Every era has its star cars, undisputed status symbols that everybody wants, that are featured in films and novels, that line Hollywood driveways. Here are my nominations, in reverse chronological order. I’ve never owned any of these, but one of the privileges of my exalted position in the auto industry is that I've driven a few of them.
2010s: Plug-in Charisma. The Tesla Model S has attitude to burn. The first of these gorgeous $105,400 electric sedans has just been delivered to major investor Steve Jurvetson. It must have cost him millions to get those keys a week before everybody else. The car goes more widely available on June 22. Or as widely available as any six-figure car is going to get. But I predict the Tesla S will be a major hit because it symbolizes having-it-all while still being environmentally responsible. You’re going to want to spring for the Signature Model, which includes the legendary 300-mile battery. I’ve sat in dozens of ‘em, even had a memorable back-seat ride, but I’m not Steve Jurvetson.
2000s: Wall Street's Staff Car. Here’s the car that symbolized both the go-go late 1990s (it debuted in 1997) and the crash of 2008. Maybach, a revival of a proud old German marquee, is really a super-lux version of the Mercedes S-Class. I watched as an early one was air-lifted to Wall Street, its natural habitat. It’s great fun to sprawl in the huge back seat and pretend you’re a mogul. The car has a kind of massive Teutonic grace; I’ve seen them in front of luxury hotels in New York, Tokyo and Berlin. The base price of the 2009 Maybach 57 was $344,000, but not many people were spending that kind of money in 2009, the year after the big crash. In 2010, only 157 were sold worldwide, and the brand’s demise has unfolded in agonizing slow motion: 2013 will be the final year.
1990s: The Lap of Luxury. The Bentley Turbo R of 1990 was the answer to a question few were asking: What if we turbocharged a 6.8-liter Bentley and got 300 horsepower out of it? Sure, Bentleys started out as performance cars, but that image was long gone when this brawny beast came around. I drove one to upstate New York and scared a lot of cows, not to mention the local residents. How the mighty have fallen: Now this $167,400 car is on the used market for something like $25,000. But, given maintenance costs, that’s just the down payment.
1980s: The Worship of Speed. The $225,000 Porsche 959 was produced only between 1986 and 1989, and it was indisputably the world’s fastest road car at that time, with 186 mph possible. Like the Ferrari F40, it couldn’t be legally registered in America when it was new. (Though a special law pushed through by none other than 959 owner Bill Gates got it on the road in 1999. That’s rich, when you can make the rules for yourself. Porsche is now building a plug-in hybrid that will cost more than three times the 959.
1970s: Angularity Rules. Designed by Italy’s Bertone, the Lamborghini Countach was all right angles. Most people would have trouble getting in through the gullwing doors, let alone driving it, but the Countach was the car for NBA stars, flash-in-the-pan rockers and Middle Eastern potentates.
1960s: All Ferraris are Red. The Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona Berlinetta, which debuted in 1968, was exclusive enough, but the ultra-rare cabriolet, or Spyder, is where the real money was. These were so hard to get, and so rare, that a number of coupes were chopped into cabriolets back in the day. Even these are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars now. Only 122 Daytona Spyders saw the light of day, 96 of them for the U.S. market. Expensive then, stratospheric now — don’t expect much change back from your $2 million bill. Runner-up: 427 Shelby Cobra.
1950s: Rocket Power. For 1959, Cadillac took fins to a whole new level, topped with taillights that imitated a jet engine offtake. It’s big, it’s bechromed, and it looks good from every angle. But if you wanted really exclusive, you went for the Eldorado Brougham, hand-built by Pinin Farina in Turin, Italy, at an eye-popping (for ’59) $13,075. Only 99 were made. Oddly, they lopped off the fins, using a treatment that anticipated the 1960 Cadillac. Runner up is the Dual Ghia, the official car of the Rat Pack.
1940s: A Different Breed of Cat. There had been some sexy Jaguars before, but the XK 120 of 1948 was wildly over the top. The number referred to the top speed. Only the E-Type could (and did) top it. Everyone wanted one, and the car put Jaguar on the map. A few years later, Don Draper would be doing the ad campaign. I've driven various Jags of this era, and the steering is much stiffer than anyone would accept now, but, oh, those looks!
1930s: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It. Imagine what the guy on the breadline thought when he saw a supercharged Duesenberg SJ Darrin Convertible Victoria glide by. When most people were out of work and even the bankers were jumping out of windows, these cars cost $8,500 for just the chassis, $25,000 with the special body coachwork. I drove a similar Model J, and enjoyed it, though one is always conscious of how much the darned thing is worth--and the non-synchromesh gearbox is no picnic.
1920s: Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce. Jay Gatsby drove a car painted “a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns.” In the Robert Redford version of "The Great Gatsby," it was portrayed appropriately by a Rolls-Royce 40/50hp Phantom I Ascot Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton that I’ve seen on the auction block a few times, most particularly at the Greenwich Concours (where I at least got to stand on the running boards). It symbolized the loftier heights of the Roaring '20s perfectly. Here's a closer look at this movie car on video, from the Greenwich event: