LIFE photo gallery of old cars

Yesterday was the 101st anniversary of GM's founding. Ben Cosgrove of LIFE says, "in light of the super-efficient but very same-y, dull designs of so many of today's vehicles, I put together a look back at those decades when cars had real personality, real spark, real curves. There's a lot to be said for a fender that makes one's heart race faster, or a bumper that can make a person blush ...

Above: "Fiat's streamlined, one-cylinder Volugrafo got 100 miles per gallon, 1947."

LIFE photo gallery of old cars


  1. I love these pics. I love old cars (and many new ones). But I always get annoyed when people use the word “real” like that. Samey cars now? Check out picture 2.
    “Real music”
    “Real Americans”

  2. I wish manufacturers would pick up on the need to bring back some retro design concepts that embrace our current values around emissions and fuel conservation. why can’t we have both? I would TOTALLY love to drive ford mustang…but honestly don’t want to deal with the hog of a car it truly is, just love the lines…

  3. Anon3, Why did they use a ’59?? [copious tears.] It reduces the romance not a bit. Since when does safety = romance?

    Muteboy, you’ve brought up a great point that I always bring up when people diss current cars for sameness. People compare all old cars to the cars of just the current generation. But if you compare contemporary cars of any generation, say compare all cars available new in 1932, then they’re strikingly similar. The average person looking at the picture you suggested wouldn’t be able to tell some of the cars apart, despite being various different models. Most of them have the same pontoon fenders and pointed hood.

    I do agree, though, that many classic design cues should be updated and used nowadays. People bag on retro cars as being a cheap way out, but retro done right is a wonderful thing. Anything to help ease the bar-of-soap malaise that some cars have been trapped in. Ooh, look! This bar of soap has headlights that go further back!

  4. Nissan Cube. Anything from Lotus. Kei cars in Japan. Tesla. Italian cars.

    There’s plenty of innovation in car design right now. Not much from U.S. manufacturers, but let’s move on. I love me some old cars, but nostalgia is for chumps.

  5. When my wife and I were considering a car last year we had a fairly large number of super mini/small family cars on our list… but we finally decided on the Citroën C4. An excellent combination of fairly unique looks, safety, practicality, comfort/ease-of-use and price.

    The C4 was, before we even started seriously looking around, our first pick. I didn’t want to buy a car just because it looked good, though, I also wanted something that met our needs. Fortunately, living in the EU, we are fairly spoiled for choice when it comes to good-looking, safe and inexpensive cars: Alfa Romeo 159, VW Golf, Peugeot 308, spaceship-shape Honda Civic, SEAT Leon, Audi A3… even the Toyota Auris and Ford Focus cars aren’t *that* boring or ugly.

    Unfortunately, if you live in the US, you don’t get the Alfa, nor the Peugeot, no new-shape Civic, no SEAT and I don’t think you have access to the Auris and I believe the same is for the Ford Focus hatchback. Oh and, at least according to Audi’s web site, they sell some boring and ugly wagon version of the A3 but not the decent-looking hatch version of their A3.

    So you’re kind of stuck with the Malibu or a Toyota Camry, I’m afraid.

  6. Speaking as a pedestrian, there is a lot to be said against fenders that make impressions and curves that break bones. Nader built a career on it. Some designs are beautiful, even efficient but are also ‘unsafe at any speed’.

  7. #4 Agreed.

    I often fantasise about getting a Citroën DS20, putting a modern engine in it, and modern electronics, and making it efficient and safe etc etc.

  8. I’m amazed someone hasn’t mentioned this already, so I will:

    Him: Hey dollface, great wheels you’ve got there.

    Her: Get your f***ing foot of my f***ing car before I drive over you!

    What a fascinating photo. She’s got her hand behind her head for a ‘come hither’ attempt. He’s got his bloody foot on the top of the door of her car. Jesus. They’d cut it off where I come from…and I’m not talking about his foot.


  9. #10, muteboy:

    I often fantasise about getting a Citroën DS20, putting a modern engine in it, and modern electronics, and making it efficient and safe etc etc.

    Me too, but with a Tatra T87. It seems that Tatra themselves may be coming round to my way of thinking.

  10. The car in the photo seems to be related to the car that Jeremy Clarkson once drove around the offices of the BBC.

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