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‘The Great Gatsby’: The Amazing Autos of the 1920’s and ’30s

When director Baz Luhrmann decided to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, hetook certain liberties to bring the story to the screen. He shot in 3-D, commissioned a hip-hop-inflected soundtrack from Jay-Z and steered some plot points into what he thought to be more compelling directions. When it came to the 1920’s style–homes, clothes, cars–Luhrmann’s production took liberties with the time period, but spared no expense. Nowhere is the decadence of the 1920’s displayed with more flash in this film than through its cars.

Opening this weekend, the film has been called a “relentless assault on the senses.” And that’s just how Luhrmann wanted it. To really bring all the audaciousness of the 1920’s alive, Luhrmann became a research fanatic. From recreating Fitzgerald’s first boat trip to America to reading the writer’s collected works from front to back, Luhrmann and his wife buried themselves in the style of the day to find and recreate the very best cars. While many models were released after the book’s 1922 setting, the cars reflect the very best in American style for the period. Below is a look inside Gatsby’s garage at the best cars available in early 20th century America.

(Click here for the Top 10 celebrity rides)

1929 Duesenberg Model J: Founded in Des Moines, Iowa in 1913 by German brothers August and Frederick, Duesenberg Motor Company quickly became known as some of the finest automobiles in the world. Nicknamed “Duesys” by enthusiasts, Duesenbergs were hand-made by engineers to give not only luxury but speed to America’s wealthiest motorists. In 1914, Eddie Rickenbacker drove a “Duesy” to finish in 10th place at the Indianapolis 500, and a Duesenberg won the race in 1924, 1925, and 1927.

After a takeover by engine manufacturer E.L. Cord in 1926, Duesenberg went on to challenge the best luxury models in the world, including Rolls Royce and Mercedes Benz by creating race-inspired engines and unsurpassed luxury. The result of this ambition became the Model J, a beautiful ride with a straight eight motor producing an impressive (for the period) 265 horsepower (198 kW) from dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Generating a top speed of 119 mph (192 km/h), and 94 mph (151 km/h) in 2nd gear,  the Model J became the fastest and most expensive American automobile on the market.

1927 Packard Series 6 Roadster: Founded in 1900 as the Ohio Motor Company, Packard quickly developed a reputation as one of the premier luxury car manufacturers in the world. By 1928, the company had released several popular models and grew its gross income to $21,889,000. One of the premier models was the Series 6. Offering a 6-cylinder engine (large for the time) and a rumble seat, the Series 6 helped Packard become one of the few independent automakers to survive the Great Depression.

1933 Auburn Salon Speedster: One of the most powerful engines put in a car in this era was the V-12 developed by Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg subsidiary Lycoming for the 1933 Auburn Salon Speedster. Originally developed to be a 45-degree V-16, the company thought the V-12 would be more marketable, creating this sleek, slope-roofed beauty for a lower price than one would anticipate. Because it was too late to change the V-angle to the typical 60-degree layout, Auburn offered the lowest priced V-12 available anywhere in 1933. While certainly not customary of the 1920’s lifestyle the film is trying to portray, the Auburn sure looks pretty on the silver screen.

1922 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost: Perhaps the most appropriate car for a man desperate to portray the vaunted sophistication of British nobility was the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, which may be why Fitzgerald mentioned it specifically in his book.

In order to raise awareness of this hand-built British manufacturer, Rolls Royce called their model the Silver Ghost to emphasize its quiet, rumble-free ride. And its engineering followed suit. Rolls created a new side-valve, six-cylinder, 7036 cc engine with the cylinders cast in two units of three cylinders each and an attached 4-speed transmission. The seven-bearing crankshaft had full pressure lubrication, and the center main bearing was made especially large to remove vibration. Two spark plugs were fitted to each cylinder with, from 1921, a choice of magneto or coil ignition. The earliest cars had used a trembler coil to produce the spark with a magneto as an optional extra which soon became standard – the instruction was to start the engine on the trembler/battery and then switch to magneto. Continuous development allowed power output to be increased from 48 bhp (36 kW) at 1,250 rpm to 80 bhp (60 kW) at 2,250 rpm. These innovations helped reduce vibration and maximize power–a lesson any hi-performance engine school graduate should look on in awe!

To learn more about how engine innovators are making the hi-performance cars of today, check out our Free E-Book, Top 10 Tricked Out Celebrity Rides.

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