The 1960s was a time of great change. This was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when President Kennedy was assassinated, a time when the Vietnam War began, and all of this was just in America. The United States was drawn into the worldwide spotlight. This was also a time of great change in the automotive industry. Fresh new cars were introduced with sleek styles and brand-new markets were dreamed up: muscle cars, pony cars, personal luxury vehicles… None of those existed before the ‘60s.
There are a few cars that came about in the ‘60s that are iconic in more than just the car world—cars that even non-car people would recognize—like the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette. Some of these cars were made famous by appearing in films, like the Lamborgini Miura, the Aston Martin DB5, and the Toyota 2000GT. Others were made famous by appearing in races across the world, and winning them. New engines were being introduced; new designs were made; competition in the automotive world soared.
This was an explosive and exciting time for the car industry. Hundreds of car designs were shown, but many of them died out without making a blip on the radar. Only a select few can really be considered “cars that defined an era.” We think we’ve thought up and put to paper 20 such cars—cars that defined the ‘60s in one way or another, and here they are.
20 BMC MINI
The Mini was one of the first tiny cars that gained huge popularity throughout the ‘60s. The car was designed by the British Motor Corporation (BMC), and was considered an icon of 1960s British pop culture. As much as any other car on this list, the Mini defined the era in question. The car had a space-saving transverse engine and front-wheel drive layout, so that almost 80% of the interior could be used for passengers and luggage. This concept influenced a generation of carmakers, too.
In 1999, the Mini was voted the second most influential car of the 20th century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation, behind only the Model T. The car was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, and manufactured all over, though primarily in England. The car went through four Marks, or generations, throughout its long life (production from 1959 to 2000). In 1994, BMW acquired the Rover Group (formerly British Leyland), but retained the rights to build the car under the MINI name. By the end of production, in 2000, 5,387,862 Minis had been sold worldwide. It only took six years (1965) for the millionth Mini to make its way off the production line. These cars left a lasting impression on everyone who drove them, because they were fun, practical for the small British roadways, and reasonably priced.
19 ASTON MARTIN DB5
It had a powerful 4.0-liter 282-hp inline-six engine, and came with a 5-speed transmission 20 years before they became commonplace. The sported lines and classic contours that shaped the car are still seen on Aston Martins today.
Perhaps more than anything, what helped stamp this car as one that defined the 1960s was the fact that it was made world-famous for being James Bond’s car in the 1964 film Goldfinger. Since that film, the car became known as the quintessential car of the James Bond franchise, and it appeared in subsequent films over the years (such as film following Goldfinger, Thunderball). In 2010, a DB5 that appeared in both Goldfinger and Thunderball was put up for auction by RM Auctions. It was sold for £2.6 million, or £2.912 million with commission, which equals over $4 million in today’s money. For being the car of choice in a film franchise that defined an era, the DB5 deserves to be on this list.
18 JAGUAR E-TYPE
When this car first came out, it was one of the fastest on the road, but it only cost a fraction of other exotics. That made it highly desirable, and what made it even more desirable was when it was called “the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen” … by Enzo Ferrari! From 1961 to 1975, the E-Type defined the British sports car. It was stunningly gorgeous, was based on a proper racing frame, and the chassis was top-notch. The Series 1 offered two different inline-six engines, including a 3.8-liter with non-synchromesh transmission (1961-64), and 4.2-liter engine with fully synchronized transmission (1965-67). The Series 1 were by far the most valuable of the cars, and the 4.2-liter “became the most desirable version of the famous E-Type due to their increased power and usability while retaining the same outward appearance as the earlier cars,” according to Supercars.net.
The engines of these cars gave them 265 bhp and a top speed of 150 mph, which was almost unheard of at the time. In 1965, Autocar magazine stated that, “In its 4.2 guise, the E-Type is a fast car (the fastest we have ever tested) and offers just about the easiest way to travel quickly by road.” Beautiful, fast, and reasonably priced—three great attributes that made this car a legend.
17 LAMBORGHINI MIURA
Surprisingly, founder Ferruccio Lamborghini was not a fan of the Miura. He preferred upscale grand tourers like Lamborghini’s previous 350GT and 400GT. But everyone else loved this car, and it was further made famous by its appearance in the intro of the 1969 film, The Italian Job.
The Miura had sleek racing lines and a purpose-built engine that was a 3.9-liter V12 and produced a remarkable 350 hp. The aerodynamics of the car helped make it the fastest car on the road. The car became the quintessential sports car that celebrities had to own, in its day, from members of the Rat Pack to Rod Stewart. The chassis was designed by Gian Paolo Dallara, who would go on to form his own race car engineering company, one that makes Indy cars to this day. The Miura received periodic updates and remained in production until 1973, where it was Lamborghini’s flagship model. A year later, the extreme Countach was introduced.
