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American Dreams

Matt Stone

Murmurs circulated through the crowd as the Duesenberg Model J rolled up on stage at Gooding & Co.’s Pebble Beach auction in August 2011. Designed by Murphy Coach Builders and first delivered to Captain George Whittell Jr., the Art Deco sporting coupe (chassis J-460) boasted a long wheelbase, a low-slung brushed aluminum roof, a lavish black patent leather interior, and a bright red undercarriage. The car epitomized the extravagant lifestyle enjoyed by America’s wealthiest aristocrats during (and just after) the Roaring ’20s, and with a connection to Whittell, one of the country’s most famous—and infamous—bon vivants of that time, the Model J had the crowd abuzz. “Historically, Model J owners were among the most powerful and worldly of America’s prewar elite and, with six Model Js in his collection, George Whittell was Duesenberg’s best customer,” says David Gooding, president and founder of Gooding & Co. “In my opinion, the Whittell Coupe is the most elegant custom-bodied American classic ever created and among the finest automobiles built prior to World War II.”

Based on the success of that 2011 auction, it’s clear that Gooding was not alone in his assessment. The Duesenberg Whittell Coupe sold for $10.34 million, which established a new world record for the marque, not to mention a new record for any American car sold at auction. Six years prior, the company sold its first seven-figure Duesenberg, a 1933 SJ Murphy for $2.2 million; and overall, in the eight years that Gooding & Co. has served the collector car community, the auction house has sold 24 Duesenbergs, half of which have eclipsed the $1 million mark.

But that only skims the surface.

RM Auctions reached the seven-figure mark for a Duesenberg in 2001, when it sold a 1934 Model J Convertible Coupe for $1.98 million. Since that time, the company has sold 85 additional, original Duesies, 23 of which have exceeded $1 million—the most prestigious being a 1935 Model SJ Town Cabriolet, which commanded $4.4 million in 2007. In slightly more than a decade, RM and Gooding combined have sold 36 multimillion-dollar Duesenbergs, for a grand total of $74.34 million.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Duesenberg brothers’ first independent venture in the automotive industry, one that would lead to resounding success 15 years later. To celebrate, we’re taking a look back at how those two German immigrants persevered through unstable times to ultimately create an automobile that still turns heads. Theirs was a car that defined an era, one that catered to the affluent but still satisfied those seeking performance; and it’s a vehicle that remains relevant in the eyes of classic car collectors today.

By the time Friedrich and August Duesenberg established their own venture, the Duesenberg Motor Co., in 1913, the brothers already had logged brief stints at other auto firms, including Iowa Automobile and Supply, the Mason Motor Car Co., and the Sears Automobile Co.—a Des Moines dealership that sold Reo and Mitchell vehicles. The young German auto enthusiasts (Friedrich was 37, August was 34) shared a passion for mechanics and a belief that the engine was the true heart of any automobile, and as a result, that’s where they put their focus once they went into business for themselves. Friedrich had proved that he could design high-performance engines, and August was proficient at building them. Before long, Duesenberg engines had made a foray into speedboat and auto racing; and the accolades (and trophies) soon followed.

World War I interrupted the brothers’ automotive plans, but it also provided them with a substantial opportunity to build 6- and 8-cylinder naval engines, as well as 4- and 16-cylinder engines designed for use in American and Allied warplanes. When the war ended in November 1918, Friedrich and August reaffixed their sights on the automobile, and by 1921 they had established a second iteration of their namesake company, now called Duesenberg Automobile and Motors. During this period, Duesenberg produced its Model A and later the Model X, though the early to mid-1920s also bestowed the Duesenberg brothers with racing success. Jimmy Murphy piloted a Duesenberg to a Le Mans victory in 1921, marking the first time that an American automobile had claimed a Le Mans title, and Duesenberg racecars captured Indianapolis 500 victories in 1924, 1925, and 1927.

