Automotive History: The Last Ones (Part 1: 1940-1970)

Extremes always fascinate. Take, for instance, the extremes of existence that are birth and death – the very first and the very last. With cars, the “first” can be pretty hard to track down, at times. They are prototypes and/or ever-changing mules that may or may not have survived, and were perhaps not photographed all that well. Equally, the very last unit made can be hard to track down – though at least, they’re not usually prototypes and some have been documented and/or saved. Here are a few I found. Some have stories, some don’t.

Let’s start on a high note. German abstract painter Rudolf Bauer, awash with Guggenheim dosh, was touring the US in 1937 and decided to buy a Duesenberg SJ. The factory was already closing down, but there was one demonstrator chassis, originally made in 1931, still in store. Augie Duesenberg himself supervised the complete refurbishing of that chassis, which got a new supercharged engine (a 7-litre DOHC straight-8, if you please) and a wheelbase stretch, over the summer of 1937 and put in storage. But then, Bauer went back to Germany and got arrested. He stayed in jail until 1939, when he was set free and promptly went back to the US.

Once there, he got a hold of his SJ chassis and designed a body for it – not a very up-to-date one, something like a late ‘20s sports car. He went to coachbuilder Rollson, the successor to Rollston that had created many Duesenberg bodies in the ‘20s and ‘30s, to get his dream car made. It took seven months and a small fortune, but in April 1940, the last Duesenberg was finally ready for the road. It still exists today, unrestored and with about 10,000 miles on the clock.

Last “great” ’42 Plymouth and “huge” ’42 Lincoln

There were a number of excellent photos made when Detroit stopped making cars to switch to war production. Nothing of the kind happened in Europe, as far as I know – the decision to go to war was less expected, I guess, and car production in places like France, Germany or Italy didn’t so much switch over as die down progressively – sometimes without totally stopping.

Final ’42 Nash, ultimate ’42 Packard and bye-bye ‘42 Buick

After Pearl Harbour, the US automakers were given a few weeks to finish civilian car production – a significant proportion of which was bought by the Government – and move to war materials. These pictures were taken in January / February 1942; for the next three and a half years, very few cars would be made, and those that were went straight to olive drab life. I’m not sure whether any of these were preserved, but the occasion – and the fact that the model year was ending in winter – was enough to compel several carmakers to immortalize the event.

While we’re in 1942, let’s stay there. In what was left of France that year, the Vichy regime ordered a new parade car for Marshal Pétain. Though little more than the head of a Nazi puppet state, the old marshal still yearned for the trappings of power and tradition. One tradition was that French heads of State rode in huge Renaults, so the carmaker dusted off a prototype LWB chassis of their latest behemoth, the 5.4 litre 8-cyl. Suprastella, made in 1938-39. The chassis was given hydraulic brakes and went to coachbuilder Franay for a massive drop-top limousine body to be fitted on the 372 cm (146.5 in.) wheelbase.

This was to be the last straight-8 Renault. It was used by Pétain, followed by De Gaulle from 1944 to 1946 and Vincent Auriol (pictured above) in 1947. Though it served the French president, the car remained in Renault’s de facto ownership. In 1950, Auriol ordered a Talbot-Lago T26 parade car and the Suprastella was given back to Renault – now State-owned. It has since disappeared and only a few poor quality photos are to be found of it.

Here’s an example of why certain “last evers” can be a bit contentious. This Ford Model A Sportsman was made in 1945 using a 1931 Model A chassis that was sitting around River Rouge. The car was ordered by Henry Ford II, designed by E.T. Gregorie and bodied by the factory, so it’s about as genuine as a Ford can be.

Yet Model A production stopped in 1932, as we all know. So it’s a bit of a stretch to call this “the last Model A.” On the other hand, it very much is a genuine 1945 Model A, if a slightly unusual one. There will be others like this…

Take, for instance, the 1953 Horch 830 BL featured herewith. The chassis was made in 1938, but seems not to have been bodied (or just stayed as a demonstrator in some Auto-Union dealership in West Germany, that part is unclear). When DKW boss Dr Richard Bruhn decided he wanted a company car in the early ‘50s, he asked for the special body to be made by the factory – even though the ancestral home of Horch in Zwickau was now under IFA’s control, and would soon produce the completely unrelated Horch Sachsenring P240.

