Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

1960 Volkswagen Microbus (iStock Photo)
1960 Volkswagen Microbus (iStock Photo)

Auto History

Cars that define each decade Add to ...

Pierre Trudeau defines an era in Canadian politics. Alexander Solzhenitsyn represents an age in Russian literature. So what are their four-wheeled equivalents - cars that symbolize entire blocks of social history? We decided to put together a garage that represents the past eleven decades.

Many cars were considered, including indisputable classics like the Porsche 911, the VW Beetle and the Citroen 2CV. But they didn't make cut. Why? Because of their sheer timelessness - the 911 could represent at least three decades. So could the Beetle. We were looking for cars as inextricably tied their era as the tie-dye shirt and the moon landing are to the 1960s.

More Related to this Story

Some of the choices (like the Willys Jeep and the Toyota Prius) are great vehicles. Others, like the Dodge Caravan and the Ford Explorer are distinctly mediocre. Regardless of their individual merits, each of these cars symbolizes an age in automotive history.

The Model T, the Beetle and the Prius: Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan debate the merits of these three and others

1900s - The Curved-Dash Oldsmobile

The Curved Dash conjures motoring's first decade, as society slowly warmed to the notion of the internal combustion vehicle. It was the first car to be produced in significant numbers (more than 19,000 were built between 1901 and 1907.) The design of the Curved Dash was strongly influenced by the horse-drawn carriages it helped render obsolete - the headlights were a brass lanterns, and the driver and passenger sat on top, stagecoach style.

1910s - Ford Model T

Thanks to Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line, the Model T became the first mass-produced automobile, and drove the final nail into the horse and buggy's coffin. Also known as the Tin Lizzie, the Model T became ubiquitous - as the end of the decade neared, the Model T represented more than half the cars on the roads of North America. Almost every one of them was the same colour - Mr. Ford insisted on black, because the paint dried faster than other colours.

1920s - Stutz Bearcat

Although it was first produced in 1912, the Bearcat became an enduring symbol of the Roaring Twenties, along with flappers, the hip flask and the raccoon-coat wearing frat boy. When you look at a Stutz, you can almost hear jazz music playing in the background. The Bearcat was the brainchild of Harry C. Stutz, an Ohio farm boy who went on to secure a place in American industrial history.

1930s - Ford Deluxe sedan

With its full running boards and vertical windshield, the Ford sedan evokes the 1930s like no other car - go into free association mode, and the Sedan conjures up Capone's Chicago, speakeasy clubs and Thompson machine guns carried in violin cases. The 1934 Sedan was favoured by a number of celebrity criminals, thanks to its powerful new flathead V8 motor, which allowed to it outrun police cars of the time. It was the choice of bank robber John Dillinger, who used the running boards as mobile platforms for machine-gunning henchmen. Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde) wrote to Henry Ford to express his appreciation for manufacturing such a fine getaway ride.

1940s - Willys Jeep

This humble vehicle became the vehicular face of the Second World War, the conflict that defined the Greatest Generation. Manufactured in Toledo, Ohio, the Jeep was designed to be a simple, easy-to-fix vehicle that served as a mechanized mule. Like President Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Mauldin's cartoons, and the war dispatches of Ernie Pyle, the original Willys Jeep is a 1940s icon.

1950s - Chevrolet Bel Air

This iconic coupe design is still instantly recognizable as a symbol of the sock hop and chrome diner era. It is considered one of the most beautiful and enduring designs ever created by a Detroit manufacturer.

1960s - Volkswagen Microbus

Although the 1960s yielded a number of iconic vehicles, none are more inextricably tied to the era than the original VW microbus, a hippie favourite that instantly conjures up drug-addled memories of love-ins, Woodstock and days on the protest line.

1970s - Coke-bottle Corvette

The late-70s Corvette instantly evokes the era of disco and the fu Manchu mustache. Its fibreglass body was draped over crude but robust mechanicals, much like the white double knit pants John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever. The Coke bottle moniker came from its distinctive shape - swollen fenders coupled with a sharply nipped waist. In the critically acclaimed film Boogie Nights, a competition orange coke-bottle Corvette was the prize possession of porn star Dirk Diggler.

1980s - Dodge Caravan

As Chrysler dangled above the pit of bankruptcy in the 1980s, it was saved by the Caravan, which defined a brand-new vehicle segment: the minivan. Although it was poorly built, the Caravan quickly infested the roads of North America because it was the right tool for the job. The minivan was a Big Gulp version of the station wagon families had favoured in the 1960s and 1970s. With plenty of extra room inside, the Caravan ferried generations of children, and like the elastic waistband, became a universal symbol of middle age downfall. The original Caravan changed Chrysler's fortunes (at least for a while) and is indelibly linked with the hair band and Miami Vice era.

1990s - Ford Explorer

The 1990s were an age defined by the Gulf War, early Pamela Anderson, and the gas-guzzler SUV. The Explorer led the charge on this environmentally-disastrous vehicular invasion. Almost overnight, it became the official vehicle of the soccer mom, thanks to its tall ride height, passenger capacity, and sheer mass, which virtually guaranteed that you would come out in top in a collision with a lesser vehicle. Like George Bush Senior, the Explorer defines the 1990s, when gas-powered mastodons first roamed the earth.

2000s - Toyota Prius

With its fuel-sipping hybrid power system and wind-cheating shape, the Prius symbolizes the era of the environmental wake-up call. As the millennium dawned, the world began to realize that draining the oil fields might not be a good idea, and Toyota's futuristic Prius showed the way forward. The Prius quickly became a Hollywood status symbol, favoured by style leaders like George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. Although few understood the Prius when it was first released, it is now established as universal symbol of ecological responsibility in an age searching for a new transportation paradigm.

News, videos, opinion and more from Globe Drive's intrepid reporter

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories