18-19 August 2006
1930 Duesenberg Model J Sport Berline
- Chassis no. J287
Sold for $1,650,000
Coachwork by Murphy, Inc, Pasadena, California
265bhp, 420 cu. in. four valves per cylinder twin overhead camshaft inline eight-cylinder, three-speed transmission, leaf spring and beam axle front suspension, leaf spring and live axle rear suspension and vacuum-assisted four-wheel hydraulically-actuated drum brakes. Wheelbase: 153"
The Model J Duesenberg has long been regarded as the most outstanding example of design and engineering of the classic era. Introduced in 1928, trading was halted on the New York Stock exchange for the announcement. At $8,500 for the chassis alone, it was by far the most expensive car in America. Few would argue that the car’s features did not support its price. Indeed, the Model J’s specifications sound current today: double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, power hydraulic brakes and 265hp in naturally aspirated form.
The story of the Model J begins in 1925, when Errett Lobban Cord added the Duesenberg Motors Company to his rapidly growing enterprise, the Auburn Automobile Company.
Cord’s vision was to create an automobile that would surpass the great marques of Europe and America. Cadillac, Isotta Fraschini, Bugatti, Rolls-Royce, and Hispano-Suiza were his targets and Duesenberg was his chosen instrument. He presented Fred Duesenberg with the opportunity to create the greatest car in the world, and Fred obliged with the
Duesenberg Model J.
The Duesenberg Model J’s introduction on December 1, 1928 at the New York Auto Salon was front page news. The combination of the Duesenberg reputation with the Model J’s grand concept and execution made it the star of the show and the year. Duesenberg ordered enough components to build 500 Model Js while development continued for six months after the Model J’s introduction to ensure its close approximation of perfection. The first customer delivery came in May 1929, barely five months before Black Tuesday.
The effect of the Duesenberg J on America cannot be minimized. Even in the misery of the Depression this paragon of power illustrated the continued existence of wealth and upper class. 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.” The outside exhaust pipes inspired generations of auto designers and remain, 60 years later, a symbol of power and performance. “She’s a real Duesy,” still means a slick, quick, smooth and desirable possession of the highest quality.
Duesenbergs were expensive cars, and only men or women of means could afford them. At a time when a perfectly good new family sedan could be purchased for $500 or so, a coachbuilt Duesenberg often cost $20,000 or more. If a full size sedan sells for $25,000 today, that is the equivalent of more than $1 million dollars now. Such extravagance was born of an era of unbridled capitalism – a time when a man with vision and ability could make, and keep, a fortune of staggering size.
These were the men who could afford the very best, and there was absolutely no doubt that when it came to automobiles, E. L. Cord’s magnificent Duesenberg was the best that money could buy. And as we will see, George Whittell, Jr. was a man who was accustomed to nothing less.
The new Duesenberg was tailor-made for the custom body industry. It had the power and stance to carry imposing coachwork, and the style and grace of the factory sheet metal was ideally suited for the execution of elegant custom coachwork. Murphy Inc., a firm of coachbuilders based in Pasadena, California is generally recognized as the most successful coachbuilder on the Duesenberg Model J chassis – both because of its timeless designs and its impeccable craftsmanship.
Associated initially with Packards, Murphy built bodies that suited the California tastes of the time. They were simple and elegant, with trim lines and an undeniable sporting character. Murphy bodies seemed all the more revolutionary when compared to their contemporaries from the east coast, who built heavier, more ornate designs.
The trademark of Murphy body design was the “clear vision” pillar. On these bodies, the windshield pillars were designed to be as slim as possible, creating a sportier, more open appearance, while improving visibility for the driver. In fact, Murphy advertised that their windshield pillars were “narrower than the space between a man’s eyes,” a design they claimed eliminated blind spots.
While the convertible coupe is perhaps the most popular, and certainly the most common, of Murphy’s designs, closed cars like J287 more closely typify the ideals of the time. Most Duesenberg original owners were wealthy individuals, for whom a new Duesenberg was as much about comfort as it was about performance. For that reason, closed bodies were generally both more expensive and more popular.
Most of these were very conservative and highly conventional in styling and design. Murphy was nearly unique among Duesenberg coachbuilders in offering closed cars (the Beverly, the Berline, the Sport Sedan and the Clear Vision Sedan) that were stylish and sporting – a combination that seems ideally suited to the ethos of the Model J – and a chassis that was supremely comfortable, but at the same time, was the fastest and most powerful production car in America.
Only a very privileged few would ever be able to claim to have purchased a new Duesenberg. Only one man would claim the honor of being Duesenberg’s best customer, purchasing not one or two, but seven brand new Duesenbergs, making him by far the most prolific fan of the marque. Captain George Whittell, Jr.
George Whittell, Jr. was one of America’s most colorful millionaires. Born September 28, 1881 in San Francisco, he was the sole heir to the marriage of two California fortunes. His grandfathers had earned their wealth in banking and gold mining, and his father added to it with investments in real estate and railroads. When his parents wed, it was seen as a society event, and the couple celebrated by building a mansion on Nob Hill in which to raise a family.
George Jr. was wealthy enough that he never needed to work, and consequently, never saw any reason to earn a living. A rebellious young man, he caused his parents a great deal of aggravation, and more than enough embarrassment. Never one to do things by half measures, he charged through life at full speed, collecting beautiful women, fast cars, and exotic animals while spending money at a rate that shocked his friends and family. A legendary playboy, his was a life of trysts, liaisons and marriages – often at the same time.
