Few artistic movements can claim to have had an impact anywhere near as significant and lasting as the one achieved by les “Arts Décoratifs” between the mid 20’s and very early 40’s. Long before the Decorative Arts were popularly immortalized with the designation “Art Deco”, a mostly cohesive movement in art, design, architecture, fashion, publicity and many other fields, they were simply a reaction to the times and a new way to look at the world.

Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Art Nouveau was queen. Extremely elaborate and inspired by nature, Art Nouveau reached dizzying heights of complexity and intricacy, a tendency that began to find resistance by the mid 20’s. The year was 1925; in Paris, the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” showcases a new stylistic ideal to the world. It’s the birth of Art Deco. The sobriety of the humble straight line was elevated to artistic expression, replacing the complexity of the Art Nouveau organic shapes. The nature inspired elements of the previous years were replaced by geometric patterns and simple clean forms in which function was the superior concern.

The machine age itself was also greatly celebrated in Art Deco, with the new designs favoring efficiency, aerodynamics and of course, speed. And on this note, we come to the inescapable automobile. Despite the Model T having democratized the concept of owning a car for a lot of people in the US, things in Europe were still quite different and of course, customization (in the sense of one-offs, special builds, custom bodies) was still a thing reserved only for the super rich on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, the 1930’s brought the customization phenomenon to a personal level. Cars were no longer just a functional commodity or a curious little novelty; they were becoming expressions of personality not from the coachbuilders alone, but from the owners themselves. The Art Deco period with its streamline concerns and appreciation of long swooping lines, its love of aviation, strategic use of chrome and extreme attention to detail produced truly extraordinary cars which stand to this day as some of the finest, most attractive, most complex rides ever created. To end the year in style, AV brings you what we consider to be 8 of the finest examples of the Art Deco influence in car styling and conception, 7 of which made in the – obviously fantastic for car design – year of 1938.


Phantom 1




Deco Detail Phantom 1


(1925) Ushering in the Art Deco era by taking a flame thrower to the door and roundhouse kicking it open while still in flames, the Phantom 1 Jonckheere Coupe is undoubtedly one of the biggest punches ever thrown at an established automotive culture. It didn’t just rock the status quo, it picked it up by the collar and shook it to death.

Easily one of the most stunning and extraordinary things to ever to be put on 4 wheels, the Jonckheere Coupe is pure, unadulterated Art in motion. Picture this car next to a Ford of the same period; not only do they look like their function is nowhere near the same, but like they don’t even belong on the same planet. It’s enormous, it’s glorious, it’s the most “Rolls Royce” ever created.

So where did this stylish behemoth come from? Well, before it could terrorize small children and large animals, the Jonckheere Phantom started life as a Hooper bodied Cabriolet, nothing too extraordinary  (when in comparison to other Rolls of the period). However, things changed dramatically when the Raja of Nampara got his hands on it and – probably – said something like “no no no, this won’t do”. The Raja’s solution was to ship the car off to Belgium where Jonckheere and Jonckheere Jr. (Henri and Joseph) went all out and created the masterpiece we absolutely had to go with as first pick for this article.

After its life as a royal ride, the Phantom traveled to the US where it made a career as – we kid you not – sideshow attraction. Finished in gold, it would cost you a buck to check it out. A dollar well spent we’d say. After becoming a kind of barn find in the 80’s, the car was sold and eventually found its way to the prestigious Petersen Museum where it can be appreciated today. Thank goodness for that!







Deco Detail Corsair


(1938) We already did a full article on the Phantom a while back (which you can read here) so we’ll keep it nice and simple. A one-off stunning creation, the Phantom Corsair was idealized by Rust Heinz (of the Heinz ketchup family) and had a projected price of 15 thousand dollars! The body was naturally all hand built (aluminum) and the interior can sit 6 in total comfort. The V8 engine on Phantom had the ability to get it all the way up to 115mph…wonder when was the last time anyone tried that!

Sadly Rust Heinz died in a crash at 25, leaving this as the only example of his automotive genius.







Deco Detail Alfa2


(1938) The 2900B is a rare and very impressive car in any of its forms, but the Touring Spider is the height of beauty for these naturally gorgeous Italians. The background of the 2900B is set firmly in the most hardcore racing event of its day, the Mille Miglia. This means Alfa had the handling and performance down by the time the 2900B began production (if you can call it that with so few made).

For these super luxurious grand tourers, Alfa dialed down the performance and upgraded the comfort. Still, the 2900B had a very respectable 180hp at its disposal, courtesy of an amazing straight 8 engine.  Built only for 2 years and with a grand total of just 32 units assembled, the 8C 2900B is a rare bird; with reportedly just 12 examples made of the 2900B Touring Spider (there was a choice of short – “Corto” – and long – “Lungo” – chassis; respectively 5 and 7 examples made of each), this is one of the most coveted incarnations of this special Alfa.







Deco Detail Atlantic


(1938) This is the car which defined Bugatti, the car with which the French manufacturer is still measured today: the 57SC Atlantic.

The “S” (“surbaissé” – lowered) variant of the type 57 is rare enough on its own, but the SC (supercharged) takes the cake with only 3 units ever made (a 4th one was supposedly lost).

