Best 1940's Cars

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While the 1940s was a time of world conflict, it was also a decade of progress as the automobile industries retooled for the needs of post-war America.

The best cars of the 1940s are:

  • 1949 Buick Roadmaster
  • 1940 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet
  • 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe
  • 1949 Jaguar XK120
  • 1948 Ford F1 “Bonus Built” Truck
  • 1949 Cadillac Series 62
  • 1948 Tucker 48

The reality of a global conflict forced America’s industrial base to lend resources to help the war effort for much of the 40s. Factories and assembly lines producing reliable family haulers for work and play were converted to building bombs, bullets, tanks, and airplane parts. As a new national spirit emerged, the country banded together to defeat the forces of fear threatening the American lifestyle. Yet, as the war ended, manufacturers had to retool and convert back to the production of automobiles. Car companies worked hard to recapture customers. Even though many automakers only offered rehashed versions of pre-war models, some ventured into new designs, bigger engines, and more lavish interiors to establish themselves. The later part of the forties would emerge as new post-war realities took hold, The car marketplace heated up to make up for lost time, but the future would belong to the bold visionaries who were just discovering how great the automobile could truly be.

Table of Contents


What Are The Best 1940s Cars?

The best cars of the 1940s are listed below. While many cars could have made the list, we wanted to concentrate on cars that influenced the direction of the auto industry.

1949 Buick Roadmaster

1949 Buick Roadmaster
1949 Buick Roadmaster

The Roadmaster nameplate had been around for over a decade when Buick revamped the car with a new style in 1949. The sales brochure reminded customers that the Buick “looks fine for ‘49,” indeed, it did. The wraparound fenders, curved rear bodywork, forward-mounted engine, and shortened stance helped attract new buyers.

The Roadmaster 70 was powered by a standard Fireball inline eight-cylinder, producing 150 hp and a top speed of 110 mph. Buicks innovative Dynaflow automatic transmission had debuted the year before, but for the ‘49 model, the automatic became standard equipment. An independent front suspension and four-wheel hydraulic brakes helped add value.

The Roadmaster was offered in several versions, Coupe, Sedan, Convertible, Sedanette (a fastback styled 2-door), and Estate Station Wagon with genuine wood exterior panels. Perhaps the largest change for the Roadmaster in 1949 was the addition of a curved windshield that increased visibility by 22%. (Buick had whittled down support pillars to increase the windshield size).

The Roadmaster featured a new cockpit dash with increased instrumentation and easy-to-reach controls, including hydraulic power windows and a powered convertible top. The column mount shift allowed three full-sized adults to have room on the front bench seat, and the rear seat room was spacious with increased headroom for additional passengers.

Buick made 54,764 Series 70s during 1949, including just over 8k convertibles. The original MSRP varied depending on the type of Roadmaster you purchased (the fastback Sedanette coupe sold for $2,675, while the Coupe, Sedan, and Convertible were priced a bit more). The Roadmaster would go on to be made until 1958 and then reappear for the ‘91-’96 model years).

1940 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet

1940 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet
1940 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet

The beginning of one of the decade's most beautiful cars began on a whim. Edsel Ford wanted a new design to drive on vacation to Florida. He commissioned his company’s designers and engineers to make a one-of-a-kind automobile. When the final product came about a short time later, it blended American and European influences with luxurious upgrades.

The Continental was powered by the same 4.8 Lincoln-Zephyr V12 that the company had used for most of the previous decade. The engine produced 110 hp and had a maximum speed of 87 miles per hour. The three-speed manual transmission with column shift powered the car down the road.

The convertible's interior offered plenty of room, and the leather whipcord seats gave the car a European feel. The dashboard was mahogany painted metal, with dual gauges for driver information. A Lincoln radio came with dual speakers in front and rear. Other luxuries included a rear footrest, dual rear ashtrays with a cigarette lighter, and a fold-down center armrest.

Lincoln would produce around 404 Continentals for 1940 (54 Coupes and 350 Cabriolets). Little did Edsel Ford know his vision for a luxury vehicle that could compete with the best cars from Europe would be a part of Lincoln's legacy for the next 80 years.

