Luxury Cars of the Great Depression


Trips Into History explores the automotive industry during the years of the Great Depression and highlights a few of the marvelous cars produced and sold during this era of financial crises.

At first take you might wonder how some of these automakers stayed in business during this period. Indeed some auto manufacturers did suffer and some did go out of business. Some of these companies survived only because they took steps to adapt to a bad economy.

1933 dusenberg

1933 Dusenberg

While employment got worse automobile prices in general decreased. Against this backdrop there were those who could afford a luxury automobile and they were built and sold. Below are some of those luxury cars that did sell and sold in perhaps small numbers yet good numbers for the period and the price asked.

The 1933 Dusenberg Model J

It’s commonly said that each of the Duesenbergs were built differently. This is because while Duesenberg built the chassis and the engine, the body and styling was completed by some of Europe’s and America’s most noteworthy coach builders. With different coach builder involved it was easy to have noted differences. At the same time, having your car crafted by top end coach builders drove the prices quite high.

dusenberg model j

1933 Dusenberg grille

In 1933, prices ranged from about $13,000 to $25,000 depending on the extent of the hand crafted coach building. In fact, the degree and type of coach building completed on  Duesenberg models are why average prices during today’s auctions are as high as they usually are.

The prices charged for a new Duesenberg in 1933 were an enormous amount of money during the depths of the Great Depression. You would wonder why anyone would pay that price for an automobile during that era but they did. Some of the Duesenberg owners during the 1930′s included top Hollywood celebrities and European royalty. These were the types of buyers who surfaced with other luxurious and expensive automobiles.

1931 cadillac v 16The 1931 Cadillac V-16 Sport Phaeton

This was not an inexpensive automobile. During the Great Depression of which 1931 was certainly a part of, the Cadillac V-16 was the car of choice for the wealthy and celebrities.

Clearly, Cadillac’s V-16 was meant to make it competitive in the luxury high price end that automakers like Peerless, Pierce-Arrow and Packard held sway. The body for all 1931 Cadillacs were longer and lower than previous models. They also had a longer hood. The 1931′s also had a chrome plated screen that covered the radiator.

You could say it was the right kind of luxury car at just the wrong time. A total of 3,250 V-16′s were produced by Cadillac during the years 1930-1931. The price tag for a new Cadillac Sixteen could reach around $10,000. This was a high price vehicle in both the 1930′s and 1940′s. With the financial situation as it was in 1931, $10,000 or thereabouts was a huge amount of money to pay for an automobile.

1936 hudson eight

1936 Hudson Deluxe Eight

The 1936 Hudson Deluxe Eight

Whenever you look at vintage automobiles from the mid 1930′s there usually are some interesting stories to go along with them. The 1930′s was a time of change for the auto industry. The nation was in the throes of the Great Depression and automakers in general were struggling.

Much to their credit, Hudson automobiles were known for quality and for introducing a lot of firsts. The firsts included the steering wheel being placed on the left side of the vehicle with hand controls in the center. Dual brakes were yet another first as well as the first balanced crankshaft used in their straight six engine.

The 1936 Hudson’s new car price wasn’t anything like Dusenberg and Cadillac but was  around $1,000 to $1,300. You might be able to buy a Ford during this period for about $800.

1936 hudson

1936 Hudson

The Hudson Motor Car Company operated from 1909 to 1954. This was along run and under all manner of financial conditions. Hudson was one of the survivors of the Great Depression. They kept costs in line with sales. In 1954 the company merged with Nash-Kelvinator which was the precursor to the new American Motors.

After the 1957 model year the name Hudson was dropped. The Hudson brand had a successful forty-eight year run and again was always noted for quality.

auburn boat tail speedster

Auburn Boat Tail Speedster

The 1935 Auburn Boat Tail Speedster

The Auburn Automobile Company was affected quite deeply by the Great Depression. To make matters worse, E.L Cord, the former Chicago car salesman turned automaker president, was under fire for alleged mismanagement as well as questionable stock dealings. Auburn found itself with an acting president in 1935 by the name of Harold T. Ames.

The Auburn BoatTail Speedsters such as the one shown here offered both eye catching design as well as performance. The car looked like a race car and perhaps it was. Because of the company’s lackluster sales performance, the Speedster was intended to spark excitement among the performance car buying public and bring in much needed cash.

As a result of this Auburn produced a newly designed 1935 eight cylinder turbo-charged Auburn Speedster. Indeed, the car was an eye catcher.

1935 auburn speedster

1935 Auburn Boat Tail Speedster dash

With new engines becoming available every few years, there were three different generations of the Auburn Speedster built from 1928 to 1937. All Auburns, prior to 1935, were built with Lycoming twelve cylinder engines.

Two good books on the subject of automobiles of the 1930’s include American Cars of the 1930s by the Olyslager Organization and Cars of the Classic 30’s by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide.

Below are links to some of our additional photo articles on our AutoMuseumOnline and Western Trips sites you’ll find interesting.

The 1931 Cadillac V-16 Sport Phaeton

The 1935 Auburn Boat Tail Speedster

A Unique Classic Car Museum in Endee New Mexico

The Studebaker National Museum

Prices of these Luxury Cars Today

As we’ve demonstrated, the price tags for the cars featured above were considered quite high during the 1930’s. Today, some of these automobiles, depending on degree of restoration and the current financial climate, can receive auction bids from collectors in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even over one million dollars.

A 1933 Dusenberg SJ model can receive a bid perhaps over $2 million. This was a vehicle with over 300 horsepower in 1933. A fantastic amount of power under the hood in the 1930’s.

