Cars were an important part of the Jazz Age and of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald mentions only two cars by make in The Great Gatsby— Nick Carraway’s Dodge and Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce. The rest are left to the reader’s imagination.
Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce plays a crucial role in the story and is described as having “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.” Jay Gatsby embodied conspicuous consumption, and a Rolls with flamboyant coachwork in a bright color suited him. The 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Ascot dual-cowl phaeton used in the 1974 production of The Great Gatsby is the perfect embodiment of the Gatsby car—except that it’s too new. The novel was published in 1925 and was set in 1922. Imagine this 1922 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost painted yellow.
While trying to get established as a bond salesman, narrator Nick Carraway made do with an old Dodge. Dodge was a step above the Ford Model T, with slightly more power and a sturdier build than Ford’s flivver. The Dodge would have been dependable transportation for Nick.
In a flashback to 1917 Louisville, Jordan Baker remembers seeing Daisy with Gatsby in her roadster. Daisy’s family had money, but it’s unlikely that teenage Daisy would have had a Packard or Pierce-Arrow roadster. A medium-priced but stylish roadster, such as this 1917 Jordan, would have suited Daisy.
Tom Buchanan’s car is mentioned as a blue coupe. Tom was from old money and had no reason to impress anyone. A Marmon 34 would have been a proper car for Tom. Marmon was an expensive car that combined sport and luxury. Yet the Marmon styling was in quiet good taste. Fitzgerald’s first car was a used Marmon, and even though it was troublesome (probably because of abuse from both Scott and his wife Zelda), Fitzgerald seems to have had fond memories of the car. Another choice for Tom would have been a Pierce-Arrow. The Pierce was built to the highest standards and had understated styling. In the brash ’20s, conservative Pierce found itself out of step with the times, just as Tom Buchanan was at odds with Jazz Age society.
Jordan Baker didn’t have an automobile, but she borrowed a car and left the top down in the rain. Odds are that Jordan didn’t mooch a cheap car. A Packard touring car would have suited her well. Packard was America’s most successful luxury car of the ’20s and would have been popular among Jordan’s set.
In the current Great Gatsby production, Gatsby drives what appears to be a 1932 Duesenberg SJ and Tom a 1933 Auburn. The cars are wrong for the period, but they look good on film. Had Gatsby lived long enough, he probably would have driven a Duesenberg SJ.
This is just my take on of the cars in The Great Gatsby. As with any book, readers are free to create their own vision of the story.