After graduating high school in San Francisco, he literally ran away to join the circus, moving to Florida to join Barnum & Bailey. While there he developed a fascination for the animals and launched a safari business to capture and supply wild animals to the circus. He and his partner Frank Buck made several trips to Africa, journeys that fueled Whittell’s love of exotic animals.
Finally, under pressure from his parents, he returned home to face an arranged marriage. In typical Whittell fashion, he fell in love and eloped with a chorus girl instead, adding to his parent’s list of embarrassments.
This time, his father managed to bribe the necessary officials to have the marriage annulled, and the story hushed up. Despite his efforts, the newspapers learned of it and George Jr. was front-page news. None of this slowed him down, and soon he married Josie Cunningham, a rather prominent member of the dance troupe “The Floradora Sextets.” His wandering ways – and a sharp cut in his allowance – soon put an end to his latest marriage.
George Jr. was in Paris in 1914 when war broke out. He had spent the past several years attending a variety of schools (and learning seven languages) and enjoying the social life between London and Paris. He decided to join the fight, so rather than see him enlist, his parents purchased him a captaincy in the Italian army, where he drove an ambulance at the front. Later he transferred to the French armed forces, and finally to the U.S. Army when America entered the war in 1917.
Decorated for valor, he was also wounded near the end of the war. Recovering in a French hospital, he met a pretty young local nurse, Elia Pascal. They fell in love, and he brought her home, where to everyone’s surprise, she met with his parent’s approval. They were married in 1919 and moved into his parent’s Woodside, California estate. In 1922, George Sr. passed away, leaving the couple an estate valued at more than $30 million. George Jr. proved an astute financial manager, growing the family fortune substantially over the next eight years. Without a doubt, his most important flash of insight came in early 1929 when he sold $50 million worth of stocks just months before the great crash of October 1929.
With so many fortunes wiped out over the next two years, George’s move left him one of the richest men in America – just as Duesenberg launched the ultimate American automobile. Whittell immediately bought not one, but two cars, a convertible coupe (which was a San Francisco Auto Salon show car) and a boattail speedster, both carrying coachwork by Murphy. They would prove to be the first of seven Duesenbergs he would buy, although three of them were purchased for the use of various lady friends!
A Singular Design
Only one, the example offered here, appears to have been an outright gift, purchased by Whittell and immediately transferred to Jessie McDonald of Los Angeles, California, to whom it was delivered as a new car in January of 1931. Known as the “Whittell Mistress Car,” J287/2305 has a continuous history from new, and is still fitted with its original body, engine and chassis.
The lovely sport Berline offered here is a one off creation, built to Whittell’s order by Murphy’s brilliant young designer Franklin Hershey. From a design standpoint, J287 was years ahead of its time. Its compact, close coupled body featured a well integrated trunk, and stunning center-opening doors that wrapped into the roof, a feature never before seen. With its striking slanted windshield, narrow pillars, and sinister side windows, it was at once supremely elegant, tastefully restrained, and a bit mysterious.
Perhaps the most revolutionary feature of the design is one the casual observer will never see – its all aluminum construction. Built entirely without structural woodwork, its strength was derived from the clever use of cast aluminum supports combined with fabricated aluminum reinforcements. It was a revolutionary concept – both in its lack of wood framing and in its exclusive use of aluminum – and one that would not be seen again in a production car for decades to come. Compared to ordinary wood framed classics, J287 delivers a more nimble ride and more responsive handling – with none of the ponderousness that typifies wood-framed carriage-style construction.
After Ms. McDonald, J287’s second owner was Don Ballard, who bought the car in the late 1930s through Los Angeles consignment dealer Bob Roberts. James Foxley, of Perris California became the third owner, keeping the car until the late 1950s, when he sold it through dealer Mike McManus to noted collector, J.B. Nethercutt of Gardena, California.
Sometime later, probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Nethercutt sold J287 to Bill Harrah, where it joined his legendary Harrah’s Automobile Collection in Reno, Nevada.
After Bill Harrah’s death, ownership of the collection passed to the Holiday Inn Corporation in 1980. When they liquidated the collection in a series of three auctions, J287 was sold (in the second sale, September 28, 1985) to Ralph Englestadt, where it briefly became part of the Imperial Palace collection.
Several weeks later, New Jersey collector Oscar Davis bought the car through Philadelphia Pennsylvania dealer Mark Smith. Sometime later, Davis traded J287 back to Smith, who resold the car in the late 1980s to Paul Lapidus, a real estate investor from Long Island, New York. In the early 1990s, Lapidus sold J287 to Robert McGowan, of Branford, Connecticut. The vendor acquired J287 from McGowan in 1996, and commissioned Maine restorer Chris Charlton – who restored noted collector Bob Bahre’s award-winning stable of Duesenbergs – to undertake a comprehensive professional body-off restoration, which was completed in 1998. Meticulous storage and careful maintenance have preserved the restoration, and the deep blue-violet Duesenberg remains in stunning, high point condition.
Very few Duesenbergs can claim to retain all their major original components. Fewer still have had the quality of restoration, care, and maintenance that J287 has seen. Although some Duesenbergs are better looking than others, not many exhibit the beauty and grace of Franklin Hershey’s Sport Berline. Only a handful of these can boast a known and continuous history from new.
But only one car – this one – was built to order for the legendary George Whittell, Jr. as a gift for what we may presume was a very special lady.
AddendumPlease note that following restoration, J287 was shown at the ACD club National meet in Auburn, IN, where it was awarded Best in Class, Best Duesenberg, and the coveted Best in Show trophy. Please note that this car is titled by the Engine No. J287.
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