The Greatest American Cars

July 2017

A leading authority picks the top ten. Some of the names still have the power to stir the blood. And some will surprise you.

Few enterprises for any alleged expert in a given field can be more hazardous than the compilation of a “best” or “worst” list. The undertaking of such an effort immediately invites second-guessing by everyone else with similar credentials and offers the risk that any number of them may give valid, even insurmountable, proof that their selections are superior. Just as historians are forever rating Presidents and are therefore endlessly scrapping over whether Martin Van Buren ranks above or below Rutherford Hayes, so those who care about automobiles automatically dispute one another’s favorites. At least in the realm of politics or military history, ranking is more easily established through tangible successes. But with automobiles, as with art, certain aesthetic judgments must be made, and accomplishments in terms of commerce or public acclaim often have no bearing. Vincent van Gogh died with his work castigated as lunatic scribblings. In 1935 the Stutz Motor Car Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, was building some of the finest luxury automobiles to be found in the world yet was able to sell only six in a Depression-ravaged economy. There is often little relationship between quality and commercial appeal, although no “best” list of American cars, such as we will attempt to assemble here, could possibly omit the Ford Model T. Its artistry lay in the rudiments of its purpose, in its stark functionalism and its extraordinary social impact. Yet it is honored as the most popular American model of all time.

Therefore, what follows is wildly subjective. Perhaps its only value is to offer insights on the author’s narrow prejudices. The list is admittedly a mixed bag, ranging from the celebrated to the nearly forgotten, from the brazen to the subdued, from the mundane to the magnificent. Some cars represented major technical breakthroughs, others were merely clever derivatives, but all in their own way represented high points in the growth of the American automobile.

Observant readers will instantly spot what appears to be an anomaly. Six of the ten cars on the list were manufactured between the years 1930 and 1932. Moreover, not one appears after the 1955 model year. While both facts may be used to indict the author for being blatantly prejudiced, the harsh truth is this: The American automobile industry experienced a massive surge of creativity practically hours before plunging into the Great Depression. But following 1955 it fell into a thirty-year slumber, from which it is just now awakening.

So let us get on with it. The sooner these “Ten Best” can be digested, the sooner the rest of you can sit down and begin composing rebuttals.

The J-series Duesenbergs were the ultimate expression of power and prestige on four wheels. Horsemen maintain that “racing improves the breed,” and this can surely be said for automobiles as well, especially for the fabled Duesenbergs. The cars were created by Fred and August Duesenberg, a pair of Iowa bicycle builders who first gained fame as the fabricators of excellent racing cars and who were underwritten in 1926 by the auto tycoon Errett Lobban Cord to create an American car of uncompromising performance and quality. Two years later the first Model J rolled from their Indianapolis, Indiana, shops. It was a titanic machine in all respects. Its straight-eight, dual-overhead camshaft engine developed 265 horsepower and was said to propel the car up to nearly 120 miles per hour. The automobile used extensive quantities of lightweight aluminum castings and carried four-wheel hydraulic brakes, which the Duesenberg brothers had pioneered on their racing cars. While one could purchase, for about $7,000, a standard car from the factory that had been designed by the masterful Gordon Buehrig, it was common practice to buy, for about $6,000, a bare chassis and have it shipped off to one of the famed coachbuilders of the day. Craftsmen in such houses as LeBaron, Murphy, Derham, Weymann, Rollston, and Judkins created dazzling one-off roadsters, cabriolets, and dual-cowl phaetons, for sums that escalated the cost to more than $12,000. The year 1932 brought triumph and tragedy to the Duesenberg: Fred, the older and dominant brother, died at the wheel of one of his great automobiles. Then came the masterpiece, the SJ—a centrifugally supercharged monster that developed 320 horsepower and was reputed to accelerate from zero to 100 miles an hour in seventeen seconds. These machines equaled or surpassed in performance, quality, and engineering brilliance anything that was being produced in Europe at the time. One historian has called the SJ Duesenberg “the most gorgeous achievement in American automotive history,” and that is generally undisputed. Two Duesenbergs recently became the first classic cars in the world to change hands for one million dollars. Soon after the great machines were introduced, “It’s a Duesie” became part of American slang. Fifty years later the accolade still applies.

