Waxing nostalgic about America's car culture

A Corvette owner polishes his 1962 roadster's hood at the 2003 Bloomington Gold Corvette show in St Charles, Ill.

(CBS News) America's car culture is the stuff of legend around the world. We all have our favorites. But what came first, the cars, or the culture they came to represent? We put Lee Cowan in the driver's seat, for our Sunday Morning Cover Story:

Americans love waxing nostalgic about our cars, though some look better in the rear view mirror.

From our first and the fastest, to our biggest and clunkiest, they're like pets with wheels.

But what if we took a look at ourselves - through our car's eyes instead? Not the creepy kind of Steven King-our-car-comes-alive idea, but illuminating history with a headlight?

That's just what Paul Ingrassia decided to do. "These are cars that had a definitive impact on how we live and think as people even today," he said.

Author Paul Ingrassia with Lee Cowan at The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Mich. CBS

In his book, "Engines of Change," Ingrassia lists what he says are America's 15 most influential cars - most of which have a home at The Henry Ford, a museum in Dearborn, Mich.

What he's compiled isn't a list of the nation's BEST cars - just the ones that changed our lives.

Some are obvious: The Ford Model T tops the list. It's credited for creating everything from the assembly line to the drive-through window. It put America on wheels - and the color black had no greater champion.

At the other end of the list is the Toyota Prius, another obvious choice given the impression - or LACK of impression - it left on the environment.

"It was a confluence of environmental consciousness plus pure economics," Ingrassia said.

If the Prius was about raising consciousness, the Pontiac GTO was about raising hell.

At a convention of GTO owners we found Ron Muck, who is happy his gas guzzler made the list.

"The GTO sometimes stands for Gas, Tires, and Oil!" he laughed.

Nevertheless, he said the GTO is without a doubt influential - it defined American muscle: "When you pull up to a stop light, people always want to challenge it because they hear this engine rumbling and roaring and they want to get out and see if they can beat it," Muck said. "And so far, no one has off the line!"

There are some cars on the list we only remember in song ("Boy, our old LaSalle ran great, those were the days!"). The LaSalle by General Motors made the list not because of Archie Bunker - but because it was the first car broadly marketed to those worried about style and status. The boxy Model T was too practical for those wanting to roar during the Roaring 20s.

By the 1950s, the country's mood was happy again. The war years had been tough, and nothing symbolized the country's new optimism better that the Chevy Corvette: flashy, unrestrained, proud.

"All of a sudden there's peace, there's prosperity. People want to let loose a little bit," said Ingrassia. "What else would you want to let loose in on the roads besides this?"

The Corvette even starred in its own TV series, "Route 66."