Evolution of the Species: How America's Best-Sellers Have Changed Over the Past 60 Years
Motor Trend has spent six decades tracking, reporting on, and predicting automotive trends. What’s hot? What’ll be the next big thing? When will a mid-engine Corvette arrive? We’ve asked and answered these questions and more each month to the best of our ability with varying degrees of accuracy.
Looking back with the benefit of Superman-grade X-ray hindsight, we’re not too surprised to find that the basic formula for connecting with buyers on a truly macro scale changes very slowly over time. Paradigms shift slower than a double-declutch Dodge Power Wagon, and as a result game-changers like turbine engines, electric cars, fuel cells, and even mid-engine Corvettes continue to elude us — at least in significant numbers — and maybe always will.
America’s best-selling car was a standard, full-size, domestically designed and built sedan (with niche-selling wagon, coupe, and convertible siblings included in the sales totals) for three-quarters of the last century. Since 1975, most deviations from that paradigm have signaled some meaningful shift in our economic, demographic, or psychographic status quo. The oil shock of 1973, for example, combined with inflationary woes to increase the popularity of less expensive midsize cars, setting the stage for Oldsmobile’s Cutlass to wrest the top-seller title from Chevrolet in 1976. And for the first time, the sedan variant undersold the “personal luxury coupe” Supreme model, which was tailored to appeal to young, single Baby Boomers. A second oil shock in 1979, generally gloomy economic conditions, and an unemployment rate that peaked at 10.8 percent in 1982 inspired consumers to downsize even further, resulting in Ford‘s new-for-1981 Escort earning the top sales position for 1982 (and again in ’87 and ’88).
By 1989, conditions had improved enough (or folks were sufficiently sick of those tin-can Escorts) that a midsize sedan (Ford’s highly acclaimed first-gen Taurus) achieved top-sales status. The Taurus, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry sedans have held the title ever since. What sort of seismic shift in our collective zeitgeist will result in the next deviation from our current midsize sedan kick? When we get any inkling, you’ll read it here first. But for now, let’s take a closer look at 60 years of best-sellers.
Chevy managed to do so in 1935, holding the best-seller title for decades. In Motor Trend’s inaugural year, Chevy introduced its first completely new postwar model. Featuring clean lines, optional bustleback styling, its merits might have earned it best-seller status even without its legions of brand-loyal buyers.
Wartime production took a bite out of most manufacturers’ sales, and although Chevrolet outsold its rivals again this year, it lost market share, shouldering a slightly larger share of the wartime production workload.
The ’57 Chevy is such a classic-car icon it’s hard to believe 1957 marked the first time since 1935 that Chevrolet didn’t produce the best-selling car in America. Ford did, moving 28,454 more Customs, Fairlanes, and Crown Victorias, than Chevy did One-Fifties, Two-Tens, Bel Airs, and Delrays.
1962 CHEVROLET 409
SHE’S REAL FINE…
Most of the million-plus Chevys sold annually through the 1960s were equipped with milquetoast versions of the mouse-motor small-block, but those wishing to make a little noise could do just that with the fabulous 409 big-block, which achieved the magic one gross horsepower/cubic inch in 1962, good enough to lay down a reported 6.3-second 0-to-60 time and a 14.9-second quarter mile. By comparison, the 170-horse 283 needed 12.8 and 20.3 seconds, respectively.
1965 CHEVROLET IMPALA
Best-Selling Single Nameplate Ever
Well over one million Impalas sold in 1965, a record for U.S. sales of a single nameplate. The one your author’s family owned was a metallic blue two-door fastback named Bluezette.
1970 FORD GALAXIE
UAW Hands The Blue Oval Another Win
Ford next muscled into the top-sales spot in 1970 with a barely freshened second-year sedan that wasn’t anything special (though we praised its comparatively flat cornering and “fast and responsive” 3.9-turn lock-to-lock steering in a comparison test). Rather, the UAW staged a crippling companywide 67-day strike against GM that cost Chevy a quarter-million or more units of production.
1976 OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS
Boomers Go A-Courtin’
Olds’ Cutlass muscled in on the best-seller action for 1976 thanks largely to strong sales of the Supreme coupe, which, along with the Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Chrysler Cordoba appealed to optimistic Baby Boomers who were single and looking to lure the attractive sex with a flashy long-hood/short deck two-door with all the bells and whistles. After six generations on several platforms, the Cutlass nameplate ranked as the world’s 15th best-seller.
1977 CHEVROLET IMPALA
America Loves Our Car Of The Year!
This was the first time that MT’s Car of the Year also won the sales race. Chevrolet sent its Caprice/Impala to Jenny Craig, where the ’77 model trimmed four inches of girth and nearly a foot of length, while dropping nearly a quarter-ton of flab. It looked and drove well too, prompting us to proclaim it “the best full-size Chevrolet ever made.” Sales soared to 657,151, yanking the sales title back from Olds.
1979 OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS
Diesel Contributes To Best-Sellerdom
The 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass was available with a 260-cubic-inch diesel V-8 that put out a thundering 90 horses and 160 pound-feet of torque. Essentially a debored version of the LF9 350 V-8, the LF7 suffered many of the same problems (primarily blown head gaskets due to head-bolt torque problems). Emissions compliance issues made the 260 a one-year wonder, and by the time diesel power returned to the Cutlass lineup, the sales leadership title had moved on.
1982 FORD ESCORT
Behold the smallest best-seller to date-and the first fully front-drive car to make the list. Worldwide, the Escort ranked as the fifth-best seller when it went out of production in 2003, and the 1982 model was hailed as a world car for America. Launched with a noisy SOHC 1.6-liter engine making just 68 horsepower, Ford’s Escort also ranked as the slowest best-seller in quite some time.
1990 FORD TAURUS
By 1990, there were so many players in the market, and the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were nipping so closely on the best-selling Taurus’ heels, that the 1990 Ford ranks as the best-selling car with the lowest overall market share. Honda managed to edge ahead for one year (1991), but soon after Ford throttled back the incentives it had been applying to maintain sales leadership, paving the way for Toyota to take the lead.
1996 FORD TAURUS SHO
Last Best-Seller With A V-8 Option
The Taurus’ last year on the best-seller list also marks the last year a V-8 was offered in a best-selling car. Designed by Ford and Yamaha as sort of a Duratec V-6 with two more cylinders, it featured dual overhead cams, 32 valves, and an odd 60-degree cylinder-bank angle. Output was rated at 235 horses and 230 pound-feet of torque.
A DOZEN YEARS OF CAMRY
Toyota captures the lead
In 1997, Toyota took the pole and has held it ever since, except for 2001, when the midsize Accord (all-new and enlarged for 2000)
busted in. The Camrys have been the most expensive best-sellers in history, and Toyota has the distinction of offering the first gasoline/electric hybrid variant to be on a best-selling car (2007-present) as well as the second best-seller to also be named Car of the Year.