The Atlantic is without a doubt striking, but it is also really odd. You may notice that the car is riveted instead of welded. This I because a strange creation deserves to be made of a strange material. The body of the 57SC is composed of “Elektron” (seriously though, how amazing is that name?), a magnesium alloy which is very light but also extremely flammable, so welding it wasn’t the best idea. Because of this little issue, the 57SC Atlantic got some very stylish fins for all the rivets that give it its signature aeronautic look; this way, the body panels could be joined and catastrophic fires prevented, a win-win.

Super light, aerodynamic and featuring a supercharged inline 8, when new, the 200hp 57SC could reach 123mph. Not bad at all for 1938.

Because they’re so ridiculously rare and the universal symbol for Bugatti, these cars are also ludicrously expensive. The one featured here belongs to Mr. Ralph Lauren whom we feel needs no introduction and is worth an estimated 40+ million dollars. Yikes.




1937-1939 Mercedes Benz 540 K Autobahn Kurier 2

1937-1939 Mercedes Benz 540 K Autobahn Kurier 4


Deco Detail 5402


(1938) As is the case with the Phantom Corsair, we love the 540K so much that we already did a piece on it a while back; you can read it here.

Hands down the most stunning pre war Mercedes (actually, we’d argue it’s the most beautiful car Mercedes ever made, but the 300SL Gullwing puts up some strong competition), the Autobahnkurier is another one of a kind creation and let us tell you, this thing had an extraordinary life! Just because it’s gorgeous it doesn’t mean it became a garage queen, not even close.

The 540K’s owner took it on a long tour across Northern Africa, testing the mechanical abilities of the – then – bran new Mercedes. The car ended up being shipped back to Spain (the owner was a Spanish doctor, ophthalmologist) from Egypt, remaining in the same family until the early 00’s. Afterwards and under new ownership, it went on to win best in show at Villa d’Este 2008.

The really cool part about the 540K’s legacy as a one family car is that when the Barraquer family finally let go of their stylish ride it was for a cause. The sale of the Autobahnkurier financed the Fundácion Barraquer, an institution dedicated to providing ophthalmic treatment in impoverished areas of the globe.







Deco Detail 165 2


(1938) When most people think of Art Deco style rides they think of Delahayes and it’s not hard to see why. The company didn’t just build some of the most elaborate, complex shapes of the period, but also heavily influenced designs even after the artistic movement (Art Deco) itself had winded down; case in point, the surreal 1947 Franay Bentley MK6 Convertible.

Delahaye perfected what we like to call the “hovercar” look. Covered wheel wells complete with stunning chrome accents became a calling card of the manufacturer. Honestly there are a few Delahayes from this period to choose from and they all have this “hovercar” look to them. However, from the lot, our personal favorite has to be the 1938 165 Cabriolet. Beautifully balanced but still outrageously Deco, the 165 is quite simply the embodiment of style. The gorgeous Figoni & Falaschi body was coupled to a 4.5L 12 cylinder engine, making sure the 165 didn’t just look fast but could deliver as well.

This particular car didn’t only have the responsibility of looking good and going fast, it gained a bigger purpose; the 165 Cabriolet became a showcase for the style and class of an entire country. You see, this fetching Delahaye was picked by the French government to represent the nation at the 1939 New York World Fair and well, it very unsurprisingly stole the show.

Due to WWII, the car was stuck in U.S. customs for 8 years, eventually being sold and having its 12 cylinder replaced by a Cadillac V8. Restored in the 80’s, the 165 Cabriolet regained its 4 lost cylinders and continues to steal shows today just like it did back in 39.







Deco Detail Xenia


(1938) At the start of this article we mentioned how the Deco years really allowed for a car to become the expression of an individual’s personality. That was certainly the case with the Hispano-Suiza H6C Saoutchik Dubonnet Xenia Coupe Streamliner; say that 3 times fast…A big name for a great car. Hispano-Suiza was already a well established company by the time the Xenia was conceived, producing luxury models appreciated by Europe’s elite. However, cars weren’t all Hispano-Suiza made; during the war, the company built airplanes and of course, the knowledge gained in the field of aeronautics turned out to be pretty useful for the automobile business.

Cue André Dubonnet, an extremely wealthy professional badass, flying ace, race car driver and inventor. André came up with a suspension system aptly named the “Dubonnet System” which he sold to GM. Dubonnet teamed up with designer Jean Adreau to create something extraordinary; after buying an Hispano-Suiza chassis and having coachbuilder Saoutchik craft the stunningly futuristic body the two visionaries had dreamed up, the Xenia was born.

An ode to aviation and aerodynamics, the Xenia is the most futuristic looking car on our list and it just seemed very appropriate to end our little article with it. Reportedly André’s 5th attempt at designing his ideal ride and christened “Xenia” after his late wife Xenia Johnson, the Dubonnet Coupe is a thing of wonder and nowadays it resides at the Mullin automotive Museum in California where it can be properly appreciated. For a real up close look at the Xenia, we highly recommend a video the great Mr. James Muir Leno did on it a while back.



Images Used: Phantom 1 – rebrnmotorlegendloveisspeed

Phantom Corsair – carnewsm – commons.wikimedia – motortrend.ca

Alfa Spider – carbase.comultimatecarpage.comconceptcarz

Bugatti 57SC – imgurv12-gtjalopnik

540K – Automotive Viewspinterest

Delahaye – imgur youresofetch

Xenia Coupe – wikipediaautowp

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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