The Five Most Iconic Classic Cars From The 1930s

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The decade of the Great Depression was a time of transition for automakers, both in technology and design. What are the most iconic classic cars from the 1930s?

As a nation, we have lived through difficult times, but perhaps no days were as monumental as the years following the Great Depression. During most of the 1930s, American families struggled to survive in any way they could, living hand to mouth, scrambling just to make a few extra pennies. The Golden Age era of the 1920s crumbled under the absolute poverty and hunger that hardships, dust bowls, and pandemics produced. Life became hard. While the American family had to make supreme sacrifices just to put a morsel of food on the table, auto manufacturers watched their customers walk away.

The five most iconic classic cars of the 1930s are:

  • 1934 Ford Deluxe Roadster
  • 1936 Buick Roadmaster
  • 1934 Chrysler Airflow
  • 1933 Packard 12
  • 1930 Cadillac V16 Madame X Cabriolet

Desperate to reclaim the trust and wallets of the buying public, car companies used the time to reevaluate and redefine themselves in ways they had never done before, producing some of the best advances the automobile has ever known. No aspect of the manufacturing process was overlooked, from technology to design, from performance to charisma, and from labor to machinery. Everything was reexamined, redesigned, and reimagined. The result is that advances made during these challenging years would contribute to much of the influences our modern cars have today. While these were hard and tumultuous times for many, they were also some of the best years for the automobile to grow up and become what it is today.

So what are the most iconic classic cars from the 1930s? Just read on, and let the fun begin!

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What are the Most Iconic Classic Cars of the 1930s?

There were many well-made cars to choose from in the 1930s that deserved lots of accolades. Whether your definition of “iconic” means most popular, best design, or even the most technological, there is no question that the decade was one of the significant and enduring changes in the auto industry. Companies raced against each other to fashion a car that would capture the public's imagination.

As the Roaring 20s came to a close, Ford was the big player in the world of auto sales, buoyed by the success of the Model A (which had sold over 4.8 million units from 1927 - 1932, a short 53 months). Unfortunately, as the Depression began to take hold, auto sales plummeted by about 75%, and inflexibility to adapt cost Ford the advantage it had enjoyed. Chevrolet used the time to initiate widespread cost-cutting measures, consolidating three branches into one unit, and Chrysler began to figure out ways to capitalize on the shrinking market share. Their efforts were so successful that GM turned a profit every year during the 30s, and Chrysler was profitable for every year but one.

1934 Ford Deluxe Roadster

Not long after the decade's start, Ford felt the squeeze of slumping sales. Chevrolet and Chrysler were making inroads into the market. So, Ford brought the brand new flathead V8, which it had begun to produce in 1932. The Roadster was a tremendous successor to the extremely popular Model A, which had dominated the market for several years. The iconic nature of this car is that it marked the first time that a V8 was mass-produced, which allowed Americans to enjoy the power it offered and satisfy their growing fascination with speed at a surprisingly affordable price. (The car sold for less than $575 off the showroom floor).

The engine produced 85 horsepower, which then made it the fastest of the time, able to outrun most older law enforcement vehicles. The Roadster became rather infamous as the car that criminals John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde loved to steal and use during their crime sprees. Over the next few decades, this excellent little Roaster would be the car to turn Americans on to the love of hot rods and drag racing and be immortalized in songs like my little Duece Coupe by such iconic bands as the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and others.

One of the reasons that this car makes the list of the most iconic is because this V8 remained unchanged for over two decades. While horsepower and displacements were tweaked year-to-year, Ford kept using their V8 to power their cars, forcing every other company to shift and abandon the weaker inline sixes. The car created a monumental shift in how engines were designed and built.

In addition, the car was a beauty to behold with a new streamlined design, abandoning the square box-shaped vehicles of years prior. There is a flow to the car lines that displays some of the elegant work other manufacturers were incorporating into much more expensive models, like the Packard or Cadillac. This Roadster was an everyman’s car that looked richer and more powerful than anything most average Americans had experienced during years of struggle. As the effects of the Depression began to ease, it became the perfect fit for a growing public.

1930 Cadillac V16 Madame X Cabriolet

The Cadillac V16 was the epitome of luxury and wealth when it was produced. The V16 was a first for the American public and is considered by many car enthusiasts as one of the most significant engines ever assembled. While it might seem to be a car built for the wrong time, it was introduced after the stock market crash of late 1929 and appealed to those who had money and were unafraid to flash their lavish lifestyles in front of a hungry and angry American public.

Every Cabriolet (a car with a roof that folds down) was hand fashioned and finished to the exact specifications. The original offering came with 1ten different styles and included specs for almost 30 other drawings (should the client find something they preferred). Rich woods, polished metals, and luxurious interiors were fashioned and incorporated into every car with meticulous detail. While most of these beauties were built in its first year of production (only 4,052 V16 Caddilacs were built over its 11-year run), the car was trumpeted as an absolute engineering marvel.

