Many people regard the pre-war era as the true heyday of American automobile manufacturing. True enough, the cars made in the United States during this time were some of the most iconic cars in the world that are still sought after today, especially with the advent and then the resurgence of the hot rod scene. Here is a look at a few:
Ford Model B
Forever immortalized by the Beach Boys in “Little Deuce Coupe,” the Model B became the ultimate hot rodder car in the 1940s. It was easy to strip weight off of the vehicle and the engines were easy to modify. Initially offering an inline four-cylinder engine, later models came standard with a flathead V8 3.6-liter engine offering 65 horsepower.
Lincoln Zephyr Coupe
Extremely modern for its time, the Zephyr was better engineered than some cars on the road today. Boasting an incredibly low drag coefficient of just 0.45 and a twelve cylinder engine, the Zephyr had 110 horsepower and an impressive top speed of 90 miles per hour.
In direct competition with the Zephyr, the Airflow boasted an insane drag coefficient of just 0.21 (for comparison, the 2016 Ferrari 458 has a drag coefficient of 0.324) and a 122 horsepower engine. It was also ridiculously tough to kill. An Airflow was pushed from a cliff and fell over 100 feet, only to be flipped onto its tires again and driven away.
Duesenberg Model J Roadster
Built to be one of the most luxurious cars on the road, the Model J could still stand toe to toe with most modern luxury sedans. It was also, however, insanely expensive. A new Model J from the factory could cost $25,000, well over $400,000 when adjusted for today’s inflation. If that wasn’t enough, a supercharged option was also available.
Auburn 851 Speedster
Behind sweeping, clean lines and a muscular exterior was a water-cooled, flathead V8 engine that was capable of putting out a staggering (for the time) 150 horsepower. With added performance features like a synchromesh gearbox, hydraulic brakes, and a stiff chassis, the 851 could run 0-60 in 15.0 seconds – no small feat for 1932.
Chevrolet Standard Six
Also known as the Mercury, the Standard Six was the cheapest six-cylinder car available in its day, bringing automotive thrills to the general public. Pushing out 79 horsepower with 156 ft-lbs of torque, it had a decently impressive top speed of approximately 70 miles per hour.
No slouch on the car front either, America’s neighbors across the pond had been fine tuning the automobile in their own way. Pre-war Britain created some of the most elegant and sporty cars in the world. While American vehicles tended to focus more on straight-line speed, the Brits were rooted more in the pursuit of touring class vehicles.
Boasting a level of trim and sophistication that puts most modern road cars to shame, the Wraith pushed the Rolls-Royce marque even further as the definitive answer to vehicular luxury. It featured hydraulic damping springs that automatically adjusted to the speed of the car as well as a tight suspension and a top speed of 85 miles per hour.
SS Jaguar 100
The Jaguar brand is quick to enter the mind when discussing British sports cars. This pre-war offering boasted a straight six cylinder, overhead valve engine that put out 125 horsepower as well as sharp looks. Though the “100” in the name came from the theoretical top speed of 100 miles per hour, the real marvel of this car was its 0-60 time – a shocking 10.4 seconds.
Though perhaps best known for their motorcycles, out of a troubled company history was born one of the fastest pre-war sports coupes. With a top speed over 110 miles per hour and 140 horsepower, the Dolomite was designed to perform. However, mounting financial troubles meant the car never saw production – only three were ever made. Of those, only two still exist.
Various iterations of the N-Type existed, but they all had some common themes: beautiful looks, rear-wheel drive and an open top. With an inline 6-cylinder engine under the hood and weight reduction measures undertaken throughout the entire vehicle, the N-Types quickly became a staple of the European racing circuits.
Aston Martin 19/58
Before James Bond was old enough to order a martini, Aston Martin was showcasing elegance and power. Running nearly 100 horsepower out of an inline four-cylinder engine, this car was the choice of the 1936 Le Mans team. Modifications to the wheelbase and chassis would create new models used specifically for motorsports applications.
Bentley Speed Six
With a massive 6.5-liter 6-cylinder engine, the Speed Six decidedly lived up to its name. Squeezing 147 horsepower out of the engine combined with an incredibly sophisticated braking system, this car chalked up an amazing list of racing victories, including the 24 Hours Le Mans.
Though World War 2 would put a hold on nearly all vehicle production, pre-war offerings in Germany were nothing short of pinnacles of engineering. The German emphasis on quality engineering and attention to detail produced some truly breathtaking examples of craftsmanship.
Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen
One of the earliest instances of a concept car, the W125 was built as an experiment in speed that stands the test of time. The V12 supercharged engine may as well have been made this year with its staggering offering of 725 horsepower – an impressive feat in general, but even more so considering the car was built in 1938. Decades ahead of its time, the W125 was truly a marvel of engineering.
Though it looks humble enough on paper, with a flat four engine putting out 50 horsepower, the Porsche 64 was the absolute beginning of what would become one of the most successful companies in the history of motorsport. With a design that is still echoed today by modern Porsche coupes, this predecessor’s DNA is very apparent.
BMW 328 Roadster
It should be no surprise that the 328 was first unveiled to the world at the Nürburgring, Germany’s most famous racetrack. Built from the ground up with performance in mind, the 328 went on to win the 2-liter engine class in 1936 and would continue to rack up an impressive string of victories – including the 1939 24 Hours of Le Mans. BMW’s passion for motorsport excellence has been hard-wired into their corporate structure ever since.
Ever synonymous with fast cars and ground-breaking design, the Italian passion of squeezing every ounce of performance out of an engine has long been a staple of the country’s automakers. Add to this beautiful looks and a pedigree for motorsport, and it’s no wonder they’ve dominated the scene.
The first offering from what would become an automotive legend, the Ferrari 125S debuted, most fittingly, at a race track, featuring a 12-cylinder engine capable of 118 horsepower. Though it did not finish its maiden race, it would go on to chalk up an impressive tally of victories.
Alfa Romeo 6C 2500
With design cues still employed by Alfa Romeo today, the 6C was ahead of its time. It was also one of the most expensive cars of its time, but it earned its tag by offering serious cornering ability paired with a strong power unit. Various iterations of the 6C boasted up to 120 horsepower and top speeds over 100 miles per hour as well as a string of impressive racing victories.
With perhaps as much zeal for autosport as the Italians, French sports car manufacturers were always looking to push the envelope when engaging in a sporting rivalry with their European neighbors.
Bugatti Type 57
With an equal passion for beauty and power, pre-war Bugatti cars were extremely dominant in all racing events. The Type 57 was no exception. Many different models were made, each a little different, but performance was never compromised. The base offering boasted 135 horsepower from an inline 8-cylinder engine with a top speed of 115 miles per hour.
Renault Viva Grand Sport
For Renault, who had set several speed records with planes, it seemed only natural to get into auto manufacturing. Renault used this history to their advantage, partnering with famed pilot Hélène Boucher in advertising the Viva Grand Sport, which had even been styled by airplane designer Marcel Riffard. His expertise in aerodynamics paid off as this Renault went on to win the 1934 Grand Prix de la Baule.
From what began as a coffee mill, Peugeot would end up creating sporty, reliable cars for everyday drivers. The 402 borrowed styling cues from the Desoto Airflow and boasted an exceptionally aerodynamic body as well as established the classic designs that are still seen on Peugeot cars today. Though there is no notable racing pedigree for the 402, it is interesting to note that the 402 was one of the world’s first alternative-fuel vehicles – some 402s were converted to run on burnt charcoal in the wake of France’s petrol shortage.