What Was the Bestselling Car the Year You Started Driving?

There have only been seven different car models to top the annual sales charts the last 40 years. Did yours make the list?
best-selling car honda accord

Whether is was fresh off the lot or, more likely, a hand-me-down on its last legs, we all remember our first car. But were we so focused on the freedom of the open road that we failed to notice what other people were driving? What the “it” car ​​​of the time was?

Automobiles have always been a sign of their times, so even if we weren’t behind the wheel of any of these bestselling cars, their popularity says a lot about what the roadways were like when we first started to drive.

Let’s see what the bestselling car in America was the year you started driving with a trip down memory lane.

Note: The following does not include SUVs or pickup trucks, for that would be a decidedly shorter list: the Ford F-series truck has been the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. the past 40 years.

oldsmobile cutlass
“1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass W30” by Chad Horwedel is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

1978-1981, 1983: Oldsmobile Cutlass

General Motors scored a major win in 1978 when it released the fifth generation Cutlass Supreme. This compact model featured a smaller body than previous iterations, which proved to be a hit with consumers. The Cutlass would remain America’s bestselling car into the 1980s. In 1983, the premium Cutlass Supreme model took the top spot. 

ford escort
“1987 Ford Escort GL 4-Door” by aldenjewell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1982, 1987-88: Ford Escort

The Ford Escort briefly interrupted the Oldsmobile Cutlass’ reign atop the sales chart in 1982. First released the year prior, the Escort experienced a quick rise to the top thanks to a fuel-efficient engine, a variety of trim packages and a reasonable price. Its success had to be a welcome surprise for Ford  – and a sigh of relief  – as the car was replacing the universally panned Pinto in the automaker’s lineup. The Escort regained the sales crown later in the decade thanks to updated styling and a more powerful engine.

Chevrolet Cavalier
“Chevrolet Cavalier” by Hugo-90 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1984-85: Chevrolet Cavalier

The Chevrolet Cavalier appealed to so many people thanks to its versatility. The car was available in five body types: coupe, sedan, hatchback, wagon and convertible, making it practical for lone drivers and families alike. Add in an efficient engine and fair sticker price, and the Cavalier became the car of choice in the mid-1980s.

Chevrolet Celebrity
“1982 Chevrolet Celebrity Sedan” by aldenjewell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1986: Chevrolet Celebrity

In somewhat of a surprise, the Cavalier was usurped from its throne in 1986 by its sister model. The Celebrity also came in various body styles, most of which offered ample cabin space for a mid-sized vehicle.

honda accord

1989-1991, 2001: Honda Accord

The Honda Accord’s ascent to the top of the sales chart at the close of the 1980s was largely symbolic of the decade’s automotive market, which saw Japanese imports carve out a significant stake. Honda’s breakthrough vehicle was popular for good reason. The Accord came with a list of available features other competitors couldn’t rival, including air conditioning, power windows and locks, alloy wheels and a sunroof.

In 1990, Honda introduced its fourth-generation Accord, turning the compact car into a mid-sized sedan. The revamp proved wise as roughly 50,000 more units were sold than in the year prior. The Accord remained incredibly popular throughout the 1990s. It further proved its staying power by regaining its status as the bestselling car of 2001.

Ford Taurus

1992-96: Ford Taurus

The Ford Taurus began an impressive five-year stretch as the most popular car in America in 1992. The right combination of comfort, safety and value provided mass appeal to the American public. Helping boost sales was a wagon model suitable for families. The car remained a bestseller even in 1996, when a highly criticized styling redesign was unveiled to the market.

toyota camry

1997-2020: Toyota Camry

The Toyota Camry bumped the Ford Taurus to second place in 1997, the year that marked the beginning of the end for any competitors with eyes on the pinnacle spot. With one exception (when the Accord topped the charts in 2001), the Camry has been the bestselling car in America every year since. Much like other models in Toyota’s lineup, the Camry performs above average in just about every category, including performance, safety and, most notably, reliability. 

The car’s popularity continued to grow through the late ’90s and 2000s, peaking in 2007. While sales have decreased in recent years as SUVs and crossovers have taken over, the Camry still beats out all other competitors in its market.

Did you drive any of the cars on this list? Were they worthy of being the most popular in the country? Let us know in the comments below!

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166 Thoughts on “What Was the Bestselling Car the Year You Started Driving?

  1. My first car in 1975 was a 66 Chevy. Caprice.
    My first new car was 86 Celebrity , Followed by a 90 , 95, then 98 Taurus Wagon , then 2002 Camry all bought showroom new at the dealers. My retirement vehicle is a 2010 Chevy Silverado ( also bought new) . It’s still going strong after 110,000 miles. A Great truck I intend to keep until It gets passed onto my grandkids !

  2. I had a 1966 Mustang, a few years old when I got it, but like new; color burgundy, wire spoke wheels, 8 cylinders, light naugahyde interior.. Wish I had it now!

  3. My first car was a 1954 baby blue stick shift Ford sedan that I purchased for $40 in 1962. I drove it for a year and sold it for $50. I replaced it with a plum and white 1955 Chevrolet. It burned oil like a champ but it was a beautiful looking vehicle!

  4. My first car was a 1938 Plymouth 4dr sedan with 85 hp and it would do 85 mph, the same speed as my 1974 AMC Gremlin would do with the pedal to the metal equipped with a 232 ci 6 cyl engine and auto trans rated @100 hp. That Gremlin was the most trouble-free car I ever owned. The last I knew of the guy who bought it from me was, that car had 115’000 thousand miles on it with just regular service, and he said it also was the best car he ever had. The AC was great in that car, and still never needed recharging even after 100’000 miles, what a car!!

  5. Uhhhh… you left off half of the baby boomers who began driving way before 1978! No stats before that horrible Cutlass?

  6. My first car was a 1958 Volkswagen “beetle” I bought it in 1971 in my senior year of high school for $100. 1200cc, 36 HP engine. (Two chipmunks and a squirrel.) Gas tank in the front, under the “hood” and behind the spare tire. No gas gauge. Just a 1 gallon “reserve tank”. But I was getting 30mpg when gas was only $.36 a gallon. Could fill the tank for around $3.00. A lot of fun for little expense!

  7. My first car was a 1968 Catalina which I got in 1974. It was canary yellow. I named it Sherman D. Tank because it was built like one! The big thing about the car was that the clock worked! Amazing when you put in a new fuse!

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