Duesenberg Model J Convertible Sedan

The Duesenberg Model J has long been regarded as the most outstanding example of Classic Era design and engineering. Introduced in 1929, trading was halted on the floor of 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 truly staggering sum at a time when a typical new family car cost around $500.

The story of Fred and August (Augie) 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 20th Century with the manufacture of cars bearing the Mason and Maytag names. Fred, the older brother, was the tinkerer and designer of the pair. Augie made Fred’s ingenious and creative ideas 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 all 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 reliability. Their engines 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 also 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, E.L. Cord added the Duesenberg Motors Company to his rapidly growing Auburn Automobile Company. Cord’s vision was to create an automobile surpassing the greatest marques of Europe and America. 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 respects. Its short-wheelbase chassis was 142.5 inches, nearly 12 feet. The double overhead-camshaft straight eight 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 tool room standards. Each chassis was also 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 without doubt the star of both the show and the year. Duesenberg ordered enough components to build 500 Model Js, while development continued for six months after introduction to ensure its close approximation of perfection. The first customer delivery came in May 1929, barely five months before Black Tuesday. Unfortunately, Duesenberg lacked sufficient financing and support from E.L. Cord and Auburn, which were themselves struggling to remain 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 the 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, 80-plus 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.

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 most 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 Packard, Murphy built bodies that suited the Californian tastes of the time. They were simple and elegant, with trim lines and an undeniable sporting character. Murphy bodies seemed even more revolutionary when compared to their contemporaries from the East Coast, who built heavier, more ornate designs.

The trademark of Murphy body design was its “clear vision” pillar. On the convertible sedan, 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 to eliminate blind spots.

Perhaps the most popular of Murphy’s designs was the convertible sedan. Highly practical, it was ideally suited for almost any purpose. The convertible top made the car comfortable in the summer, while the four-door layout made it easy to accommodate two couples or a family. Although other companies offered convertible sedans, the genius of Murphy’s design was that it looked truly light and elegant.

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: 142.5"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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