More than half of all the Model Js produced were closed and were generally more expensive and popular than the sporty, open cars. Styling was mostly both very conservative and conventional. However, Murphy of Pasadena, California, was an exception among Duesenberg coachbuilders, for their unique sedans were sporting. George Whittell Jr. bought more new Duesenbergs than anyone else. He was one of America's most colorful millionaires, sole heir to the marriage of two Californian fortunes. His grandfathers had gained their wealth in banking and gold mining, and his father added to it with investments in real estate and railroads. When George Jr. was 40, George Sr. passed away, leaving an estate valued at $30 million. George Jr. proved an astute financial manager, growing the family fortune over the next eight years. And his moment of genius came in 1928, when he sold $50 million of investments months before the October 1929 crash. This flash of brilliance left him one of the richest men in California-just as Duesenberg launched the ultimate American automobile, the Model J, at the New York Auto Salon in December 1928. Whittell took delivery in 1929 of two new Murphy designs, a convertible coupe and a one-off Berline sedan designed by Franklin Hershey, J218. Today's equivalent cost would be $1.1m each. These two were the first of seven new Duesenbergs he would buy, three of them for the use of various lady friends. The third Duesie, this Sport Berline, was an outright gift, and it was delivered new in January 1931 to Jessie McDonald of Los Angeles. Known as the "Whittell Mistress Car," it has a continuous ownership history and is still fitted with its original body, engine, and chassis. It is a one-off creation by Murphy's brilliant designer, Hershey. J287 was ahead of its time. Its close-coupled body featured doors that wrapped into the roof, especially favorable to 6ʹ 4ʺ Whittell. With its slanted windshield, narrow pillars, and rear "suicide" doors, it was elegant, but tastefully restrained. Perhaps the most interesting feature is its all-aluminum body construction. Built without any structural woodwork, its strength was derived from the use of cast aluminum supports united with fabricated aluminum reinforcements. It was a revolutionary concept. Compared to ordinary wood-framed classics, J287 delivers a more nimble ride. New Hampshire collector Lee Herrington acquired J287 from a collector in 1996 and commissioned Maine restorer Chris Charlton-who restored collector Bob Bahre's award-winning group of Duesenbergs-to undertake a comprehensive restoration, which he completed in 1998. Following that, it was sold to the O'Quinn Collection. With its deep blue-violet color, chosen by Herrington, it remains in stunning condition.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1930 Duesenberg J
Number Produced:20 Murphy sedans
Original List Price:$12,500 approx.
Club Info:Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club 536 McClean Ave. Staten Island, NY 10305-364
Alternatives:1930 Cadillac V16 sedan; 1932 Marmon V16 sedan; 1931 Hispano-Suiza J12 sedan
Investment Grade:A

This car sold for $1,705,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Automobiles of Amelia Island Auction in Amelia Island, Florida, on March 13, 2010.

While Murphy’s convertible coupe is the most common design on Duesenberg chassis, Murphy also produced around 20 sedans, of which 15 have survived. This is probably the best sedan survival rate of any coachbuilder, and is evidence that Murphy was “the coachbuilder for the young at heart.” Their sedan designs-the Beverly, the Berline, the Clear Vision, and four special one-offs-all reflected the Southern California élan.

Following its restoration, this Sport Berline won many awards, including Best in Class, Best Duesenberg, and Best of Show at the 1999 Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival. Careful maintenance has preserved the restoration.

Look no further than the restoration

Values of Duesenbergs are determined by several traditional factors, but another factor in the generous price achieved here might be that comprehensive restoration.

First, coachwork is everything. Aesthetics rule, because underneath all Model Js is the same chassis. As with most collectible cars, sedans are not at the top of most lists, and many Holbrook, Willoughby, and Judkins sedans were long ago parted out. But the Murphy sedans all had a certain grace, and Hershey’s one-off Sport Berline is very pleasing. Indeed, O’Quinn must have appreciated it; he bought the car at RM’s 2006 Monterey auction for $1.65m.

Second, it is important that a car is original. Cars with all major components, chassis, body, and engine, as they came from the factory, are at the top of the value scale. This car is in that hallowed category, and in fact when it sold in 1998 it was so original that it could have been competently preserved. Even the original, somewhat bilious green paint was still in good condition.

Third, over the last decade, the prices of well-restored Duesenbergs have been growing, and there may be more awareness among older, moneyed collectors that great completed restorations are worth paying for. At Amelia, I talked to two collectors/restorers. One, aged 78, has five unrestored cars and since he spends two years getting one done, he is now facing his own personal time problem.

Another collector in his late 80s, who owns a 1923 Hispano H6B with special coachwork that would be a real hit at Pebble, is considering selling even though most mechanical restoration is done. When asked why he doesn’t finish it, he reminded me that most good restoration shops have at least a three-year waiting list, so time is a problem here as well. Yet another factor is that restoration costs are increasing, both because standards have inflated and shop costs have gone up. Several restorers have mentioned that the chrome plating bill for a J is above $50,000 today. Steve Babinsky, the restorer of the Duesenberg class winner at Amelia this year, confirmed that it costs at least that to achieve the quality and perfection needed for a winner.

So all three factors-coachwork, correctness, and competency of restoration-contribute to the value of this car.

Chris Charlton, the restorer of this Duesenberg in the late 1990s, was at Amelia, and he later provided some insight on his restoration. The catalog implied that the all-aluminum body made the car “nimble,” suggesting that it was light. He pointed out that most Murphy sedans seemed to be lighter than the traditional Model J sedans, but it did not appear that lightness was an objective for this car.

The body had many special aluminum castings, none of which appeared to be designed to save weight. Since Ford had revolutionized car manufacturing with the all-steel body in 1925, perhaps the custom body builders thought it was time to explore an alternative material. But to design the castings and produce them had to be expensive. And since the aluminum skin could not be tacked to a wooden frame, multiple holes were drilled and tapped into the aluminum to allow #4 brass screws to attach the body panels. Thus the aluminum structure became massive and complex. Even securing the upholstery required many holes in the aluminum frame, which were plugged with force-fit wooden plugs so the fabric could be tacked onto the metal frame.

Charlton said that the paint job on this car was one of his best, because the body was originally “flat filed smooth.” All panels were dead flat, with little filler. The Murphy worker’s annoyance was summed up by a pencil scrawl found on an inner panel, “filed, finished, f**k it.” Some panels were filed too thin and required replacement and careful welding, but the results were outstanding and invisible.

So considering the sporting characteristics of Hershey’s design, the all-metal body, the originality of all major components, the complete ownership history, and the careful restoration, isn’t it easier for the SCMer in the audience to just hold that paddle up for five minutes and buy it with one check? All things considered, $1.7m may just have been a decent buy, even at twice the SCM Price Guide numbers.

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