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1940s Cars: 20 Classic Cars that Revolutionized the Auto Industry

By Vlad Craciun


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Best 1940s cars
1948 Norman E. Timbs Buick Streamliner

Once upon a time, automobiles had an irresistible and captivating beauty, one handcrafted to perfection from elegant sinuous lines and rounded design elements, creating a natural flow on the road.

Those times were the 1940s. It was partly a turbulent period for the auto industry due to the Second World War, but also one of recovery and readjustment.

Despite the first half of the decade being dedicated to building war machines, the cars of the post-war years somehow managed to come out as extraordinary creations, with great innovations in both technology and design.

Once the World War II madness came to an end, carmakers went back to the drawing board to create some of the most memorable and gorgeous classic cars in history.

And there were quite a few of them, some of which we’ve listed below. Let’s have a look at the most beautiful cars from the 1940s, shall we?

20. Cisitalia 202

Cisitalia 202
1946 Cisitalia 202 / supercars.net

The Cisitalia 202 was a passenger car built on the foundation of their custom D46, a racing car that became victorious in the Brezzi Cup in Turin. The D46 used parts from Fiat street cars

The 202 came out in 1946 and it was one of the company’s most memorable cars. The chassis was designed by Pinin Farina and was crafted by hand from aluminum.

The GT variant of the 202 impressed everyone at the 1947 Paris Motor Show, and probably contributed to the transformation of the post-war automobile industry.

19. Daimler DE36

Daimler DE36
1948 Daimler DE36 / hymanltd.com

A long and sumptuous two-door coupe, the Daimler DE36, made heads turn everywhere it went with it’s limousine-like aesthetic. This influential car was way too extravagant for the average citizen, and it was often seen driven by society’s elite class.

The car featured a 150hp 5.4 liter straight-eight engine, and that gorgeous but heavy limousine body. The last of the DE36 came out the factory doors in 1953.

18. Chrysler Town & Country “Barrelback” Wagon

Chrysler Town & Country Barrelback Wagon
1942 Chrysler Town & Country ‘Barrelback’ Wagon / supercars.net

The Chrysler Town & Country “Barrelback” Wagon was dubbed a “limousine for the country”. With a lavish interior and a wooden frame, the car became a real icon and a legend in automotive history.

The moniker “Barrelback” came from the curved rear bodywork, which, combined with the wooden frame, reminded folk of wooden barrels.

Though it doesn’t seem so from outside, it was a station wagon with room for up to nine passengers. Under the hood it came with a 1018hp six cylinder engine. It was a car that really attracted the attention of the public at the time.

17. Delahaye 175 S

Delahaye 175 S
1946 Delahaye 175 S / Photo: Ron Kimball/Kimball Stock

With its charming cabriolet-style bodywork, stunning lines, long wheelbase, and wire wheels, the Delahaye 175 S looks like it’s been built for auto shows alone.

Delahaye draw inspiration for the design from their pre-war era cars, but the Type 175 S got some more charm than the previous models.

The bodywork was crafted by Henri Chapron and it was supposed to be a competition one, though the 175 S’s first year was not successful. Despite that, the car is undeniably beautiful, with or without won races.

16. Ford Club Coupe

Ford Club Coupe
1949 Ford Club Coupe / nweuro.com

The playful, undulating lines of the Ford Club Coupe reveal nothing of its modernity.

With a forward mounted engine, modern drive shaft, integrated fenders, and an independent front suspension, the Club Coupe would pave the way for the rest of the American made cars.

The only design detail that spoke of the 1940’s was the split windshield. The car appeared in 1949, so it makes sense to be closer to the next decade from a design and technology point of view.

15. Rolls-Royce Phantom III Labourdette Vutotal Cabriolet

Rolls-Royce Phantom III Labourdette Vutotal Cabriolet
1947 Rolls-Royce Phantom III Labourdette Vutotal Cabriolet / supercars.net

The Rolls-Royce Phantom III Labourdette Vutotal Cabriolet was a Phantom III at the base, rebodied in 1947 by designer Labourdette of Paris. The rework was his most impressive work, and the result absolutely stunning.

The remaking of the body costed $44,000 at the time, which is the equivalent of about $375,000 in our days.

14. Plymouth De Luxe

Plymouth De Luxe
1946 Plymouth De Luxe / hemmings.com

American car manufacturer Plymouth was also affected by the war years, with production halting in 1942, but they did eventually come back to doing what they did best.

In October 1945, some of their most prized cars, the P15S De Luxe and P15C Special De Luxe were back in production.

