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.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1931 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Coupe
Years Produced:1931
Number Produced:1
Original List Price:$17,500
SCM Valuation:$10,000,000
Tune Up Cost:$1,500
Chassis Number Location:Left frame rail by steering box
Engine Number Location:Left rear bell housing
Club Info:Classic Car Club of America
Alternatives:1932 Packard Twin Six Individual Custom, 1931 Marmon Sixteen with custom body, 1930 Cadillac V16 with custom body

This car, Lot 123, sold for $10,340,000, including buyer’s premium, at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach auction on Sunday, August 21, 2011.
George Whittell Jr. and this 1931 Duesenberg long-wheelbase coupe, J460, are inextricably linked.

Whittell inherited a fortune in the 1920s that was equivalent to about $50m in today’s money, and he vowed to never work a day in his life. He kept this vow until his death at age 87.

Whittell was a character from the Great Gatsby era with decadent taste, and he was twice married and divorced to showgirls by the time he was 24. He rejected a formal education and joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he developed an affinity for exotic animals that eventually included his pet lion, Bill. Whittell volunteered to drive for the American Ambulance Corps during World War I, and his parents purchased for him the rank of captain in the Italian army — a title he forever retained.

An eye for Duesenbergs

With a passion for speed and a unique combination of means and taste, George Whittell will always be known as Duesenberg’s best customer, as he purchased six new Model J chassis. The Walter M. Murphy Company bodied five, and the Weymann Body Company created the Fishtail Speedster (J508).
Whittell considered his Duesenbergs masterpieces — not transportation — but he had little patience for mechanical malfunctions. His mechanic, Francis Kuboski, recalled one of the first times Whittell drove the coupe and did not know how to use the new free-wheeling clutch, and as a result, burned it up. He left the car by the side of the road for 60 days and never got in it again.

Whittell was an honorary fire marshal in California, and he could equip his cars at short notice with a siren and red and green lights — as well as the fire marshal badge, thus avoiding speeding tickets. One story claims that a determined sheriff dropped a speeding ticket from an airplane into the cockpit of his Duesenberg, and that was the only speeding ticket he ever paid.

Only 12,500 miles over 80 years

This 1931 Model J long-wheelbase coupe was Captain Whittell’s final commission for Walter M. Murphy, and he worked with their young designer, Franklin Q. Hershey, to make his inspiration a reality. The long-wheelbase chassis was ordered with a number of unusual features, including an exhaust cutout, a second taillight and the aforementioned free-wheeling clutch. The final product featured patent leather seats, Bakelite side panels and a brushed aluminum fixed roof that was contoured to resemble a fabric convertible top.

The Gooding auction catalog mentioned red and green navigation running lights, but they were most likely installed for his position as honorary fire marshal. The car was also equipped with the state-of-the-art Philco Transitone radio, with the aerial mounted under the running board.

This is a stunning design that exudes elegance. It has had five owners, all of whom have respected the design and have not attempted alteration. It has only 12,500 miles from new and the exacting restoration is exceptionally correct, as indicated by a First in Class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

It sold for a record amount for an American car at public sale, and therefore we will call it well sold, but the new owner has a piece of automotive history that cannot be replicated, so we also congratulate the new owner.

(Introductory description courtesy of Gooding & Company.)

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