What Are The Best 1930s Cars?
Here is our list of some of the best and most beautiful cars from the decade of the thirties.
1934 Chrysler Airflow
As the mid-thirties rolled around, Americans suffered from chronic unemployment as poverty skyrocketed. Chrysler used the national angst to turn the automobile's design on its head. Abandoning the traditional concept of a square body attached to a frame, the Airflow was the first production car with “Streamlined” styling.
The car’s lines flowed over curves from the front to the rear, channeling wind resistance around the vehicle and, as a result, improving fuel economy. The sleeker look was unusual for its day, creating a radical departure from what the public was used to. Even introducing the car months before production began did not motivate potential customers.
Chrysler used a flathead straight-eight engine to power the Airflow (although some came with a six-cylinder). The Airflow relied on wind tunnel testing to help solidify the car's shape and function, but the car was just not as successful as Chrysler had hoped. Americans did not embrace the $1,346 price when scraping pennies together just to put food on the table.
The public thought the new design was too radical to accept, and a hate-ad campaign by GM (calling the Airflow unsafe) would eventually lead to its demise a few years later. Sales peaked in 1934 but couldn’t be sustained by either Chrysler or its sister company Desoto, which for a time only sold Airflows. The truth is that AirFlow was simply too far ahead of its time.
1936 Packard 120
For most of the decade, Packard built cars for affluent Americans who had money to spend-but after the Great Depression, the rough economic times began to hurt their sales. While Packard tried to maintain its position as a luxury leader, it extended its reach to average Americans. Their solution was to offer the 120 for two years in the mid-thirties (1935-’37) and reintroduce the car for 1939-‘42.
The 1936 Packard was offered as a 2-door and 4-door sedan, and new to the model year, they released a convertible. Packard placed an aluminum head side-valve inline eight in the car, producing a powerful 120 mph and mph top speed of 85 mph. With the synchromesh three-speed transmission and its independent front suspension, the car could run almost anything.
The Packard 120 had a nice interior, with a large three-spoke steering wheel, simple instrumentation, and bench seating. Customers could choose from several options like a Packard-built AM radio, spotlights, a Packard battery charger, extra light bulbs for the lights, and even a cigar lighter. Some models had rumble seats, which you could have a windshield installed that would fold down when not in use. While the Packard had lots of amenities, it didn’t have power door locks, which wouldn’t appear until Packard introduced them in 1954.
Packard produced over 55k units in 1936 and sold the car for around $1,000. (The convertible was more at $1,395). The car seemed to be a success, but when Packard decided to push the pause button on the model after 1937 (incorporating it into the Packard Eight lineup instead of keeping it as a separate unit), the car sales were not nearly as good when it was brought back the following year. Packard would continue to make the 120 until 1941 but discontinued the model due to faltering sales.
1936 Buick Roadmaster
The Roadmaster was considered a poor man’s Cadillac because it shared the same body style but was priced considerably less. In 1936, Buick introduced the Series 80 with its 320 cubic inch inline eight producing 120 hp (also known as the Fireball Eight). With a three-speed Syncro-Mesh transmission, coil springs, and hydraulic brakes, the car was a beast on the straight-a-way, fully deserving of the name Buick had bestowed on it.
At a 131-inch wheelbase, the Roadmaster was the second largest vehicle in the Buick lineup (the Series 90 Limited was 138 inches). The car exhibited a long extended nose and a turret top that stretched back to a squatty rear end. The trunk contained a spare tire neatly situated under a shelf that was just large enough for two smaller-sized suitcases (even though there were spare tire moldings on the side). The convertible Roadster had a manual top that could be ordered in black or tan.
The model year saw Buick surge forward from a dismal 48k units in 1935 to over 168k in 1936. Buick would hold on to the Roadmaster nameplate for another twenty years before retiring it in the late fifties. (It would reappear briefly in the mid-nineties but didn’t take off).