 

More than any other single vehicle, the Stutz Bearcat symbolizes the Roaring Twenties, although it was hardly the company’s best effort and it was manufactured for less than half the decade. Yet it was this lowslung sports car that launched Harry C. Stutz’s small Indianapolis firm into the major leagues (even though an eleventh-place finish by a basically stock 2P roadster in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 had already produced the slogan “The car that made good in a day”). The Bearcat established Stutz’s early image for lusty performance and a faintly risqué brashness. While the cars were doing well in the marketplace, the home office was in turmoil. Stutz himself left the company in 1919 to build another car, the HCS, and the situation did not stabilize until 1922, when the Bethlehem Steel tycoon Charles M. Schwab gained control. Three years later Frederick E. Moskovics became president and altered the car’s market position from a racy, raucous sporting machine to a pure luxury car. Yet the old performance image was not entirely defused, and Stutz was the only American make of the era to perform with high marks in such international endurance contests as the Le Mans twenty-fourhour race. Like its neighbors in Indianapolis, Stutz resisted the movement toward giant, V-type engines and instead remained loyal to the big inline eights preferred by Duesenberg. A high point came, as with so many other great American cars, in 1932 with the introduction of the DV-32 vertical eight, a double-overhead camshaft masterpiece developing 156 horsepower and linked to one of the very few four-speed transmissions available in America. With bodies styled by the likes of LeBaron and Weymann, the DV-32 Stutzes were classically beautiful machines. And they were very fast. By 1933 the company had revived the Bearcat name on a shortwheelbase DV-32 roadster that was guaranteed to exceed one hundred miles an hour. But the mass-production resources of giants like GM’s Cadillac division, Ford’s Lincoln arm, and Packard, all of which could produce luxury cars more cheaply and, moreover, had lower-priced LaSalles, Zephyrs, and Clippers available to cover their bets, were overwhelming opponents of the small, high-priced specialty manufacturer. In 1934 six Stutz cars—all masterpieces of engineering and craftsmanship—were sold. A year later the company was gone.

 

There is no question that Henry Ford viewed the automobile as an egalitarian piece of iron to be dispersed as widely throughout the population as possible. Luxury cars hardly fitted either his business ethic or his personal life. Yet it was he, with the encouragement of his progressive son, Edsel, who bought Lincoln from Henry Leland in 1922 for eight million dollars. Leland, following a dispute with Billy Durant that left his beloved Cadillac in the hands of General Motors, had resurfaced to start a new company named for the first President for whom the aging automaker had cast a vote. The 1920 Lincoln debuted with excellent mechanical innards but notably mundane styling—perhaps in part due to the fact that its designer was Leland’s son-in-law, whose prior artistic expression had been in the field of ladies’ millinery. The cars were not successful, prompting the Ford purchase and the pioneering Leland’s final departure from the automotive business. Eight years later, in 1931, Ford introduced the Model K, another entry in the teeming luxury-car field. Today only two carmakers, Cadillac and Lincoln, manufacture high-priced American cars, yet in the early 1930s four times that many firms were scrambling and scratching to occupy that tiny pinnacle at the very peak of the business. The Lincoln enjoyed a major advantage: Calvin Coolidge preferred it and in so doing established a tradition for presidential limousines that persists to this day. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Sunshine Special”—perhaps the most famous presidential car of them all—was a Lincoln. The high point in the Lincoln K series was reached in 1932 with the KB, a giant V-12 built very much in the spirit of the multicylinder, smooth-running, exquisitely crafted behemoths of the day. As an example of the care and feeding provided one of these machines, each Lincoln was shipped from the factory in a giant dust-free paper bag in railroad cars that had been swept and cleaned. As was the case with all the great cars of its ilk, the Depression hammered mercilessly at Lincoln sales, and as Cadillac did with its LaSaIIe, the company was forced to take refuge in its cheaper Zephyr in order to survive. But survive it did, to carry on what has become the second-oldest luxury car make to prevail in the American market.

