Many of the Art Deco era cars were like land-going yachts for the very rich, so they featured massive engines, swooping fenders, big round headlights and lots of chrome.

© Lisa Yoder

What were the art deco cars?

Art Deco became popular in the 1920s and 1930s because of its simple yet grand expressions of style. The automobiles of that era were no different -- they were exciting and sexy, not meant to be just ordinary transportation.

Vehicles today classified as Art Deco cars were often two-door coupes and roadsters with long hoods and small, rounded-off trunks. They featured long, swooping fenders over the wheels, round headlights and lots of chrome. Another important design characteristic was streamlining -- cars with smooth, sleek curves that appeared to be speeding, even when standing still.

They hail from the era of coach building -- a process where one company, like Bugatti, would make a naked chassis and engine and another company would custom-design and build the surrounding body and interior to the owner's exact specifications.

Some great examples of Art Deco cars were the high-end ones made in France, the home of the artistic movement. Many of these cars were like land-going yachts for the very rich, so they featured massive engines. They include the Hispano-Suiza J12 Cabriolet, which had a 9.0-liter 12-cylinder aircraft-based engine, the Delahaye 165 convertible -- which also packed a V-12 and the Delage D8-120 Cabriolet, which cost $200,000 at a time when an average American home cost about $3,800 [source: Garrett].

But Art Deco cars weren't limited to just hyper-luxury. Eventually, the movement began inspiring the bodywork on more affordable cars. The Chrysler Airflow was designed with this style in mind; it featured a flowing shape with rounded fenders and a curved "waterfall" grille. While sales of the car weren't very successful -- the exotic styling may have been a little to ostentatious for average buyers -- the car today is considered a design classic.

Up next, we'll look at modern Art Deco cars and see where many of the classics ended up.