Duesenberg Model J Torpedo Berline

Many superlative automobiles have been built during the 100-plus-year history of the automobile, but few have spawned new words for our lexicon. It is a testament to the enduring stature of the Duesenberg Model J that anything great or grand is called a “Duesy” today. While its designers, Frederick and August (Augie) Duesenberg, are best remembered for the immortal J, they earned their reputations building racecars. As a result, competition technology naturally 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, the maker of Rambler bikes in Wisconsin. Returning home to Iowa, Fred opened a garage with Augie and designed a two-cylinder automobile. A local attorney named Mason was impressed and put up money for its manufacture. 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 in order to focus their efforts on racing cars.

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 Indianapolis 500s starting in 1913. Thirty-two of them finished in the top ten.

The brothers also became the masters of reliability and supercharging. Because engines were Fred's specialty, they were also beautiful and performed with the best from 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 called 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 contemporary designers.

Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors was plucked from the post-World War I recession by E.L. Cord. Cord, who had also saved Auburn, was searching for a prestige line to add to his growing business empire. 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 hydraulic brakes in a more upscale Duesenberg.

Cord, however, wanted more than a bought-in luxury car. He had also been attracted by the brothers’ engineering prowess. To realize his dream, Cord handed Fred 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 resulting Duesenberg Model J more than met Cord's expectations.

The Model J was superlative in all respects. 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 also driven 100 miles at high speed at Indianapolis without bodywork. The world’s finest coachbuilders then clothed the chassis.

The Model J was introduced at the New York Auto Salon on December 1, 1928, and it generated countless headlines. 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. 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 Rollston coachbuilding firm of New York City provided bodywork for some of the finest marques during the 1930s, with their ultimate creations reserved for Mercedes-Benz and Duesenberg. Just 57 Rollston bodies were created for the Duesenberg Model J and JN chassis, with only one Style 342 Torpedo Sedan or Berline among them, being the very car offered here, J546. With its steeply raked windshield, modern, rakish roofline and built-in trunk, this Rollston body continues as an unqualified design triumph, perfectly preserving the unabashed sporting character of the Duesenberg chassis.

In addition to its “one-off” design, the Rollston bodywork also featured painted trim, a limousine-style division window, a black exterior finish and a padded roof. Mr. Shirley M. Burden of New York City, who was a Vanderbilt family member, purchased J546 new on October 11, 1934. A fascinating ownership chain follows, with the car being acquired by a Cadillac salesman in New York City, who in 1940 sold it to George F. Hutchens III, who retained it until April 1, 1949 when it was sold to Dr. T.B. Shaw. In 1953, Shaw sold J546 to his nephew Don F. Leake, who in turn sold it in April 1955 to Raymond Doud for the princely sum of $650. Doud refinished the car in ivory with the trim painted rose and retained it until 1966, when it was sold to Lawrence Witten, this time for $13,250. Next, on August 28, 1968, J546 passed from Witten to George Arents, in exchange for J378. The division window was removed by Arents, who sold J546 around 1970 to Sam Bergman of Old Time Cars in Los Angeles. Robert Gottlieb, of Beverly Hills, bought J546 from Bergman in January 1971 and reinstalled the division window along with a simulated side-exit exhaust.

In 1988, Gottlieb sold the car to the Imperial Palace Collection, and under its new owner, Scott Veasie restored J546. During the restoration, J546 was refinished in its current pewter exterior finish, along with a matching padded roof and a beige cloth interior. In 1998, Don Williams acquired J546, and then in 1999, it and a package of 33 Duesenbergs from the Imperial Palace were sold to auctioneer Dean Kruse of Auburn, Indiana. Until October 2007, J546 remained with Kruse until it was sold at auction and joined a large private collection.

A recent condition report confirms that age notwithstanding, J546 continues to benefit from its latest restoration and remains quite remarkable in its presentation today, thanks to the proper care and storage it has received ever since. According to a recent condition report, J546 also continues to feature a very nice exterior finish and brightwork, as well as a similarly attractive interior. The engine bay is consistent with the rest of the car, highlighted by the proper finishes and polished aluminum components. In addition to its “one-off” rarity and wonderful presentation, J546 has been profiled in Automobile Quarterly, while several noted automotive authors including Griff Borgeson have written about the car and its many attributes. As offered at Meadow Brook, J546 provides a truly rare opportunity to own one of the finest and rarest automotive achievements of the 20th Century.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in July of 2010 at the Shotwell Gustafson Pavilion at Meadow Brook Hall, Rochester, Michigan.

265 bhp, 420 cu. in. inline eight-cylinder engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, four valves per cylinder and dual overhead camshafts, three-speed synchromesh manual transmission, front suspension via semi-elliptic leaf springs and beam axle, rear suspension via semi-elliptic leaf springs and live rear axle, and vacuum-assisted four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 153.5"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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