Cars In The 1920s That Shaped American History

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Americans and their cars! We’ve had a love affair with cars since they first came out 100 years ago, and while they are drastically different now from cars in the 1920s, we still love them!

1920s Cars

The 1920s was a decade of great change and innovation in the automotive industry. The introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T made cars more affordable and accessible to the masses, and the rise of the assembly line led to a dramatic increase in production. As a result, car ownership soared, and cars became a symbol of the American dream.

Impact of the 1920s Automobiles

The Roaring 20s also saw the introduction of a number of new technologies that would have a lasting impact on the automotive industry. These included the self-starter, the closed all-steel body, the high-compression engine, hydraulic brakes, and synchromesh transmission. These innovations made cars safer, more reliable, and easier to drive, paving the way for the modern car.

1920s vintage car with an old lady standing in front

Cars gave people the freedom to travel and explore, and they helped create a new sense of mobility and independence. The cars of the 1920s were also a symbol of status and wealth, helping to define the American dream.

Let’s talk about cars from the 1920s and see what has changed. One thing is certain- it’s been a wild ride!

What Was the First Car Made in 1920?

Back in 1886, Carl Benz applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” The “car” looked more like a motorized 3-wheeled bicycle, but this would be the precursor of what we know today as the Mercedes-Benz automobile.

Why wasn’t everyone driving a Benz in the 1920s? This is because a man named Henry Ford created the first car that was affordable for the average person.

1920s Ford Model T

Ford Motor Company produced the first car made in 1920- the Ford Model T. It was manufactured using an assembly line process, which was completely new to the automotive industry, and it literally stunned the world.

Right up until about 1926, Ford dominated the auto industry. In 1921, an astounding 61 percent of all cars sold were Ford Model T’s.

How Many Different Cars Came Out in the 1920s?

list of American-manufactured cars in the 1920s

Most of these car manufacturers no longer exist (which is sad), but the names alone are pretty exciting.

  • 1920 Turcat-Méry PJ6
  • 1920 Ace made by Apex Motors
  • 1920 Carroll Six made by the Carroll Motorcar Company
  • 1920 Colonial made by the Shaw Motorcar Company
  • 1920 Duesenberg Model A
  • 1920 Ford Model T
  • 1920 Fiat 510
  • 1920 Lorraine made by the Lorraine Motorcar Company
  • 1920 Olympian made by the Olympian Motors Company
  • 1920 Renault GS
  • 1920 Severin made by the Severin Motor Car Company
  • 1920 Sheridan Touring Car made by the Sheridan Motor Company
  • 1920 Standard Steam Car made by Standard Engineering Company
  • 1920 Stanwood made by the Stanwood Motor Company

Other models may have been available, but I’m only listing American-manufactured cars.

vintage car in front of Double Steam Motors Building

I’m really curious why the Standard Steam Car didn’t catch on! Maybe steam cars will return to showrooms in the next 20 years!

What Was the Biggest Car Company in the 1920s?

The biggest car company in 1920, hands down, was Ford Motor Company. In that year, Ford produced over 1.5 million cars, which was more than those produced by any other automaker in the world.

The Model T, which was introduced in 1908, was a major factor in Ford’s success. The Model T was the most affordable car on the market by far. It was also very reliable and easy to maintain, which made it even more popular. Ford’s mass production techniques also helped to keep costs down, which further contributed to the company’s success.

Vintage Ford Model T

Top 5 Car Brands in the 1920s

Here are the Top Car Brands in the 1920s, in terms of production:

  1. Ford Motor Company
  2. General Motors
  3. Chrysler
  4. Willys-Overland
  5. Studebaker

These companies were all based in the United States, and they dominated the global automotive market in the early 1920s.

However, the Great Depression would have a major impact on the automotive industry, and by the end of the decade, the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) would be the only major American automakers still in business.

It’s sad to see that innovation was limited by the Great Depression. Imagine how many different types of vehicles we may have seen had the stock market not crashed.

What Was the Fastest Car in 1920?

Believe it or not, that would be the Standard Steam Car. Steam cars were faster than any gas-powered engine in its time. The Standard Steam Car could reach speeds in excess of 121 MPH.

a gentleman and two ladies riding a 1920 Scott-Newcomb Steam Car by Standard Motors
Scott-Newcomb Steam Car, 1920 by Unknown author

If you only want to consider gas-powered vehicles, the top 3 fastest 1920s cars were:

  1. The Duesenberg Model J. It was recorded to hit an impressive 119 MPH.
  2. The Mercedes-Benz SSK. It could hit speeds of 115 MPH.
  3. The Bugatti Type 35. It showed an impressive 112 MPH.

The Duesenberg Model J was the fastest production car in the world in 1920. It was powered by a 6.9-liter straight-8 engine that produced 265 horsepower.

The car was luxuriously appointed and very expensive, with a price tag of over $10,000. This is believed to be the car F. Scott Fitzgerald was referring to when describing Gatsby’s expensive, custom-built, yellow car in his book The Great Gatsby.

The Mercedes-Benz SSK was a smaller and lighter car than the Duesenberg, but it was still very fast. It was powered by a 7.1-liter inline-6 engine that produced 160 horsepower. The car was also one of the expensive cars at the time, with a price tag of over $8,000.

The Bugatti Type 35 was a race car that was also sold to the public. It was powered by a 2.3-liter straight-8 engine that produced 90 horsepower. Racing cars are very light and agile, which made Type 35 a formidable competitor on the race track.

