Posted by: Jerry Garrett | April 3, 2013

Secrets of THE GREAT GATSBY’s Fabulous Cars

A screen grab from THE GREAT GATSBY (Warner Bros.)

A screen grab of a Buick chasing a Duesenberg from THE GREAT GATSBY (Warner Bros.)


“On week-ends,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Jay Gatsby, “his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight…”


Not a Duesenberg

Okay, we know the mysterious tycoon and party host Gatsby owned a Rolls-Royce, probably a 1922 model, and one big enough to serve as a bus. Fitzgerald doesn’t spell it out in so many words, but it was probably a Silver Ghost. Later we learn it was a rare creamy yellow one.

“It was 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,” Fitzgerald noted.

The interior was “a sort of green leather conservatory,” as Fitzgerald described it.

Perhaps Fitzgerald was envisioning something like the Rolls-Royce model (actually a Phantom) in the famous “Best Car In The World” art deco poster.

Knowing all that, in the Baz Luhrmann re-make of “The Great Gatsby”, why is Gatsby (Leonardo diCaprio) driving a 1929 Duesenberg? Alas, it’s not even a real Duesenberg – it’s a fake one, made in Wisconsin in 1983. It has a plastic body and a Ford V-8 engine and Lincoln driveline.

A Duesenberg?

At first, I thought it might be because the film was made in Australia, and perhaps classic cars from the 1920s are a little hard to find Down Under. You take what you can get, right? Actually, no. The filmmakers went to the trouble of buying two Duesenberg II replicars from the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois – near Chicago – and shipping them to Australia for the film.

Redford’s Rolls @ Greenwich

Luhrmann could have used the yellow Rolls-Royce Phantom I that Robert Redford drove in the 1974 film version of “The Great Gatsby.” But those filmmakers didn’t get it quite right either – Redford’s Rolls was a 1928 model. Still about six years off.

That car – a real Rolls, by the way, still exists. It sold at a Bonhams auction in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 2009 for $236,000 (its value was perhaps lessened a bit because its original color was changed for the movie, and its saddle leather seats were dyed green). Those Duesenbergs bought for Luhrmann’s film – if real – would have cost exponentially more than that Rolls-Royce. A source close to the production said using real cars would have been prohibitively expensive, all but impossible to insure against damage or loss, and difficult for the actors to drive. The replicars drive like 1980s cars.

What should Gatsby's Rolls-Royce have looked like? This is about as close as you are likely to find to it.

How should Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce have looked? Here’s one in the correct colors.


Rolls-Royce built this mid 1920s model for testing & promotional use. (JG Photos)


Before  filming started, a call went out from the prop department for “left-hand-drive” cars of the Roaring Twenties (cars are right-hand-drive in Australia, since they drive on the left there). If they were looking for a left-hand-drive 1922 Rolls-Royce, they would have come up empty, though. All Rolls-Royce cars were right-hand-drive until 1925, according to a Bonhams specialist!

That screen grab at the top of this story? It shows DiCaprio’s Duesenberg being pursued by a 1930 Buick. Other driving scenes are rife with American cars of the 1929-31 model years: Packards, more Buicks, Ford Model A’s and even a 1933 Auburn. Hopeless. (For what it’s worth, it seems supercharged Duesenbergs – albeit real ones – were also used in the 1949 Alan Ladd version of “Gatsby”.)

Alan Ladd's Duesenbergs?

1949 Gatsby: Alan Ladd’s Duesenbergs – real ones.

Luhrmann and his crew seemed to go out of their way to flout authenticity.

Did they even read the book?

The point of having Gatsby owning a Rolls-Royce in the book, and having a closet full of clothes from England, was to help sell his fantasy girl Daisy Buchanan on his lie of having gone to school at Oxford.

The original Duesenberg was made in Indiana. Would Daisy, a society belle from Louisville, Kentucky, have been impressed with a Hoosier?

Once again, Hollywood has gotten “The Great Gatsby” terribly, laughably wrong.

Jerry Garrett

April 3, 2013


  1. I totally agree. With the money that some of these shows throw around, one would think they would hire an auto historian, if just to consult..and then they can still get it wrong. We had several historians that we used on the Greatest Auto Race flic, including the chaps at the Reynolds. Keep up the good work!

  2. Mr. Garrett,

    Just an FYI, Duesenbergs were actually made in Indianapolis, IN, they were owned by the Auburn Automobile Co. of Auburn, IN. Still a Hoosier though!

    TP; Auburn, IN

    • You are correct. And that’s what I thought, because I used to work in Indianapolis and know where the factory was. But Wikipedia said the company’s principal operations were all located in Auburn. I should know better than to blindly trust Wikipedia – over what I know! Thanks.

  3. The Duesenberg(s) in question, are in fact, replicars. Called Duesenberg II, and built in the early 1980’s. The are flailing rumours about the internet that Luhrmann spent $3 million on said car(s), when in fact he purchased 3 hero-cars from the Volo Auto Museum – – the two Duesenbergs and a Packard for just over $1 million.

