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Luxury wheels: Bears to Jags — pricey performance cars signal success


What makes a performance luxury vehicle? It’s always been about power, features and styling, but of course, each decade brought its own combination of design and engineering.

Here are some of the cars that have caught the eye — and the pocketbook — of luxury performance buyers over the years.

1920s: Stutz Bearcat

Although Indianapolis-based Stutz made many models, its Bearcat became synonymous with the Roaring Twenties.

Founder Harry C. Stutz was a race fan and, when he built his first car, he entered it in the inaugural 1911 Indy 500. It finished 11th, a victim of numerous flat tires but with no mechanical failures. Stutz subsequently adopted the advertising slogan, “The car that made good in a day.”

In most years, Bearcat owners had a choice of four or six cylinders. The most powerful, in 1923, made 88 horsepower, while a Chevrolet made 26. The Bearcat had a firm suspension, heavy clutch and growly engine, but its race-car heritage only made drivers want it more.

1930s: Duesenberg

Often described as the finest American car of all time, the Duesenberg was powerful, beautiful, and breathtakingly expensive.

The 6.8 L inline eight-cylinder engine made 265 horsepower in the Model J, and 320 horsepower in the supercharged Model SJ. One of those was tested at Bonneville in 1935, averaging 218 km/h over 24 hours, with a top speed of 245 km/h.

You bought the chassis and then had the body made to your taste by a coachbuilder. At a time when a house cost about $6,200, the Duesenberg’s bare chassis ran as high as $9,500.

1940s: Delahaye

The Second World War left its mark on the auto industry. Domestic production ceased for three years, as automakers made war supplies, and imports were restricted. But among those cars available, few could be as stunning as the Paris-based Delahaye.

The base engine was a four-cylinder, but two six-cylinders were available: a 3.5 L that made between 95 and 160 horsepower, depending on the number of carburetors and how it was tuned, and a 4.4 L that produced between 125 and 185 horses.

Some buyers opted for a rather complicated electromagnetic transmission that used a small lever for shifting, and needed the clutch only when starting or stopping. Bodywork was by custom coachbuilders, and the complete car could top $15,000.

1950s: Chrysler 300C

Chrysler introduced its Hemi engine, named for its hemispherical-shaped combustion chambers, as a 180-horsepower, 331-cubic-inch (5.4 L) V8 that came out for 1951.

But in 1955, with twin four-barrel carburetors, race-style camshaft and larger exhaust, it made 300 horses, and came in a car called the C-300. It hit 225 km/h in testing, and cost a hefty $4,100.

It was the first of Chrysler’s “letter cars,” followed by the 340-hp 300B in 1956; the 1957 300C, with two Hemi choices; the 1958 300D; and, in 1959, the 300E, which replaced the Hemi with a Wedge engine, also named for the shape of its chambers.

The 300s were dubbed the “Beautiful Brutes” and, in the 1960s, they’d eventually reach as high as 400 horsepower.

1960s: Jaguar XK-E

Enzo Ferrari called the XK-E — known as the E-Type in Europe — “the most beautiful car in the world.” Steve McQueen, Tony Curtis and Brigitte Bardot each had one.

Introduced for 1961, the XK-E combined unibody construction, independent suspension and disc brakes on all four wheels with a 3.8 L six-cylinder engine that made 265 horsepower. The price topped out at $5,900.

Its design was first and foremost for aerodynamics, and the proportions that made it so slippery — it had a top speed of 240 km/h — also made it beautiful and unmistakable.

About 70,000 were built over its 14-year lifespan, which Jaguar says makes it Europe’s first mass-produced sports car.