There were many changes and upgrades from the pre-war models, and the new ones came with a design so beautiful that they became more and more appreciated with the passing of time.

13. Jaguar XK120 Roadster

Jaguar XK120 Roadster
1948 Jaguar XK120 Roadster / theoutlierman.com

When 1948 came, Jaguar launched what then was the fastest production car in the world. It was called the XK120 Roadster and it was both a beauty and a beast.

With a 3.4 liter inline six under the hood, it was capable of hitting a top speed of 124.6 mph, with some sources mentioning even 132 mph. The figure is not bad even by today standards, but those were the late 1940s.

The aluminum body reminded of the waves of the sea, and the beauty of the car made so many dream of driving it that it quickly became one of the most sought after British cars of that time.

12. Alfa Romeo 6C 2500

Alfa Romeo 6C 2500
1940 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS Spider Corsa / forzaitalia.pl

The Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 was one of the most wonderful cars to come out from the Italian factories during the decade, but out of all the variants, the SS “Torpedino Brescia” was the most impressive, built for the famous Mille Miglia race.

The car was powered by Alfa Romeo’s most developed engine, the six cylinder Tipo 256, called 6C.

After the war, the race car transformed into the Freccia d’Oro (Golden Arrow), which became a favorite of the Mafia. The car made 96mph and it was featured in the 1972 classic Godfather.

11. Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport

Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport
1949 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport / goodingco.com

With an incredible 125mph top speed and 190hp, the Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport, developed from the company’s T26 Course Grand Prix racer, couldn’t have been ignored.

In fact, the car instantly became notorious thanks to its racing blood and stunning aesthetic.

It was a blend of luxury and racing, and, as you might expect, it was expensive. Under its long hood lay a 4.5 liter inline six that featured the latest racing technology, such as aluminum cylinder heads and triple carburetors.

10. Porsche 356 No. 1

Porsche 356 No. 1
1948 Porsche 356 No. 1 / stuttcars.com

The Porsche 356 No. 1 is a legend. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche Junior, it’s the very first production car made by Porsche. The 356-001 was a unique car, shaped by the influences coming from Cisitalia, which was manufacturing cars based on Porsche designs and with Fiat components.

The all aluminum body, underneath which hid a rear mounted 4 cylinder air cooled engine, came with several new and interesting design features. The doors came with pop-out handles, the roof was retractable, and the decorative front grille brought style and refinement.

All these little things made people fall madly in love with Porsche 356 No. 1, and when it was equipped with 1.3 and 1.5 liter engines, it started winning not only hearts but races too.

9. Maserati A6 1500 Pininfarina

Maserati A6 1500 Pininfarina
1946 Maserati A6 1500 Pininfarina / netcarshow.com

Released to the public at the 1947 Geneva Motor Show, the Maserati A6 1500 Pininfarina came as a wonderful surprise to everyone. The car was an instant hit.

The no frills design of the Pininfarina bodywork was nicely completed by the rims with their intertwined matte silver metal spokes and the chrome paintwork, both elements adding that secret ingredient that let everybody know this wasn’t an ordinary car.

8. Lincoln Ford 40 Special Speedster

Lincoln Ford 40 Special Speedster
1940 Lincoln Ford 40 Special Speedster / supercars.net

The Lincoln Ford 40 Special Speedster had an otherworldly style. Part of the personal collection of Edsel Ford, this was one of six boat-tail Speedsters custom built on the Ford V8 platform, with a modified chassis and unique bodywork.

The car, dubbed the 1940 Special Speedster, was the result of the latest design advancements (at the time) in aircraft engineering. It was an astonishing feat.

7. Fiat 1100 S

Fiat 1100 S
1947 Fiat 1100 S / autoevolution.com

After the war, Fiat took the already existent 1100 and turned it into a racing variant, called the 1100 S. The engine was tuned to get more power, and the body was heavily streamlined, based on their pre-war 508 CMM, pushing the Fiat 1100 S to almost 100mph.

The aluminum body came over another 1100 variant’s chassis, the Fiat 1100 B. The car was a two-seater of course, and looked absolutely gorgeous.

6. Aston Martin DB1

Aston Martin DB1
1948 Aston Martin DB1 / classicandsportscar.com

Also known as the 2-Litre Sports, the Aston Martin DB1 was the first car that the company produced under David Brown’s guidance. The DB1 came to life loosely guided by the ideas and principles that Aston Martin put in their original prototype, the one they called Atom.

