15-16 August 2008
1929 Duesenberg Model J Convertible Coupe
- Chassis no. 2165
Sold for $1,413,500
The Model J Duesenberg has long been regarded as the most outstanding example of design and engineering of the classic era. Introduced in 1929, 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. With coachwork, the delivered price of many Duesenbergs approached $20,000, a staggering sum at a time when a typical new family car cost around $500.
The Mighty Model J
The story of Fred and August Duesenberg and E.L. Cord is among the most fascinating in automotive history. The Duesenbergs were self-taught mechanics and car builders whose careers started in the Midwest at the beginning of the twentieth century with the manufacture of cars bearing the Mason and Maytag names. Fred, the older brother by five years, was the tinkerer and designer of the pair. Augie made Fred’s ingenious and creative things work.
The Duesenbergs’ skill and creativity affected many other early American auto manufacturers. Their four-cylinder 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 drove their racing cars.
In 15 consecutive Indianapolis 500s, starting with their first appearance in 1913, 70 Duesenbergs competed – thirty-two, an amazing 46 percent of them, finished in the top 10. Fred and Augie became masters of supercharging and of reliability. Their engines, because engines were Fred’s specialty, were beautiful and performed on a par with the best of Miller, Peugeot and Ballot. In 1921, Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg won the most important race on the international calendar, the French GP at Le Mans. It was the first car with hydraulic brakes to start a Grand Prix. Duesenberg backed up this performance at Indianapolis in 1922 – eight of the top 10 cars were Duesenberg-powered, including Jimmy Murphy’s winner.
In 1925, 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 was conceived and executed to be superlative in all aspects. Its short wheelbase chassis was 142.5 inches, nearly 12 feet. The double overhead camshaft straight eight-cylinder engine had four valves per cylinder and displaced 420 cubic inches. It made 265 horsepower. The finest materials were used throughout and fit and finish were to toolroom standards. Each chassis was driven at speed for 100 miles at Indianapolis.
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. Unfortunately, the Model J Duesenberg lacked financing and support from E.L. Cord and Auburn Corporation, which were both struggling to stay afloat in the decimated middle market.
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-sized family sedan sells for $30,000 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.
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. The Murphy body company of Pasadena, California is generally recognized as the most successful coachbuilder on the Duesenberg Model J chassis.
The Walter M. Murphy Company
Associated initially with Packards, Murphy built bodies which 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 the convertible coupe, 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.
The convertible coupe is generally considered to be the best-looking of Murphy’s designs, and indeed, it became one of the most popular bodies for the Model J.
J142/2165: The Roster of Keepers
The wonderful Duesenberg presented here, J142, has a well-known ownership history from new.
Originally sold to Jarvis Hunt, Jr. of Chicago, J142 went to its second owner, Joe Neidlinger of Chicago, IL in January of 1933. Sometime in the mid-1930s, Neidlinger sold the car to William E. Schmidt, but by 1936 the car was in the hands of Eddie Glatt, a Duesenberg enthusiast and owner of Chicago-based Edwards Finance Company.
Obviously unable to resist the appeal of J142, Neidlinger bought the car a second time from Glatt. Within a year, however, he sold the car to a Mr. Lacey of Oak Park, Illinois who traded it to Duesenberg dealer John Troka against the purchase of SJ515. In 1938, Troka sold J142 to a Chicago-area physician, Dr. J. Phister. Later the same year, Troka bought the car back, reselling it to Tom L. Grace, who became the first long-term owner, keeping the Duesenberg for nearly 12 years before selling it to Louis A. Ostendorf of Berwyn, Illinois.
A year later, in 1951, Troka bought J142 again – for the third time – reselling it to Nathan R. Swift. Four months later, Swift sold the car to John Herriott. In May of 1957, Herriott was enroute to the Indianapolis 500 when the car broke down, and he left it by the side of the road where it was discovered by enthusiast James Thorton. Thorton tracked down Herriott, and a deal was made.
Thorton kept the car for 11 years before he sold J142 to Russell Kenerson (of Jamestown, New York and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) on October 28th, 1968. It was in his hands that the car underwent its first major concours quality restoration in the early 1970s, which garnered the car a Classic Car Club of America National First Place award in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1974.
In October of 1978 – after ten years – Kenerson sold J142 to E. B. Jeffries of Carefree, Arizona. Six years later, in 1984, J142 was purchased by the Blackhawk Collection.
It was later sold to Tenny Natkin of Riverwood, Illinois, who in the early 1980s had the interior refurbished by noted specialist Steve Gundar of Topeka, Kansas. Around the same time, well-known restorer Fran Roxas repainted the car.
In 1982, the car was awarded a National First Place prize by the Antique Automobile Club of America. By the mid-1980s, after having been invited to the prestigious Pebble Beach concours, the car was sold to Jack Denlinger, before joining the well-known Imperial Palace collection of Duesenbergs in July of 1990.
In 1999, J142 was purchased by Charles Cawley, CEO of the MBNA bank. About a year later, in September of 2000, the car was sold at RM’s New York Auto Salon and Auction to Dale Walksler of Maggie Valley, North Carolina. While in Walksler’s collection, J142 was driven regularly, and just recently, underwent a complete engine rebuild by his museum staff.
Having enjoyed a long history of meticulous maintenance and caring ownership, the car remains complete and correct. Light tan leather covers both the interior and rumble seat. The dashboard gauges, which include temperature, speedometer, brake, amperes, fuel, altimeter, oil, and chronometer all appear to be correct and in good working order.
J142’s exterior appointments include original TwiLite headlights, Pilot Ray driving lights, scripted sidelamps, chrome wire wheels and a rear-mounted trunk.
In recent years, Duesenbergs have enjoyed healthy appreciation as more and more collectors pursue a dwindling number of the best examples. They are without a doubt the ultimate American-made automobile.
They are also rare, powerful, sporting, sophisticated, and beautiful. J142 is all of these things and more. It has a continuous ownership history from new. Unlike many, it has never deteriorated, and it retains all of its important original components, from coachwork to engine and chassis.
Many cars have been lost; of those that remain, few offer the provenance and the appeal of J142.
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