The folks at Ingolstadt did a pretty splendid job on this chauffeur-driven saloon, despite the fact that this type of car was miles away from the little two-strokers they made on a daily basis. By some miracle, this unique Horch was bought by an American serviceman a few years later and ended up in a field in Texas, where it was saved from the crusher and returned to Audi, Auto-Union’s spiritual successor.

I tried finding period pictures as much as possible, but sometimes they just don’t exist. When Delahaye built their 84th and final 235 chassis – their last-ever car – in early 1954, the situation at the marque’s Parisian factory was rather chaotic. They were still manufacturing a few trucks and their home-grown Jeep for the military, but the car side of the business had been increasingly moribund for the past few years. By June 1954, Delahaye merged with Hotchkiss, another failing carmaker, and the Delahaye name vanished before year’s end.

Just like most of its predecessors, the last 235 chassis, with its 3.5 litre 6-cyl. engine and Cotal electro-magnetic 4-speed gearbox, went across town to coachbuilder Henri Chapron, where a standard four-seater coupé body was fitted. The car left Chapron’s works on 20 May 1954, but it seems to have only got its registration in 1957. It was restored by Chapron themselves in the mid-‘70s and changed hands a number of times – most recently this year, for a cool €91,000.

Another French legend leaves the stage – the last Citroën Traction Avant is getting ready to leave the Quai de Javel works on 25 July 1957. The revolutionary Traction was born in 1934, combining all-steel monocoque construction, hydraulic brakes, FWD, a new OHV engine and torsion bar suspension. It was so modern and daring that it drove André Citroën to bankruptcy – and an early grave. Michelin bought Citroën, made the Traction work technically and financially, and built a range of cars for over 20 years that were still ahead of the game at the end of their production life. Well, except in terms of looks, of course…

The invincible Traction’s death knell sounded when the DS-19 was launched in late 1955. Soon after, the 6-cyl. models, which had pioneered the famous hydropneumatic suspension system, went away. Then Citroën introduced the ID-19, a low-spec version of the DS (sans hydraulically-assisted steering, brakes and clutch) in 1956, which meant the 11 CV was going to be gone soon. And so it was, with this LWB Familiale 8-seater, which departed by road to Brittany, where it was sold and never seen again.

Zipping back across the Atlantic, we find ourselves in Louisville, Kentucky, on 21 November 1959 – a Saturday. This is the day when the wheels finally came off Edsel. This tan-coloured Villager wagon was the last of the very short model year 1960 to be put together by Ford. It’s hard not to feel a little something when seeing this car – a very nice example of contemporary Detroit styling, by any standard, but also a notorious failure of marketing by one of the biggest carmakers in the world. It wasn’t the first, but they hoped it would be the last. Alas, there would be many other “Edsels” in Detroit’s future, and not all of them Ford-based.

Ah, the agony of Borgward… Was there ever a sadder termination than that of the Bremen giant? Certainly, the somber-looking folks around this Isabella seem to think so. Their placard reads “You were too good for this world.” A number of Borgwards were put together after this picture was taken in 1963, but they were not made in Bremen. A strange end to a most idiosyncratic carmaker. If you want to know more, I urge you to read this.

This one’s a bizarre multinational effort – made across two decades – that really didn’t work out too well. In 1964, the Bugatti family sold off a lot of their remaining assets, including a number of precious cars, such as Ettore’s Type 41 Royale, among other things. At the Molsheim factory, a leftover 101 chassis had been preserved and never bodied. Made from 1951 to 1953, the Bugatti Type 101 was an ill-conceived re-hash of the pre-war Type 57. It kept the 57’s antique beam axle and its superb 3.3 litre DOHC straight-8, but nobody was interested. Bugatti sold a literal handful and went back into hibernation.

Compare and contrast: the “production” Bugatti 101 in 1952 and the 1965 Exner / Ghia

The sixth and last Type 101 chassis never found a buyer at the time, but by 1964 things had changed. A budding community of well-heeled connoisseurs recognized that this was a unique opportunity to buy the last genuine 8-cyl. Bugatti ever made – and put a body on it, too. An American enthusiast bought the chassis and asked Virgil Exner to design a roadster, which was executed (yes, that is the right word) by Ghia in 1965. The chassis was shortened by a good 25 cm to make the design appear less heavy, I guess, although Exner just put those 25 cm back up front as overhang, so that was kind of pointless. A dreadful end to a great name.