16 FERRARI 250 GTO
The Ferrari 250 GTO is one of the coolest-looking sports cars on this list (it reminds us a bit of the Jaguar E-Type, in fact, which might not be a coincidence). It was one of Enzo Ferrari’s earlier designs, and was in production from 1962 to 1964. The car sported a 3.0-liter V12 engine, giving it 300 hp, and helping it dominate race tracks around the world. At its release, the car was about twice the price of a Corvette, which wasn’t overly expensive for an exotic car that performed as well as it did. Nowadays, the car is the most expensive on the planet: a recent 250 GTO sold at auction in 2013 for $38 million, making it the most expensive car ever sold at auction, until even more recently one sold for $55 million, breaking its own record.
The GTO was one of the most iconic GT cars of the era, introduced for homologation (the approval process to allow a car to race) into the FIA’s Group 3 Grand Touring Car category. In 2004, Sports Car International placed the 250 GTO eighth on a list of the Top Sports Cars of the 1960s, which we think is a bit low. On the other hand, Motor Trend Classic placed the 250 GTO first on its list of “Greatest Ferraris of All Time,” and Popular Mechanics named it the “Hottest Car of All Time.”
15 PORSCHE 911
The car is still in production today, and even though its gone through continuous development over the last 55 years, the basic concept for the car has remained the same.
It’s always been a rear-engined classic with a rear-mounted boxer engine and all around independent suspension. A 1999 international poll deciding the Car of the Century (the same one with the Mini) pronounced the 911 fifth. It and the Volkswagen Beetle were the only two cars of the top five that had remained in continuous production until 1998. AS of May 2017, one million 911s have been manufactured, and the one millionth 911 is proudly on display at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
14 FORD GT40
The Ford GT40 was a high-performance race car that was produced between 1964 and 1969. And even though only 105 of them were ever produced, it is still one of the most iconic cars in history, especially in the racing world. The GT40 famously won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four consecutive years, from 1966 to 1969, instantly cementing its legendary status in automotive history. The 1966 win was the first victory for an American manufacturer at a major European race since 1921.
The GT40 came about when Carroll Shelby was given the reins to design his ultimate car. Henry Ford II, meanwhile, wanted to embarrass Enzo in the top prototype class, but his dream was squashed when his car failed to perform on the track. Once the program was handed over to Shelby, though, the 427 V8 GT40 started beating down all the competition. Here’s how dominant it was: In 1966, the car won not only Le Mans, but also 12 Hours of Sebring, and 24 Hours of Daytona, taking first, second, and third place in all three races. This was truly the most dominant automotive machine of its day. The top speed of this car was around 210 mph, making it the fastest car of the era, and one of the most iconic cars of the ‘60s.
13 SHELBY COBRA
Shelby always wanted to make a powerful and lightweight sports car, and for this he used an AC Ace body, and a Ford-sourced V8. The car was sold between 1962 and 1967, and went through multiple updates and upgrades during those five years.
At its most powerful, the Cobra 427 competition model (powered by a “side oiler” 7.0-liter Ford 427 engine) had 485 hp and a top speed of 185 mph, and could reach 0-60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Since the car is so legendary, Shelby authorized “continuation” cars to be built, and since the late ‘80s cars have been built with the style and appearance of the original ‘60s Cobras, but with modern amenities. In 2014, Shelby America announced a limited production run on 50 cars for the 50th anniversary of the original 427 Shelby Cobra.
12 CHEVROLET CORVETTE
A couple different Corvettes of this era were able to give the Shelby Cobra a run for its money: the 427 Sting Ray and the ’63 Split-Window Corvette. These cars continuously pushed the envelope in terms of style and performance, and they have since the second half of the 20th century.
In 1962, Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov was concerned about Ford and what they were doing with the Cobra. Then he came up with the lightweight C2 version, and planned to manufacture 100 Grand Sport Convertibles, though only five were actually built. Today, these five cars (001-005) are owned by private owners and are among the most coveted and valuable Corvettes ever built.
11 FORD MUSTANG
The Mustang is so iconic that even non-car people know what the car is. Fastbacks and convertibles and different body styles were offered for everyone, and even Carroll Shelby got in on the buying craze. The Mustang created its own market and gave rise to competitors like the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Plymouth Barracuda, and Dodge Challenger. Original sales for the car forecast less than 100,000 units moved in the first year, and this milestone was passed within the first three months. 318,000 were sold during the model year—a record—and more than one million Mustangs were built within its first 18 months, cementing it as the most popular car in America. The 1965 Mustang even won the Tiffany Gold Medal for Excellence in American Design, the first automobile to ever do that.
