Finally, automobiles in the 1920s became mainstream. They weren’t just for the rich and famous, every family could own one. The car companies in the 1920s found ways to make them more affordable, safer, more comfortable and more powerful and it’s no understatement to say that car ownership revolutionised people’s lives.
Suddenly, thanks to people like Henry Ford – who mass-produced the Model T, one of the most popular cars in the 1920s – families had the type of freedom they had never before experienced. Industry exploded, cars used 90% of America’s petrol, 80% of its rubber and 75% of its glass. Innovative new production techniques were developed. Countries like Britain and America boomed.
But 1920s cars weren’t just affordable and practical run-arounds. There were also the standout performers, 1920s luxury cars which were – and remain – some of the most beautiful automobiles ever made. The Great Gatsby showed us that cars could be bold, ostentatious and flashy. If you needed to make a grand entrance, a Bugatti, Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg or Auburn was the way movie moguls and big businessmen did it. Like the most famous iconic cars that came later, a number of these superstars of 20s motoring became etched into history as the cars from the 1920s that stunned the world – read on to discover our list of the most famous 20s cars.
Ford Model T
No article about 1920s vintage cars would be complete without mentioning one of the most popular automobiles in the 1920s. Launched on an unsuspecting world in 1908, the Model T was the car that put the world on wheels.
Henry Ford wanted the Model T – nicknamed ‘Tin Lizzie’ – to be affordable, durable and simple to operate. It was the first mass-produced vehicle in the world. Ford’s 60-acre factory in Highland Park, Michigan, was the first factory in the world to assemble cars on a moving assembly line. Within six months, build time reduced dramatically, as did the price. In 1909 the Model T cost $825 (broadly equivalent to 18 months’ salary for the average American). In 1927 it was $360 (four months).
The Ford Model T quickly became one of the most popular cars in the 1920s and by the early years of the decade, over half the registered cars in the world were Fords. By 1925, between 9,000 and 10,000 cars were coming off the production line every day. When production ceased in 1927, over 15 million Model Ts were built and sold.
There were lots of cars from the 1920s that were more beautiful, faster and more desirable, but the Model T became a folkloric symbol of Henry Ford’s vision to ‘democratise the automobile.’
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Duesenberg Model J
Luxury cars in the 1920s rarely got any more grandiose than the Duesenberg Model J. Affectionately referred to as ‘Duesy’, the company was founded by German-American brothers August and Frederick Duesenberg in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1913. They built racing cars and high-end automobiles, a world away from Henry Ford’s ‘car for everyone’. The Model J was for a select few.
In 1926, Duesenberg, one of the most famous car companies in the 1920s was bought by automotive entrepreneur EL Cord for the brothers’ engineering skills and their burgeoning brand name. He wanted to build a top-drawer luxury performance car to rival the European heavyweights of Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suiza. The Model J immediately became one of the most coveted luxury cars of the 1920s.
It was only for the very wealthy. The bare chassis and running gear cost over $9,000 and with a custom body, the total cost of the car could easily top $13,000 – today in the region of £175,000 – 911 Turbo money. To compare, one of the most popular cars in the 1920s, the Ford Model T, cost well under $400.
Launched in 1928 at the New York Car Show, the 6.9-litre straight-eight produced 265 bhp (the same as the insanely good-looking Jaguar E-Type 30 years into the future). In an advert for the Model J, they boasted ‘So confident is Duesenberg of the unquestioned supreme position its product occupies, that a nameplate is considered superfluous. Nowhere on the car do you find the name Duesenberg. But everywhere throughout the car you discover those master strokes of engineering and design and construction obtainable nowhere else than in a Duesenberg.’
Driven by the likes of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, even Al Capone, the Duesenberg Model J was at the zenith of 1920s luxury cars. In 1929, the stock market crashed and plunged American into the Great Depression. Not a great time to be trying to sell an incredibly expensive car. Fortunately the Hollywood elite and old money aristos kept the car in production until 1937.
One of the most exciting and lavish of all 1920s cars, it was almost impossible to find a faster, more beautifully engineered, more impressive car anywhere in the world.
The 3-Litre was Bentley’s first chassis and represented Walter Owen Bentley’s post-WWI vision of creating a ‘fast car, a good car, the best in its class.’ One of the best vintage cars of the 1920s, the 3-Litre won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1924 and 1927.
‘WO,’ as he was affectionately known, began his career selling French DFP cars with his brother Horace (as Bentley & Bentley) in Cricklewood, north London. After being discharged from the Royal Naval Air Service, he founded Bentley Motors Limited which became one of the most famous car companies of the 1920s.
Former World War I pilot Clive Gallop joined the team to develop the 3-litre, straight-four engine, which ran for the very first time just off Baker Street in London. The first production version of the Bentley 3-Litre was delivered in September 1921 to owner Noel van Raalte and emerged quickly as one of the most popular cars of the Twenties.
As was usual with luxury 1920s cars, Bentley supplied the chassis, engine, suspension and drivetrain (at an eventual cost of £1,100) and customers would then take them to specialist coachbuilders. Production was at first relatively slow but soon, the order books started to fill up. Due to its weight, size and speed, legendary car maker Ettore Bugatti called it ‘the fastest lorry in the world.’ Nevertheless, it was among the best vintage cars of the 1920s.
Quickly elevating the 3-Litre into the upper echelons of one of the luxury cars in the 1920s, clients included Prince George (later the Duke of Kent), the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and the Duke of York (later King George VI). The 3-Litre remained in production until 1929 when it was superseded by the superb Bentley 4½ litre, itself one of the greatest automobiles of the 1920s.