1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe

1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe
1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe

If you are looking for the car that cemented Chevrolet’s dominance in the forties, it would be the reliable Chevrolet Special Deluxe. Chevrolet broke the million unit mark in 1941, crushing its competitors (Ford sold 641k) and continuing its three-year dominance (1938 - 41). The cars were reasonably priced at less than $1,000, and when they were introduced in 1941, they were wide enough to hold three adults on the front and rear bench seats, which made them perfect family movers.

The Special Deluxe was powered by a 3.5L inline six that produced 95 hp and a top speed of 80 mph. The exterior design was intentionally fashioned after Buicks and Cadillacs to give customers the feel of value. The smooth, curved lines were well-received.

While the interior was sparse, with cloth seats, an oversized steering wheel, and a thin metal horn ring. To the left of a center-round speedometer, the metal dashboard had a new look with horizontal readouts for oil, battery charge, fuel, and engine temp. The dash was painted to match the interior colors, but often drivers complained about the sun’s reflection since Chevrolet did not offer a driver’s visor.

Production of the DeLuxe was paused after 1941 when the US entered the global conflict. Chevy factories made gun parts, aircraft engines, and half-track vehicles for use with Patton’s Third Army. When the conflict ended, Chevrolet geared up the assembly line with minimal changes to the Deluxe and started rolling out the vehicles. To appeal to customers' desire for a new model, Chevy changed the name to Fleetmaster and Stylemaster, but the car was virtually unchanged from the 1941 model. The car was redesigned in 1949 and built until 1952 as the Bel Air began gaining traction.

1949 Jaguar XK120

1949 Jaguar XK120
1949 Jaguar XK120

American car companies weren’t the only ones trying to reestablish themselves after World War II ended. British automakers like Triumph and Jaguar were also feverishly working on new models. One of the best of the day was the introduction of the Jaguar XK120, which became the fastest production car in the world with its top speed of 120 mph.

The new XK engine powered the car, a 3.4L (210 ci) inline six-cylinder with 160 hp (although some racers produced more). The engine had a cast iron block, aluminum heads, and an SU carburetor assuring the right mix for combustion. The Jaguar developed quite a reputation when the second XK120 performed in front of reporters and clocked in at 132 mph. The word got out, and the third model (670003) was made exclusively for

Clark Gable. (He enjoyed the car so much that he bought two more in the early fifties).

The striking wave-like design of the Jaguar helped foster its appeal. The car sat low to the ground, improving the car's dynamics. The torsion bar front suspension and recirculating ball steering helped handling through curves, keeping the car centered. While the first XK120s were handmade with wooden ash frames with a steel chassis and aluminum body, Jaguar began mass-producing the body to speed up the delivery time as demand for the sports car increased.

The interiors of the original XK120s were sparse, with racing seats, oversized steering wheels, and speedometer and tachometer gauges. Beginning in the 1950s, the interiors became even more refined, with leather-trimmed dashes for open-aired cars and wood grain veneer for hardtops. Later versions had roll-up windows, stiffer suspension, dual exhaust, and increased power ratios for the American market.

1948 Ford F1

1948 Ford F1
1948 Ford F1

While technically not a car, there needs to be a spot for the Ford “Bonus Built” trucks. As the war ended, Ford began to ramp up its production, producing the same truck as it had in 1941. Ford saw an opportunity to market a newly designed truck with its updated chassis and frame, that could compete with GM’s Advanced Design Trucks. Until then, Ford used similar frames and chassis for cars and trucks, but now Ford would separate the two. The new design would be more streamlined, practical, and better built than anything on the road.

Ford powered the new F1 with a choice of a 3.7 inline six, which produced 95 hp, or a 3.9 flathead V8 with slightly better power. Early brochures touted increased towing capability and better payload capacity, with more cargo room making it one of the largest half-tons on the market. New features like rolled cargo bed edges, an all-new steel floor over a hardwood subflooring, and a reinforced tailgate were some of the features.

Reportedly, Ford spent nearly a million dollars to fashion the new wider cab (which is why Ford marketed it as a “million-dollar cab” in their advertising campaign. The new cab provided a substantial amount of room with more headroom and wider doors to entry and exit. New 3-way air control, individual coil-spring seating, and a “picture window” windshield eliminated the center obstruction and provided greater visibility. The instrument panel was all new, with easy-to-read gauges. While the dash was metal and unpadded, it did have an extra large glove compartment and ashtray.

