The Best Car Decades

The other day I was walking downtown to work when I passed this beautiful example of Detroit’s former handiwork in front of Kittie’s Cakes. This vintage convertible—which I think was a Lincoln, from the distinctive greyhound hood ornament—was freshly polished and waxed, glinting and gleaming in the bright sunshine, just waiting to be admired. It was like a mobile piece of art.

For my money, American car manufacturers designed and built their most beautiful and eye-catching cars in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In that era there was an attention to detail and gracefulness in the design of sedans and coupes and other passenger vehicles, and a kind of recognition that a car is important and says something about its owner, and therefore is really worthy of careful creation. The cars of those decades are sleek and pleasing in appearance, with lots of rounded curves, but powerful in performance, with plenty of horsepower. They look like they would be a lot of fun to drive.

Cars from the ‘20s and earlier look like antique curiosities that—unlike this specimen—could never hold their own on a modern highway. By the ‘50s Detroit was in the throes of its Fin Fixation, giving cars a look that hasn’t worn well. The ‘60s saw a brief resurgence in design, but didn’t fully recapture the classic combination of grace and power seen in the ‘30s and ‘40s. By the ‘70s, with its series of dismal, uninspired, boxy rust buckets, Detroit hit rock bottom. Since then, the focus has been on functionality, minivans, and pickups, and the days when car manufacturers would try to build a graceful, elegant, and powerful passenger car are now far behind us.

In retrospect, the ‘30s and ‘40s are the glory days. It’s great to see one of the products of that era still on the street.

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