A 1931 restored Cadillac Sport Phaeton was sold at auction for over $200,000.

A 1935 Auburn Boat Tail Speedster fetched over $550,000 at auction.

Car auction activity shows that a restored 1936 Hudson Eight Coupe sold for about $25,000.

All of the above automobiles are rare finds. Finely restored is even rarer.

(Article and photos copyright AutoMuseumOnline)


The Great Auto Race Around the World

Taking a look back at what was perhaps the most daring feat in the early 1900’s, the Automobile Race Around the World and the amazing Thomas Flyer, is a very unique trip into history. The Great Race took place at the very start of the automobile industry. Automobile companies were a novelty. The horse was considered by many to be the mode of transportation of choice. This was a time of course before adequate roads were built even in the United States let alone foreign countries, especially Asia and the Middle East, and it was thought by many at the time to be quite a foolhardy and obviously dangerous endeavor. It would be another twenty years before Route 66 came into being. The Great Race however would go on.

great race of 1908 startIn February 1908, six competing cars were lined up in New York City (photo at left) to attempt a race from New York to Paris France for what was billed the “around the world car race”. The six automobiles that entered this race represented four different nations. This race was directly a result of an earlier competition in 1907 which saw an auto race from Peking China to Paris France. The 1907 race inspired daredevils to attempt something larger and more challenging, although a car race from China to France itself seems quite challenging in itself. In case you’re wondering how the idea came about for a China to France race, a Paris newspaper printed an editorial in 1907 suggesting that when the technology (automobile) is available to man, he should press it to it’s limits. In this editorial they pointedly suggested a Peking to Paris race. Apparently the newspaper had a bit of influence and several early car enthusiasts jumped at it.

The Great Race from New York to Paris was sponsored by both the New York Times and the La Matin, the Paris paper which encouraged the 1907 race from China to France. To give you an idea of the scope of this race, the route taken went from New York City through Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Valdez Alaska, then via boat to Japan and Vladivostok Russia and then across Asia and through Berlin to Paris. The original intent was to cross into Asia via the Berings Strait off Nome Alaska but it wasn’t possible at the time. Remember, this was before any suitable network of service stations and repair shops were in existence. In a real way, the dangers were somewhat similar to those of the pioneers in the 1800’s on the Oregon Trail minus Indian attacks. Nations represented with automobiles in this race included the United States, Italy, Germany and France.

map of great raceThere was a lot riding on this race. The Great race along with the successful race from Peking to Paris in 1907, could settle the question of the reliability of automobiles. Let’s remember, there were many who were still using the horse and buggy. In 1908, there were many who considered the horse more reliable than the automobile. For automobile sales to take off and be widely accepted by the public, their reliability had to be proven. These races, in effect, did just that although I’m not sure many customers were purchasing a car with the intention of driving around the world.

The race began on February 12, 1908 from Times Square in New York City. A quarter of a million people gathered to see the race begin.The American entry, the Thomas Flyer, after driving through Albany and then westward through Chicago, was the first to reach San Francisco in a bit over 41 days. Not bad at all when you consider that the 1800’s wagon trains from Missouri to California took six months to arrive there. This race in 1908 ended up covering some 22,000 miles and took 169 days to reach Paris. Only three of the six cars were able to reach Paris. When you think about it, three cars out of six being able to finish this type of auto race in the year 1908 sounds pretty amazing. When the public realized how an automobile could perform under these circumstances and over those distances, they would look at the car entirely different. No longer just an amusement, the automobile became a valuable new means of transportation and the Great Race demonstrated it.

You may also enjoy reading our Trips Into History article about Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of the Airplane

In the end, the Thomas Flyer entry from the United States won the Great Race, driven by George Schuster. As it turned out, the German car actually entered Paris four days before the Thomas Flyer. Although at first the Germans were awarded first place, it was later learned that the German driver took a series of shortcuts off the official route, and the Thomas Flyer was moved up to first place.

1909 thomas flyerThe Thomas Flyer race car was a Model 35. The Thomas Flyer had four cylinders, a 60 horsepower engine and could hit a speed of 60 MPH. That was quite fast in 1908. The photo at left is a 1909 Thomas Flyer. During the first decade of the 1900’s, there were several automobile companies. Some of these also made bicycles and just added automobiles to their product line. The car was manufactured by the E.R. Thomas Motor Company in Buffalo New York. It was a pricey automobile costing about $4,000 in 1908. The Thomas Motor Company also produced motorized bicycles one of which traveled across the U.S. in 1905 at a record time of 48 days.

The Thomas Flyer was eventually purchased by William F. Harrah who restored the car to the exact way it looked when entering Paris in 1908. Today, the original Thomas Flyer which won the Great Around the World Auto Race, is on exhibit at the National Automobile Museum in Reno Nevada along with the Harrah auto collection.

It’s interesting to note that most car enthusiasts believe that today’s cross country marathon auto race events all go back to the great race of 1908 for their inspiration. There are competitions for vintage cars and classic cars scheduled throughout the country. Also muscle cars, sports cars and trucks have their own events. The Great Race of 1908 set the tone.

Many people might still remember the 1965 movie, The Great Race, starring Tony Curtiss along with Peter Falk as his sidekick. Tony Curtiss plays “The Great Leslie”. He of course is dressed in white and the villain (competing racer) is dressed in black. This slapstick comedy movie was based on the 1908 event with the storyline being a New York to Paris race. In this particular Hollywood made race, Peter Falk sabotage’s three other cars and his own by mistake. The film unfortunately was not a smash hit and many events of course were pure fiction, but nevertheless, it does take you back to the daring days of great invention and around the world auto racing.

(Photos are in public domain).