10 October 2008
1933 Duesenberg Model SJ Phaeton
Sold for $1,688,500
Many superlative automobiles have been built during the century-plus history of self-propelled travel, but few have spawned new words for our lexicon. It is a testament to the Duesenberg Model J that anything great or grand is called a “doozie” (by whatever spelling). While its designers, Frederick and August Duesenberg, are best remembered for the immortal J, they earned their reputations building racing cars. As a result, competition technology found its way into all of the high performance automobiles they built for the road.
Like many in the automobile business, the Duesenberg brothers started with bicycles. Fred, a bicycle racer, worked for Thomas Jeffery, maker of Rambler bikes in Wisconsin. Returning home to Iowa, he opened a garage with Augie, and designed a two-cylinder automobile. A local attorney named Mason was impressed, and put up money so they could manufacture it. The Mason Motor Car Company of Des Moines and later Waterloo, built cars until 1914, but the Duesenbergs sold control of the firm to washing machine manufacturer F.L. Maytag in 1909.
The Duesenbergs’ skill and creativity trickled down to other early American automakers. Their four-cylinder walking-beam engine, produced by Rochester, powered half a dozen marques. Eddie Rickenbacker, Rex Mays, Peter DePaolo, Tommy Milton, Albert Guyot, Ralph DePalma, Fred Frame, Deacon Litz, Joe Russo, Stubby Stubblefield, Jimmy Murphy, Ralph Mulford and Ab Jenkins all drove their racing cars. Duesenbergs, seventy in all, competed in fifteen consecutive Indy 500s, starting in 1913. Thirty-two of them finished in the top ten.
The brothers became masters of supercharging and reliability. Because engines were Fred’s specialty, their engines were beautiful and performed with the best of Miller, Peugeot and Ballot. In 1921 Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans, the first car with hydraulic brakes to start in a Grand Prix race. Duesenberg reprised this performance at Indianapolis in 1922, where eight of the top 10 cars were Duesenberg-powered.
Late in World War I, Duesenberg Motors tooled up to build the Bugatti U-16 aero engine. Then the company turned its attention to the Duesenberg Model A, a 183 cubic inch single overhead cam inline eight. It would be built by a new corporation, Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors, which soon moved from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Indianapolis. After the Model A’s design was complete, Fred and Augie began development of a 122 cubic inch supercharged straight eight for the championship series and Indianapolis.
Fred Duesenberg was an intuitive and creative designer, to whom new ideas came easily. In a quarter-century he and Augie conceived and built more different, distinctive automobiles and engines – even a racing two-stroke for Indianapolis – than any other designers of the era.
Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors was plucked from the post-World War I recession by Errett Lobban Cord. Cord, the savior of Auburn, had lifted the foundering Indiana automaker out of the doldrums by sprucing up unsold cars with bright paint jobs and selling them with creative marketing. In 1926, looking for the means to build a more prestigious car, he bought the struggling but very inventive Duesenberg company. Added to Cord's growing industrial empire, which also included Lycoming engines and the Limousine Body Company, Duesenberg provided a luxury nameplate with advanced engineering. The Model A became, in a sense, the wealthy sportsman’s Pierce-Arrow. For the price of a Pierce Model 36 with T-head six and mechanical brakes, one could get a sophisticated overhead cam eight and four-wheel hydraulics in a Duesenberg – and appear trendier besides.
The Model J and SJ
Cord, however, wanted more than a bought-in luxury car. He had also been attracted by the brothers’ engineering prowess. To realize Cord’s dream, Fred was given an assignment – build the best car in the world. More than a competitor for Cadillac or Packard, it was intended from the outset to be better than Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta Fraschini and Bugatti. The Duesenberg Model J lived up to Cord’s expectations.
It was superlative in all respects. Its short wheelbase chassis was 142.5 inches, the long one nearly 13 feet. The 420 cubic inch dual overhead camshaft straight eight had four valves per cylinder and made 265 horsepower. The finest materials were used throughout, and fit and finish were to precision standards. Each chassis was driven 100 miles at high speed at Indianapolis without a body. The chassis were then clothed by the finest coachbuilders in the world.
The Model J was introduced at the New York Auto Salon on December 1, 1928. It made headlines. The combination of the Duesenberg reputation with the Model J’s grandeur and elegance made it the star of the show. Duesenberg ordered sufficient components to build 500 Model Js, while continuing development to ensure its perfection. The first delivery came in May 1929, barely five months before Black Tuesday.
