1920s Cars Worth a Second Look

Antique cars offer a different driving experience.

By Martin Swig

August 22, 2011

A quick look at any auction catalog event entry list will make it clear that the most treasured cars today are those from the 1950s and the 1960s. There are good reasons. That period represented the highest level of development for cars just before regulatory forces made many cars boring. The early attempts to meet smog and safety requirements led to some ugly, slow and unsatisfactory cars. Just try an ‘81 Plymouth ‘K’ car, then sample a beautiful, 4-speed ‘65 Mustang 289. No wonder people will pay up for one and shun the other.

But those favored cars could also be looked at another way: sort of like new cars, only not quite as good. Why pay $50-150,000 for an interesting ‘50s/’60s sports car when a new $25,000 Mazda Miata or $45,000 Porsche Boxster does everything better? I remember driving my ‘08 Miata on a tour and dicing with a ‘64 DB-5 Aston Martin. No contest, at any speed. And the Mazda costs zilch to maintain. The Aston technology is not so different from the Mazda, just less developed.

For a real change in technology and the whole culture of driving, check out some cars from the 1920s. They offer a totally different driving experience. Within one (human) generation, cars had gone from primitive horseless carriages to reliable mainstream transportation. But driving one today, it’s hard to imagine that a W.O. 4.5 liter Bentley evolved into a 1950s Bentley Continental. That old Bentley, with heavy steering, cable brakes, center throttle and non-synchro gear box, was a car that had to be mastered. And that’s the fun.

1928 Alfa Romeo and interior detail. Photo courtesy of Martin Swig. (Photo above)

The Bentley was truly a road-locomotive, or "the world’s fastest lorry," as Ettore Bugatti said. Not that M. Bugatti’s cars were easy to drive. But they were lightweight, therefore agile. They, too, had to be mastered. The charm is that there is SO much difference between the Bentley and the Bugatti.

Exploring more 1920s cars, you’d want to try an American. First, a Model T Ford. Rear brakes only, crank start, two-speed planetary transmission, hand-throttle. Top speed: Maybe 40 mph. While the expensive cars were getting better, the Model T’s were staying the same but dropping in price as sales volumes increased. The Model T’s contribution was to put the world on wheels, affordably. The cars were cheap, simple, sturdy and adapted well to the indifferent roads of their time.

Since the Ford T commanded as much as 70 percent of the new car market in some years, a large accessory industry developed. The hot rod movement was born with the overhead valve and overhead cam conversions, pressure oiling, modified intake systems, better brakes, two speed axles and more. Today a T speedster can actually be driven on highway trips. One friend of mine drove his coast-to-coast and back a couple of years ago—you can be sure he met a lot of people everywhere he stopped. That would never happen in a modern car.

1924 Chrysler Roadster. Photo courtesy of Martin Swig.

For variety, if you get hooked on 1920s cars, you could try a Packard or a Chrysler—far better cars in their time than a Ford, and maybe four to 10 times as costly. Early ‘20s cars (Chryslers, Duesenbergs, a very few others excepted) had only rear wheel brakes. They had maximum speeds of 65-75 mph but were happier at 40. Styling had not yet become a big selling point. So, other than the roadsters, ‘20s cars aren’t very sexy looking. But open cars were a large proportion of production then, so there are a lot of survivors.

I had the pleasure of co-driving a ‘28 Bentley 4.5 some years ago on the Mille Miglia, a revival of an open-road endurance race which took place in Italy 24 times from 1927 to 1957. Unblown, but fitted with modern tires and a Laycock de Normanville (1950s British electric) overdrive, the Bentley carried us from London to Brescia (Italy), a 1,000- mile trek, plus the 1,000-mile event. Those cars are heavy to steer, but brakes are quite good. With long gearing and the overdrive, that Bentley was happy on the French auto routes at 90 mph, which equaled 2,500 rpm. Don’t even ask about fuel consumption. And with a good top and side curtains, most of the rain stays outside the car.

1925 Lancia Lambda. Photo courtesy of Martin Swig.

This year I drove my 1925 Lancia Lambda on the California Mille, an annual historic and classic car tour run on public roads which I have organized since 1991. As people expected back in 1925, this Lancia was a totally different animal than the British Bentley (can you really distinguish a car’s nationality today?). The Lancia is lighter, more agile, not as fast. But it, too, has a Laycock overdrive, so it is freeway-happy at 70-75 mph. Being lighter, it’s happier in the tight curves. And it emits a totally different sound.

Try a 1920s car. Be prepared for a shock. You won’t believe how bad it is. But persevere. Pick a car you like. Learn to drive it well. In the end, you’ll have a grand time. And the fact that cars of this era are a bit out of favor means that you get good value for your money.