 

The legendary Tin Lizzie was manufactured, with minimal changes, from 1908 to 1927. During that period more than fifteen million Ts (including some light-truck versions) were cranked off the assembly line with only three significant modifications: the alteration of the radiator shell from brass to black-painted steel and the additions of electric lights and a selfstarter. A few months before its demise, its increasingly eccentric creator, the prototypical American tycoon Henry Ford, permitted his pristine flivver to be decorated with wire wheels, balloon tires, and a few paint colors besides the legendary basic black. The Model T was more than an automobile; it was an engine of social change, and its impact on the twentieth century far transcends its role as a simple device of four-wheel transportation. As the first major product of the moving assembly line and as the machine that triggered the mobility that still infuses this society, its place in history is assured. To be sure, there were multitudes of cars that were its better. But none was cheaper (the price plunged from $850 in 1908 to $290 in 1926), and none more ingeniously simple, reliable, and easy to repair. With a 20horsepower engine capable of producing little more than 45 miles per hour (at about 25 miles to the gallon), the Model T was the embodiment of basic transportation. As is often said, it “put America on wheels.” Because of the convulsions this elemental little automobile worked on every stratum of society here and abroad, it can justifiably be argued that Henry Ford influenced the course of recent history as much as Lenin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Einstein, or Adolf Hitler. To be sure, Ford was in many ways a home-brew scientist, and as is often the case, he followed up a few good ideas with dozens of bad, silly, and downright outrageous ones. But his crowning achievement remains untouched. In trying to articulate the range and depth of influence this gawky, tinpot jalopy had on civilization, one is reminded of the words of the fine automotive writer and historian, the late Ken Purdy: “The Ford Model T was as close to the expression of genius as any automobile has been, indeed one might say, as close as any mechanical device has been. It expressed, with almost absolute purity, Ford’s idea that the automobile should be a universal tool.” This it was, not only in the narrow sense of its marvelous utility on the road but also in the broader context of levering an entire population off the farms and into a more complex, mobile, and urban way of life.

 

We automatically think that all significant American cars have been built in Detroit, yet of those on this list, only two (Cadillac and Packard) could claim such an address. Three others were manufactured in Michigan (Ford and Lincoln in nearby Dearborn and Chevrolet in Flint), but it was Indianapolis, Indiana, that had the honor of producing the Duesenberg, the Stutz, and the Marmon, while the Cord was manufactured in nearby Auburn. Even more surprising is the fact that Buffalo, New York, produced several automobiles of high pedigree. The plucky Thomas Flyer, which won the epic New York to Paris race in 1908, was manufactured there, but it was the great Fierce-Arrow, with its vividly styled, streamlined headlights, that was the source of lasting local pride. Like so many early American cars, the first Fierce-Arrow made its 1901 debut in the hands of a company that formerly manufactured other products, such as birdcages, iceboxes, and bicycles. The cars quickly supplanted these items, and by World War 1, Pierce had a reputation for quality and performance. In 1913 the car’s greatest trademark—swooping, faired-in headlights—was introduced, and it was a styling feature that remained until the brand’s demise in 1938. After aligning itself with Studebaker in 1928, Fierce-Arrow remained an independent builder of high-priced luxury cars, and in November 1931 it entered the race for domination with large multicylinder power plants by introducing its own V-12. It was an excellent engine, prompting the famous endurance driver Ab Jenkins to make a twentyfour-hour single-handed run on the Bonneville Salt Flats that averaged 125 miles per hour. The Pierces of the day were superbly fabricated, with a full line of body styles that competed directly with Cadillac, Lincoln, and Packard. Yet with the Great Depression destroying the luxury-car market like an insidious plague, Fierce-Arrow was doomed from the start. Studebaker went into receivership in 1933, and a group of Buffalo businessmen attempted to keep the great marque afloat. But that year’s noble model 1247, with its 175-horsepower V-12 engine, its handcrafted body, and its $7,200 price tag, was a drug on the cash-squeezed market. The same year, a dazzling sports coupe, the Silver Arrow, was the sensation of the New York Automobile Show, but it cost $10,000. Only five were built. By 1937 a mere 167 Pierce-Arrows were sold, and in May of the following year the remainder of the proud company was liquidated at auction.