A total of 108k F1 trucks were made for 1948, which provided Ford with its best-selling truck year since the late twenties. The F1 would form the basis for the second-generation F-series half-ton (F100) and foster Ford’s dominance in the pickup truck market.

1949 Cadillac Series 62

1949 Cadillac Series 62
1949 Cadillac Series 62

When Cadillac unveiled its new post-war designs in 1948, the new Cadillacs turned heads with its molded tail fins, integrated fenders, and luxurious amenities. The 1949 version would be even better within a year, with a new V8, more standard features, and a ride that could not be beaten. The car set the automotive world abuzz, so much so that MotorTrend named the ‘49 model its first “Car of the Year.”

The Series 62 was offered in three body styles, the convertible, the five-passenger Touring, and two-door Club Coupe. Customers could order the convertible with a black or tan top, and the leather seats were available in five colors to give customers more choices. With hydraulic-controlled windows and seats, padded dash, and other refinements, the 8k convertibles offered an incredible driving experience.

Most Series 62 models for 1949 were the larger Touring models with broadcloth or Bedford Cord choice. Rear seat passengers had plenty of room, with anterior angle vents to allow fresh air in and a center fold-down armrest for comfort.

The biggest news for Cadillac was the new OHV 5.4L V8 that year, which produced a whopping 160 hp and had a top speed of around 100 mph. The engine was cleaner and more efficient than past motors, designed in a valve-in-head combustion chamber to better control boost. While the three-speed manual transmission was standard, most owners paid $174 for the Hydramatic automatic transmission (over 90% did).

The car was an instant hit, with Cadillac producing over 55K Series 62s (including 8k convertibles), which accounted for nearly 60% of its total annual production. The post-war Caddilac set a new standard for luxury across the country and would help solidify its place in the luxury vehicle market.

1948 Tucker 48

Even though only 51 Tucker 48s made it off the production line, the car is one of the most beautiful ever designed. Since most larger car companies had been used to build items for the war effort, when they resumed production in late 1945, they tended only to offer rehashed pre-war models. Preston Tucker, an automotive entrepreneur, who had made significant innovations for armored vehicles during the war, formed a new company to help offer new, safer automobiles to the waiting public.

The first Tucker prototype was a concept car named the “Tucker Torpedo.” While the production Tucker 48 was somewhat different, it was powered by a modified 5.4L engine that Tucker’s designers converted from the air-cooled Bell-47 helicopter engine. The engineers converted them to water-cooled, and after many modifications, the engine produced 166 hp at its peak. The rear-end placement was innovative, but it meant that both the transmission, frame, and suspension had to be redesigned. Tucker spent considerable money trying to perfect the beautiful car, only to be forced into bankruptcy in 1949 amid stock fraud allegations.

The real love car enthusiasts have for the Tucker 48 was the ahead-of-its-time innovations employed in the car. The Tucker 48 was much safer than most, with its integrated roll bar in the roof, perimeter framing, steering box placement behind the front axle, and padded dashboard. Tucker designed the car with a third headlight that could move as the car went around a curve to better highlight the roadway. The collapsible steering column was another one of Tucker’s patents.

The idea of crumple zones was initiated by Tucker when he moved the glove compartment to the side door rather than the traditional mounting in the dash. The placement provided additional space for both a front and side impact collision.

Unfortunately, the Tucker 48 was doomed to failure. Tucker rushed the prototype out in front of the press too quickly before many of the car's components had been tested and modified. An early account of the new car noticed that the transmission could only go in “drive” (no reverse gear) and reported that the car could not go backward. (Tucker’s engineers were still working on the prototype, and a reverse gear was added to the Tucker 48 production models). The engine was loud (considering it had its basis in a helicopter engine design, which is understandable).

Tucker would close his factory after investing millions of dollars into the new car and being slapped with stock fraud allegations (of which he was later acquitted). There is a rumor that the Big Three automakers (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) simply did not want Tucker to succeed and quietly instigated a campaign to see him fail. Surprisingly, the company adopted many of his innovations for their future designs.