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When it comes to classic 1920s luxury cars, names like Bugatti, Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo roll off the tongue, but Hispano-Suiza? Unlikely. However this largely unknown Spanish car manufacturer was one of the most famous car companies in the 1920s and produced arguably the most innovative and perfectly engineered car of its age.
Only a very small number of automobile gourmets will have heard of Swiss-born founder Marc Birkigt. He was a brilliant visionary who built a car of such stature that for a time it eclipsed Rolls-Royce as the luxury car marque of choice for the rich to drive through the age of the Charleston. The H6 really was one of the great cars from the 1920s.
Introduced at the 1919 Paris Motor Show, the H6 featured an aluminium 6.6-litre straight-six (upgraded to a whopping 8.0-litre in 1922) and was the first car in the world to employ servo-assisted, light alloy drum brakes on all four wheels. In fact the technology was so advanced for 1920s cars, Rolls-Royce licenced the design and carried it all the way through to the 1965 Silver Cloud.
Like all other luxury cars in the 1920s, the chassis was bought and then bodied by some of the finest European coachbuilders of the day including Chapron, Binder, Letourneur et Marchand and Hibberd & Darrin. After approximately 2,350 H6 and variant models were built, production ceased in 1933.
There is a sense of melancholy that one of the finest luxury cars in the 1920s has been largely forgotten but those in the know – then and now – consider the Hispano-Suiza H6 to be one of the best cars ever created.
Bugatti Type 41 Royale
In 1927, Ettore Bugatti unveiled the Type 41, known as the Royale. Like the Veyron eight decades later, the Type 41 was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Bugatti were already positioned as one of the premier car companies in the 1920s and in the Royale, they offered a fortunate few the largest and most exquisitely luxurious car in the world.
It is said that the Type 41 only came about after Ettore Bugatti took exception to the comments of an unknown English lady who compared his cars unfavourably to those of 1920s luxury car competitor Rolls-Royce.
The majority of the most popular cars in the 1920s were practical motorcars for the people, but this car knew no competition. It was intended, quite literally, for kings, queens and emperors. Commercially however, it turned into a very, very expensive mistake.
As most manufacturers were making automobiles in the 1920s, Bugatti was waiting to complete a deal with the French military to build 16-cylinder plane engines. For reasons unknown, the deal never happened. In his infinite wisdom, Ettore thought that he could use half the engine, a straight-eight, to power the world’s most opulent car. Like a lot of 20s cars, it may not have had one of the coolest car names ever, but the resulting Bugatti Type 41 was certainly a head-turner at the time.
Over six metres long, the Type 41 had a mammoth 12.8-litre engine and weighed, dependent on the body, around 3.5 tonnes. Famous for being the only Bugatti adorned with a hood ornament – a dancing elephant designed by Ettore’s brother Rembrandt – they intended to build 25 of these luxury 1920s cars. But, as the global economic crisis hit, there was no market for such a machine.
At a basic chassis price of $30,000, even kings, queens and emperors weren’t buying this most amazing of 1920s cars and only seven were eventually built (including one prototype). Ettore had intended to give one to King Alfonso of Spain but he was deposed before he could take delivery. The one opportunity to sell one to a bona fide royal, King Zog of Albania, was refused by Bugatti, allegedly on the basis that the king had disgraceful table manners.
The prototype was destroyed in an accident in 1931 but the original six remain. Two are in the Musée National de l’Automobile de Mulhouse in France; Volkswagen AG, owners of the Bugatti brand have one; one is in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan and the last two are in unknown private hands. Should one ever come up for sale, this king of luxury 1920s cars would almost certainly become the most expensive second-hand car ever sold at auction, eclipsing the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO which sold for $48,405,000 in 2018.
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For four short years, Mercedes-Benz – already established as one of the largest car companies in the 1920s – built a two-door roadster that took the automotive world by storm. One of the best cars from the 1920s, the Mercedes-Benz SSK (an abbreviation of Super Spurt Kurz, German for ‘Super Sport Short’) was one of greatest sports cars of its age.
Built between 1928 and 1932, the SSK was a short wheelbase version of the 1927 Modell S and was designed by arguably the most famous name in automotive history, Ferdinand Porsche. It was the last car he designed for Mercedes-Benz before he left to set up his own company.
The supercharged 7.1-litre straight-six had a top speed of around 120 mph and at the time it was the world’s fastest car. Not only was it one of the best cars from the 1920s, it was also the dominant race car of its era winning the 1929 500 Miles of Argentina, the 1929 and 1930 Cordoba Grands Prix, the 1930 Irish Grand Prix, the 1931 German Grand Prix and the famous 1931 Mille Miglia.
Despite being in production for four years, fewer than 40 were built (some say as few as 31) and around half of those were sold as ‘Rennwagen’ or racing cars. Most were destroyed beyond recognition while racing and the few that weren’t totalled or burned out were cannibalised for spares. It’s believed that only four or five of these stunning vintage cars from the 1920s remain as they were built.
In 1941 at the height of World War II, Norfolk native George Milligan travelled to Brighton to buy an SSK for the princely sum of £400. The seller wasn’t there so trusted Milligan to put the money through the letterbox (which he did). When he got one of the most beautiful 1920s cars back to Norfolk, one version of the story said he hid it in a lock-up for 60 years and another said he drove it enthusiastically for 60 years. Either way, that £400 investment in 1941 turned into a car worth $7.4m when he sold it in 2004.
Because of its racing heritage, its badge and its rarity, cars from the 1920s such as the Mercedes-Benz SSK are among the most sought after in the world.
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