 

Duesenberg started the horsepower race, but it was Cadillac that launched the trend toward hulking, V-type engines. The archrival of Packard, Cadillac was a leader in technology since it had been started in 1902 by the engineering wizard Henry Martyn Leland, an expert in precision manufacturing with a background in gunmaking at Colt. His early cars were masterpieces of parts interchangeability, and in 1908 Cadillac won the Dewar’s Cup at Brooklands, England, after Leland had disassembled three cars, mixed up the components, and rebuilt them in front of the amazed British judges. Bought by the flamboyant entrepreneur Billy Durant as part of his original General Motors in 1909, Cadillac prospered as a luxury car with advanced engineering. In 1929 it became the first domestic make to feature safety glass and synchromesh transmission gears. This was followed, a year later, by the excellent V-16 and V-12 engines, both of which featured turbinelike smoothness and performance. Heavy and somewhat underpowered for their size by today’s standards, they nonetheless embodied uncompromising engineering for the day. Always aggressive in terms of technology, Cadillac replaced its flathead Vs with a pair of superb overhead-valve engines in 1934. The OHV V-16 developed 185 horsepower; the V-12, just 35 horsepower less, and they powered long, sleek, automobiles with flashy Fleetwood bodies created by Detroit’s first true stylist, the Californian Harley J. Earl. These were the extraordinary machines that made Cadillac a name synonymous with the best of anything in a given field.

 

When young Howard Marmon was graduated from the University of California and returned to his family’s thriving business in Indianapolis, he had one goal in mind: to use Nordyke & Marmon’s considerable resources from the manufacture of flour-milling machinery to build and sell a passenger car. This he did as early as 1904, and by 1911 a racing version of his six-cylinder Model 32, called the Wasp, won the first Indianapolis 500 (and is said to have employed the first rearview mirror). By 1926 the car business was thriving to a point where the flour-milling operation was sold. While Marmon recognized that a broader range of cars was necessary to survive and introduced the cheaper Roosevelt model in 1929, it was not enough. The Great Crash was to sweep his firm away, just as it would his crosstown rivals at Duesenberg and Stutz. Yet, like them, he produced his greatest masterpiece in the death throes of his beloved firm. His 1931 Model Sixteen featured a 500cubic-inch V-16 engine of legendary smoothness and flexibility. Developing two hundred horsepower, the V-16 would haul even the big custom-bodied sedans and limousines nearly a hundred miles per hour. It was a spectacular final statement for a man who devoted his life to the creation of the finest automobiles he knew how to build. In 1932 the Marmon operation went into receivership, but to this day the V-16s remain among the rarest and most coveted classic cars in the world.

 

The year 1932 brought a boom in giant highperformance luxury cars that created a high-water mark in American automotive excellence, and it was only natural that Packard, as one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious manufacturers, would respond to the challenge posed by Cadillac, Duesenberg, Stutz, and the like. After all, Packard’s heritage could be traced to the nineteenth century. James Ward Packard, a maker of incandescent lamps, put together his first car in 1899, after he had encountered troubles with his new Winton and had been challenged by a haughty Alexander Winton to build a better machine on his own. The slogan “Ask the man who owns one” had been adopted by 1901, and by 1905 production was humming inside a massive, revolutionary factory designed by Alfred Kahn on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. The 1910s and 1920s meant great prosperity for Packard, whose silky straight-eight engines and elegant, restrained coachwork established its cars as the ultimate symbol of prosperity for a wealthy entrepreneur. The company continued to build its eights in the 1930s but also introduced the superb V-12s. The 1932 model featured a 160-horsepower engine, vacuum-boosted four-wheel brakes, and synchromesh gears in the transmission. Speed was in the 100-mileper-hour range, but with customary restraint, Packard claimed only 85. Prices ranged from $3,650 to $7,950 for a series of ten body styles, including a massive limousine. These elegant machines were highly successful even during the Depression-stifled thirties, and while any number of expensive rivals here and in Europe were collapsing, Packard actually set a sales record in 1937. That, sad to say, was the zenith. After World War II the company lost its way in a tumultuous postwar market and slowly hemorrhaged to death following an ill-fated alliance with Studebaker. Yet the great eights and twelves of the early 1920s remain among the most beautiful and desirable automobiles ever produced on this continent.

