Cars have been status symbols since the advent of the internal combustion engine. These are the most luxurious cars of each decade.
Since the dawn of the automobile, cars have been the playthings of the rich and famous. Speed, style, and opulent luxury have been just the beginning as automakers vie for the prestige (and dollars) that come with making the most luxurious cars in the world. This is a look back, decade by decade, at the very pinnacles of automotive luxury.
Dubbed by Autocar magazine as “the greatest car in the world” in 1907, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was the company’s first flagship car. Also known as the 40/50, the Silver Ghost featured Rolls-Royce’s exceptionally smooth straight-six engine. Though today we think of Rolls-Royce as the epitome of the most luxurious car, it was the reliability and durability of their engines that made the company’s early reputation as the car won numerous long-distance endurance races of the day including the 1913 Austrian Alpine Eagle. In those early years, Rolls-Royce did not produce the body or interiors for their cars, leaving that work to coach builders like Barker & Co. T.E. Lawrence drove a blue Sliver Ghost named the Blue Mist as his staff car during the Arab revolt in WWI. The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was produced from 1906 through 1926.
The Model J arrived late in the decade, in 1928, less than a year prior to the stock market crash of ’29. Despite the hard times, Duesenberg succeeded in marketing to the world’s richest and most famous. With fewer than 500 ever built, the Duesenberg Model J was the ultimate automotive status symbol of its day.
The Model J started at a then astronomical $9,000. Add on top the custom coachwork that most buyers wanted, and the price tag could swell to $13,000. Not only was the Model J the most expensive car in the world, but it was also the fastest with a top speed of 119 mph. The Lycoming-manufactured dual overhead cam straight-eight made 265 horsepower, an astounding number in the late 1920s.
The Cadillac V16 debuted in 1930, and like the Duesenberg Model J, suffered through the tough times of the Great Depression. After 1930, which saw approximately 2,500 sold, orders dwindled through the latter part of the decade. The V16’s namesake engine was a massive 7.4L (452 cu. in.) V16. The car itself was designed by GM’s Harley Earl and offered an absurd degree of specialization with over 50 choices of body style. The highly diverse V16 ended production in 1940 with Cadillac admitting to having lost money on nearly every example built.
Automotive production worldwide was severely disrupted by WWII. Both Allied and Axis powers shifting manufacturing from domestic automaking to the production of planes, tanks, and other military machinery. Thusly, the bulk of luxury cars were built in the post war years in the late ‘40s. The Jaguar XK120 debuted in 1948 at the London Motor Show. The XK120 is the first dedicated sports car on our list. But since the advent of the automobile, the very fastest cars have always been to province of the well-off. Equipped with a 3.4L straight-six making 160 horsepower, the XK120 could reach a top speed of 132 mph. The car saw extensive racing competition and set numerous speed records. It ended production in 1954.
Successor to the Bentley Mk IV, the R-Type was one of British motoring’s most coveted autos. The R-Type shared its chassis and body with the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn but outsold its analogue by a factor of more than three to one. The R-Type came standard as a 4-door saloon (sedan) but could also be sent off to various UK coachbuilders for thoroughgoing customization. The 4.6L straight-six engine made 130 horsepower. The R-Type’s original base price started at $10,735 or $109,000 in today’s dollars.
Unsurprisingly, Rolls-Royce gets another entrant on our list of the most luxurious cars with the Phantom. The decade of British roadsters and American muscle also gave us one of Rolls’s finest achievements in the Phantom V. Unlike prior decades, by the 1960s Rolls-Royce had simplified their cars. The Phantom V featured a GM Hydra-matic automatic transmission to pair with the Rolls V8 and bodies completed by just two coachbuilders James Young and the Rolls-Royce owned Park Ward. The Phantom V was a vehicle for the world’s elite. Owners included John Lennon, Queen Elizabeth II of England, and King Olav V of Norway. Despite it’s over 5,600 curb weight the Phantom V could still achieve a 100-mph top speed. The Phantom started at $15,655 but could rise as high as $33,000 dollars.
Stutz may not be a household name today, but back in the 1970s, the Stutz Blackhawk was the hottest ticket among the rich and famous. It’s rumored that Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presly vied for who would get the first Blackhawk (with Elvis winning out). Other famous Blackhawk owners included Lucille Ball, Willie Nelson, and George Foreman. So why was this now unknown car so sought after? In an era of overbaked American luxury cars, the Blackhawk perfectly blended style and substance with a 7.5L V8, side pipes, real gold and maple wood trimming and your choice of mink or shag carpeting. The Blackhawk started at $22,000 and could be optioned up to $75,000.
Most of the on this list of fall into the category of traditional luxury cars. Sure, they possess large engines providing good performance (including the Duesenberg which carried the title of fastest car in the world for decades), but none are what you’d deem sports cars. But the 1980s were a particular low point for opulent, chauffer-ready luxury cars. The 1970s had seen the dawn of boxy luxo-barges from Detroit and the 1980s doubled down on what are in retrospect the ugliest luxury cars in automotive history.
By contrast, the supercars of the day have aged well. The trendsetting, top-speed record-setting (a claimed 200 mph) Ferrari F40 was easily the most desirable car of the decade. At an MSRP of $400,000, the F40 was many times more expensive than even other supercars of its day. It featured cutting-edge materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber, a screaming twin-turbo 2.9 V8, and that Ferrari signature Rosso Corsa red paint. Just 1,300 F40s were ever built, and that was only after upping production from the originally planned 400.
The 1990s was perhaps the peak of the supercar. Performance, style, and eye-watering prices were the order of the day. Plagued by design and production delays, the XJ220 had been originally designed with Group B in mind and a V12 destined for the engine bay. The V12 proved impractical and the production version of the XJ220 settled for a 3.5L twin turbo V6 making a still respectable 542 horsepower. A top speed of 220 mph made it among the fastest and most luxurious production cars of its day. It also remains one of Jaguar’s most beautiful cars to this day. The stratospherically priced Jaguar XJ220 started at $608,000 (in 1990s dollars). Just 275 examples were ever sold.
When Mercedes-Benz wanted to up their ultra-luxury game, they looked back, way back, to the company’s founding era and its collaboration with Maybach. A direct competitor the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Maybach featured a dizzying list of luxury features including a voice-activated stereo, 14-way power rear seats, power soft-close doors, and rear-seat partition complete with a 2-way intercom. The Maybach 62 was designed to be chauffeured and came in at 242 inches in length. The shorter, more driver focused, Maybach 57 came in at a still substantial 223 in. in length. Both versions weighed in excess of 6,000lbs. Nonetheless, the 555-horsepower bi-turbo V12 had not trouble motivating the mammoth car. Initial asking price for the Maybach 62? The hefty sum of $431,055.
When ostentation is the point, bigger is inarguably better. And thusly Rolls-Royce has embraced the SUV craze with their most luxurious model ever, the Cullinan. Named after the largest uncut diamond ever discovered, the Cullinan is stunning. The quality of materials, the thoughtfulness of detail, and the cosseted experience all make the Cullinan the luxury benchmark against which all rivals are compared. Appropriately, the Cullinan is powered by a proper 6.7L twin turbo V12 making 563 horsepower. The air-suspension and electronic dampers adjust automatically thanks to cameras that monitor the road ahead and adjust accordingly. Luxury flushes include the rear coach doors and starry headliner that can be custom ordered to resemble the night sky on a specific date, making a custom Cullinan the ultimate anniversary power move. The Cullinan starts at $375,000 with options and customization limited only by your imagination and bank account.