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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
For more automotive history, visit AAA.com.