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

  1. My first car was a new red 1970 Plymouth Duster. Same car, now in yellow, used in that insurance commercial with the Emu. Got 250,000 miles on that car in 11 years. It was even damaged once by a rhino in Florida’s drive-thru safari park. I left the dent in it and no one ever guessed the cause. Cost me only $2,480 because I talked the salesman down $20. Great memories.

  2. First car I owned was Yellow 66 Chevy Chevelle Three speed shift on the column. Then in 1973 I got a Toyota Corolla.

  3. 1978? That is it!? The year I began driving is 1969. My first car was a 1969 Renault10. Obviously not popular. And, obviously, what I drove is beside the point. But really, 1978. I now drive hybrids.

    1. I am in my 6th Toyota Prius. The first 3 were hybrids, the next 3 have been plug-ins. I am now impatiently waiting for a fully electric that will meet my needs.
      The main problem up to now has been mileage limits per charge, number of charging stations and their locations, and price. Most of these things have been solved to a great extent, so now the main problem is finding the right car for me.

  4. First car I bought was a brand new 1968 Plymouth Barracuda Fastback….yellow with a bumblebee black stripe along the sides. Great car. Those were the days !

  5. Started driving on my mom’s Cutlass Supreme in 1983. Loved the smooth ride and heaviness of that car. Unfortunately it was stolen.

  6. 1984 picked up the 83 Cutlass Supreme fully loaded. 1st duty station Naval Air Station MS. Paid too much for her, but loved that car.
    Thanks for bringing that memory back on my birthday.

  7. Right on, Kevin F.! I started driving in 1965 and got my first car in 1969. It had a hole in the floorboards for your feet and as you drove you had to shout, “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!” Seriously, it was a Fiat 850 Spyder, which was never on anyone’s Most Popular list. But it was new, and it was mine. Googling, it appears that sales figures before 1978 aren’t readily available, at least not to me. I did find an article that said the most popular car in 1965 was the Chevy Impala. The article didn’t list 1969, but in 1970 the winner was the Ford Galaxy. https://www.motortrend.com/features/six-decades-of-best-selling-cars/

  8. When I was 16 the car everyone was talking about was the “46” Ford. My first car was a “51” DeSoto I got in 1954.

    1. Hi Kevin, thanks for reaching out! Sales numbers before 1978 are not readily available so that’s the year we started the list.

      1. No sales records available pre-1978?? You guys need better researchers! You have my contact info – I can start tomorrow!

    2. I had my first car in the 1960s. It was a hand me down. The first car I bought with my own money was in 1972. Why didn’t you go back as far as the 1960s?

      1. My official first car was a 1965 Ford Mustang! Gold color with air vents on the sides of the fastback style. It had a 273 cube engine with four barrel carb. Best time I ever had..

    3. My first car I purchased was a 1968 Firebird in 1974. A large group of of Seniors are left out. You need to get your information from several sources not just one.

  9. The Toyota Camry has been above and beyond the best vehicle in my 50 years of driving. That includes owning several “luxury” models. Nothing else comes close .

  10. I took a chance on the first year Taurus (1986). And not just any Taurus but the MT-5. I wanted a sports sedan and got one. Five speed manual gearbox and a tweaked suspension. The MT-5 was only available with a 2.5 L engine but the gearbox ratios were so well planned it gave V6 performance. And the kicker: I put 300,000 miles on it. No lie.

    1. My first car was a 1937 Hudson terraplane convertible and I wish I still had it. I have had many cars since 1957, but few as memorable as that one.

  11. Drove the Ford Taurus sister marque Mercury Sable. The car was comfortable, fuel efficient and very reliable. Not one repair in seven years of ownership.

    1. You didn’t go back far enough! I started driving in 1969! At that time my mother had a 66 or 67 Plymouth Fury I.

      1. I agree. I started driving in 1969 and my dad had one of the most popular cars of the day – Ford Mustang. When I got my own car in 1970 it was a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Red with black vinyl roof and white “leatherette” interior. It was one sharp looking car!

    2. The year was 1952. The car of interest was the 1950 and 51 ford with 2 tones of black and off green (Crestline) I had a hankering for the 1940 Ford with a souped up flat head but settled for a 1941 Ford 2 door sedan with 1949 Merc engine and a Belond equaflo dual exhaust system. GOOD TIMES!!!

    3. You did not go back far enough. I started driving in 1958, I think, and at that time my father had a swept wing Dodge, which floated around in wind and rain.

    4. You didn’t go back far enough. I started driving in 1965. My mother’s 1956 Buick. The best selling car was the Ford Mustang.

    5. Took my first legal drive in 1969, in a Peugeot 404 station wagon. But I was driving in parking lots and the like, even operating the manual transmission, in the ’57 Chevy wagon, as early as 1962.

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