for the time. The 1963 Sting Ray sold for about $4,000.
The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray was considered the best Corvette up till that time. Moreover, in 2004, Sports Car International listed the Corvette Sting Ray number five on its list of the best sports cars of the 1960s.
14. 1959 Ford Galaxie 500 Skyliner
Billed as the “Hide-Away Hardtop,” this model of Ford was produced from 1957 to 1959 and was only model with this unique option. The Skyliner was a convertible, two-door, full length car with a retractable hardtop, which, when activated, lifted and then tucked into a back compartment using a very complex electric-hydraulic system. Many V8 engines were available on the Skyliner, the largest of which a 352 cubic-inch engine with 300 hp.
In 1959, the Skyliner was the only hardtop convertible on the planet, and today it’s considered a very collectable car - especially when everything still works properly!
15. 1953 Mercury Monterey Woodie Station Wagon
Built by the Mercury division of the Ford Motor Company from 1952 to 1974, Mercury offered models such as coupes, sedans, hardtops and station wagons. The 1953 Mercury Monterey Station Wagon had a wood-paneled version or “woodie.” It was a nine-passenger station wagon and had options for a flathead V8 with a three-speed manual transmission with overdrive.
Interestingly, when in good condition or even fully restored, these Mercury woodie wagons can sell for between $40,000 and $80,000.
16. 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk
This hardtop coupe was produced by Studebaker from 1956 through 1958. It featured a 289 cubic-inch V8 engine with a McCulloch supercharger generating 275 hp. And, since this was a 1957 model American car, it had large tail fins, these outlined with chrome trim; and the hood featured a fiberglass overlay to compensate for the height of the supercharger. By the way, Studebaker stopped producing American cars in 1966.
In 2011, a Studebaker Golden Hawk sold at Barrett-Jackson auctions for $99,000.
17. 1970 Chevrolet Camaro Super Sport
Part of the second generation of Chevrolet’s Camaro (1970 to 1981), the 1970 Chevrolet Camaro Super Sport was an affordable option for millions of American car lovers in the 1970s, at a time when the Arab Oil Embargo caused gas prices to spike in 1973 and ’74 and the federal government, in response to passage of the Clear Clean Act, began stricter auto emission controls for all new cars driven in the US. Generally equipped with a 350 cubic-inch V8, the Camaro has been a very popular medium-sized car for decades and many of the earlier models are still available for sale across the country.
In 1971, Road and Track picked the Camaro Super Sport 350 as one of the 10 best cars in the world; and Motor Trend dubbed the 2016 Camaro as its “car of the year.”
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© 2014 Kelley Marks