The Model J Duesenberg has long been regarded as the most outstanding example of design and engineering of the Classic Era. It was introduced in 1929, and 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.
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 265 horsepower in naturally aspirated form—or 325 brake horsepower when supercharged.
The Murphy Body Company of Pasadena, CA, is generally recognized as the most successful coachbuilder for the Duesenberg Model J chassis.
This example, J194, was sold new by Duesenberg’s New York City factory branch in August 1929 to William Durant Campbell, at which time it was finished in black with 19-inch chrome wire-spoke wheels. Within a year, on May 23, 1930, the car was resold to a banker named E.C. Converse, also of New York City, who commissioned Murphy to repaint the car in sage green with a red undercarriage.
Later, the car belonged to early Duesenberg enthusiast Bob Roberts, of Los Angeles, CA, who apparently had the hood louvers replaced with side screens. According to noted marque historian Ray Wolff, it was probably during Roberts’ ownership that the car’s firewall was replaced with the one from chassis 2462 (ex-J449). After a fully documented ownership chain, the car became a part of the O’Quinn Collection in 2005.
J194 is exceptionally well equipped, having been fitted with external exhaust, twin taillights, twin cowl-mounted spotlights, and twin Pilot Ray driving lights. Certainly, J194’s wonderful overall condition will provide its new owner with a thoroughly rewarding driving experience, while the car’s continuous history and well-known provenance will also ensure that it is a rewarding automotive investment.
|Vehicle:||1929 Duesenberg Model J Convertible Coupe|
|Original List Price:||$8,500 for a bare chassis|
|Tune Up Cost:||$2,500-$4,000|
|Chassis Number Location:||Stamped near top of firewall|
|Engine Number Location:||On flywheel housing|
|Club Info:||Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club|
|Alternatives:||1933-36 Packard Super Eight, 1930 Cadillac Series 353 V8, 1930 Pierce-Arrow 8 Model B Convertible|
This car, Lot 529, sold for $748,000 at RM’s Hershey auction on Friday, October 8, 2010.
Before we take a close look at this handsome Duesenberg, a little background is in order.
Duesenberg Model J cars came at the high-water mark for massive classic cars. The Great Depression struck during the same year as this car was built. This very car was sold two months before the U.S. economy shattered and remained in the doldrums for more than a decade.
Yet, even in these times, about 50 Murphy Convertible Coupes were sold.
This era of stately, powerful cars of Titanic proportions would end by 1939, ten years after this car was built. Why did this happen?
These cars are not easy to drive. At low speeds and while driving in town, they handle like a Kenworth truck without power steering and power brakes. Driving a Duesenberg in a city is not a lot of fun; parallel parking one of these big, heavy cars can make a strong man sweat through his shirt, which is not an ideal situation for someone on their way to an important business meeting. And their massiveness made them difficult for women to drive.
But these Duesenbergs, with their huge engines and heavy drivetrains, shine on the open road, where the car’s power and stability create the feeling of piloting an unstoppable freight train. You feel safe and secure at speed, and there is a huge sense of power. You let the machine take you where it wants to go.
It’s easy to imagine a 30-year-old, strong-as-an-ox movie star cruising around in this car in 1931. The drive in the big, brutish car is exhilarating. This Duesenberg is not a Porsche 356 or a Mercedes-Benz 300SL; it’s simply impossible to finesse these cars. The transmission and clutch assembly alone weighs nearly as much as a Ford Model A. A Duesenberg is a big, massive chunk of machinery.
In a sense, the cars were well on their way to becoming exquisite dinosaurs by the late 1930s. More and more women were driving. Roads improved, which helped improve the ride and handling of smaller, lighter cars. Finally, the population boomed, cities became more crowded, and driving the big classics in town became even more of a chore.
Pros and convertibles
Now, let’s look at what this car brought to the new owner. The car has great bones. It was never allowed to deteriorate, its chassis and engine never did duty as a tow truck and the body was never switched around with another car. There was one engine switch, but that is common in these cars.
The car’s restoration was well done, and the mechanicals are sound.
The car’s running gear, including the transmission, is correct. Many Duesenbergs suffered broken transmissions over the years, and parts were hard to find. Many of those cars got a White Truck transmission installed to stay on the road. Not this car.
The steering box is good, so the new buyer can hop into the car and drive it as a Duesenberg should be driven.
The Duesenberg Murphy roadster outsold all body styles, and these cars remain very popular. This car has a good future.
But this car isn’t perfect, and that hurt the sale price.
About half of the Murphy convertibles have disappearing tops, which means the canvas folds into a cavity in the body and vanishes. Disappearing tops add $200k to $400k to the value of a Duesenberg convertible.
Our subject car keeps its folded canvas out where everyone can see it. A lot of Duesenberg collectors don’t like seeing that big stack of canvas on the car.
Entry-level Duesenbergs are often non-disappearing top cars and open convertible sedans, so this car may have gone to a first-time buyer. A disappearing top car in similar condition to this one might have brought another $250,000.
A firewall mystery
Other problems with the car may have turned off more sophisticated Duesenberg buyers. The firewall replacement put a small cloud on the car, as we don’t know why it was replaced.
The dashboard of a 1929 Duesenberg Model J should have drum gauges, except for the chronograph. However, this car has a mixture of drum and sweep gauges. At some point in this car’s life, some of the drum gauges were replaced with sweep gauges. This ding hurt the value of the car as well—for the advanced collector of Duesies.
The car also had 22 documented owners, and some of them didn’t hold onto the car for very long. Cars that have had fewer owners generally have a better maintenance and care history.
Finally, the paint job—in terms of the green-and-silver combination—didn’t help the car. The lines of this car show great flow and integrity, but the two-tone paint interrupts the eye-catching flow of the body. It was possible to get a two-tone factory paint job, but you’ll rarely see two-tone cars on any Duesenberg sales literature.
However, all in all, the factors that hurt the car’s price are not huge. The new owner can play with colors and gauges and make a significant visual difference in the presentation of the car.
The right price
In the end, this car did well at auction. The price wasn’t cheap, but it didn’t break the bank. The new owner paid what the car was worth. A disappearing top car would have sold for about $1m, so $748,000 for our car is right on target. Well sold and well bought.