Jay Gatsby had it all, except perhaps the presence of mind to dial down the drama so he could hold on to the good things, namely cars and bikes that would stand the test of time for unrelenting beauty and elegance. The art deco era, spanning over two decades, influenced design internationally — and vehicles were beneficiaries of this arty approach to industry. So much of what was built in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s now only exists in the hallowed halls of museums and collectors’ garages as we drool upon this glorious motoring past. Gatsby’s greatness could’ve remained, had he chosen to drive one of these beauties into the West Egg sunset, leaving Daisy behind in a cloud of rich exhaust. Fresh for Baz Luhrmann’s full throttle cinematic interpretation of the landmark Fitzgerald novel, we’ve collected 10 of the finest art deco cars and bikes ever built.
1934 Voisin C27 Aerosport
Gabriel Voisin, a French aviation pioneer and car builder was a true revolutionary in the automotive world in the 1930s, building the beautiful and pricey Voisin C27 Aerosport mostly out of aluminum, with a stunning mosaic art deco interior and innovations such as a vacuum-operated sliding glass roof that also doubled as a rear window. It belted out 104 hp from its 3.0-liter engine and could top out at an impressive 93 mph. Voisin built it on borrowed funds and went nearly broke in order to bring his cars to the market. Sound familiar, Citroën?
1948 Timbs Buick Streamliner
At the tail end of the Art Deco Era, a mechanical engineer named Norman E. Timbs designed and built this sleek number with mostly aluminum on top of a steel chassis. At a cost of $10,000, the Streamliner took more than two years to build. The slick aerofoil shape and Buick Super 8 engine allowed the Streamliner to hit 120 mph, pretty quick for its day. The design was actually very simple, free of any gaudy, over-designed adornment. To keep the shape clean, no doors were cut out of the body. You simply stepped out of the cabin onto the protected part of the fender. This made it a bit difficult to show any degree of chivalry on your date. “Get out, yourself.”
1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK
Designed by none other than Ferdinand Porsche, the SSK was not just a fine example of art deco influence but an eminently capable racing car that performed and made podium. The supercharged engine with 500 lb-ft of torque rocked the SSK to 120 mph, making it the world’s fastest car in 1930. It went on to win numerous races such as the German Grand Prix and the Mille Miglia. Ferdinand went on to a somewhat illustrious automotive career. A rare restored SSK, called the Count Trossi, was a Best of Show winner at no fewer than two Concours D’Elegance shows and is owned by none other than Ralph Lauren. Oh, Ralph. Must you have everything?
1938 Saoutchik Hispano-Suiza H6C Dubonnet Xenia Streamliner
Using a modified Hispano-Suiza H6B chassis, aviator and race car driver Andre Dubonnet commissioned this singular example of the Dubonnet Xenia Streamliner. The long tapering design is evocative of aircraft of the same era and sports some rather unique parallel opening doors that move backward along the body of the car. The Dubbonet family was able to fund this expensive effort due in large part to their successful cognac business. Who says drinking and driving is a bad combo?
1934 BMW R7
The R7 shows how deep art deco influence ran. A pure prototype, the R7 stands as one of the most stunning bikes ever created. The opulent mudguards, the fluid sculpture of the body and the ornate steel and chrome all lend to an unparalleled design for motorcycles. Its telescopic front forks also happen to be the first ever on a two-wheeler. Every aspect of the bike contributed to its elegant design, including the enclosed gas tank, the smooth rocker covers and the uniquely shaped exhaust. The bike was stored away in the 1940s and brought back to life by BMW Classics in 2005. Thank the motorcycle gods the R7 survived, since nothing else on two wheels looks anything like it, nor ever will.
1928 Rolls-Royce 40/50hp Phantom I Ascot Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton
This was pretty much Jay Gatsby’s prized ride, at least in one of the movies. As showy and opulent as Liberace on a diamond piano, the big yellow Rolls was a sight to see, even in the era of big displays of wealth. With custom coachwork by Brewster, a Long Island, NY based company, this version of the Phantom is strongly influenced by the American tastes of its time, different from British iterations of the same car. The car’s rather potent 7,668cc, 113 hp engine was easily overshadowed by the beautifully crafted interior and cabin. It’s not a stretch of the imagination that this massive hunk of wealth-fueled flamboyance would almost fill the role of a character in Fitgerald’s novel. Even in bright yellow, it was less annoying than Daisy.
1938 Phantom Corsair
In pure art deco anger, the Corsair was both svelte and ferocious. The Phantom Corsair was designed by Rust Heinz of the H.J. Heinz fortune. As futuristic as things got back in then, the Phantom Corsair really looks like a film noir armored car with its shrouded wheels and smooth but menacing grille. The doors operated with electric pushbuttons instead of door handles, making it even more streamlined in appearance. As long as the car was, the more shocking dimension was the 6″+ width that could accomodate four people in the front row, one to the left of the driver. Too bad this car never saw production since Rust Heinz died prematurely in a car accident in 1939. Guess he should’ve stuck with condiments.
1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
Touted as the most beautiful car ever made, the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic also happens to be one of the priciest cars ever sold at auction. Only two SCs were built and horsepower was bumped up from 175 to 200 via a supercharger. Its iconic design that takes Art Deco curvature to beautiful extremes is the real treasure, though. Had this been Jay Gatsby’s ride of choice, he probably would’ve tried harder to avoid hitting Myrtle.
1937 Delahaye 145 Chapron Coupe
French car maker Delahaye left its strong design impression on the world of art deco style cars. The 145 Chapron Coupe is one of the more subtle, but still stunning models, and only a scant two were built. Housing a big 4.5-liter V12, the cigar shaped body was designed by Henri Chapron and updated with a beautiful two-tone paint job. Not only was the 145 elegant, it was also incredibly fast, belching out 235 horsepower and a top speed of over 160 mph — Grand Prix speeds that resulted in numerous race car victories, including the Mille Miglia. Count this as one instance where the French didn’t relinquish power.
1936 KJ Henderson Westfall
If you’ve ever seen the cartoon Batman hop on his film noir style Batcycle, then you know that the 1936 KJ Henderson motorcycle is its inspiration. Almost car-like in its execution the bike used a 1930 K.J. Henderson motorcycle and added extensive bodywork and coachwork for a completely custom job in 1936. The bike was originally built in 1936 and was customized from a 1930 K.J Henderson. Most recently, the bike was fully restored by Frank Westfall of Syracuse, NY. Though it’s probably not a razor in the turns, the inline four cylinder engine provides enough power to move this two-wheeled art deco dream comfortably. Bats would’ve destroyed it.