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Classic Cars (1925-1942)

My most recently developed passion is with the "golden era" of automobiles, from both American and European car makers. Cut short by Depression realities, the wonders of cars such as the front-wheel drive Cord (the first in America), the distinguished and powerful Duesenberg (that's the front of one to the left), the now-forgotten Isotta-Fraschini and Hispano-Suiza from Europe, and the huge American Lincolns, Packards and Cadillacs (let alone early British Bentleys and Rolls) for those who still had money to burn are something to behold. This is especially true of the "Olympian" cars of the custom-body era from roughly 1928 into the early 1930s. While I've always found the period fascinating, a visit in 2003 to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum (where the photo above was taken) in Auburn, Indiana rekindled that interest. I'll never drive one, but there are plenty of books as well as handsome die-cast metal models (1:18 and 1:24 scale) that help to memorialize the period. But beware--the word "classic" is widely misused to cover cars outside of (usually later than) this era.

The Best Classic Car Museums

(There are many of these across the nation, including those devoted to specific marques. Noted here are what I feel are the best of the lot.)

Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum (Auburn, Indiana)

If you can only make it to one place, don't miss this fabulous collection, wonderfully displayed, in Northeast Indiana. More classics per square inch than anywhere else, displayed in the art deco building that once housed the parent company. . .

National Automobile Museum (Reno, Nevada)

While only a shadow of the once legendary Harrah Collection, this museum still maintains a wonderful collection, especially of cars before and during the classic era, all well displayed including realiztic street scenes.

The Nethercutt Collection (Sylmar, California)
One of the top public collections of cars from the 1930s (and before and after), this amazing place in the San Fernando Valley (north of Los Angeles) is free to tour, though you need reservations for the high-rise building that has some of the best cars and a fascinating collection of music machines (I thought they'd bore me--wrong!).

Blackhawk Museum (Danville, California)
Another top museum for classic cars, this is east of Oakland. Begin on the upper floor which offers a breathtaking display of some 50 cars from the 1920s and 1930s including a number of unique models. Downstairs includes later models and shouldn't be missed, either. There's even a good shop. The museum is in a handsome upper-scale mall with several good restaurants.

Northeast Classic Car Museum (Norwich, New York)
Largely the collection of one man (George Staley), this is well worth seeing if you are in central New York. There are some 125 cars on display, most from the classic era, and all in lovely shape. Included is one of the largest showings of air-cooled Franklin cars that were made nearby. Norwich is a delightful small town with many places to stay and dine.

Gilmore Car Museum (near Kalamazoo, Michigan)
Located in several large barns, this top-five museum includes several different collections all in the same place, including a stellar collection of Pierce Arrows, and the Classic Car Club museum. There are easily 200 cars, well displayed in plenty of light for photography--and an old dinner in which to grab a snack.

There are many others across the country, too--see Richard E. Osborne, Tour Book for Antique Car Buffs, Indianapolis: Riebel-Roque Publishing, 2006 (4th ed.) for a very useful guide.

Selected Books

Adler, Dennis. Speed & Luxury: The Great Cars. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, 1997. Good place to begin--covers from 1910 to 1948 and American as well as European makes, wonderfully photographed.

Adler, Dennis. Duesenberg. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2004. Handsome tribute to the car many feel is the best one ever produced in America, if not the world.

Buckley, J. R. Cars of the Connoisseur. London: Batsford, 1960. Part of the publisher's series on cars, this offers, as its subtitle says, "A Treasury of the Years of Grace," and is delightfully written.

Carson, Richard Burns. The Olympian Cars: Luxury Automobiles of the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Knopf, 1976 (reissued 2006). Though lacking in color photos, this is an informed survey of the fanciest Cadillacs, Duesenbergs, Franklins, Lincolns, Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Marmon, Cord and many others, most with custom bodywork.

Cars of the Classic '30s: A Decade of Elegant Design. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 2004. Useful year-by-year survey of all American cars produced, well-illustrated in color and highlighting technical and design changes of the decade.

Harding, Anthony, ed. Classic Cars in Profile. New York: Doubleday, 1966-68 (four volums). Includes all 96 of the "Profile" publications on American and European cars, largely of the 1930s. Lovely color illustrations.

Kimes, Beverly Rae. The Classic Era. Des Plains, IL: Classic Car Club of America, 2004. Immense volume--probably the last word, by an acknowledged authority, and illustrated with hundreds of photos, many in color.

Kimes, Beverly Rae, ed. The Classic Car. Des Plaines, IL: The Classic Car Club of America, 1990. Another huge collection of photos and comments by owners of examples from the famous marques. Kimes has edited the quarterly CCCA journal (which has this same title) since 1990.

Kimes, Beverly Rae, ed. Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company. Kutztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1978. By far the most complete history of the long-leading American prestige car.

Lamm, Michael, and Dave Holls. A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design. Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing, 1996. Best one-volume survey with solid text as well as good illustrations.

Langworth, Richard M., ed. Automobile Quarterly's World of Cars. New York: Dutton, 1971. Lovely collection of articles from the hard-bound quarterly, most of them focused on cars of this period, illustrated in color.

Malks, Josh B. Cord 810/812: The Timeless Classic. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1995. Definitive treatment of the iconic front-wheel drive cars of 1936-37.

Robson, Graham. The Encyclopedia of the World's Classic Cars. London: Salamander, 1977. Not bad, and largely focused on the period of interest here--good illustrations (fine drawings and photos) and useful text arranged by manufacturer.

Scott-Moncrieff, David. The Thoroughbred Motor Car, 1930-1940. London: Batsford, 1963. A country-by-country survey of the best performance cars of the decade.

Sedgwick, Michael. Cars of the Thirties and Forties. London: Hamlyn Books, 1980. One of the real authorities on this period (he has several books about the era's cars), this combines excellent graphics and photos and a very good text to show how cars developed through both decades, despite the war's almost total suspension of civilian manufacture for years. The author has done several related books, all worthwhile.

Seiff, Ingo. The Great Classics: Automobile Engineering in the Golden Age. London: Orbis, 1986. Covering a longer period (this goes back before World War I) and as the sub-title suggests, focused on the men who engineered these cars, this combines lengthy text with some glorious photos.

Stein, Jonathan A., ed. Curves of Steel: Streamlined Automobile Design at Phoenix Art Museum. Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 2007. Only on display for two months (and we had the luck to see it) were these nearly two-dozen stunning examples of cars from the 1930s and more recently.
Stobbs, William. Les Grandes Routieres: France's Classic Grand Tourers. London: Foulis, 1990. Covers such cars as the racing and other Bugattis, the fine Hispano-Suiza, the Delage and Delahaye, and the graceful Talbot-Lago, only a few of which ever made it to these shores. Solid text by a number of authorities and wonderful photos.