These finely crafted engines were designed to compete against the Packard V12, which had been dominating the luxury market. The engine had two 45-degree angle blocks of eight cylinders, powered by separate carburtors and intake/exhaust valves. The cylinders could displace 452 cubic inches and generate 165 horsepower.

The absolute marvel of this engine is how perfectly balanced it was. There had never been a motor that operated with such efficiency and precision. When active, the V16 produced almost no perceptible vibration. Most of the engines in use were shaky, rattling messes when running, but the inner workings of each part in the V16 instantly set Cadillac on the road to a reputation for building the finest automobiles.

Unfortunately, the market for the car dried up quickly. The ravishes of the depression took their toll, and more and more financially savvy moguls decided to stash cash, hoarding it against an increasingly more challenging future. Toward the end of the thirties, barely a dozen of the V16 were being built a year, and eventually, the looming threats of war from across the pond ended this beautiful masterpiece.

1934 Chrysler Airflow

As the Depression worsened and employment soared above 25%, the reality for every family was scrimping to save pennies. Getting a family farther down the road on a gallon of gas was critical to their survival. Not to be outdone, Chrysler turned their attention to rewriting the design book of the American automobile. At that time, traditional vehicles were two-part constructions, with a somewhat square body set on a frame. The engineers at Chrysler developed the first wind tunnel to test the aerodynamics of what style or shape of a car might help improve mileage and lessen wind resistance. They discovered that everything about the modern car needed revamping, so they set to work.

The Airflow was a marvel. Enclosed fenders and rounded sloping made for a fluid design that helped the car slice through the wind. Gone were box-like radiators, headlights, and vertical, single glass windshields that created drag and forced cars to work harder. With this design knowledge, Chrysler began to promote a unibody construction that provided more strength and stability while at the same time improving the car’s weight. The new design not only improved aerodynamics. It improved mileage, but it also contributed to the vehicle's safety. The motor was moved forward over the front wheelbase, which allowed the passenger compartment to be centered inside the rear wheelbase, making the weight distribution more balanced. The result was less strain on the rear end, making the ride smoother, more stable, and dramatically improving its handling, particularly on slippery roads.

Despite the innovations in design, the car was simply too far ahead of its time to be a success. Sales of the Airflow and the corresponding DeSoto were miserable, primarily because the changes were too radical for the buying public. The American public was not ready to embrace anything so controversial, so contrary to what they had grown to expect. The production peaked in 1934, and the company had not calculated the costs of revamping its manufacturing process. There were significant complaints about the Airflow, most resulting from problems from the assembly line. (A massive negative ad campaign on the part of GM about the safety of the car sealed its fate).

1939 Packard 120

The race between Packard and Cadillac has been brewing for years over who could produce the most elegant and advanced luxury car. For most of the 30s, Packard had produced cars that were well built, offered terrific amenities, and symbolized the status of wealthy and affluent Americans. But despite the reputation, the company lost market share and needed to do something to try and reclaim its position.

1939 was the first year that Packard made the conscious decision to enter a V8 market (having relied on the V12 for several years). This move followed decisions by Chrysler and GM, who realized that the buying public was unwilling to purchase expensive, top-lined cars. Simpler times over the past few years meant Americans preferred function to form.

This car is so iconic because this Packard concentrated on technological components, like a fifth suspension component under the middle of the car to improve stability and ride. A 3-speed manual transmission which years before Packard had moved to the steering column (increasing floor space), coupled with a synchromesh transmission and a new fourth gear overdrive that, once engaged, made the car ride smoother by reducing the engine speed by over 25%. Less strain on the engine decidedly improved performance and longevity. In addition, four-wheel hydraulic brakes were first. These and other improvements were designed to convince the buying public that they could begin to afford the luxury that had been so out of reach for many years. Unfortunately, sales continued to decline. The company decided to continue to produce cars until the mid -1950s, but a merger with Studebaker eventually led to the last Packard rolling off the line in 1956.

1936 Buick Roadmaster

Any list of the best vehicles from the 1930s has to include my grandfather’s favorite. My Gramps was a Buick man, tried and true, and no amount of argument or reason would change his mind.

The Roadmaster started its legacy over the next decades in 1936 by producing a model designed to find the sweet spot between luxury limousines and entry-level Buicks. Several models were offered, including the less expensive Special (Series 40), Century (Series 60), Roadmaster (Series 80), and Limited (Series 90). Each was powered by an inline-8 achieving 120 horsepower and had a three-speed transmission. Four-wheel hydraulic brake drums were a first for the 1936 models. In addition, the Buicks had independent front suspension, internal water control systems, and a pleasant, smooth ride.

This four-door sedan was the most popular, with almost 15,000 units sold and an asking price of about $1800 fresh off the showroom floor.

Most of all, it was bigger than most vehicles, which allowed American families to have cars capable of hauling a bunch of occupants. The Roadmaster symbolized a new hope for Americans and was one of the most practical sedans ever built. Buick would continue to offer the name for the next six decades, from sedans to large station wagons. Buick helped lead the way toward national prosperity as Americans returned from WWII.