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What Was the Bestselling Car the Year You Started Driving?

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

  1. My first car was a 1954 DeSoto Firedome 8. First year for DeSoto’s 2 door hardtop, no center pillar door posts.
    First V8 vs straight eight engine, also first year fully automatic transmission. Dual points system always a problem.
    Vapor lock always a problem in the summer.

  2. 1973 Chevy Nova, two too many doors and light green which I turtle waxed to perfection. All with a 307 engine. Took that car apart and put back together again on the street in front of my childhood home. Radiator, front and rear brakes, hubs and lugs, starter, water pump, carburetor, leaf-spring, shocks, distributor, wires, plugs, valve covers, manifold, muffler and do you remember points.
    Tragic that I sold it but it was a profit.

  3. My first car was a 1932 Chevrolet 2-door sedan. I paid $50.00 for the car and $50.00 for insurance and I was on the road. That was in 1950 when I turned 16.

  4. I made the mistake of buying a used 1982 Ford Escort station wagon in 1984. It had serious engine flaws from the get go. The dealer tried several times, without success, to repair the problem. I ended up getting rid of it in less than a year and I haven’t bought another Ford since.

  5. My first car was a 1958 Plymouth Fury on which I put a continental wheel on the back. I was 19 and I had saved the cost of the car ($3000) by working every possible job I could get while attending college full time. It only took me 9 months to save the equivalent of $30,000 (or more-the cost of a new car). It was a red convertible.

  6. I was 16 years old in 1962 and my first car was a 1963 Chrysler 300 convertible. Without looking at my window sticker I believe the color was called claret red with claret red leather interior and a white convertible top. It had dual exhausts and a 360 hp engine. That was my first Chrysler product that I don’t ever remember having any problems with. My second Chrysler product was a 1999 Chrysler 300 Candy Apple Red four-door sedan the year they started to make the 300 model again. That car had more problems than Carter had liver pills as the old saying used to go! Thank God I leased that car because in the three years that I had it, I found out that Chrysler had done something like $3500 worth of warranty work on it. I know that for a fact because with the Internet back then I somehow connected with someone who worked at Chrysler in Detroit (Auburn Hills) and when I gave him my VIN number, he was able to look up all the times the car was in for service and everything he sent me matched all the slips I had except his slips showed how much it cost Chrysler to do those repairs that in the long run weren’t even necessary because I found the problem myself – bad tires. I believe they were Goodyear tires so I called Goodyear, explained how my car would drift to the left that had nothing to do with the crown in the road it was like someone was under the hood pulling my steering wheel to the left. I always had to be conscious of that or I would’ve crashed into the Jersey barrier a million times. Anyway Goodyear sent me to their authorized dealer and they checked out the problem and indeed it was the tires despite everything that the wonderful five star Chrysler dealerships were telling me and I had been to like three of them! One worse than the next with more excuses.

  7. You started with 1978. I was driving long before that. And no, I did not drive any of the cars listed.

  8. The first car that I ever owned was a 1966 Pontiac GTO, 4 speed on the floor, Gold metal flake convertible . This car was hot, attracted a lot of the males as they always wanted to take it for a ride. Only let a few as the car was really powerful. I love that car, then went on to a 1968 GTO 4 speed on the floor , but this car was all black on black. Not as much fun as the convertible. My dad always said this was a mans car not for a young women. He loved the car as well.

    1. Suzanne, don’t you wish you had some of those older cars back again because that’s when cars were cars and not all this plastic bumpers, aluminum hoods, chrome colored plastic grills etc.! I don’t know if you have ever heard of the website called Bring a Trailer -BAT, but it is a great site that often times has fantastic older cars in top notch condition many with hardly any miles on them at all. Some do have a reserve on their price, others are sold with no reserve only to the highest bidder. Google the site I think you will enjoy it. The auction only lasts for seven days.

  9. My first car was a 1975 Ford Mustang II Manual Transmission. I drove that car until I bought a brand new 1986 Chevy Caviler which also had a manual transmission. I have been driving manual transmission cars all of my life.

    1. Barbara, keep driving in good health! Watch out for all the crazy drivers on the roads these days who have NO REGARD for red lights or stop signs! When your auto insurance comes up for renewal, call your agent and ask if they can shop for a better rate! Of course, that’s provided you have an agent that deals with ALL DIFFERENT companies because insurance companies DON’T care if you’ve been with them for 50 years with NO CLAIMS/TICKETS etc. All it takes is one claim and you’ll pay! Don’t let them fool you that they can’t discriminate because of your age! They won’t DENY you insurance, but you’ll need two jobs to pay the premium! You HAVE to shop around every few years. I’m sure this site isn’t happy with this post, but it’s the truth and they know it! Stay safe.

  10. The car I learned to drive in and then used was the family’s 1949 Mercury. Great V-8 engine. When I was 17, I drove the 60 miles from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis, MS, if 45 minutes. Luckily, I am still here.

  11. I got my license in 1980 and got my first car around 1983 and it was a 1972 Buick Skylark. That car was built like a tank. I got rear-ended by a Mercury Topaz on the Northern State Parkway once and I only had a piece of rubber chipped off of one of the bumper guards. The front of the Topaz was severely damaged.

  12. I guess the target demographic now excludes folks like me (a shrinking populace)! My first car was a 1949 Chevy 2-Dr. I remember it fondly. Solid and reliable and all mine. Not bad for a 16-year old. My folks wouldn’t let me drive it until I passed driver’s ed, so it sat in the driveway for about six months. Probably the best waxed car on the block!

  13. I started driving in 1958. The best selling cars were Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth. I drove my father’s 1950 Dodge Coronet 4 door!

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