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The Best-Looking Cars of the 1920s


Bentley Speed Six

Bentley Speed Six

1929 and 1930 were Bentley's glory years. The Bentley Speed Six cars, with Woolf Barnato at the wheel and replacement drivers Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin and pilot Glen Kidston, were first at Le Mans. The 200 horsepower engines and reliable chassis swept away any competitors.

The Bentley-Boys' permanent captain, millionaire Wolfe Barnato, heir to the kimberlite mines in South Africa, used Bentley Speed Six cars not only for racing but also for everyday travel. Once in Cannes, over a glass of champagne, Barnato bet 200 pounds that his Bentley would not only overtake the Blue Train Special express on the stretch between Cannes and Calais, of no particular merit, but also make it to London in time for the train to drag to the French port of Calais.

The next day at 5:45 in the afternoon the Blue Train Special left Cannes station. Captain Barnato, with his friend Glen Kidston, who had nobly offered the services of a helper, in a Bentley Speed Six moved after him. Failure pursued them. There was heavy rain near Lyon, then lost time looking for a gas station, there was heavy fog in central France, and a tire burst near Paris.

And against all odds, after a non-stop 700-mile race, they arrived in England by packetboat at 10:30 the next morning and at 3:20 neatly parked outside a club on St. James Street in London exactly four minutes before the Blue Express was due to arrive in Calais.

To mark the occasion, a three-seat fastback coupe on a Bentley Speed Six chassis was named the 'Blue Train Special', built two weeks later by Gurney Nutting to Wolfe Barnato's special order.


Duesenberg Model J

Duesenberg Model J

When Errett Lobban Cord called the Duesenberg J "the most beautiful car in the world," it was no exaggeration. It outperformed its competitors from Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza and Mercedes-Benz in almost every respect.

Model "J", as well as the model "A", combined a conventional chassis with an advanced, very powerful and carefully designed engine, had a wide choice of bodies, which could not be offered by any American manufacturer. There was a choice of wheelbase (from 3.6 to 3.9 meters), and one customer ordered a car with a wheelbase of 4.5 meters, which he called Throne Car.

The Duesenberg J was undoubtedly a worthy competitor to such cars as Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz and Hispano-Suiza. Whether it was really the most beautiful model in the world, let everyone decide for themselves. The photo shows a 1929 model with a Murphy body.

The chassis with semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic brakes and three-speed gearbox were quite ordinary, but the 6.9-liter engine was the best in the world. This inline eight had two overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. As early as 1928, the company adopted a scheme that most other prestigious manufacturers would not use until 60 years later.

The chassis of the Model 3 cost from $8,500, and the price of a finished car like this 1930 example was three times the cost of a Cadillac. Car sales were steady during the great depression as well. Their buyers were probably well protected from the economy's upheaval. With such a huge body, the J could reach speeds of 187mph.

Lycoming, another branch of Cord's empire, produced engines with at least 265 hp, which was twice as much as any other American engine of those years. The doubters should be reminded that this car with the installation of a majestic body had a mass of more than 2270 kg and developed a speed of 187 km/h.

At first the price of the chassis was 8.5 thousand dollars (by 1921 it increased to 9.5 thousand dollars), on it were mounted magnificent bodies and the cost of the car was not less than 17 thousand dollars. At the time, the most expensive Cadillac model cost 7 thousand dollars. It is believed that the "J" was one of the most expensive and exclusive production cars of all time.

Amazingly, sales of the Model "J" and its supercharged "SJ" variant continued slowly but surely through the Great Depression. By 1936, when the last one was built in Indianapolis, 470 cars had been sold, with a huge range of body styles and identical radiator trim. Without a doubt, it was the ultimate American automobile at the time.

This 6.9-liter 8-cylinder engine had two camshafts and 32 valves. Even without a supercharger, it produced 265 horsepower, twice as much as any other American engine of those years.


Bugatti Type 35

Bugatti Type 35

Among the 75 designs created by Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947), the racing model “Bu-Gatti 35” stands out. The first cars debuted in 1924 at the Grand Prix of Europe, which was held in Lyon. The first start was not particularly successful - two out of five cars finished: Chassagne was seventh and Friedrich was eighth. However, in subsequent years, these cars won 10 thousand first places in various races. Behind the wheel of “Bugatti-35” of different modifications were such virtuosos of the past years as J. Benoit, G. Buria, J. Vimil, J. Goux, A. Divot, R. Dreyfus, M. Campbell, T. Nuvolari, R. Somme, L. Chiron, F. Etan-selen, D. Aiston and others. At the same time, it should be noted that the model “35” for seven years (up to 1930) was made in 200 copies plus derivatives from it “Bugatti-37” (300 pieces).

