- Historic Sites
The Greatest American Cars
A leading authority picks the top ten. Some of the names still have the power to stir the blood. And some will surprise you.
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
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.