10 CHEVROLET CAMARO
By late 1966, the muscle car era was in full swing, and the Camaro was right in the thick of it, offering big block power right from the get-go. The Camaro wouldn’t eclipse the Mustang’s sales numbers for about a decade, but that day would come…
The first generation Camaro (1967-69) was built on a GM F-body platform, and was available as a two-door coupe or a convertible. It was powered either by a 3.9-, 4.1-, 4.9-, 5.0-, 5.4-, 5.7-, or 6.5-liter V8 engine. Partly due to negative press from Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe at Any speed, Chevy realized their small compact sports car, the Corvair, wouldn’t be able to compete with the Mustang’s sales numbers, so Chevy went after the design of the Mustang and mimicked it as closely as possible. The first generation Camaro only lasted three years, but it would inspire the design of the retro fifth-generation Camaro, too.
9 VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
The Volkswagen Beetle has one of the longest lifespans of any car in history. It was first introduced in 1938, pre-WWII, and would go on in production until 2003. The most famous Beetle is the Type 1, and also the most popular, with over 21 million units sold. It was a small, cheap, reliable air-cooled car, and it paved the way for much more expensive German fair, like BMW and Mercedes. In the same 1999 Car of the Century poll that the Mini and Porsche 911 were part of, the Type 1 Beetle came in fourth.
The original Beetle was not going to win you any races or beauty contests: its engine only got 25 hp and was designed for a top speed of 62 mph. Autobahn speeds were increased in the postwar years, and the output was boosted to 40 hp—a configuration that lasted until 1966 and became the “classic” Volkswagen motor. Even though Volkswagen and “The People’s Car,” (a car affordable and practical enough for common people) including the company, its name, and models, were the brainchild of Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche, the idea of the car is much older than Nazism. The “People’s Car” has existed since mass-produced cars came around, and the Beetle would live on past the dark days of WWII and its creators.
8 VOLKSWAGEN TYPE 2
The car remains iconic for many hippies today, thanks to its popularity in the ‘60s. Like the Beetle, it has numerous nicknames worldwide, with the “hippie van” just being one of them. The Type 2 was in competition with the 1947-81 Citroen H Van, the 1959-80 Renault Estafette, and the 1953-65 FR Layout Ford Transit. But as the production of the Type has been going on since 1949, and is still in production today, you can see that it outlasted all the competition. It’s still a pretty common sight on roads around the world, even though the 1964 U.S. Chicken Tax directly curtailed importation of the German-built Type 2s that qualified them as “light trucks,” or commercial vans. Sales declined in the U.S. by two-thirds from the previous year, and today the Chicken Tax still remains in effect.
7 LINCOLN CONTINENTAL
The Lincoln Continental is the only car that gives the Volkswagen Beetle a run as far as production timeline goes. The car has been around since 1939 in its Edsel Ford prototype and then the first generation Continental, though here we’re focusing on the fourth generation (1961-69), the side-slab Continentals that became an iconic car of that time period. The “new” design was completely unlike the Mark V Continentals before it, other than that both cars were huge.
The ‘60s Continental came with new, rear-hinged “suicide doors” and a luxurious interior, and it became a big seller for such an expensive car. It also had the unfortunate recognition of living in infamy after President Kennedy was assassinated in a Continental in 1963. For the 1961 model year, the entire Lincoln range was consolidated into one car. This one. Even though it was 15 inches shorter then the Mark V, it was still heavier and longer than its Cadillac or Imperial counterparts. Together with the rigorous post-build inspection of each vehicle, and the solid construction of the car, the Continental reflected Ford’s corporate management commitment to making the finest mass-produced domestic automobile of its time—and that reputation was achieved.
6 PLYMOUTH BARRACUDA
It was pretty standard except for its rear, which sported a large, distinctive wrap-around glass. The second-generation Barracuda, from 1967 to 1969, was heavily redesigned, and available as a fastback, hardtop coupe, and convertible.
The front and rear ends of the ’67 Barracuda were not the only redesigns, as the pony car class became established around this time. As such, Plymouth revised the engine options of the car, offering a range of V8 options from the two- and four-barrel versions to a big block version, and the infamous 7.0-liter Hemi engine in 1968, for the fastback Barracuda. These cars were designed by Hurst Performance to take part in Super Stock drag racing. Multiple engines were made available in 1969, including the upgraded, 330-hp 383, and a 440 Super Commando V8. The car was eventually phased out and stopped production in 1974.
5 CHEVROLET CHEVELLE
Though we’ve covered most of the well-known iconic cars that defined the ‘60s already, there were still a few that we’d be remiss not to include. The Chevrolet Chevelle is one of these. Though not as popular as the Corvette or Camaro during their heydays, the Chevelle was still a highly sought-after vehicle. It was a mid-sized car produced in three generations between 1964 and 1978.