Model “35” was probably the most balanced machine “Bugatti” and perhaps the most successful from the engineering point of view. And so, with the cult of this brand constantly developing for many years, it became the main “sacred cow” in it. In my opinion, in many historical studies its merits are hypertrophied. The Czech automotive historian S. Karger remarked in this regard: “The fame of Bugatti cars is actually so great that it leaves some of their shortcomings in the shade”.

Ettore Bugatti was an aesthete and loved beautiful designs. In particular, he was attracted by the perfect shape of the eight gracefully curved outer flat spokes in the wheel. But for the foundry workers, they created a headache. Moreover, Bugatti turned each spoke a few degrees relative to the plane of rotation of the wheel, so that they, like fan blades, drove air inside the wheel, cooling the brake drum. Such a solution inevitably meant that each vehicle needed different wheels (depending on the angle of attack of the spokes): right and left.

And this meant the need to have two different spare wheels on board. This is the second reason for rejecting a brilliant engineering discovery. It is curious that until 1928 cast wheels were made not in one piece, but with a removable outer side ring, to simplify the installation of tires. And the ring was fixed by 24 bolts with washers! Bugatti was indeed an aesthete.

The top of the body, which resembled an inverted boat, was attached to the frame in the same way as the solid pallet, which covered the car from below, with 24 bolts on each side. A great love of bolted connections is also seen on the engine. For example, the cavities of the water jacket are plugged with covers, pulled by 36 bolts each. All of the engine's oil lines are external with threaded adapters and fittings. One can imagine that with a very rigid wheel suspension (the length of the front leaf spring is only about 580 mm!), all this fasteners were willingly weakened by vibrations and “turn the nuts” for mechanics became a matter of the highest responsibility.

In general, E. Bugatti had a pronounced weakness for fasteners. He liked the car and its components to “rough up” from bolts, screws, nuts. Not only that, he did not use standard threads: on his models you can find bolts and nuts with threads M7, M9, Mil, and moreover with non-standard heads: square or hexagonal with a headrest or with a shank for tightening with pliers. This charm of the “sacred cow” was first tasted by mechanics of racing cars, and later by restorers of vintage Bugatti.

Again, Bugatti was an aesthete. That is why, obviously, the rectangular walls of the cylinder head, aluminum dashboard are frosted, and many details are nickel-plated. As for purely decorative details, God with it, with this foppery. But power parts, for example, steering bipod, steering knuckles after electroplating acquire so-called hydrogen brittleness.... But, apparently, that wasn't the important thing.

A curious detail. On the “Bugatti-35” the block and cylinder head are in one casting. The valve train (three valves per cylinder with the upper shaft driven from the crankshaft by two pairs of bevel gears and a vertical roller) is located in the aluminum superstructure above the head. And the crankshaft of the eight-cylinder motor, which rotates on three ball and two roller bearings, is stowed in an aluminum crankcase that consists of two halves. The lower one not only serves as an oil pan, but also has four massive legs rigidly attached to the flimsy (only about 80 mm high) frame members. This pallet, according to the designer's idea, should play the role of frame cross members and give it additional torsional rigidity.

It's a brilliant idea that allows for a rational use of the metal of the pallet. But... There is always that unfortunate “but”. And it consists in the fact that in the late 20's and early 30's on automobile engines had to lapping valves after 5-6 thousand kilometers of mileage. For “Boo-Gatti-35” this procedure was necessary on average after every five races with training. And for lapping the valves it was necessary to remove the block with the head from the car, and the crankcase with the crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons remained fixed on the frame. I'm not talking about the need to disconnect pipes, rods, hoses.

Another ingenious idea is realized in tubes with a diameter (in the light) of about 18- 20 mm. There are eleven of them and they pass through the oil pan in order to cool the oil in it. It is difficult to imagine how the air will squeeze through these 600 mm long channels without any pressure from outside. And there is none, because the frame is covered from below by a pallet bottom with countless slots and vents, which, of course, do not provide a free flow of air under the engine. One would think that nobody knew about oil radiators back then.

I'd say the car is full of engineering absurdities. In addition, it was touching to learn that the disks of the multi-disc clutch and gearbox gears move on square (!) shafts as if the technology of pulling and milling of splined shafts and holes was no longer used either by Ford, Citroen or Mercedes!

