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History: Yesterday's Luxury Cars

by Bob Hagin

November 5, 2001

Today, the term "luxury car" is bandied around and attached to some obviously plebeian American vehicles. But until the start of the '40s, it denoted a large, exclusive vehicle that was ear-marked for the rich and famous. Several were on the market, but these are the most famous:

PACKARD - " Ask the man who owns one" was the modest motto of what was arguably the most popular luxury car in America before World War II. The company was in the auto business from the start, as the first "official" Packard was produced in 1899. Once it got out of the horseless-carriage stage, the brand evolved into luxury machines that rivaled or surpassed the fanciest cars in the world. By 1916 the company was making its famous "Twin Six" which was the first 12-cylinder car put into production anywhere in the world. Although it made very luxurious cars that carried factory-built bodies, the cars that were the most noteworthy carried bodywork by the most famous body builders of the day. Packard survived the Great Depression by making smaller, medium-priced six and eight-cylinder cars that retained Packard quality. Unfortunately, it couldn't survive the industry shake-out of the '50s and the last Packard rolled out in '58 as a rebadged Studebaker.

PEERLESS - Not as well-known as Packard but nonetheless an outstanding luxury car, Peerless got its start at the turn of the last century by manufacturing clothes wringers, but immediately got into the making of autos. By '04, the company was in the luxury car business and its ads in upscale American magazines left no doubt that plebeian shoppers need not apply unless accompanied by a chauffeur. It blundered its way through the tumultuous financial jousting of the '20s, and had a catchy, but succinct motto in its early days. "All the name implies" said it all. Always in a weak cash position, Peerless was one of the earliest automotive victims of the stock market crash of '28 and the last of them was delivered to a customer in June of '31.

PIERCE ARROW - In the Roaring Twenties, the names of the three most prestigious American luxury cars started with the letter P; Packard, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow. Once Pierce-Arrow became firmly established as a luxury brand, its cars were the conveyances of the rich and powerful: a '17 Pierce-Arrow was the White House limousine of President Wilson. The company was always very conservative (it retained right-hand steering until '20) and hung on to archaic (albeit high quality) engineering longer than its competitors. Its trademark fender-mounted headlamps were introduced in '13 and retained until Studebaker, its parent company, pulled the plug on the luxury line in '38. The company was sold at auction on Friday the 13 in May of that year.

MARMON - A Marmon (The Wasp) won the first Indy 500 in '11 but the company was better known for building luxury cars. Always innovative, the Marmon line progressed from being powered by relatively small, air-cooled V-twin engines, to its huge 490 cubic-inch V16 of '31. The Marmon company was reported to be the world's largest producer of flour-milling machines, but Howard Marmon guided it into the automobile business in '02. He was involved in the design and production of aviation engines during World War I and was impressed by a Bugatti aero engine of the day. It was made by coupling two straight-eight engine blocks to a common crankcase. Marmon then set about designing an all-aluminum V16 of his own. He was almost obsessed by the use of aluminum and some Marmon models were almost entirely made of the material. Alas, Marmon became another victim of the Depression and died in '33.

DUESENBERG - "It's a doosy (or doozie or doozy) is a vintage slang expression for something unusual but in automotive vernacular, it describes the Duesenberg make in general and its huge J-series cars in particular. Fred and August Duesenberg built what many consider the finest American autos of all time. Initially the brothers were involved in making race cars and engines (Duesenbergs won the Indy 500 several times) but their enduring fame came from their road-going cars. The first, the Model A of '21, set no sales records so they sold out to entrepreneur E.L. Cord in '26. Cord had a flair for the extravagant, so he commissioned the brothers to design the biggest, fastest and most expensive car in the world. The Model J was an opulent car powered by a twin-cam, 32-valve straight-eight that put out 208 horses. This was followed by the supercharged SJ which was measured at up to 400 horses. It could propel the big machine to 100 MPH in second gear alone. The price of a running Duesenberg chassis ready for a body builder was around $9000. Although the Depression ended the marque, to this day it remains a "Duzie."

ROLLS-ROYCE - I've included Rolls-Royce as an American luxury car because it was made in Springfield, Mass. as well as in England from 1921 until 1935. It was advertised as being built here by British mechanics under British supervision for snob appeal but it truth, there was a Yank or two in the assembly plant. The first American Rolls was the venerable Silver Ghost and in '21, a bare chassis sold for $11,000 at a time when top-of-the-line Packards went for $6600. The production of the American Rolls was a somewhat haphazard situation. In '29, the Phantom II was being built in England but the American branch was stuck with building its predecessor, the Phantom I, for another couple of years because funding for retooling was unavailable here. The Depression killed the American Rolls-Royce and by then, if you were rich enough for a Rolls, you wanted the "real thing."

I've had to neglect several others, unfortunately. Doble, Ruxton, Cord, Auburn, Cunningham and several others were authentic luxury cars. And unlike today's designates, it didn't take a branch of the federal government to classify them.