Feature Story

EDUCATION: "REAL" AMERICAN LUXURY CARS

by Bob Hagin

June 12, 1998

When I was a young man developing my automotive acumen in Oakland in the late '40s, there were still a great number of American-made true luxury cars majestically cruising the streets of the more upscale neighborhoods. They were most often huge, ponderous and chauffeur- driven, with chest-high tires and detachable steamer trunks on rear luggage racks. "Luxury" car in those days referred to autos of this ilk and they usually carried custom-built bodies that often cost as much as the rolling chassis they were mounted on. These are some of the cars I remember from my salad days and a brief history on each of them:

DOBLE - Built from 1914 to 1931, the last Dobles were big, expensive and unusual. The powerplant was a four cylinder steam engine that was state-of-the-art in that the cylinders had 750 pounds of recoverable steam applied to the bottoms of the pistons as well as to the tops. Its engine performance was phenomenal and it developed 1000 pound/feet of torque at zero RPM. Since its power was the same at rest as it was at top speed, it could push the 6000-pound Doble from a dead stop up any hill that provided traction. The Model E was the last of the line and a bare chassis sold for $10,000 in 1920s dollars. The Doble factory was in Emeryville, CA (a stones's throw from the house my father lived in as a boy) and most Dobles carried bodies made by W.A. Murphy in Pasadena at a usual cost of another $10,000.

DUESENBERG - The expression "It's a Duesie" to denote something extraordinary is not without justification. The last Duesenbergs, the supercharged SJ, carried a 419 cubic-inch straight eight that put out 320 horses and were good for around 120 MPH - and this from a car that had a usual weight of 5500 pounds. Although Duesenberg had its own design department, most bodies were custom-built by half a dozen custom coach builders and they usually cost as much as the rolling Duesenberg chassis. Duesenbergs were built for high-speed travel and appealed to high rollers. Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Mae West and a plethora of other movie stars of the '30s owned Duesenbergs and most of them were "sporting" models. This year the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is holding a social extravaganza and display that centers around the "Mighty Duesie."

DUPONT - The du Pont was what was termed in the early days an "assembled" car, a vehicle made by a manufacturer from parts bought from outside suppliers. Many of them were inexpensive throw-aways, but the du Pont was high quality and not cheap. The du Pont that put his name on the first version in 1920 was only a distant relative of the family that controlled the chemical empire but the name alone carried weight. The factory was performance-oriented (a du Pont speedster ran at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in '29 and the Indy 500 in '30)) but the majority of them were touring cars, family sedans and an occasional town car. Although du Ponts weren't in the price range of the Duesenberg, they were in the neighborhood of $5000 at a time when a the new Model A Ford could be had for a tenth as much money.

MARMON - At about the same price, the last Marmons were definitely not economy cars either. Marmon's last offering in 1933 was powered by a huge (almost 500 cubic-inch) V-16 that featured all-alloy construction and most of the semi-custom bodies were made of aluminum too. Its cars were often the centerpieces for the annual auto shows in New York and Chicago, but in its last few years it made several fatal errors. It introduced its low-priced Roosevelt (named after President Teddy rather than his more famous presidential cousin Franklin D.) which was a nice middle-class vehicle but a tarnish on the Marmon escutcheon. Parenthetically, a single-seater Marmon won the first Indy 500 in 1911.

PACKARD - In the '20s and '30s, almost every American knew that the motto "Ask the man who owns one" referred to the Packard and its characteristic "ox-yoke" grille was as recognizable as the profile of the Volkswagen Beetle would become a couple of decades later. Although Packard premiere models were powered by massive V-12 engines (I owned a '37 version myself for a very short time), Packard also made large "Senior Series" straight eights as well as smaller versions and a relatively minuscule six cylinder car. Smaller Packards helped the company survive The Depression and the post-World War II shake-out until 1956. They were always considered luxury cars even when they carried factory-built bodies rather than custom-built coachwork by America's most prestigious body builders like Darrin, Brunn and others.

FRANKLIN - In the years before the advent of the aforementioned VW Beetle, the Franklin was the best known air-cooled automobile in the world. Its forte was impeccable quality and reserved styling with bodies built by greats like Derham, Dietrich and Locke among others. For whatever reason, the Franklin was the car of choice of aviation greats "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and despite its staid demeanor the company capitalized on this and offered its supercharged "Airman" model during its last three years of existence.

These marques for the most part disappeared due to economic pressures, changes in American luxury car tastes and/or managerial mistakes. The years between the two world wars not only saw the advent of a basic auto, Ford's Model T, in the allegorical Everyman's garage but some very fancy iron (or aluminum in some cases) in the carriage houses of old-money and nouveau-riche patricians.

For the most part, luxury cars now come off an in-house assembly lines and while they're nice, they don't have the uniqueness that their ancestors possessed.

The next time we delve into automotive education, we'll discuss the three remaining American manufacturers who made true luxury cars in the '30s, plus a couple of others that have passed into limbo.

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