Despite that racing success, Duesenberg production models proved difficult to sell, leaving the company financially destitute. Errett Lobban Cord recognized the potential that the Duesenbergs had, and in the fall of 1926 he bought the company out of bankruptcy, just as he had done less than two years earlier when he executed a leveraged buyout of the Auburn Automobile Co. Cord’s first assignment for Friedrich was simple, though not necessarily easy—build an engine that outperformed all others. Friedrich proved up to the task, and his magnum opus was large (420 cu in, to be exact), producing 265 hp at 4,200 rpm. Remarkably, the engine’s specifications read much like those of a modern high-performance engine—eight inline cylinders, double overhead camshafts, and four valves per cylinder. In fact, examples of those engines prove to be no less valuable today; a 1929 Model J engine sold for more than $140,000 during a Gooding & Co. auction in 2006.

Duesenberg’s engines were built to exacting standards and tolerances using high-quality materials, and they supplied the new Model Js with the necessary pulling power to handle the large, lavish, and elegant coachbuilt bodies that the company’s design team envisioned. They also offered unparalleled smoothness, especially when cruising at high speeds. Additionally, Friedrich recognized the need for a proper foundation, so he designed a structurally robust chassis with brakes and a suspension that could handle that performance. The new chassis, which was meant to be an American alternative to European grand tourers like Rolls-Royce, could be modified for various wheelbase lengths and offered coachbuilders the flexibility to create sporting two-seaters, larger coupes and sedans, formal town cars, or limousines. When the Model J debuted in December 1928, it flashed a massive chrome grille and radiator shell, as well as equally substantive headlighting.

By all accounts, Friedrich Duesenberg had met the challenge to produce America’s best-performing and most technically advanced automobile.

For decades, Sam Mann has rubbed elbows with many of the country’s top car collectors at prestigious events like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The 77-year-old New Jersey collector currently owns four Duesenbergs, though he’s had as many as six in his collection in the past; and some of those, like a 1935 Model J Roadster, have garnered the highest honors at various events (it won Best in Show at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2008). “I’m a designer by education, career, and temperament and I have a passion for wonderful design,” he says. “These Duesenbergs were a great collaboration between people who had some level of sophistication and could afford to have a coachbuilder indulge their most well-thought-out concept. Those are the cars that we buy. They’re cars that, at least in my humble opinion, have exceeded all others in design.”

Despite his attraction to many of the marque’s elegant, one-off bodies, Mann isn’t content to appreciate them only on the concours lawn. Instead, he furthers his appreciation by regularly getting behind the wheel and putting them through their paces. He and his wife have organized three Duesenberg driving tours in recent years and are always eager to share that on-road experience with fellow Duesenberg enthusiasts, especially those who have yet to discover the joy of Duesenberg driving. However, Mann is quick to acknowledge that operating these classic behemoths takes some getting used to. “Because today’s cars are so incredibly competent and comfortable and smooth and quiet and reliable, when you get in these old cars, even the best of them, they’re noisy,” he says. “They don’t have what 80 years of technology has imparted. But you’re getting into these cars for the experience of being transported to an earlier time.”

San Diego County’s Chuck Spielman concurs. Spielman is currently enjoying his second Duesenberg Model J—a 1930 Murphy-bodied convertible sedan, which won Best in Class at Pebble Beach before he acquired it. Spielman owns and operates Only Yesterday Classic Autos, a modest San Diego body shop that repairs all manner of classic cars, so keeping his car roadworthy isn’t as daunting a task as it may be for other Duesenberg owners. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that a few challenges do exist for collectors looking to own and drive a Duesy, but they’re the same challenges that face a collector of any other classic marque. Putting it simply, Duesenbergs don’t like disuse. “They run better and more consistently when they are being driven, enjoyed, and maintained,” he says.

