Vintage Cars of ‘The Great Gatsby’ – introduction

What Cars Would Jay Gatsby Have Really Bought?

A shopping guide by Igor Spajic


Baz Luhrman’s new adaptation of the enduring novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald might be described as a cross between the novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Moulin Rouge!’ in its approach to the storyline.

Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan - what they're wearing this season!

Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan – what they’re wearing this season!

Jay Gatsby’s tragic obsession with his former love Daisy partly plays out through some motor trips between Long Island and New York City. Cars are not merely background but an integral part of the story.

Therefore, the fact that a Duesenberg Model SJ replica is involved in the production does not auger well for those of us who prize a certain faithfulness to the original narrative. The 1980s Duesenberg II Royalton is based on the supercharged Model SJ variation. Showing the exhaust pipes of the SJ, auto cognoscenti will instantly recognise that it did not appear until 1932. This was well after the Roaring Twenties and well into the Great Depression!

You can set the events in the mid-Twenties or at most, cheat the date of ‘Gatsby’ as late as 1929, but certainly not 1932. To add insult to injury, Fitzgerald sets the tale in 1922! I am dubious about what kind of snapshot of high living in the Twenties can be depicted with 1930s cars. Will they at least get the clothing fashions and cocktails right?

Not to get on my high horse about this, but it would be reasonable to expect that a period drama should get the details right so that they won’t be jarring or off-putting. You can fudge a few things but once it becomes obvious it’s not of benefit to the production. After all, there are enough capable people working on this to avoid obvious mistakes.

Whether this will be the definitive filming of ‘The Great Gatsby’, or whether the 1974 Robert Redford and Mia Farrow movie remains the most faithful adaptation remains to be seen – literally. They’re not releasing the film in Australia for another two weeks. Until then, let us see what Jay Gatsby might actually have bought for his automobile fleet.

Fitzgerald sets his story in 1922 as already noted. Jay Gatsby made his fortune between 1919 and 1922. Prohibition was imposed in 1919 and there are broad hints that Gatsby was a successful bootlegger.

His auto fleet is described as a station wagon and a Rolls-Royce. The wagon would have been a ‘woodie’ with timber body built and placed on a regular auto chassis, probably a sturdy six like a Hudson or Buick. This was more in the nature of a depot hack and was used by Gatsby’s house staff to run errands. They also used it to ferry Gatsby’s party guests to and fro in the local area.

Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce is an open car, probably a tourer or phaeton. There is no mention of any other car, though Gatsby almost certainly would also have had a luxury, chauffer-driven closed car, such as a limousine or town car.

So, Gatsby is in the market for these cars in the 1920-21 period. Considering his lavish lifestyle, money is no object in the choice of whatever cars he wishes to buy.

The post-World War I period is characterised by a boom in the introduction of new luxury cars in both Europe and America. Even well-established makes like Fiat introduced ultra-luxury models, often with sophisticated new engine designs that benefitted from wartime aero engine research and production.

Post-war economic conditions soon consigned most of the European and British luxury car upstarts to oblivion and the established makes to withdraw their premium models or introduce lesser types. Fiat dropped the V12 ‘Super Fiat’ in favour of a big six; Rolls-Royce introduces the smaller 20hp and so on. In America, the postwar Depression of 1921 drives the final nail into the coffin of domestic newcomers to the fine car market and ailing luxury carmakers alike.

So for a brief period, a wealthy American like Gatsby had access to an extraordinary choice of fine and innovative motor cars, both domestic and foreign. Provided the foreign cars were imported to the United States, they would have been available to him. Let’s look at what was on offer.


The Great Gatsby

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