 

For entrepreneurial spirit, no one in American automotive history surpasses Errett Lobban Cord, who not only created a great car as his namesake but was instrumental in giving Duesenberg the reputation it enjoys today. First Cord used his brilliant skills as a salesman to bring the moribund Auburn Car Company back to life with flashily styled, mid-priced sporty sedans and roadsters. Then, in 1924, he acquired the Duesenberg brothers’ operation. In late 1929 he introduced his own beautiful Cord L-29, which featured an X frame and a splendid frontwheel-drive setup that had been developed with the help of Harry A. Miller, the racingcar builder who ranks as one of the greatest automotive geniuses of all time. The L-29 was a low, sleek machine that remains one of the most stunning creations ever produced on these shores. By 1935, with the mega-priced Duesenberg’s sales lagging, Cord decided to create a lower-priced “baby” Duesenberg in the genre of the LaSaIIe and Lincoln Zephyr. His designer and stylist, Gordon Buehrig, whose Duesenberg bodies are among the most beautiful ever produced, was assigned to create a revolutionary shape for the new, front-wheel-drive automobile. Then, at the last hour, Cord changed his mind and decided to market the car under his own name. Fitted with a Lycoming V-8, the car appeared at the 1935 New York Automobile Show with a squared-off grille treatment that was immediately labeled a “coffin nose.” With its disappearing headlights and nonexistent running boards, the 810 Cord was the hit of the show. It gathered more votes for the best-styled car than the second- and third-place finishers combined. Introduced as a 1936 model, the 810 was priced in the $3,000 range, substantially less than the dying luxury breed but vastly more than the workaday Fords and Chevies, which still cost less than $1,000. The 810 was rushed into production and suffered some serious teething problems, including overheating, jumpy transmissions, and premature wear on the front-drive units. The 812 that followed featured a $2,000 supercharger that made it one of the fastest cars on the American road, but it was too late. For all its beauty and its engineering brilliance, the Cord was hopelessly inappropriate for the economic mire into which it was introduced. During 1937 Cord tired of the automotive wars, and his Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg empire—what shards of it were left—was liquidated. With it went one of the most aesthetically pleasing automobiles ever produced, and one that retains its timeless good looks to this day.

 

Why, might you ask, is an inexpensive, rather stubby, mass-produced little Chevrolet elbowing in here with all the thoroughbreds? Quite simply the 1955 Chevrolet was a milestone automobile, one of the very few in the history of the American industry that prompted a sea change in the way the public bought and drove cars. Prior to its introduction, truly high performance was restricted to the more expensive Cadillacs, Buicks, Chryslers, and Lincolns. Speed was a component of prestige, and while Ford’s V-8—offered since 1932—provided a modicum of snappiness for the average citizen, it was expected that a rich man would be able to drive faster than a poor man. Such was the pecking order of the American road. This changed with the 1955 Chevrolet. The first truly modern, overhead-valve high-compression V-8 engine had been introduced by Cadiliac in 1949. Other highpriced makes quickly followed, but it was Chevrolet that broke the market wide open with its tiny 265-cubic-inch V-8. It produced 162 horsepower in its basic form and 180 horsepower with a fourbarrel carbureted “Power Pack” option. This revolutionary engine, with light weight and tremendous power for its size, forced the American car market into an entirely new direction. Not only was sporting high performance available to the general public, which in turn created the “muscle car” phenomenon that persists to this day, but it made available sufficient horsepower in low-priced automobiles so that such “luxury” items as air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, and power seats came to be offered to the commonalty. The 1955 Chevrolet formed a bridge between the hitherto rich man’s world of power and prestige and the common man’s desire for the trappings of luxury and performance. Moreover, the engine was so efficient that it remains in production—with modifications—to this day. The basic concepts of its cylinder-head and valve-train design had been employed by Chevrolet and other manufacturers on V-6 and four-cylinder engines. The 165-cubic-inch V-8 Chevrolet engine (now called the small block in all its later permutations within the automotive world) joins the flathead Ford V-8, the Model T fourcylinder, the Volkswagen aircooled four, the Ferrari V-12, and the Duesenberg eight as being one of the greatest—if not the very greatest—passenger-car power plants ever built. And that alone qualifies the 1955 Chevrolet for inclusion.