    The fact that the car being used is not a yellow Rolls Royce, which has graced several of the novel’s covers over the years, is only insulted more with the revelation that the famed Duesenbergs he is using are FAKE. From the photos I’ve seen and the one you have above, there are several things that are not original to the c.1929 cars. After watching the teasers and Googling some still shots, not to mention the pictures of DiCaprio and Maguire ripping about in a red and cream car (obviously before a yellow repaint) and then coming across a few posts, I could see they were not the real deal.

    As you have already pointed out, the Rolls Royce used in the 1974 Redford movie was for sale recently, and I’m sure the new owners would have reached an agreement to use the car for the movie.

    I’ll admit that the trailers are splashy and the quality of the production looks great, but I’m still skeptical to the overall vision if the director can’t even be true to the original novel, which clearly details the Rolls Royce, if not actually mentioned by name.

    It is also rumoured that Luhrmann went WAY over the budget that Warner-Brothers had set, in fact WB shut off the tap, and Luhrmann had to seek other funding. If Luhrmann paid $3 million for two fake Duesenbergs and a Packard, it’s no wonder he ran out of money.

    I suppose we’ll see how the public, of whom most will not pick up on the details like the wrong vintage of vehicles running the streets of “New York”, will judge the movie when it arrives in May.


    • Great information. Thanks for sharing your expertise and keen eye for detail. It also has been reported the Duesenbergs had modern V-8 engines. Use of replicars in movies has increased in recent years, it seems. The Fast & Furious franchise has used a fleet of fake supercars in “Fast Five” and “Fast & Furious 6”. Fake or not, though, as you point out, these cars are still expensive. A million dollars for two fake Duesies and a Packard? I’m in the wrong business!

  4. Wow! Cool fact! Great article. Can’t wait to see the remake, and was looking for more info on the new car. Something was odd about it. You have enlightened me. Thanks!



  5. The Duesenberg was the car of the smart young upper class man. It was hand made, luxurious and faster then hades. It’s design screamed modern and fast. Many actors owned Duesenbergs. The Rolls was hand made and luxurious but more for the conservative upper class gentleman. Go to any classic car show today and listen to the oohs and aahs at the crowd around a Dues. Personally, I think the Dues is perfect for a guy like Gatsby, a lot more flash than a Rolls. Of course, the book didn’t mention Rolls….

    • oops I mean did mention the Rolls and not the Duesenberg

    • Everybody loves the look of the later 1920s and early 1930s models, but the Model A was a bit boxy for my tastes. Admittedly, the bodies were all pretty much coach-built.

  6. […] a Dusenberg as well. But with the movie set in 1922, it wouldn’t have been a 1929 model. Blogger Jerry Garrett, though, makes a convincing argument that a Dusenberg would not have impressed Daisy in the way a Rolls would have, and that impressing […]

  7. Rolls Royce had so many different body builders that a 1928 could easily be so similar to a 1922 that it would fit right in. You really have to analyze the Rolls to figure out it’s something newer than 1922, where the 29 Duesenberg is obviously the wrong era with smaller tire diameters, a streamlined look, and bright chrome. The early 20’s were more boxy with a softer glow of nickel brightwork. A 22 Duesenberg would not have been a very flashy car to look at compared to a 22 Rolls.

  8. […] also checked out Jerry Garrett’s blog, where he adds another interesting […]

  9. We featured your Gatsby articles (here and in the New York Times) today on our blog. Here is the link:

  10. […] มีเกร็ดเรื่อง “รถ” มาฝากด้วยฮะ เนื่องจากมีแฟนพันธุ์แท้เขาจับผิดว่าในหนังใช้รถ Duesenberg แต่ถ้าอิงตามบทประพันธ์ของ Fitzgerald จริง ๆ แล้วตัวรถจะต้องเป็น Rolls Royce สีเหลืองรุ่นปี 1922 ดังที่เห็นในภาพมากกว่า ใครสนใจตามไปอ่านบทความในลิ้งนี้ได้เลยฮะ […]

  11. Funny thing about show biz: Something on camera doesn’t have to BE right, as long as it LOOKS right. You know, the way the grounds of Jackie O’s childhood home, Hammersmith Farm looked just fine as the Buchanans’ yard & Rosecliff made a great Gatsby’s house in the ’74 flick. But both places are in Newport, RI, not East or West Egg (both fictional) Long Island.

    But to the point, everyone oohs and ahhs over Duesenbergs and people who don’t know old cars probably think one looks just fine as Gatsby’s car. On the other hand I couldn’t get over how wrong an SJ Deusey (real or fake) looked for the era. (BTW, I don’t mind replicas used as movie cars, show-biz duty can be rough on old machines.) But the real SJ Deusenbergs (supercharged model Js) didn’t come along until 1932 – deep in the Depression, not the Jazz Age – and only had those chrome exhausts on thte right.

