The objective of this study was to determine which of the common groups of antihypertensive drugs is most effective at lowering systolic blood pressure (SBP) in elderly patients with previously untreated hypertension and the percentage of patients controlled with single or sequential monotherapy. Subjects were recruited from patients attending other outpatient clinics and entered into the study if their SBP was more than 150 mm Hg after three visits. Patients were given a low and high dose of each of the main classes of drugs or placebo for 1 month each. The study was a balanced, randomized crossover design with five periods: placebo; angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors; beta-blocking drugs; calcium-blocking drugs; and thiazide diuretics. Blood pressure (BP) was measured 24 to 26 h after the previous dose. A questionnaire for side effects was administered at each visit. Seventy-four patients entered the study. beta-Blockers could not be used in 15 patients because of asthma or bronchospasm and these had two placebo periods. There were 9 of 66 patients on P, 9 of 46 on beta-blockers, 4 of 65 on calcium-blocking drugs, 4 of 65 on diuretic, and 1 of 62 patients on ACE inhibitors who did not progress to the higher dose because of side effects. Decreases in SBP compared to randomized placebo were calcium-blocking drugs 15 mm Hg = diuretic 13 mm Hg > ACE inhibitors 8 mm Hg = beta-blockers 5 mm Hg. Blood pressure decrease correlated with placebo BP (P < .0005, r = 0.53 to 0.70). When corrected for placebo, target SBP (<140 mm Hg) was reached in between 6% to 15% of patients on monotherapy. Sequential monotherapy achieved target in 29%. Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, calcium-blocking drugs, and diuretics had no more side effects than placebo. Patients on beta-blockers had more side effects and the well-being score was reduced. Diuretics and calcium-blocking drugs are more effective in elderly patients at lowering SBP pressure. beta-Blockers were relatively ineffective, were frequently contraindicated, and had more side effects. Monotherapy achieved control in only a small number of patients. In elderly people with essential hypertension, therapy should be instituted with diuretics or calcium-blocking drugs, but combination therapy will usually be required to achieve goal.