After the Model J’s introduction, Fred Duesenberg worked to make it even more powerful, applying his pet centrifugal supercharger to the Model J’s giant eight, just as he had done so successfully to his small racing engines. Fred died after a road accident in a Model J in 1932. Augie, until then independently and successfully building Duesenberg racing cars, was retained to put the final touches on the supercharged Model J. The result, the 320 horsepower “SJ,” was the holy grail of American luxury performance automobiles.
The effect of the Duesenberg J on America cannot be overstated. Even in the depths of the Depression, this paragon of power was a portent of prosperity. Duesenberg’s advertising became a benchmark, featuring the wealthy and privileged in opulent surroundings with only a single line of copy: “He drives a Duesenberg”, or “She drives a Duesenberg.” The external exhaust pipes of the supercharged models inspired generations of auto designers and remain a symbol of power and performance.
While most Duesenbergs were coachbuilt to clients’ orders, often with intimate client involvement during design, construction and trimming, Duesenberg also developed an in-house line of bodies from the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg design department, most of them penned by Gordon Buehrig.
Styled La Grande, Duesenberg’s proprietary designs were built by several coachbuilders and supplied to the Duesenberg factory in Indianapolis where they were mounted and trimmed either to clients’ order or for stock. Although most were built by the Union City Body Company, a few were built by other houses, including Brunn, Weymann, and A.H. Walker.
Duesenberg’s La Grande bodies have stood the test of time, their classic elegance and tasteful embellishment distinguishing them among the most coveted coachwork on these great chassis. In an era of great designers and coachbuilders, this is an exceptional recognition.
The handsome Duesenberg La Grande Phaeton offered here, J510, has a particularly fascinating history. A supercharged example, it was tested in July 1933 by the Duesenberg test driver, one Mr. Lange, before being acquired by Mr. Ben E. Smith, Sr. of the brokers Hutton & Co. in New York the following month.
The coachwork was particularly interesting in as much as it was one of just three supercharged phaetons built by La Grande, all on the long wheelbase chassis. It is the second of the three cars built, but was specified as a five passenger phaeton with accessory rear windscreen. The most likely reason for this order is that the full dual cowl configuration made entry and exit from the rear seat awkward, and the weight of the cowl and windscreen assembly was difficult for many to manage.
Although fourteen La Grande Phaetons were built in total – including the short wheelbase and non-supercharged cars – just eight are known to survive. Of those, as noted above, just three were factory supercharged cars, as J510 was.
By 1944, Mr. Smith’s son, Ben E. Smith, Jr., had taken the car to Mexico where it was given to Bruno Paglie, the manager of the Hipodromo built by Smith in Mexico City. After its tenure with Paglie, the car was acquired in 1950 by Valentine G. Melgarejo, a used car dealer, presumably also in Mexico. Melgarejo kept the big Model J for 18 years before passing it on to William J. Metta of Alabama, who is reported to have partially restored,it, with just 26,000 miles showing.
It passed next through James Southard in 1975, a dealer based in Wisconsin. The same year it is believed to have been purchased by Thomas S. Gene Storms, who purchased a faithful Leo Gephardt reproduction supercharger in 1979. J510 has remained in California ever since, acquired by its current owner 25 years ago. As presented, the car is in excellent restored condition throughout, finished in dark red with a cream sweep panel, and reveal. The interior is beautifully trimmed in tan leather with a tan Haartz cloth top. The odometer shows less than 31,400 miles, which are believed to be original. Notable features include dual driving lights, cowl lights, a rear-mounted trunk, and dual side-mounted spare wheels and tires with hard covers and sideview mirrors.
There are many, including the author, who believe that the majesty of the mighty Model J is best appreciated when seen with the largest and sportiest coachwork, on the long wheelbase supercharged chassis. Only 18 long wheelbase supercharged cars were built, and of those, only three carried Gordon Buehrig’s spectacular La Grande Phaeton coachwork, making them arguably the rarest and most desirable Duesenbergs of all.
J510 is particularly appealing to collectors today because of its continuous history – just a handful of owners have cared for this magnificent automobile over its nearly 80 year history – the most recent of which has owned the car for more than 25 years alone.
It is a great car not because a restorer has made it great. No herculean effort was required to bring it back from the brink of salvage – or beyond – simply because its owners have never allowed the car to deteriorate to the point that complete restoration was needed. Such cars are exceedingly difficult to find, and when they come to market, they are seldom seen again for many years.
To own a Duesenberg is a great thing, but how much better it is to own a great Duesenberg!
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