By on December 3, 2012

1929 Packard Eight 745 Sport Phaeton owned by Richard & Linda Kughn – More photos here.

Not much more than a decade ago, the total worldwide market for the most expensive cars was in four figures. Then, not necessarily in chronological order, Ford bought Aston Martin, VW and BMW fought over the rights to the Rolls-Royce and Bentley brands, Fiat started taking its investment in Ferrari seriously and VW bought Lamborghini. Instead of operating as they had been, more or less boutique operations, those luxury marques were now expected to pay their keep. Also someone smart figured out that there were a lot more than just few thousand rich people in the world and that a $200,000 car is almost an impulse purchase to people who can afford a Gulfstream or a fourth home. For most of the years 1985-2001 Ferrari sold between 3,200 and 4,500 cars a year. Today, Ferrari alone makes about 7,000 cars a year.

1931 Packard Dual Cowl Phaeton – More photos here

Never, it seems, at least in modern times, have the very affluent had so many top shelf automotive choices on which to lavish their lucre. With pop culture’s fascination with the red carpet, an expensive car becomes a necessary accessory for making an arrival. Fashion accessories, though, go in and out of style. As Jack Baruth said, “the value of the thing is the price,” it’s the almost disposable quality of contemporary “luxury” goods and the flavor of the month styling (as opposed to timeless design) that they have that gives those goods the cachet of luxury in contemporary consumers’ minds. If you’re spending fuck you money, who cares whether what you spend it on it lasts a month or 50 years? Why should “luxury” and “style” last any longer than bottles of Krystal or Remy Martin you ordered for your entourage at the club last night?

1934 Packard Twelve Dual Cowl Phaeton

One can mock hipsters and steampunks for their search for “authenticity”, but they’re on to something. The authentic truth is that genuine quality lasts, genuine style lasts, genuine luxury lasts, and you can buy that kind of authentic luxury for about what it costs for something that will be passe in just a few months.

1933 Lincoln Model KB Dual Cowl Phaeton – One of Nine. More photos here.

In the slightly less than two years that I’ve been publishing Cars In Depth, I’ve had the opportunity to go to many, many car events and I’ve seen thousand and thousands of cars of just about every shape and variety made since Bertha Benz had to stop at an apothecary for cleaning fluid to refuel for the ride home when she took her husband’s Patentwagen out for a drive. I don’t keep a close count but based on the number of files that I’ve uploaded to the site, by now I’ve taken about 10,000 photos and hundreds of videos, all of cars and car events. I’ve seen quite a few luxury cars from every era but if I had an unlimited budget and I wanted to make an impression when arriving at an event, I can’t say which brand I’d buy, but a dual cowl phaeton from the 1930s is my idea of arriving in style. The long hood and the sleek open phaeton body style makes them ideal parade cars (particularly if it’s a parade of one), and the second cowl and windshield for the passengers make it clear that these are cars in which you are driven. Even with their tops up, the rakish windshields and jaunty folding tops give phaetons a stylish flair.

1933 Chrysler Imperial CL by LeBaron – Customized for his wife by LeBaron chief Ralph Roberts – more photos here

To be honest, it’s a recent affectation. I’m a child of the ’60s, my Bar Mitzvah was in late 1967, when Mustangs and Corvettes and Camaros were popular. Cars from the 1950s and earlier just didn’t float my boat, particularly as I started getting interested in small, agile sports cars like Lotus. Compared to a sports car of the late 1960s, with disc brakes and independent suspension at all four wheels, overhead cams and maybe even fuel injection, old cars seemed mechanically and technologically boring.

1929 Duesenberg Model J LeBaron Sweep Panel Dual Cowl Phaeton, the first Model J built. More photos here.

Still, I’ve always been interested in how old technology forms the basis for the new. As I spent more time around older cars, I not only gained an appreciation for how forward thinking many of their engineers were but also for their role in the process of progress. In addition I started letting go of my attachment to what I thought was “modern” design and started learning how cars came to look the way they do. I also started recognizing that I don’t have to personally like something to appreciate the elements of its style and design. Subjectively I still think that a 1959 Ford Thunderbird is ugly, but I think I understand what Ford stylists were trying to do. I don’t have to want to decorate my domicile in Art Deco or with Tiffany lamps to appreciate outstanding examples of those genres.

Another Packard dual cowl phaeton. More pics here.

It’s possible that future generations will see the new Lamborghini Aventador Roadster the same way that we see those 1930s classics, as rolling sculpture. Let’s face, rich people’s toys become collectible, so I’m sure that in another 60 or 70 years there will be Aventadors in museums just like the dual cowls pictured here are today. As striking as the Lambo looks, though, it will never have the presence that an elegant car from the classic era will have. Of course that’s entirely one person’s opinion and your mileage may vary, but I bet that if you put a modern-day Lambo or Ferrari in a car show parking lot, parked next to a classic era dual cowl car, more people would stop to look at the classic.