    Now, a little-noticed fact about the 1974 movie: Paramount re-set it in 1925. (The cars we – yes, WE – used in the film had handpainted, 1925 NY license plates.) This change may not have been for this reason but it did somewhat validate the use of Ted Leonard’s 1928, US-built Phantom I as Gatsby’s car, as “New Phantom” production began in ’25 in the UK. The 1974 production did try to make the vehicles look right (for ’25) but a colorful ’30 Packard is quite visible as one of Gatsby’s parties breaks up. On the other hand, Mia Farrow’s limo is spot-on: It was a 1922 Springfield Silver Ghost town car. The fact that its then-owner, Andy Mowbray, played the chauffeur helped ensure it never got mistreated during the production. (It’s not that film people plan to mistreat old cars, but quite a few of them just don’t know how they work.)

    • What wonderful detail. Thank you for taking the time to write. I agree that as long as something looks right in the movies, you might be able to get away with it. But if you’ve read the book, and understand the point Fitzgerald was trying to make about Gatsby trying to emphasize everything “British” in his life…in a futile attempt to impress the bubble-headed Daisy…you realize the Rolls-Royce itself was something more than a plot point. I noticed that at an RM Auctions event in Italy in June, they offered a late 1920s Rolls-Royce that the factory itself had commissioned as a marketing and merchandising vehicle. It was in use when the book was quite popular. It was pale yellow with green leather interior. I wondered if perhaps RR had commissioned their own Gatsby fantasy car. I looked at that car, and could see Gatsby behind the wheel. (I would add a photo here, but WordPress doesn’t permit that!)

  12. […] also checked out Jerry Garrett’s blog, where he adds another interesting […]

  13. I just had taken a picture of the original car from the movie here in Quitman, Texas on 11/28/13….according to the owner, the car now resides in Hainsville, Texas, just north of Quitman. pictures can be found at:

  14. Jerry, Wanted to contact you by email, but realized I don’t have your address. Would you like to contribute something to the Silver Birch Press GREAT GATSBY ANTHOLOGY? Details here:

  15. some car R From Jay Lemo,,, Is This Right?

  16. […] si sa per quale ragione la Rolls del romanzo nel film con DiCaprio diventa anacronisticamente una Duesenberg Convertible del 1929, mentre il romanzo è del […]

  17. Well, I noticed that they didn’t get the music right either! It was called the “Jazz Age” for a reason. During the scenes at Gatsby’s home, when he threw the huge party, he had even hired a jazz band to play. But everytime I waited for them to start playing jazz, they would move into some sort of hip hop or rap. It was so disappointing! Why on earth would they do something like that?

  18. You can’t get art horribly laughably wrong. Might as well laugh at DaVinci for not painting the leaves on the trees the right shape for that year in the Mona Lisa, as blame DiCaprio for driving a Duesenberg. The Duesenberg is sexy, the Rolls is an angular boxy nightmare to look at. Great decision. You need to realize that a movie is a separate piece of art, to be great it should never follow the book exactly, and will never be the same as the images you create in your mind when you read a book.

    • Filmmakers have almost no chance of overcoming people’s conceptions created when they read a book. I have in my mind that the perfect Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan would have been Jon Hamm and January Jones. But I’m not a casting director. I do think the Rolls Royce is an essential component, because the plot point revolves around how hard that car was to drive.

  19. Jerry, perhaps seeing a 1916 Packard roadster in Newport today got me back on your page! When we were shooting Gatsby here in the summer of ’73 my favorite car to take from the storage garage to the location scene was the white Packard roadster. Still such a pleasure to drive when it was about 50 years old! (I guess that shouldn’t seem such a shock; I drove my ’64 Corvair to work today,)

    I realized something backing up another point you had made about the yellow Roller – about it having been painted. In fact, its owner, Ted Leonard, owned a local Volvo-Saab-Triumph store and knowing the book, had his body shop shoot it yellow and dye the seats green to increase his shot of having his car picked. It worked. And though most of us who were his friends were generally apoplectic over the “used car” quality (rather than restoration-worthy) nature of the paint job, Ted made the right choice: Movie cars live the hard life of props – no sense subjecting perfect paint to certain abuse! And the car still looked good at Ted’s memorial service in this century. (The family had it parked outside the church so friends knew which of the churches on that stretch of RI 114 was the right one!) Judging by the above pictures in Texas not many years ago, it still looks good – though I have no idea if it’s been re-shot.

    • Wow. Such terrific info! Thanks so much for sharing. A few years back I found a factory original 1925 Rolls in pale chiffon yellow, with green leather interior, that RR used as a promotional vehicle (literally) for a few years. The owner showed me how difficult it was to drive. No wonder Daisy screwed up!

  20. Rolls Royce was built in America from 1921 to 1932, thus the explanation that he was trying for an Oxford image is a poor concept. The Two cars in the 1949 movie were 1936 Model JN Duesenbergs……….#533 & 565. Both cars exist today, and both are running and driving. It would have been possible to acquire them for filming. Expensive but possible. JN-565 is used regularly, 533 is in a museum.

    • Thanks for your valuable insights. Since I wrote this, I saw the most amazing Gatsby-style Rolls Royce. I believe I wrote about it here, after I saw it at an RM auction at Villa Erba in Italy in 2013. It was a yellow car with green leather, just as it was in the book. Although it was a 1927 model, it appeared to have been built earlier and used as a promotional vehicle by the factory. I believe the intent was to evoke the Gatsby car in public appearances and sales efforts.

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