With 2,000cc and 90 bhp, the DB1 was no snail, and its flowing, curvaceous body showed a glimpse into the future of Aston Martin.

There were only 15 ever produced, and only 9 in existence today, making the Aston Martin DB1 one of the most expensive classic cars of the decade.

5. Figoni & Falaschi Delahaye 135 MS “Narval”

Figoni & Falaschi Delahaye 135 MS Narval
1947 Figoni & Falaschi Delahaye 135 MS Narval / secret-classics.com

Another Delahaye, this time the Figoni & Falaschi 135 MS “Narval”, featured one of the most revolutionary designs in the automotive industry. Created by the Italian car designer Giuseppe Figoni, the 135 MS “Narval” was inspired by the shapes of naval sea vessels.

The chassis of this car was simply unbelievable. With lowered suspensions and wheels almost completely covered, it created the illusion that the car is floating around rather than rolling on its wheels.

4. Ferrari 166 MM Zagato Panoramica

Ferrari 166 MM Zagato Panoramica
1948 Ferrari 166 MM Zagato Panoramica / supercars.net

The Ferrari 166 MM is a legendary car. It was the very first sports car made by Enzo Ferrari, and only 25 were made. Most of these scored most of Ferrari’s first international racing victories, and established the name as a serious sports car manufacturer.

Later on and in an unusual way, a collaboration between Enzo Ferrari and Zagato from Alfa Romeo was born. Several customers, impressed by the performance of the 166 MM, asked for that very Ferrari, but fitted with a Zagato bodywork, which led to the birth of the 0018M chassis.

The 166 MM Zagato Panoramica was born, and it was Ferrari’s first coupe. It was modern and came with Plexiglas windows that continued the curved lines of the roof. The world was impressed and soon everybody wanted one.

3. Chrysler Thunderbolt

Chrysler Thunderbolt
1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt / supercars.net

Probably one of the most mesmerizing designs of the 1940s and classic cars in general is that of the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt. Born during the Art Deco movement in Detroit, the design looks as great today as it did back then.

Only five or six units were built, and the concept was revealed for the first time at the 1940 New York Auto Show. Each of the variants came with a different paint scheme, but one of the best looking was the combination of matte green with polished brass accents.

2. Tucker Torpedo

Tucker Torpedo
1948 Tucker Torpedo 48 / RM Auctions

With a non-conformist aesthetic and unusual features, the Tucker Torpedo was ahead of its time in both design and technology. You could say it’s ahead of its time even today, since one in mint condition costs close to $3 million.

One of Tucker Torpedo’s most intriguing features is the Cyclops Eye, a third directional headlight which lit up if the car was steered by over 10 degrees, so it acted as a steering sensor and a guide to correct oversteer.

The Torpedo was powered by a six cylinder engine, based on a helicopter power unit, rear-mounted, and then there were front and rear disk brakes, fuel injection, drag control – the car had a drag coefficient of 0.27, and a gorgeous leather dashboard that made the interior at least as beautiful as its exterior.

All these were hard to find on cars of that era. And one of these 47 cars still in existence is extremely hard to find today, hence the afore mentioned price tag.

1. Norman E. Timbs Buick Streamliner

Norman E. Timbs Buick Streamliner
1948 Norman E. Timbs Buick Streamliner / autoevolution.com

The Norman E. Timbs Buick Streamliner has what we’d call the most visually striking design of the decade. It was simply iconic. A full aluminum body with flawless chrome finish and fluid lines made this car one of the most beautiful classic cars ever manufactured.

The aerodynamic design was simply incredibly, and if you pay close attention, it does seem to borrow from the Figoni & Falaschi Delahaye 135 MS “Narval”.

Dubbed the ultimate American hot rod, Norman E. Timbs’ Buick Streamliner appeared in countless auto magazines over the decades.

Final thoughts

It’s interesting to see how from such an unfortunate period, with a messy world war raging almost everywhere, auto manufacturers managed to come with what are some of the best car designs ever conceived.

There is no ultimate best or most beautiful car, but for sure the 1940’s did bring to life some of them.

If you’re also fascinated by automotive history, check out our picks on the best cars from the 1950s, 1960s or the 1970s.

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About Vlad Craciun

Vlad has over 7 years of experience writing content about subjects such as travel, cars, motorcycles, tech & gadgets, and his newly discovered passion, watches. He’s in love with two wheeled machines and the freedom and the thrills that motorcycle travel provides. Learn more about Luxatic's Editorial Process.

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