Yesterday, GM announced a return to basics. That's good because sometimes, mobility alone is all we can afford. Few bare-bones cars had something making them more than basic transportation. Some, starting with the Model T, did. Here's our favorites.

Model T


Ford's plan for the Model T was to offer a simple, usable, high-quality automobile that anyone could afford, and the idea caught on, to put it mildly. The T started out as what everybody's mental image of an early automobile has come to be, hand crank, wooden wheels, acetylene lights and all. Ten years after its introduction, it had an electric starter, actual front doors, a roof, and accounted for half the cars in America. Yes, sir, it's the car that made the people who wanted to git up and go actually able to do so-before the T, transportation almost couldn't BE basic.

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The Jeep

We're talking the true stripped-down models here, the Willys and CJ models that are coveted by off-road types but also worked brilliantly around town. Almost unbreakable, because there was nothing to break. Impossible to be uptight around them, once you got them away from heavy traffic and, you know, the military. And pretty hard to get now, more's the pity. We're embarrassed for choice in one model to feature, but during the Chevette Era right up through the dawn of the Neon, it was possible to get a retired Postal Service Jeep or AM General delivery truck like the one here, switch the steering wheel back to the left side, and drive in relative style and comfort (relative to walking, anyway). There's something magnificent about that.

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The Ford Falcon

No, not the contemporary Australian version - the one your uncle the insurance salesman had. Or great-uncle, even. You want a Dodge Dart? You're welcome to it, but that's the easy choice. The Falcon was, to put it plainly, just a comfortable car to buy and live with, and more interesting; it came in lots of body styles, including convertible and Ranchero pickup, and was is considered to be one of the great successes of Ford president Robert McNamara, unlike his other project, the Vietnam War. It sold like crazy for a while, but unfortunately, it was shoved to the side by Ford's own more desirable Mustang.

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The Volkswagen Beetle

Infinite volumes have been written about this car, but perhaps the single most important Beetle fact is this: It was perhaps as bad as a car can be and still be fun to own. It rusted, it didn't heat or defrost, it was slow, it handled strangely, it was ugly, and it made annoying sounds. But it got to people, somehow, in a way that transcended its novelty value, the way rescued dogs or tiny apartments sometimes do. After all, it was light, it was relatively reliable, and it was different. it If nothing else, it's worth noting that there wasn't really anything else commonly available at the time that offered as much sheer immediacy, and a long road trip in one of these was a small personal epic. Still, the rest of the world got the original Mini, and we got this?

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The Chevy Nova

In the 1970s, an era when most cars aspired to be rolling living rooms, the cheaper Nova aspired to be a rolling basement rec room, a somewhat overstuffed, purposefully shabby place, usually with lots of browns and yellows, a place where it was perfectly okay to put your feet on the Davenport. No one really wanted one, but plenty of people would up with one and wound up having good times in it, if not with it. It was roomy enough for four people who weren't too choosy, so anyone in there with you was probably a good friend of yours to begin with. Importantly, it could be made faster easily enough, especially the small-block versions, although part of the fun of that was ignoring how slow they were to begin with. The first car a lot of people in Generation X ever worked on voluntarily. Still, though people may not have wanted one, just try finding someone who owned one and doesn't wish they still had it.

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Ford F-150

Of course, the best-selling vehicle in the world can be had in any trim level you want, but the base-level truck has always been one charismatic automobile. Throw stuff at it, in it, on it, it doesn't care. Get the awesomely durable 300-inch straight six in it, change the oil often, and trundle on through eternity.Hose it off, hose it out, and take it to town, and it still has a certain... well, not class, but a capable dignity you're not going to get in most cars. Plus it's the most common way to get a pleasant and raffish two-seater in a culture that tends to frown on that sort of thing.

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Honda CRX-HF

The CRX is lovable indeed, but unlike most basic beaters, this one was an obvious treasure off the showroom floor. The liter-and-a-half engine and the five-speed were zippy enough, and fuel economy numbers in the 40s were certainly impressive, but the best part was that it weighed about 70 pounds. Oh, okay, about 1,700, but even in the mid-eighties that was a treat. There are just two seats, but it was a fine little runabout for all that, fairly spacious and Honda-solid. Plus but it rotated on a point right between those two seats, which was fun, and with those EPA numbers this fun was basically free. Sadly, the word is out now and no CRX has sold for basic transportation money since the turn of the century.

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Ford Festiva

Most people know this car from the SHOgun models with the Yamaha V6 from the Taurus SHO dropped in where the back seats should be. That's fine, but don't overlook the terrier nature of the Mazda-built box, as were all the first-generation Festivas, which are really all the ones worth mentioning. They're zippy enough, roomy enough, and even lighter than a CRX, making them a surprisingly involving drive. Owner anecdotes, always the most interesting of perhaps not the most scientific source of information about older model cars, reveal that the Festiva is tenacious as can be, one of those cars that refuses to give up the ghost completely even after many, many nonessential parts have broken on them. A resounding endorsement, that. Also, the interior fabric over the door panels is so thin that refrigerator magnets can be stuck on, and how do you put a price on that kind of charm?

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Dodge Neon

In the long run, it wasn't an out-of-the park four-bagger. Build quality wasn't what Chrysler promised, the look didn't age well, and the fluids didn't stay in the engine like they really should have. But when it was introduced, buyers - including a lot of first-time car owners - were delighted to have a reasonably peppy, distinctively styled car from an American automaker. That it handled genuinely well was a nice bonus, for those who noticed. They were everywhere for a while, and unlike a lot of examples of automotive ubiquity, that was generally considered to be okay; a street lightly salted with Neons was a sign that something was going right. It didn't last, of course; bits started falling off, it was notably bad in crash testing (to be fair, just look at the rest of this list!) and a first-generation Neon with a For Sale sign on it may as well have had a warning sign on it, too. But the Neon's success was a sign that happy no-frills success was possible. We wish GM, and anyone else who wants to give it a try, all the best.

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