by David Grainger
President, The Guild of Automotive Restorers
I just read that next year Queen Elizabeth is being presented with a Bentley rather than a Rolls Royce or Daimler (The British Daimler, not Mercedes). Bentley it seems still carries the now dying resonance of the opulent motor vehicles of the past, and is still considered fit for a Queen. This is no longer true of a majority of the cars that we now consider the flagships of the wealthy.
Take for example the Cadillac. In the nineteen thirties the V-16 Cadillac vied with Packard, Peerless, Pierce Arrow and numerous other manufacturers to grace the driveways and carriage houses of the wealthy. Today Cadillacs are differentiated from much cheaper cars by only the host of gimmicks that they contain. Indeed one of their newest offerings is nothing more than a G.M.C. truck with embellishments.
How different from earlier days when cars were purchased by people who had no intention of ever driving them. Manufacturers concentrated on producing automobiles in which the rear compartment had more in common with an Edwardian drawing room than an automobile. Tapestry and brocade often graced the headliners and seats while exotic woods finished off interior appointments such as the bar and picnic tables and work desks. Only the finest wools were used for carpets and foot rests. To accommodate all of this finery the passenger compartments were huge. In most cases even a tall individual with long legs would fail to touch the bulkhead separating the back seat from the driver's compartment while properly seated. A roll down glass divider insured a chauffeur not overhear an owners more sensitive conversations. In some cars such as Pierce Arrows a speedometer was ensconced in the forward bulkhead to allow an owner to check up on a chauffeurs speed and orders could be barked through a brass speaking tube connecting the passenger and driver compartments.
Rolls Royce often provided sets of Waterford crystal decanters and sherry glasses and Packard and Pierce Arrow hid full picnic and silver tea services in foot rests and floor compartments. In one Pierce Arrow that I know of there is a special compartment in the centre of the side mounted spare tire in which a gentleman's top hat could be properly sequestered and kept from harm.
A Duesenberg that had been prepared for a lady to cross Africa in the nineteen thirties exhibited great comforts. The seats in the back were the richest brocades and the wood trim that encircled the ceiling and framed the doors and appointments was all hand carved and would have had merit in the finest Georgian mansions. The car's coachwork incorporated huge water tanks and a host of concealed options suitable for a comfortable crossing of the Sahara. The driver on the other hand had a Spartan and quite uncomfortable compartment, open to the outside environment in a fashion called Sedanka de Ville which was a holdover from earlier times when the coachman had to sit outside to drive the horses. In some Sedankas the driver had a canvass rain roof or sliding panel to cover him during inclement weather, but for the main part he had to endure the vagaries of the weather. In most luxury cars little consideration was given to the creature comforts of the driver. His compartment was very small and cramped as the rear compartment was made as large as possible. Hot water heaters were a later invention, early cars had small footrests that contained glowing coals. A person's feet could be kept warm for at least a small time during the trip, a luxury when compared to winter transportation in preceding centuries.
Leather, a modern symbol of luxury was in the earlier half of the twentieth century literally used on the cheap seats. Leather seats meant no roof and no roof meant a fairly cheap car. A car with wool seats was a closed car and was beyond the means of the average motorist. Chauffeurs had to put up with leather; owners sat on rich silk Melton or woollen pillows stuffed with feathers, horsehair or linen rag.
Bud vases, recently provided in the Volkswagen Beetle were a common feature of expensive cars in days gone by. It was the chauffeur's job to make sure that a fresh arrangement of blooms occupied the car's vases each morning. To insure passenger privacy fancy roller blinds with silk tassels could be pulled down or heavy curtains drawn against the prying eyes of those less fortunate. The closest modern cars come opulence is the stretch limousine, but these disproportionate leviathans are more often an ostentatious display of bad taste than they are symbols of class. Too bad, it might be nice to picture oriental silk, fine woodwork and expensive brocade filling the interior of a passing stretch rather than bright red velour, flashing rainbow lights and disco balls.