Published: Jan/Feb 2004

Cars That Move Us
A drive down memory lane produces a list of great automobiles

The word we use to describe an urgent, basic, instinctive need is the same word we use to describe what we do with a car–drive.

We have such a deep love-hate relationship with the automobile that just the thought of a specific make and model triggers a flood of impressions. There are cars we owned, cars we wanted and cars we were sure would bankrupt us. Some cars capture the spirit of a time and place just as powerfully as a masterpiece in a museum.

From the beginning, automobiles have been more than just transportation. Today, they function as status symbols, the ultimate gadgets, homes away from home and rolling Americana.

Cars gave people unprecedented freedom to go their own ways on their own schedules.Our mania for road trips spawned rental cabins that became motor courts that became motels. Burma Shave signs gave way to neon and billboards. Diners became drive-thrus.

Not all progress was promising. Cars sped the spread of road kill, drive-time shock jocks and litter. Legislators railed against the dangerous distraction of radio … then CB radio… and now cell phones.

Here’s a quick side trip down memory lane and a look at a few of the right wheels at the right time. These cars moved through our personal dreams and our shared experience.

1934 Ford V-8: The One That Got Away

In the ‘30s, Ford earned an endorsement it probably could have done without. Notorious criminal John Dillinger praised the powerful 3.6-litre engine of the Ford V-8 in a taunting letter that is now in the Ford archives. Dillinger stole an Indiana sheriff’s V-8 during his last jailbreak in 1934

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (Bonnie and Clyde) were also Ford fans–and fatalities. They died when Texas Rangers customized their gray 1934 Ford V-8 with 120 bullet holes.

1940 Lincoln Continental: Lincoln Makes Its Mark

In 1940, those who could afford the best of the good life opted for the new Lincoln Continental. It debuted at the World’s Fair in New York City, custom-painted Salon Pink to match the Ford pavilion. The two-door, two-seater luxury coupe with the European accent and V-12 engine was the pet project of Edsel Ford. Only 350 Cabriolet models rolled off the assembly line.

In production, pink was forsaken in favor of Zephyr Blue, red, black and white. All boasted the "continental" touch of a rear-mounted tire. Lincoln Continentals were driven by the smart set of the day, including Babe Ruth and Frank Lloyd Wright.

1941 Jeep: Automotive Hero of WWII

In the summer of 1940, the Army solicited bids for a rugged, compact, general-purpose vehicle that would seat four GIs. Under a punishing seven-week schedule, designer Ken Probst designed the Jeep. However, his design was out of spec on weight, so Ford and Willys-Overland were asked to refine the prototype.

In 1941, the Army selected Willys as the primary manufacturer of Jeeps, which became an enduring symbol of Yankee ingenuity.

1958 Chevrolet Corvette and Ford T-Bird: America’s Sports Cars

How are you going to keep them in family sedans after they’ve seen the MG? Servicemen stationed in Europe during World War II fell under the spell of the little British roadster. Detroit took notice and Chevrolet hired designer Harley Earl to create a sports car with a distinctly American accent.

In 1953, Chevy rolled out a sporty, white two-seater with a red interior called the Corvette.

Not to be outdone, Ford produced the Thunderbird in 1955. The personal luxury coupe had clean lines, two seat, and a V-8 engine. In 1958, a boxier, four-seater appeared and was named Motor Trend Car of the Year. By the ‘60s, the swooping T-Bird design reflected the space age with the "Jet Bird" model line. Forty-four years after its debut, the 2002 T-Bird again took home the title of Motor Trend Car of the Year.

What if you couldn’t afford a sweet ride like a Vette or T-Bird? The 1950s were the glory days of automobilia. You could stake your claim to cool by accessorizing with bumper stickers, dashboard hula dancers, plastic saints, fuzzy dice, and an appropriated drive-in speaker or carhop tray.

1958 Edsel: The National Punch Line

The first family sedan created with the help of market research became the punch line to a national joke. The Ford Edsel was criticized for its oval grille, bug-eyed headlights, uncertain brakes, sticking trunk and hood, push-button inconvenience, and perpetually dying batteries. It was discontinued two years after its launch.
Edsel jokes were a mainstay of Bob Hope’s popular Saturday night TV program. (Hope’s sponsor was General Motors.)

1964 Mustang: Muscle Cars Go Mainstream

In the stampede of the pony cars, the Mustang was the frontrunner. It had stiff competition from the Chevy Corvette and Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird but salesman Lee Iacocoa kept the price low while piling on the options. Ford sold more than a million of this souped-up, quintessential 1960s car in the first two years of production. In the 1968 movie, “Bullitt,” a Mustang upstaged Steve McQueen in what many movie fans still consider the definitive car chase scene.

1979 VW Rabbit: Quick Like a Bunny

By the mid-1970s, a new car concept was in the hopper. It was an affordable, compact car with front-wheel drive and a water-cooled engine. Volkswagen called it the Rabbit. You could choose a five-door or three-door hatchback.

By 1979, a convertible was introduced and a pickup followed. The Rabbit’s great fuel economy boosted its popularity during the oil crisis of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

1980 Dodge Caravan: Birth of the Minivan

VW came close with the MicroBus, but it’s Dodge that has bragging rights when it comes to the first minivan. In 1984, the Dodge Caravan and Voyager went beyond overgrown station wagons to become the innovative, easy-to-drive alternative to cars and trucks.

1998 Ford F-150: Pickups That Kept on Trucking

In 1998, the Ford F-150 series celebrated its golden anniversary. Ford launched their F-series "Bonus Built" trucks with three models: half-ton, ton, and full-ton. The F-150 is still America’s truck of choice. Ford pickups remain durable, affordable and full of all the comforts of the family car, from adjustable seats to heater/defrosters.

1990s and Beyond

Which cars will enjoy long-term parking in our hearts? The SUV or its big, bad brother, the Hummer? The retro PT Cruiser? The ubiquitous Camry? The environmentally correct Prius? Or will we chuck them all in favor of Segway scooters?

We can only squint into the future. But maybe we need only turn our eyes to our own driveways. See the car parked there? You’ll look back on it as a big part of your life "back in the day." Whatever the make and model, you can bet that it’s a car that will always move you.

Click here for a list of AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities to keep your dream car purring like a kitten.

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