Let’s stay in Eastern France, moving from Molsheim to Sochaux. It’s early November 1966 and the last Peugeot 403 saloon just rolled off the assembly line. The 403 had been launched in late 1955 and continued being made as an economy model even after its successor, the mighty 404, arrived in the spring of 1960. As a matter of fact, the 403 pickup was still being made in Argentina for some years after the PininFarina-styled berline had passed on, ushering something of a Peugeot tradition of making RWD pickups outlast their saloon equivalent. But still, this was the last French-made 403, and it passed away in relative anonymity. Columbo would only make it TV-famous in the ‘70s — something of a missed opportunity for Peugeot.

Let’s not wallow in self-pity, though. Let’s instead bawl uncontrollably at the passing of Studebaker. This dark and grainy picture of the last Stude ever baked was taken in Hamilton on the evening of 17 March 1966. The man facing the camera, holding back the tears, is Ed Harse – Studebaker of Canada’s head of engineering. He is cold. He is sad. He is looking for a job.

Here’s a better photo of that last Studebaker (as photographed by Jim Grey in his CC tour of the Studebaker National Museum), which has fortunately survived and is preserved for posterity. But in terms of unique last-of-the-breed Studebakers, I think we can do better than that…

This ad was placed in newspapers in the mid-‘70s by the last Avanti’s second owner, Joe Erdelac. It also tells you all you need to know, which is quite handy for me. The asking price was a bit on the steep side, even for an Avanti with the rare supercharged R3 engine and a limited-slip diff. Erdelac had bought the Avanti in 1967 for $7000 – I don’t know how much he ended up getting for it, but this exclusive car survives today.

The 1962-65 Bentley S3 Continental was also pretty exclusive – and quite a bit more expensive than a Studebaker. All Continentals were made “in the old style” as chassis-only cars, with the customer selecting a coachbuilder for the kind of finished product he desired. The problem, by the early ‘60s, was that there weren’t many coachbuilders capable of doing this type of job any more. Rolls-Royce’s in-house outfit, Mulliner-Park Ward, was the default choice, though James Young still existed as well (they bodied 20 of the 311 S3 Continental chassis made). And on the Continent, there were a few still in operation.

This Continental’s chassis was made in 1965. It is not the last one made, but the body was only finished in 1967 by the great Swiss carrossier Herman Graber, so it’s the last one that was registered. Graber had a long history with Bentley, but hadn’t worked on one of their chassis in years. In the meantime, he had worked closely with Alvis, making a series of beautiful specials on the British firm’s final 3-litre cars. For this Bentley, Graber reworked his Alvis body to fit the larger Continental. The final result for this final old-style Continental wasn’t half bad. This car, hitherto very discreet, was seen at Pebble Beach this year.

But having begun on a blue-blooded Duesenberg, let’s end things on a more plebeian Glas. This is the last Goggomobil to come out of the Dingolfing factory on 25 June 1969. A true success, these little runts were made from 1954 to 1969 – predating and outlasting all the other Glas cars except the BMW 1800 SA. It’s a very short car, but it tells long story, which has been written already.


See you for Part 2 (1970-present) in a week.


Related posts:


Cohort Classic Capsule: 1942 Lincoln Continental – The Beginning Of The End, by PN

CC Capsule: 1942 Buick Series 90 Limited – Icarus’ Twin Carbureted Chariot, by Aaron65

Classic Curbside Classic: 1929 Ford Model A – The Best Ford Ever – Maybe Even The Best Car Ever, by PN

Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (Third Helping, part 3) – Delahaye 4.5 Litres (type 175 / 178 / 180) & Delage D6: Cream And Punishment, by T87

Automotive History: The Citroën 15-Six – Traction Royalty Genealogy 101, by T87

Car Show Classic: 1960 Edsel Villager – Unicorn In Wisconsin, by GN

Automotive History: German Deadly Sins (The Bayern Cycle, Part 2) – A Four-Wheeled Titanic Named Borgward, by T87

Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (Sports/Luxury Edition, Part 1) – Bugatti Type 101, by T87

Curbside Classics: Peugeot 403 Sedan and Cabriolet – The Beginning Of The Pininfarina Era or Who’s The Fairest Pug Of Them All?, by PN

Auction Classic: 1966 Studebaker Cruiser – End of the Road, by Tom Halter

Curbside Classic: 1964 Studebaker Avanti – Fall Forward Onto The Sword, Rise Like The Phoenix, by Laurence Jones

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