In “Bugatti-51”, which appeared in 1930, continued the development of the concept of the model “35”. Practically the same running gear but with higher frame members. The cylinder block, cylinder head and supercharger drive were copied from the American track racing car “Miller”, two samples of which were bought by Ettore. If we compare the models “35B” and “51”, which had eight-cylinder engines of the same working volume (2261 cm3), the power as a result of modernization increased from 135 to 175 hp. But the same power had the “Alfa Romeo R2” model of 1930 (8 cylinders, 1987 cm3, 175 hp), which was the same weight as the model “35”. Moreover, this company in 1932 put up a more perfect racing car model “RZ” (8 cylinders, 2654 cm3, 215 hp), which weighed only 700 kg and could reach a speed of 230 km/h. And then there were “Maserati”, “Mercedes-Benz”, which were literally packed with technical innovations and left far behind all the “Bugatti”.

I would like to return to the 10,000 first places won in Bugatti races. Of course, this is not a typical case, but when in 1926 on the track “Mirama” played the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, at the start came only three drivers - all on Bugatti. The then famous J. Gou won, the second was B. Costantini. The third place was not played. And this victory of Gu was also included in those 10,000.

Conservatism, strong-willed technical decisions were a direct consequence of the way of thinking of Ettore Bugatti himself, who autocratically ruled his estate in Mollsheim. Along with the automobile factory, where from 1000 to 1600 people worked at different times, it housed a stable of racehorses, a kennel, wine cellars and an art gallery. The owner, or Patron as he was known, was a self-taught engineer, gifted but incorrigibly corrupted by a sensual rather than reasoned approach to automobile design. He was guided not by engineering logic but by intuition, which was not always infallible. If the categories of painters apply to him, Bugatti could be called an impressionist rather than a realist.

Impressionism, authoritarianism and extreme individualism helped to create a hero's halo around Patron and to develop the cult of the brand. Even after his death, clubs of Bugatti car owners appeared, the Bugantics magazine was published in England, and a huge museum was created in Mulhouse by the Schlumpf brothers, where, among other exhibits, the world's largest collection of Bugattis was displayed.


Rolls-Royce Phantom I

Rolls-Royce Phantom I

The development of Phantom started in the early 20s in strict secrecy - away from the eyes of competitors. It is not surprising: Rolls-Royce decided to create a successor to its flagship model Silver Ghost. Since the "Silver Ghost" (and that is how it is translated from English Silver Ghost) received its name due to incredibly quiet and smooth engine, its successor with no less mystical name had to become at least as silent. Therefore, a new 7.7-liter overhead-valve inline six was developed for it. In advertising brochures its power was not advertized, and wrote simply - "sufficient". In fact, it developed 108 hp and paired with a 4-speed manual transmission accelerated the car up to 140 km/h. Interestingly, the gearbox was connected with the clutch by a special rubber belt. The complex suspension system required syringing in 50 different places. Drum brakes of all wheels with hydraulic booster were a rarity for those times.

The debut of Rolls-Royce Phantom took place in 1925. Traditionally, buyers were offered a bare chassis with an engine, and those already ordered an exclusive body at the Rolls-Royce factory or in another design studio. There was a choice of normal (3645 mm) wheelbase or extended wheelbase - 3721 mm. Therefore, it is very difficult to find two identical cars. The interior trim traditionally used expensive leather and wood.

Thanks to the economic boom of the 1920s, demand for the Phantom was very high. The model was especially popular in the USA and a separate Rolls-Royce assembly plant had to be opened in Springfield. In just six years on both sides of the ocean produced more than 3500 not cheap Phantom.


Duesenberg X

Duesenberg X

Shortly before Errett Lobban Cord acquired the Duesenberg company in 1926, the Duesenberg brothers developed a replacement for their first Model A, the Duesenberg Model X. The main changes were to strengthen the chassis with cross ribs and a hypoid differential and to increase the power of the 4.3-liter inline 8-cylinder engine. The main changes consisted of reinforcing the chassis with cross ribs, installing a hypoid differential and increasing the power of the 4.3-liter inline 8-cylinder SOHC engine to 100 hp. All valves on this motor were shifted to one side to facilitate the use of a supercharger, but the compressor version did not make it to production. Nevertheless, the top speed of the Duesenberg Model X was 160 km/h. 

The Duesenberg Model X was not powerful or fast enough to satisfy Cord's ambitions to build the best car in the world. Because of this, its production ceased in 1927, after the production of 12-13 chassis. Only 4 examples survive today: a phaeton and 4-door sedan by Locke, a 4-door sedan by Brunn, and a boat stern roadster by McFarlan. Also built in 1927 were two prototypes (sedan and phaeton) of the Duesenberg Model Y, a transitional model based on the Model X chassis but equipped with a new DOHC inline 8-cylinder engine with four valves per cylinder, displacement of 6751 cc and 200 hp. All that remains of it today is the McFarlan phaeton body, transferred to the old Model A chassis.


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