Prior to owning his current Duesy, Spielman owned a Murphy-bodied Model J Disappearing Top Roadster and describes that period in his life as “the pinnacle of a dream.” Though plenty of elegant and historically significant classic cars still survive, that Model J Disappearing Top Roadster is, according to Spielman, in a class by itself. “At least for me, it’s the most special and significant American car of the late ’20s and 1930s,” he says. “When you’re out driving that car on a beautiful day, [when] you’re on a great road and the car’s running great, you are really king of the hill.”

Randy ema long ago was nicknamed “Doctor Duesenberg,” and to many Duesenberg owners and enthusiasts, he is the marque’s foremost expert. Working out of his Orange County, Calif., shop, Ema has restored or serviced many of the world’s most extraordinary Duesenbergs, and there’s a reason the owners of those cars trusted him with the restoration. For starters, Ema owns a fair amount of original factory production tooling, but he also owns the original drawings, which have allowed him to create new tooling, when necessary.

Almost 30 years ago, Ema bought a large collection of original Auburn and Cord ephemera from the then-owner of the Auburn-Cord factory. Unbeknownst to Ema (or the factory’s owner), about 50 percent of the drawings, original literature, photos, and records of correspondence in that collection focused on Duesenberg. Shortly thereafter, Ema bought the rest of the marque’s original documents from that same factory owner. “There was a ton of information that we weren’t aware of,” he says, “some of construction and dimensions and clearances and finishes, and some of surfaces and the hardness of bearing for those surfaces. Those were things that we had to guess at prior.”

Equipped with that information, Ema suddenly could delve into the rebuilding of a classic Model J with added confidence, and he says that the information gleaned from those documents led to even greater performance when the restoration was complete. That, he says, is always his primary focus. “I want them to be authentic and I want them to do what they did when they were new,” he says. “The cosmetics are up to the customers.”

Duesenberg’s aesthetics also factor into Ema’s affinity for the marque, since the vast majority of the 481 Model Js delivered from 1928 to 1937 were equipped with bespoke, coachbuilt bodies. As an expert who’s seen almost all of the 379 Model Js still in existence, Ema can easily pick a top five—a Weymann Torpedo Phaeton, a Weymann “Tapertail” Speedster, the 1933 Murphy-Rollston SJ “20 Grand,” the 1935 Gable/Cooper SJ Roadster, and a 1935 Walker–La Grande Convertible Coupe—though he’s quick to add that Duesenberg preference is entirely subjective. “They’re all flamboyant and functional, flowing and elegant in their styling,” Ema says of those five cars. “But that’s not necessarily what everyone should think. It’s like asking most men if they like blondes, brunettes, or redheads. It’s personal taste.”

Richie Clyne has collected for decades, and he was instrumental in the creation of a Duesenberg room at Las Vegas’s Imperial Palace. “It was one of the greatest thrills of my life,” he recalls of that feat, which brought 52 Duesenbergs together for display. As Clyne has surveyed the Duesenberg market, he’s noticed a generational shift, where young collectors are entering the ring and making aggressive bids to own—and, in many cases, drive—some of the most sought-after examples. “It’s a different era of someone having money,” he says. “A guy who’s 35 years old and spending a million or two million dollars today isn’t the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

For his part, Ema also has noticed the trend of younger Duesenberg owners seeking complete 100-point restorations, though his recent commissions don’t suggest many are looking for a celebrated driver. “They understand and know that this was a fast and furious car in its day,” he says, “but not too many current owners are asking about performance. They’re asking if a car is real and if its provenance is real. Of course, we can make them a Pebble Beach winner and a driver, but that takes a lot more time.”

Regardless of the motivations behind current sales and owner turnover, one thing is clear: the market for a Duesenberg is as robust as it was the day the first Model J debuted in 1928. “They’ve appreciated more proportionately than other cars, primarily because people understand them to be the finest automobile that America ever built,” Mann says. “Duesenberg’s slogan was ‘the mightiest American automobile,’ and it is the mightiest in size, presence, and performance.”

“It’s still preeminent,” Ema adds of the marque. “Mention Duesenberg and most people today know what you’re talking about. It has staying power.”

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