While visiting the Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix, I was intrigued by this 1930 Duesenberg Model J. Before I get into the specifics of this car, I want to talk a little bit about the history of Duesenberg and what makes them so special.
The Best of the Best
When it comes to prewar American cars, Duesenberg stands out from other manufacturers like a golden thumb. They built outrageously expensive cars for the fabulously wealthy. A completed Duesenberg cost between $13,000 and $19,000 at a time when the average U.S. physician earned less than $3,000 a year. That same car would cost $258,134.54 car in 2012 dollars!
After their earlier Model A and Model X, Duesenberg set out to build a car that would compete with the most powerful and luxurious cars from Europe. Known as the Model J, this car represented the finest in American crafstmanship, engineering, and elegance.
When it was unveiled at the New York Auto Show on December 1, 1928, the Model J was such an important event that trading was halted on the New York Stock Exchange. It was not only the most expensive car in America, it was also the fastest and the most technologically advanced car money could buy.
Duesenberg designers used a straight-8 engine configuration which displaced 6.9L and made 265 horsepower. It had dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and a detachable head. These are common technologies today, but it was quite revolutionary for the time. By comparison, Ford’s original 3.6L Flathead V8 engine produced from 1932-1936 made anywhere from 65 to 85 horsepower.
This advanced design allowed the Model J to sprint to 60 mph in just 8 seconds and a top speed of 119 mph, at a time when other cars couldn’t even reach 60 mph. It was said that the only car that could catch a Duesenberg was another Duesenberg.
Needless to say, the Model J instantly became a status symbol among the wealthy and famous. Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Al Capone, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain all drove Duesenbergs. Philip Wrigley (of Wrigley chewing gum fame) owned five of them!
What Makes Them So Special?
There are two reasons why Duesenbergs are so collectible today. The first is simple economics: supply and demand. Duesenberg ran into hard times as a result of the Great Depression. Only 481 Model J’s were built with about 378 known to exist today. There are simply more people who want to own them than there are cars available, which drives the price up.
The second reason why Duesenbergs are so special is because the factory produced them as a rolling chassis. They would produce the ladder frame, wheels, suspension, engine, and transmission. It was up to the customer to have a body put on the car to suit their individual tastes. Because there were half a dozen companies doing bodywork and because the Model J was offered with a short or a long wheelbase, I think it’s safe to say that no two Model J’s are exactly alike.
These cars weren’t Fords rolling off the assembly line hundreds of times a day. They were custom built with high-tech features, exquisite materials and craftsmanship, and in very limited numbers. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the history of this car, a 1930 Model J Disappearing-Top Torpedo Coupe Convertible.
1930 Disappearing Top Torpedo Convertible Coupe
While the shiny red coupe looks impressive, there is very little about the car that is original. It is actually a recreation which was expertly assembled from bits of other Duesenbergs.
This car began its life at the Duesenberg factory in Auburn, Indiana in 1930. Engine J-249 was a naturally aspirated version of the company’s flagship Straight 8 engine (later Model J’s were supercharged) and was paired with a Bentley body.
It was owned at one point by a famous Chicago mobster, John “Jake the Barber” Factor, who traded Duesenberg J-143 for it in Los Angeles.
The car made its way to England where the body was scrapped sometime around 1951. The engine was saved and made it back stateside. In 1968, engine J-249 had been transferred to William Klein Jr of Elizabethtown, PA.
In Utah, a man named Richard Losee made his millions by opening a drug rehab clinic for the wealthy. An automotive enthusiast, Mr. Losee made headlines in 2006 when he crashed his Ferrari Enzo on a top speed run. Sometime around 2002, Losee commissioned Salt City Specialties in Riverton, UT to build him a Duesenberg. The shop was owned by two brothers, Kevin and Jason Marsh.
The Marsh brothers set about trying to put together a car. Somehow, they ended up with engine J-249.
The car’s body was purchased at an estate auction in Dayton, Ohio. The late George Walther Jr. was a champion outboard hydroplane racer in the 1930s and 1940s, and he left behind a sizable collection of toys when he passed away in 2002. His estate auction featured hydroplane chassis and HEMI racing engines by Cosworth, Richard Petty, Mickey Thompson, and others, a 1961 Jaguar XKE convertible, a 1920 Cadillac, a 1920 Packard, a 1970 Corvette, a bunch of motorcycles, tools, and more. The details are scarce, but the auction listing also mentions “2 1/2 Duesenbergs” as part of the sale. One of these bodies became Mr. Losee’s car.
The Marsh brothers spent four years putting the car back together. Much of the sheet metal was handmade, reproduced from original photographs and drawings. The brothers also modified the engine, adding a Leo Gephart/Brian Joseph manufactured dual-carburetor supercharger for even more power.
In 2010, the car was on display at the Kruse Auto and Buggy Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Dean Kruse is the founder of Kruse International, an auction house that specialized in rare and collectible cars. Kruse International had its auction license revoked in 2009 after failing to pay customers.
The car was sold at the Auburn Spring 2012 auction by Auctions America on June 2, 2012. The sale price was $440,000 plus fees, which brought the final price to $484,000.
On June 26, 2012, I spotted the car at the Mel Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. The car had just arrived and was roped off by caution tape, having not yet been found its place in the collection. The museum employees told me it had been purchased at auction, and they considered the price to be a bargain – compared to what it would cost them to restore one.
Cars, like the people who own them, have a story to tell. This car’s story spans over 80 years of history, from Indiana to England to Pennsylvania, Utah, to Phoenix, from a powerboat racer and a Chicago mobster to a millionaire businessman and a meticulous pair of restoration specialists. There’s a lot more history to this car than you might think, and I am happy to see that it has at last found a good home.