Driving

Best-selling cars in the U.S. over the past 40 years [DATA VIZ]

hero-image

American culture loves its automobiles. From hot rods to batmobiles, NASCAR and beyond — it’s hard to picture an America today without Henry Ford’s assembly line.

Many facets of American life require four wheels and an engine — such as embarking on the All-American road trip, grabbing late-night fast food at a drive-thru or even catching a socially distanced flick at the drive-in theatre.

This obsession with automobiles is no secret. Americans drive the most miles each year, we own the largest vehicles, we guzzle the most gasoline and even have the highest car insurance rates.

So what are the most popular cars? For this study, we analyzed 40 years worth of data to see which models dominated U.S. sales. We also looked at 23 years of manufacturer data starting in 1996.

Here’s what we found:

  • The Ford F-Series has been the top-selling car model for 34 years in a row.
  • Ford has been the most popular car manufacturer over the last 22 years, followed by Chevrolet.
  • New car sales have grown by 63% since 1979.
  • Americans buy American-made cars most, followed by Japanese makers (Toyota and Honda).

America's most popular model is the Ford F-Series truck

One staple of America’s car culture isn’t a car at all — it’s a pickup truck. Over the past 40 years, no model has sold more than the Ford F-Series, which has topped the list of best sellers 34 years in a row starting in 1985. The Chevrolet Silverado, another popular truck, has competed heavily with the Ford F-Series, coming in at #2 33 times over 40 years.

While pickup trucks were originally used for work (most popularly in the construction industry), in the 1950s Americans began purchasing them for lifestyle reasons. Since then, you’d be hard-pressed to find any U.S. roadway without one.

The prominence of trucks (including pickups and SUVs) is one thing that has set American car buyers apart from the rest of the world. By 2022, LMC Automotive estimates that 84% of the vehicles General Motors sells in the U.S. market will be some kind of truck or SUV. Worldwide, SUV sales hit 40% for the first time ever in 2019 — so while larger vehicle popularity is growing worldwide, it’s still largely dominated by the U.S. market.

While the future of U.S. cars may be electric (or even hydrogen-powered!), here’s a look at top-selling car models over the last 40 years:

  • Ford F-Series: 23,500,752+ units sold
  • Chevrolet Silverado: 17,900,000+ units sold
  • Honda Accord: 13,400,007+ units sold
  • Toyota Camry: 11,946,376+ units sold
  • Honda Civic: 10,107,715+ units sold
  • RAM Pickup: 9,195,542+ units sold
  • Toyota Corolla: 8,600,000+ units sold

 

Ford is America’s most popular automaker, Chevrolet a close second

We also analyzed manufacturer data, starting in 1996 (the year this data became public for Ford). Over the past 22 years, Ford has claimed the top spot for new car sales followed by Chevrolet. Toyota, the top international manufacturer, took third place from Dodge starting in 2001.

Below, our data visualization displays the waxing and waning of various car manufacturers from 1996 to 2019.

most popular car manufacturers

America’s new car sales have grown by 63% since 1979

New car sales have grown by 63% over the last 40 years. The average age of a new vehicle buyer is 43, and 77.3% of people still believe that owning a car is a necessity even with the introduction of rideshares.

It’s worth noting that new car sales haven’t increased steadily year-over-year, though — and the economy is to blame. Comparing 1999 to 2019, there was a decrease in new car sales by 45%. This decline is due in large part to the 2008 economic crash, as the auto sector was one of the hardest-hit industries. It took the auto market a decade to nearly break even again.

New car sales growth rates have mostly rebounded, although both 2017 and 2019 experienced negative growth. 2020 car sales are down even further — COVID-19’s impact on the economy is the largest contributing factor, although the sharing economy and micromobility also likely play minor roles. Multiple years of negative car sales growth have some experts warning of another automotive downturn.

new car sales

In spite of the economic disruptions that have hit the brakes of the car industry over the last 20 years, the United State's reliance on cars remains largely intact. Today, 93% of American households own a car, and 33% of households own three or more cars.

Whether you plan to purchase a new or used car, you’ll want to compare car insurance rates before you hit the road.

Methodology

For this report, we analyzed Car Database data from 1979 to 2019 to find the most popular models. We also used news Car Database data to determine U.S. manufacturer sales from 1996 to 2019. We also used The New York Times to uncover manufacturer data that predated 1996.

Don't forget to share!