During its time, the Chevelle was one of Chevy’s most successful nameplates. The Chevelle is a muscle car that deserves to be listed among the other top muscle cars of the day.
Even though the Chevelle peaked in 1970, with its 450-hp LS6 SS engine, the ‘60s versions weren’t slow, either. The 1964 model debuted with a lukewarm 220-hp V8, but once Pontiac released the GTO, the proverbial gloves came off, and the 327 Chevelle was added mid-year. By 1966, the 396 Chevelle was available, with well over 350 horsepower. 1966 also saw a complete restyle of the car, with a frame that now included smooth contours, a broad new grille and bumper treatment, and curved side windows. With the ’67 facelift, Chevrolet claimed in the 1967 Chevelle sales brochure that, “What you’ll see inside will probably bring on a severe compulsion to go driving.”
4 PONTIAC GTO
rom 2004 to 2006, GM’s subsidiary, Holden, revived the GTO model as a captive import for Pontiac, offering a left-hand drive version of the car as the Holden Monaro.
The GTO came about after the recent ban on factory-backed racing, when Pontiac had to come up with something new to their lineup. Another ban limited mid-sizes vehicles to mid-size engines (330 ci or less), but Pontiac found a loophole by listing the GTO as an option (mentioned above), and featured a 325-hp 389 V8 engine, making it 100 more horsepower than cars in its class at the time, which instantly shot the GTO to legendary status.
3 LOTUS ELAN
Meanwhile, across the pond, while the muscle car market was booming in America, British carmakers were having their own renaissance of a sort. The ‘60s Lotus Elan looked a heck of a lot like a ‘90s Mazda Miata, when in fact the Elan design was ahead of its time, and the Miata design was a retro look (that took after the Elan, of course). The Elan was initially offered just as a roadster, as an unapologetic sports car that only seated two. It initially relied on its super light weight and excellent handling to be a fun car, as it only had 108 horsepower in the engine upon release. The design was attractive and minimalist—much different than American cars of the time, which were lavish and over-the-top—and it was low, curvy, and extremely popular with speed enthusiasts.
The Elan is single-handedly responsible for raising the reputation of Lotus worldwide. It set off the notion of Lotus as an expert sports car manufacturer. The engine on the car, the “Lotus TwinCam,” was based on the Ford Kent Pre-Crossflow four-cylinder 1,498 cc engine. The rights to this design was later bought by Ford, who renamed it the “Lotus-Ford Twin Cam” and would use it on a number of Ford and Lotus production and racing models of the future.
2 FORD THUNDERBIRD
The Ford Thunderbird was a wildly successful full-size luxury car that was produced in the United States over 11 generations, from 1955 to 2005. Through its 50-year career, the Thunderbird created a market niche that would eventually become known as the “personal luxury car.” That’s right, the Thunderbird started that trend (and market). Competitors would come along, like the Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado, though they wouldn’t quite reach the fame of the original.
Ford is credited with developing a new market segment with the Thunderbird, by positioning the car as an upscale model rather than a sports car. In 1958, the Thunderbird gained a second row of seats, and the car became larger and larger throughout the ‘60s, until it was downsized in 1977.
The Thunderbird was created after a smaller, two-seater roadster called the Vega was released in 1953, at the behest of Henry Ford II. The Vega generated interest at the time, but had meager power, European looks, and a high cost. The Thunderbird was similar in concept, but it was more American in style, which allowed it to have a higher cost without much complaint, and it was more luxurious and less sport-oriented. The name was not suggested among the thousands proposed (including the Eagle, Falcon, Apache, and Thunderbolt), but was suggested quickly to the designer, and accepted.
1 TOYOTA 2000GT
The Toyota 2000GT was Japan’s first collectible car, and it started life in 1965 as a show car. The show car model found huge success, and was put into production in 1967. The Toyota 2000GT had a 2.0-liter inline-six engine that was comparable to many other GTs of the time, but its handling finesse was something that blew the competition out of the water. Its handling alone made the car able to defeat more powerful cars on the track, earning a great reputation among fans, and plenty of wins. The style of the car is called a “coke bottle” style, and it’s one of the most successful stylings in that vein ever created. James Bond even drove the car in You Only Live Twice (1967), and that feat alone helped cement the car as a legendary car that defined the ‘60s.
The 2000GT revolutionized the automotive world’s view of Japan, which was then viewed as a producer of stodgy, imitative vehicles. This sleek, high-performance fastback demonstrated Japanese automakers could produce sports cars to rival European marques. In 1967, Road & Track called the car “one of the most exciting and enjoyable cars we’ve driven,” comparing it favorably to the Porsche 911. Nowadays, 2000GTs often sell for over seven figures at auction.