The Buick Roadmaster helped Americans move their families by providing a full-sized sedan with luxury features at a competitive price point (the sedan was $1,252. The convertible was only $300 more). More than anything, Buick became a force to be reckoned with, offering hope to a nation that desperately needed to move past tough times.
1934 Ford Model 40B
As the effects of the depression grew worse, Ford felt the sting of faltering sales as Americans consolidated what few dollars they had. Chevrolet was making gains becoming the leading automaker for a couple of years, so Ford brought its new flathead V8 out in 1932. Originally, the new V8 produced only 65 hp, but when the Model 40B came out two years later, Ford had tweaked it up to 85 hp and 221 cubic inches of displacement. The Roadster makes our list because it was the first time the V8 was assembled in mass production. The Ford V8 gave Americans reliable transportation at a price they could afford (the Roadster started at $575).
The Model 18 was offered in various configurations, including a Tudor and Fordor model. (The Tudor was the most popular). The interior offered customers choices of cloth or leather seating. The dashboard consisted of a large center gauge showing speed, silhouetted by two medium gauges reading temperature and fuel. Fordor rear seat passengers had roll-up windows, fog-free vents, and the benefit of armrests, overhead dome light, and even an ashtray.
The ‘34 Ford V8 soon got a reputation for being fast, making it a favorite for criminals who could outrun older law enforcement vehicles. (Bonnie and Clyde used a ‘34 Ford V8 during their crime spree until they were killed in a shootout in Louisiana). Hotrodders would turn the Model 18 and Model 40B Roadsters into fast-moving drag strip machines for the next few decades. Today, these early Ford V8s are highly prized vehicles sought by collectors everywhere.
Ford would continue to put the flathead V8 in a wide variety of vehicles for the next twenty years, a testament to how strong and reliable this mass-produced V8 was.
1939 Cadillac Series 75
Cadillac needed a new top-of-the-line car when it dropped the 355E in 1935. The Series 75 became “that” car. Introduced in 1936, the original Cadillac was powered by a powerful 5.7L monobloc V8, and by the time 1939 rolled around, the car was into its second revision with an updated version of the V8, making 140 hp due to higher compression ratios. The Hydramatic automatic transmission was new for the 39 models, although most Sedans came with the synchromesh three-speed gearbox. The car also had powerful four-wheel hydraulic brakes.
The 75 was offered in various configurations, including 2-door and 4-door sedans and convertibles. Cadillac made significant sales by using the Series 75 as a limousine. The 1939 model had headlights in the filler space between the alligator hood and quarter-panel fenders. The rear trunk area was extended and deepened, and interior passenger volume increased.
Inside, the Series 75 was the epitome of luxury. With a wood-grained dashboard and wood trim highlights around the windows, the luxurious leather interior matched the wall-to-wall carpeting. A clock over a large glove box with wood trim gave passengers ample storage room. Padded doors with a contrasting pull handle, rollup windows for both the side window and angled vent. The large steering wheel was a three-spoke beauty with a lower horn ring and a column shift behind it. The comforts for rear seat passengers were just as nice, with extra padding for seats and roll-up windows and dome lights.
The Series 75 would have sold better, except for the exorbitant price. The car stickered for anywhere from $3,400 to $5,250, which turned off many buyers having just gone through a depression.
1935 Lincoln K Convertible Roadster
The 1935 Roadster was one of the most exclusive vehicles a person could purchase in the mid-thirties. Introduced in 1931, the K Model was simply priced too high to appeal to anyone during the days of the Great Depression. The 1935 model had a 6.4 V12 (an engine Lincoln would continue to use in some form or another for almost 20 years). While the V12 was significantly heavier than other lighter V8s introduced by Ford, the power this motor produced was phenomenal (150 hp), and the sleek design of the Lincoln K Convertible Roadster gave it a top speed of nearly 100 mph.