Dual phaetons were cars of royalty and celebrity. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in a 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton

In my day job I do embroidery and work with a number of motorcycle clubs. When I show my sportbike riding friends and customers pictures of my dream bike, a 1974 JPS Norton Commando, they say it’s a very cool bike. Anybody with enough coin can ride a ‘Busa but they aren’t making any more JPS Nortons. As if to prove my point, while I was buttoning up this post, two members of the Urban Legends M/C stopped by about getting some patches of their colors made. A draft of this post was on my screen so I clicked on the link and showed them the JPS Norton and they nodded and said, “Nice bike!”.

1929 Cadillac V8 Dual Cowl Phaeton – More photos here.

Now a classic era dual cowl phaeton isn’t going to be cheap. Duesenbergs can run a million dollars or more. The Ralph Roberts Chrysler Imperial pictured above sold for $1.2 million. However, you can buy another Imperial phaeton with more typical provenance for about a quarter of that price. Packard, Cadillac and Lincoln dual cowls, unless they are particularly special, generally go for between $125,000 and $250,000.

One of these things is not like the others

A Rolls-Royce Phantom sedan starts at $399,000. The Phantom drophead coupe, something roughly analogous to a classic era dual cowl, is $470,000. The new 2013 Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster will have a base MSRP of $445,300 in the USA.

Is a 1930s classic a practical car? Well, is a 2013 Aventador Roadster a practical car? Would you let a valet park your Phantom? If we’re talking something for making an appearance, how practical does it really have to be? Besides, if you want to be authentic and all period correct, making sure that your car runs well and gets you there on time is your driver’s job.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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6 Comments on “Arriving in Authentic Style...”

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    I understand what you tre saying because it almost mirrors my experience regarding Packards and Nortons. As an Apprentice in New Zealand decades ago,one of Dads mates had a 1928 Packard phaeton in his collection .A stunning car in almost original condition. And,one of my Fellow Apprentices scraped up the coin to buy the only JPS commando in Auckland,and possibly New Zealand. link(his nickname) also managed to find a bit of extra cash to install an 850 kit…. We managed these things on $35 per fortnight. Cars which were expensive when they were new ,remain expensive even when on the bones of their arse so I can never understand those who spend 6 figure sums getting mundane things like Australias’ Holdens restored.

  • avatar

    Some of the most beautiful cars ever made. I think that that decade was the pinnacle of cars as art objects. No marque dominated. Post war it was never the same. Occasional brilliance but only for a few. Today, not even that. We’re relegated to the less excessive show car. Sad.

  • avatar

    I can appreciate old cars like that as art, and old muscle cars as art, but something you keep in your private collection like Mr. Leno, taken out once in a while for the car guy TV shows. And like other collectables, you may be buying something that is worth more later…or not. I’m thinking the whole 60’s cars that go for 6 figures on Barrett/jackson will implode at some point.

  • avatar

    These are undeniably beautiful cars, but what are they like to drive?

    That seems like a place where modern cars are more likely to shine … even though I understand your point that people are driven in these cars, instead of driving them.

    If you’re going to compare older with modern sports cars, how about the 1950s era Mercedes Gullwing against the Lamborgini?


  • avatar

    Excellent work, I appreciate your insights. However I think our modern era of luxury will never, ever equal the “old” world luxury. That can be the 20s, the 30s, even up to the 60s. That was when a luxury vehicle was literally hand built to customer specification, not mass produced on an assembly line. Even the most exclusive car today is still a product of a factory churning out at least dozens of identical rides. Maybe they will let you tinker with the option sheet a little more than usual, but it still ain’t coachbuilt unless you are willing to drop millions for a one-off car (Sultan of X type stuff).

    As for your JPS, a noble goal but I think you might not want to meet your hero. I was a Triumph-Norton-BSA mechanic. I learned to despise those cantankerous, leaky old junk piles. We had a basket case JPS languishing in the back of the shop. That fairing is enormous, on an already sizeable machine. And it adds a lot of weight to the already bloated 850. If I was going to get a Norton, I’d get an early, clean 750 Commando Fastback. Avoid the Combat spec motor, replace the Amals with something Japanese, and change the oil FREQUENTLY (a spin on oil filter kit would be my first recommendation) and it should be semi reliable, provided the previous owner rebuilt it properly at some point. You can even make em oil tight given time and a set of rasp files (guess what I often got stuck doing at the shop).

  • avatar

    And this is why I like Packard. Unlike the previous comment, I believe they DID dominate during the 30s and 40s. It’s why I want them to come back to life in one way or another.

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