1931 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Coupe

The Duesenberg presented here, one of six Model Js that Capt. George Whittell Jr. purchased new, is arguably the finest example of the coachbuilt American automobile. Penned by legendary designer Franklin Hershey and executed by Murphy, the coachwork is a study in elegance and individualization, distinguished by Whittell’s inimitable motifs.

At its foundation is Duesenberg’s long-wheelbase chassis, a full eleven inches longer and more expensive than the standard Model J. Generally reserved for the most lavish and opulent coachwork, this exclusive long-wheelbase chassis, number 2478, was fitted with engine J460 and ordered from the factory with a number of unusual features, including a second taillamp, an exhaust cutout and an exceedingly rare freewheeling device.

As this car was to be reserved for his personal use, Whittell envisioned his long-wheelbase coupe as a strict two-seater, with the added privacy of a fixed roof, roll-up windows and a cavernous integrated trunk where a rumble seat would usually reside. The length of the chassis served to accentuate the clean lines of the coachwork, allowing for proportions that would be impossible to achieve on a standard-wheelbase Model J.

Contributing to the impression of length is a low, raked windshield, elegant flowing fenders and a hood that seems to go on forever. This is further accentuated by a nonfunctional section of piano hinges that begins at the end of the hood and ends at the base of the windscreen. In addition, there is a polished molding that runs the length of the beltline, terminating at the radiator in a harpoon motif.

Among other distinctive touches, the wheels, spare covers, toolboxes — even the gas tank — are plated in gleaming chrome. The rear fenders feature six chrome strips where one would usually find five, and the running boards continue the lines forward to the base of the side-mounted spares. A waterfall of chrome strakes, 12 in total, cascades down the rear deck, creating a crisp, pinstripe effect from the rear and a seamless shimmer from the profile and three-quarter perspectives.

No discussion of the design would be complete without addressing the Whittell Coupe’s most prominent feature — the superb brushed aluminum top. The fixed roof is contoured to resemble the look of a fabric convertible top, with faint ridges to give the illusion of top bows. Inside, the simulation is continued with a folding mechanism in place, complete with chrome hinges, wooden bows and a mohair headliner. Only the overhead dome light reminds the occupants of the true nature of the roof.

To emphasize the two-passenger layout, Hershey created a cockpit effect with a cowl line that surrounds the occupants in a continuous curve from the base of the windscreen over the top surface of each door through the deck area behind the seats. This contour is finished in brushed aluminum to complement the top, and features neatly hinged, polished covers to conceal the window channel when the glass is rolled down.

Constructed at a cost of $17,000, the one-of-a-kind Coupe joined Whittell’s stable in 1931 and remained in his care for nearly 20 years. Since that time, the legendary Model J has had just four subsequent owners. In the care of the current owner, the Whittell Coupe has been restored to its original glory and has received a prestigious First in Class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Never having been modified in any way, the Model J appears just as it would have in 1931 and has covered a mere 12,500 original miles from new.

Carl Bomstead

Carl Bomstead - SCM Senior Auction Analyst

Carl has been writing for SCM for 19 years. His first article appeared in the February 1997 issue, and at least one of his articles has appeared in every issue since. When he’s not writing, he serves as a National Director for the Classic Car Club of America and tends to his extensive collection of automobilia. He has been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for the past 20 years, and he also judges at Amelia Island and other major concours. An extensive number of collector cars have passed through his garage, and a 1947 Cadillac 62 Series convertible and a 1968 Intermeccanica Italia are current residents.

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