Owning a classic car, reflected one automobile lover the other day, is a little like playing the horses. Having been hooked hard in the current widespread revival of interest in restoring and driving the beautifully turned-out vehicles of the decade and a half before World War II (shown in color on the following pages), this enthusiast discovered that his new possession was exhilarating but demanding, and that he dared not disclose to his wife how much time and money he was spending on it. Such dissembling is not necessarily typical of the classic car enthusiast. It is, however, a key to the zest with which a big new crop of collectors is poking through the nation's automobile graveyards, bidding it up at estate auctions and scanning classified ads.
The golden age of motoring, this new breed maintains, was the period between 1925 and 1942, and the classic car was the luxurious, usually custom-styled, powerful and dependable headliner of that era. The dates are not hard and fast. British Rolls-Royces and Spanish Hispano-Suizas, to name two makes, were providing luxurious and dependable transportation in classic equipages before 1925. That year, however, is generally taken to mark the time by which problems of fuel feed, ignition, braking and tires had mostly been licked, and after which the great coachmakers executed some of their most famous vehicles.
Whether it was the stately conveyance of a society matron or a playboy's rakish runabout, the classic car tended to be of great length. Behind the massive radiator was an engine compartment of imposing size. The wheels, which were considered objects of intrinsic beauty, were not covered up. Spare wheels were side-or rear-mounted as an integral part of overall design. The front wheels were set right up forward with the radiator to communicate a sense of urgency. The fender line was long and sweeping. And interior decoration was lavishly conceived—bars and vanity cases adorned many a wood-paneled tonneau, and refrigerators were not unheard of.
Collecting cars is not new, but until recently much of the emphasis has been on curiosities. This is true no longer. The classic car man does not want to get out and get under when he is on the road; he is convinced that his machine not only is the best looking ever but also one of superlative and utterly reliable performance. He enjoys the sport of searching out the car of his choice (and the numerous, usually missing parts), of restoring it to prime (the technical word is "mint") condition, showing it in competition and parading it before bug-eyed fellow townsmen. Picture Mrs. Leonard Hall Jr. of Cleveland, for instance, driving up to the supermarket in the elegant maroon Duesenberg that Greta Garbo once owned (see page 35). The stir this creates is one of the collector's tangible rewards.
It is a stir that also delights the Classic Car Club of America, a fledgling group that is crisply asserting its identity and its right to a label which sets it apart from the clutter of older or overlapping antique, veteran, Edwardian and vintage-car-fancying organizations. Three years ago, in its bootstrap-tugging days, the club had only 80 members, some of whom were recruited by devotees who spotted likely cars and traced the tags through license bureaus. Today it has 1,300 members representing 2,500 cars (some have extensive collections, others only a photograph of a car and a dream), and club officers confidently predict that the roster will be doubled in 1956. They also confidently expect at least a thousand new variations on the theme of just what makes a classic car; one of the attractions in joining is that a member may get into a lively debate on this issue at the same time.
"The line between the antique automobile and the classic car," said the CCCA in the first issue of its quarterly, The Classic Car, "is drawn darkest in the field of performance. The classicist invariably admires, may even collect and restore, antiques, but he does not feel that these lattice-trimmed, bicycle-built specimens ever included anything approaching a perfect car...The horseless carriage was at its best behind a horse."
The question of the types and makes of cars which qualify as classics is as open to debate as what makes a classic. Every classic car collector has his own list, which he is prepared to defend with considerable vigor, but a basic roster of the makes which no compilation would leave out includes American Auburns, Brewsters, Cadillacs, Chrysler Imperials, Cords, Duesenbergs, Lincolns, Marmons, Packards, Pierce-Arrows and Stutzes; and European Bentleys, Bugattis, Daimlers, Hispano-Suizas, Isotta-Fraschinis, Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces.
BOOM, BUST AND OUT
The enthusiast pays his greatest homage to the designers and coach builders who flourished in the lush 1920s and lasted into the Depression '30s, to be forced out finally by war and a new economic era. The only American survivor of that illustrious group, which includes such names as Rollston, Brewster, Hibbard, Darrin, Murphy, Buehrig, Brunn, Dietrich, Kellner, Weyman and Saoutchik, is the Derham Custom Body Co. of Rosemont, Pa. The brothers James and Enos Derham have cut their payroll from a prewar 200 to 50 and are getting along principally by modifying stock automobiles to the tastes of wealthy clients. They occasionally have an opportunity to build a car from the chassis up, as in 1947, when Ahmad Ibn Jabir, Sheik of Kuwait, ordered a red convertible sedan 21 feet 6 inches long and suitable for desert travel, but their heyday is past and they do not expect to see its like again.
The most sought-after models, naturally enough, are those of which only one or two were executed by a classic designer. In the golden age a Duesenberg chassis and engine cost $8,500, and when a customer, after first perhaps trying out the skeletal car in a temporary wicker driver's seat, selected the coachwork, he could expect a bill for possibly another $10,000 or more.