Throughout the history of cars, there have been hallmarks, cars that changed the course of history or simply put the logo on the sign of the times. If you need an education on what cars are all about, there's an easy way to get a primer on autos through time: drive them. By our measure, there are at least eight cars you need to drive before you die, so you know where cars came from, where they're going, how good they can be, and how awful, too.
TheCarConnection.com's eight cars to drive before you die are these classics:
2000 Mazda MiataEnlarge Photo
You don't know how well a car can handle until you drive one of Mazda's essential roadsters. The Miata's reflexes feel like they were hardwired by God, and its controls penned by Apple. Beautifully executed and honest to its core, the Miata's steering alone would put it in this group. No car has ever felt this neural, and it's hard to think any other car ever will. It's best to get into a pristine first-generation car if you can, but those are becoming rarer as time goes by; 2008's Miata is almost up to the glory days of the original.
2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1Enlarge Photo
OK, we haven't driven it yet, either. And maybe there's less of a chance you'll get into this than into a mid-'60s Sting Ray Corvette. You need to experience ultimate power, though, and the whole Formula 1 career isn't really taking off, is it? Beg, borrow or steal to get a ride in this one into low geosynchronous orbit, and then you can chuckle at Sergey Brin: $5 million to go into real space is a waste when you can own this for $100,000.
1914 Ford Model TEnlarge Photo
To know where you're going,you have to know where you've been. Didn't Pete Townsend say that? Start with the car that changed the world, but be prepared. Model Ts aren't easy to drive. They have to be started, shifted, and slowed in ways you've never dreamed of. Luckily, owners of these cars seem to have hours to explain to you exactly how the rudimentary ur-car operates, and the incredibly crude ride will bounce you awake while they shout out T-trivia on the roll.
Volkswagen BeetleEnlarge Photo
Mechanical simplicity, thy name is Beetle. You really can repair this car with office supplies, and its purity makes the Beetle even more a contrast with today's crash-perfect, desensitized, ball-bearing-tight new cars. Beetle heaters don't work, wipers are a cruel joke, and power is high concept, but it moves you in other ways.
2009 Porsche 911Enlarge Photo
The engine's out back, the cylinders are opposed instead of working together--and still, when a Porsche 911 fires up,right at the base of your spine, you merge with its manic rhythms. The hammering of pistons in your ear amplifies the direct heft of the steering, and the drop-away view of the road ahead is as close to a racecar as you can find on a modern-day production car. Pretend you're Hurley Haywood if you want--just don't play Autobahn unless the coast is clear.
2004 HUMMER H1Enlarge Photo
You can't drive an Abrams tank, so this is the closest you'll ever get. You'll also get the contact thrill of 1990s nostalgia, when gas was plentiful, the Oval Office served dual purposes, and being a rock star/movie god/media icon meant tooling up to a red carpet in something impossible for any valet to park. Never mind the wars going on in the background--orthodontists and day traders need love too. Full speed ahead!
Rolls-Royce PhantomEnlarge Photo
Don't fuss with the nonsense of a stretch limousine; find a way to be chauffeured in the Phantom (or the Mercedes-built Maybach 62) and savor the experience. Tip the rear seats back, flip down a walnut tray outfitted with a properly aged Scotch paired with Diana Krall's Live in Paris DVD on the rear-seat entertainment system, and let someone else worry about the traffic ahead. It's OK if you don't wave to the peons outside.
1982 Cadillac CimarronEnlarge Photo
Slow can be forgiven; sometimes even ugly, too. The Cimarron ("By Cadillac") was unforgivable, coming from "the standard of the world." Its utterly synthetic, soulless attempt to save Caddy's bacon turned off even GM's hardcore audience. Most galling detail: keys coated in gold plastic that wore off before the warranty expired. Congratulations, Cimarron. You sucked on so many levels, we're still talking about you today.
Honda CRX: Perhaps the best-handling front-wheel-drive car ever, the CRX marked the beginning of Honda's Golden Age.
Lamborghini Murcielago: The view from the wheel of this winged bat out of hell is extraordinary and almost alien--and its performance is astonishing.
Jeep Wrangler: The only vehicle to go from World War II combat duty into the national lexicon, it's shorthand for adventure.
Toyota Prius: Geek culture rules the world now--and the Prius is proof of its good, green side.
Smart fortwo: Sitting on the continental divide between cars and roller skates, the smart fortwo points to where cars are going, for better or worse.
Have a nominee of your own? Add it in a comment below!