Soon after the Brass Car Era, (pre 1930) when any bicycle maker could try his hand at creating a horseless carriage, the US entered what we commonly call, the Vintage Car Era. What spurred the vintage car era in a more serious direction was the relatively short period between 1919 and 1930, which coincides with the First World War when the true potential of motorized vehicles and improved roadways became clear to citizens and government alike.
Thus began the vintage car era, 1930ish to 1948, which coincides with the Second World War. So when you are looking at what appears to be a vintage car it might be a Pre-War, War or Post-War car—in reference to World War II.
Visually Distinct Features:
When you think of a vintage car you think of a well-defined automobile, its headlamps stick out, it has quite a small radiator and beaded wheels. What most people don’t realize is that many vintage cars had radios. But with a few exceptions, it was all about being as comfortable as possible.
Some vintage cars evolved into brands we’d recognize today and others died out with time.
One example of Design that Stood the Test of Time:
In 1921 Citroen created the B2, which had a top speed of 45mph. This 3-speed car had a spring suspension and shock absorbers.
Fast forward to the 1955 2CV there is something familiar in the shape, in the headlights for instance, (though it seems to be taking inspiration from the Mini a bit, as well as the VW Beetle). The 55 2CV has four-wheel drive and a fourth gear. It is even suitable for off-road traveling. The main difference, though it would be hard to pick a specific feature, is that it no longer looks like a “boneshaker.”
But the Deux Chevaux (2CV) remained stripped down compared to other cars of its era. Citroen was ahead of its time in predicting what the average car buyer would value, and while the seats were barely more than metal and canvas, the car could carry 2 farmers and a basket of eggs across a plowed field without breaking anything. Sure the windows didn’t roll down, but it went 100 km on 3 liters of fuel, and that kept it popular for over 55 years.
A Vintage Car that Went the Way of the Dinosaur:
A vintage car design that wouldn’t survive, the 1927 Pedroso. It might seem like a car from the future with ignition timing straight from the dash, the seats close to the ground and so on.
The trouble is that when you create a car for racing, parts become expensive very quickly. You also want something unique, not something that can be easily manufactured. Ultimately, the reason for Pedroso’s failure is that it remained a shed-built car; it didn’t go into mass production, so it’s vintage but actually so rare as to not be popular with collectors.
Other Differences between Vintage and Now:
It seems that as cars evolved they have become much more structural and possibly less defined. Terminology has also changed; in the U.K. we speak of “bodywork” rather than “chassis.” (In the US we call it a “frame” & “body” if it’s a truck or old car, or unibody as the case may be.) For more on car-component terms see our post from Monday.
Headlamps and wheel-wells moved from distinct items affixed to the body/frame closer and closer to the body itself and then incorporated completely inside the main body of the vehicle.
The partial convertible, or Coupe DeVille, with its open-top front seat and enclosed rear has given way to cars being only convertible (hard or soft top) or not convertible at all.
The regal “Estate Car,” gave way to the station wagon, which lost it’s spot to the much-maligned minivan, which lost it’s market to the citified version of an SUV.
What might surprise us the most when viewing old photos is the clothes drivers and passengers wore in different eras. Brass era drivers wore what might be thought of as “flying suits.” Vintage era drivers wore their Sunday best. Nowadays they just wear their usual clothes.
Cars as a category have become less special as they became integrated with our everyday life, even though we actually became more dependent on them.
What period of car development are we in now? Well since the 1980s all cars have just been described as modern. But you can divide modern cars up into 20th Century modern and early 21st modern if you so wished.
This doesn’t mean that a 20th Century modern car is fundamentally different from an early 21st Century car. Some things may have changed; the transmission, for instance, the number of speeds and so on. But we are no longer in the time of strong evolution as far the automobile is concerned.