One of the neatest features of this car was the hidden storage compartment accessed from the passenger side of the vehicle. Since the Roadster had a rear jump seat where the trunk would have been, customers needed a place to store their luggage. Running boards gave the car a speedster a racing car feel, but when most cars were eliminating them, the Roadster sat low enough to the ground that the boards weren’t needed.
With a metal dash and two-gauge instrumentation, a stick shift on the floor operated the three-speed manual transmission. A simple, curved steering wheel needed to be attractive. A locking glovebox took up more than half of the dash.
By the time 1935 rolled around, Lincoln was certain that the K Model was destined to die (considering that only 1,415 models were made). The company’s merchandizing attempted to market the car to the ultra-rich, just complicated matters. (The company heads insisted that the K Model should compete as a luxury brand). While the K Model had a powerful engine and could compete with any sports car, it didn’t sell. Few people were ready to spend $4,000 for one of the most expensive cars ever made after witnessing such suffering by the American people. The K Model would hang on for the whole decade of the thirties but be replaced by the Zephyr, a popular car.
1931 Cord L-29
If there was ever a worse time for a car to be developed and sold, the Cord Roadster and Cabriolet take the cake. The first car ever produced with front-wheel drive was marketed to the luxury market for between $3-4,000 each. The price makes the Cord one of the most expensive luxury cars.
The Cord was powered by an L-head inline eight, which made 125 hp, and had a top speed of 80 mph (although it needed to get wound up before reaching such speeds). The car had a three-speed transmission connected to a front drivetrain that pulled it along rather than pushing it as many rear-wheel drive units did.
Unfortunately, the front-wheel drive technology was so innovative that the gearbox was severely underpowered. (Owners often complained about the car’s constant velocity joints wearing out prematurely). The Cord was a heavy car, nearly 4754 lbs weight, which meant that the inline eight motor had more mass to move (particularly when loaded with occupants). The Cord struggled to get up hills or provide traction on wet pavements and simply didn’t move as fast as many other models that were much less expensive.
However, Cord stayed with the program for several years, trying to make up for mechanical issues with luxurious interiors. The Cord offered many amenities, including gauges on either side of the steering wheel to monitor temp, oil pressure, gear selection, fuel, and speed. There was leather seating, with a uniform open dash that offered more room for driver and passenger. The flat floor (no center bump to accommodate the transmission) helped with legroom but offered little else.
While the Cord had much to offer regarding comfort, buyers simply needed help to surpass the price tag. When the Stock Market crash happened right around its first model year introduction, the Cord was doomed. The company stayed afloat for a few years until founder E.L. Cord sold the assets and moved to Nevada amidst allegations of financial misconduct.
1932 Chevrolet Confederate
When the Depression hit America, the ripple effect for car manufacturers was tremendous. Most car manufacturers slowed production, took hard looks at models that weren’t selling, and worked on trying to generate enough cash flow to stay afloat. Chevrolet might have been the leading car manufacturer in the thirties, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their share of struggles.
Chevrolet had introduced its Stovebolt six engine in 1929, replacing their four cylinder engine. To help solidify the new engine in the minds of potential buyers, Chevy advertised the new motor as “getting six for the price of four.” Designed to compete with the new Ford V8 Roadster, brought, Chevrolet sold over 323k units for the 1932 model year, at an average between $445 - $645. The car sold well to Americans who needed dependable transportation but couldn’t afford much in uncertain times. Sales for 1932 weren’t nearly what the automaker was used to. It was still enough to keep the company as the top maker of automobiles in the country.
For the 1932 model, customers were offered one of fourteen different vehicle configurations. The Stovebolt six engine powered the car, although Chevrolet played with the compression to generate 20% more horsepower than the previous models (60 hp). The body was built by Fisher. To help assure customers of the benefits of the new six-cylinder engine, Chevrolet offered to do free inspections and replace any broken parts for free with a liberal owners service policy.
The car was built for one year, when Chevrolet brought out Chevrolet Standard as a cheaper alternative to the Confederate.
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My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.Read More About Matt Lane