The manufacturer originally built this car for racing, but it proved to be so popular they decided to release it for sale to the public. They made zero modifications for public use so any “extras”, such as a spare tire, would have to be a special order.

These three cars were the pinnacle of automotive engineering in the 1920s. They were fast, luxurious, and expensive. They were only available to the very wealthy, but they set the standard for performance cars for decades to come.

What Was the Most Famous Car in 1920?

a green Vintage Model T Ford Car

Without a doubt, this had to be what was also the biggest seller, the Ford Model T.

This was the best-selling car in the world for most of the decade, and it revolutionized the automotive industry. The Model T was affordable, reliable, and easy to maintain. Ford’s mass production techniques made it possible to keep costs down.

There was an old joke which said that you could enjoy a Model T in any color you wanted as long as it was black. This wasn’t entirely true as you could order a Model T in a wide range of colors, but colors not only cost extra but also took extra time. Most people simply opted for the standard black.

The Model T was also a cultural icon. It was featured in movies and advertisements, and it became a symbol of the American Dream. The Model T was a watershed moment in automotive history, and it paved the way for the mass-produced motor vehicles that we drive today.

What Was a Car Like in 1920?

That would depend greatly on the type of car you could afford. As you can imagine, driving a Duesenberg would be far different from driving a Model T Ford.

Most cars were open “touring” cars, but by the end of the decade, automobile manufacturers started producing steel roofs. Once a roof was added, comforts such as heaters, a glove box, and other extras would be added.

1929 ford model a classic car

These were very basic, but they were a huge improvement over the old horse and buggy. Believe it or not, some of the first vehicle bodies were put on the frame of a buggy!

Companies that produced horse-drawn vehicles ventured into building vehicles or vehicle bodies. Think of the old-fashioned horse and buggy. Remove the horse, add a motor, brakes, and steering wheel, and you have a car from 1920!

Power brakes were first used around 1925, but power steering was still decades away so it took some strength to turn that wheel. The bigger the car, the harder it would be to turn the steering wheel.

Modern-day cars are far more reliable and comfortable, but when you compare a car from 1920 and the other means of transportation (bicycles, horses, donkeys, or carriages), it’s not surprising that America quickly turned into a car culture in the Jazz Age.

What Were Cars Called in the 1920s?

We might find some of the names archaic, but remember that this was a new “machine” so it took a while before the names we used today- mainly vehicle, automobile, and car- became common.

terms used to refer to cars in the 1920s

There were many different terms that people used to refer to cars in the 1920s. Some of the most common terms included:

  • Automobile
  • Motorcar
  • Machine
  • Buggy
  • Tin Lizzie (a nickname for the Ford Model T)
  • Vroommobile (a humorous term)
  • Roadster (a type of car with an open top)
  • Limousine (a long, luxurious car)
  • Coupé (a car with two doors and a sloping roof)

The term “automobile” was the most formal term for a car, and it was often used in legal documents and other official settings. The term “motorcar” was also a formal term, but it was not as commonly used as “automobile” except in company names, which all seem to use the word Motorcar.

The term “machine” was a more informal term for a car, and it was often used in slang or colloquial speech. You’ll find many old movies use the word machine. The term “buggy” was an even more informal term, and it was often used to refer to a small, inexpensive car.

Vintage cars in a busy road during the 1920s

The term “Tin Lizzie” was a nickname for the Ford Model T, which was a popular car in the 1920s. The term “Vroommobile” was a humorous term for a car, and it was often used in cartoons or comic strips. The terms “roadster,” “limousine,” and “coupé” were all used to refer to specific types of cars.

The terms that people used to refer to cars in the 1920s varied depending on the context. In formal settings, people would most likely use the term “automobile.” In informal settings, people might use more colloquial terms like “machine” or “buggy.” And in some cases, people might use specific terms like “roadster” or “limousine” to refer to a particular type of car.

And here is the fun part. Small cars with two doors used the French word coupe. This means to cut, as in the car is short and it has a part that must have been cut off.

Do we pronounce that word as the French “coo pay” or do we use American English to pronounce it “coop”?

I think the Beach Boys preferred the “coop” pronunciation in their song “Little Deuce Coupe” but it’s really a matter of preference.

How Much Did a Car Cost in 1920?

Red, black, and deep red Ford Model T's and dollar bills on the foreground

This will vary tremendously depending on the type of vehicle you are talking about.

For example, a Rolls-Royce or a Duesenberg Model J would set you back $10,000.

Lower cost vehicles include the Packard Twin 6 which would cost about $4,500 and Chevrolet Series 490 that went for $3,500.

How much was the Model T Ford? $250.

Now you know why there were SO MANY Model T’s on the road!

Of course, you could customize any of the above cars and increase the price, but consider this: Even at a minuscule (by today’s standards) $250, most people had to finance their vehicles just like they do today.

Final Thoughts

There is so much to cover when speaking about cars from the 1920s, so I might be writing a part two to this very soon.

The cars of the 1920s were a diverse group, ranging from the affordable Ford Model T to the luxurious Duesenberg Model J. These cars were powered by a variety of engines, including inline-4s, inline-6s, V8s, and even V12s! They were also equipped with a variety of features, including windshields, headlights, camping boxes, glove boxes, heaters, and even radios.

The cars of the 1920s were a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, a time of economic prosperity and social change. They helped shape the way people lived and worked, and they also played a role in popular culture.

Seeing one of these early cars is a reminder of a time when the automobile was still a new and exciting invention.

Cars in the 1920s That Shaped American History
Cars in the 1920s That Shaped American History
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