Vehicles representing three-quarters of a century of automotive splendour were parked on the manicured lawns at this year’s Concours d’Elegance of America, but a pair of elegant examples of 1930s-style luxury and excess – cars that should have perhaps never been built in the first place – shared Best of Show honours.
Picked by the judges as the top American-built car was a magnificent 1933 Chrysler Imperial Dual Cowl Phaeton with body by LeBaron, while a sporty 1933 French-made Delage D8S deVillars Coupe Roadster was presented with the rosette denoting the best foreign entry.
By the early 1930s, the Great Depression was braking car sales to a crawl but high-end marques on both sides of the Atlantic remained engaged in a madly fanciful flight in the face of hard reality that saw them create some of the most extravagantly luxurious cars the world has seen. They were built in small numbers, but were purchased by aristocrats, captains of industries that still remained afloat, moneyed playboys and glamorous Hollywood stars.
Some eight decades later, the world’s economy is once again mired to its axles in deep fiscal ruts, but the great cars that emerged from this short-lived 1930s era of automotive exuberance are still admired and sought after. Nowadays by a coterie of high-end collectors who hand over very large amounts of cash for the privilege of owning and showing them at events such as the Concours d’Elegance of America.
Some 10,000 visitors got an eyeful of these two beauties and more than 300 others ranging from dragsters and micro-cars at this year’s concours held for the second year at its new site at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth, Mich., in late July. For the past three decades its home had been Meadow Brook Hall at Oakland University in Michigan.
Chrysler introduced its Imperial line in 1926 to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln and launched the larger and grander CG series in 1930 – powered by a big inline-eight versus the old model’s six – that was offered in standard and semi-custom body styles. The CH series followed in 1932 and included the new long-wheelbase CL Custom Imperial with its distinctively long hoodline.
The St. John’s winning car was the personal creation of designer Ralph Roberts who had established his reputation with coach builders LeBaron (by then Chrysler’s in-house custom body builder) and bought it as a birthday gift for his wife.
This 5,397-mm long, 2,218-kg car is powered by a 135-hp, 385-cubic-inch (6.3-litre) L-head eight, with four-speed gearbox, has solid axles front and back and hydraulic disc brakes. It boasted unique Roberts touches that include an extended fender line, fender skirts, a painted rather than chrome rad, unique headlights, “French disc” covers over its wire wheels and its twin spares mounted at the rear rather than in front fender wells.
It may have been the last one built, and Mrs. Roberts drove it into the war years. Since then, it has passed through a number of hands and been part of some serious collections, including most recently that of the Milhous brothers. Their eclectic accumulation of stuff was auctioned by Canada’s RM Auctions and Sotheby’s earlier this year and realized more than $38-million.
Its new owner, criminal trial lawyer Joseph C. Cassini III of New Jersey, contributed $1.2-million of that to add the Imperial to his collection – which he’s been quoted as saying is way more fun than collecting stamps or coins as a method of mentally winding down to a slow idle. “You can drive your collection and work on it. It’s the ultimate hobby.” The St. John’s win made his silver-trophy-return-on-investment a speedy one.
The Best in Show foreign marque 1933 Delage D8S DeVillars Roadster was sold by RM a few years ago for $3.7-million and is now part of the Jim Patterson collection. Patterson, of Louisville, Ky., started out as a 12-year-old drug store delivery boy and went on to found the Long John Silver’s franchise and have involvement in Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurants and Rally Burger.
All that took up much of his time and it wasn’t until the mid-1990s he began to get serious about collecting cars and become just as serious about enjoying them. He now has an extensive and expensive collection and the Delage, which was restored by RM and has been a winner at the Pebble Beach, Ville d’Este and now St. John’s concours, is undoubtedly a favourite.
The Delage marque was founded in 1905 and experienced its glory years in the 1920s when its road cars began to take on the established luxury brands and its racers won a number of Grand Prix events and a European championship.
The sportingly elegant D8 – powered by a 105-hp, overhead-valve, 4.0 litre inline-eight – was first seen at the Paris motor show of 1929 and was followed by the D8S with its motor tweaked to produce 120 hp, giving it a top speed of about 160 km/h.
The D8S also had a shorter wheelbase and a lowered chassis, to which live axles front and back were hung on quarter elliptic springs. Braking was by cable-operated drums. Famed coachbuilders Carrosserie deVillars provided the stunning bodywork for this example of the 100 built. It was the last hurrah for the marque, which was taken over by Delahaye in 1935. Attempts were made to revive it post-war, but didn’t prove successful.
The D8S’s first owner was the son of the prime minister of Spain, its second the brother of the mayor of Madrid and its third a posh hotel that used it as a VIP shuttle. It was then put into storage for four decades, emerging a few years ago to once again bask in the admiration of all who get a chance to see it in its stunning glossy white-on-white-on-white glory, the bodywork, frame, brake drums, steering wheel and white-faced instruments.
Back in 1933
- American jazz great Billie Holiday is “discovered” at a club called Covan’s and makes her recording debut soon after at age 18. Perry Como gives up his barbering job and joins the Freddy Carlone Band.
- The New York Rangers beat the Maple Leafs 3-1 to win the Stanley Cup, Louis Meyer wins the 21st Indy 500 in a Miller special and Gene Sarazen is the PGA champion.
- The Marquis of Clydesdale becomes the first to fly over Mount Everest. The RAF squadron leader led a flight of two Westland biplane torpedo bombers. Air France launches operations.
- The Lone Ranger debuts on radio, the first Krispy Kreme donut shop opens and singer Willie Nelson, and actors Michael Caine, Jayne Mansfield and Carol Burnett are born.