Duesenberg expert Randy Ema affirms that cars like this, with original major components-chassis, body, engine-are at the top of the scale

Duesenberg Automobiles was plucked from the post-World War I recession by Errett Cord, the savior of Auburn. By 1927, he was looking to build a more prestigious car and bought the innovative but struggling Duesenberg company.

Cord had been attracted by the Duesenberg brothers' engineering prowess and gave Fred an assignment-build the best car in the world. More than a competitor for Cadillac or Packard, it was intended to be better than Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, and Bugatti.

The short-wheelbase chassis was nearly twelve feet, the long one nearly 13, and they were all graced by the finest coachbuilders in the world. The 420-ci straight-8 featured dual overhead cams with four valves per cylinder and made 265 horsepower. In 1929, the first year of Model J production, 125 horsepower was the most that could be had in any other American car.

The Model J was introduced at the New York Auto Salon on December 1, 1928. This first car was a LeBaron sweep panel dual cowl phaeton. Duesenberg ordered engines and components to build 500 Model Js, planning to sell that many in the first year, but the first delivery in May 1929 was barely five months before Black Tuesday.

After the Model J's introduction, Fred applied his supercharger, as he had done successfully to his small racing engines. Fred died after an accident in a Model J in 1932, and his brother Augie was retained to put the final touches on the supercharged Model J. The result, the 320-horsepower SJ, was the holy grail of American luxury performance automobiles.

While most Duesenbergs were coachbuilt, Duesenberg also developed an in-house line of bodies, most of them penned by Gordon Buehrig. LaGrande was coined by Duesenberg as an upscale name, without the designer label mark-up. Originally the LaGrande designation was applied to bodies from the Union City Body Co. Later it was generally applied to all bodies shipped from Weymann, Walker, and others, unpainted and untrimmed, to Indianapolis.

The handsome 1933 Duesenberg SJ LaGrande Phaeton offered here, J510, has a known history. It was delivered to Ben Smith Sr. of the broker Hutton & Co. in New York. It is one of four LaGrande phaetons on the long-wheelbase chassis, all of which have survived. It was the only one supercharged from the factory and built without the rear cowl but with a clever folding rear windshield. The rear cowl was an option but only one other, an SWB phaeton, was built without the cowl.

By 1944, Smith's son had taken the car to Mexico City, where it was given to Bruno Paglie, manager of the Hipodromo horse track. The 1933 SJ LaGrande was acquired in 1950 by a used car dealer, who kept it carefully for 18 years, finally selling it to William Wetta of Alabama, who in 1970 chronicled the recovery of J510 from its long exile. The car showed 26,000 miles.

Wetta sold it in 1975 to James Southard, a dealer/collector in Atlanta, who did a two-year, $50,000 complete engine rebuild and body-off restoration. The initial estimate was $17,000 and six months-some things never change. Southard described it as "transformed into a gleaming jewel in its new Damask Maroon and Texas Sand colors." He took it to a meet in Chicago, scoring 99.75 points, and then to the Classic Car Club's Grand Classic in Indianapolis, scoring 98.75 and a national first place.

Southard sold the car the next year to collector Gene Storms. It was offered by Christie's at its 1983 L.A. auction with a reserve of $300,000, where it was acquired by its current owner. As presented, the car is in excellent condition. The odometer shows 31,400 miles, believed to be original.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1933 Duesenberg SJ LaGrande
Number Produced:8 SWB, 4 LWB
Original List Price:Chassis, $9,500; with LaGrande phaeton body, $16,000 est.
Tune Up Cost:$3,000
Distributor Caps:$750
Chassis Number Location:Upper left firewall; left front frame rail
Engine Number Location:Left rear engine mount leg; clutch housing
Club Info:Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club 536 McClean Avenue Staten Island, NY 10305-3644
Investment Grade:A

This 1933 Duesenberg SJ LaGrande Phaeton sold for $1,688,500 at RM’s Hershey auction in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on October 10, 2008.

Values of Duesenbergs are largely determined by two factors. The first was best summed up in 1995 by collector and dealer Don Williams, who has probably sold as many Duesenbergs as anyone in the last 30 years: “When it comes to Duesenbergs, coachwork is everything, You could pay $200,000 today for an excellent Willoughby sedan, while a LeBaron dual cowl phaeton could cost $2 million. Underneath, they are the same car.”

The second factor is one stated by Duesenberg expert Randy Ema, who affirms that cars with original major components-chassis, body, engine-are at the top of the scale. The factory didn’t build any bodies, and while in most cases they ordered the body and assembled the car, sometimes just a chassis and engine were delivered. J. L. Elbert, in his definitive 1951 book Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car, found about 380 bodies on factory purchase orders. In his revised 1975 listing of all chassis, he determined about 70 more were “chassis sales,” where the owner made his own contract with the coachbuilder, or in some cases transferred a favorite body from his old Duesenberg to the new chassis. These are all considered original. Post-war rebodies are the cars that sell for less.

Open cars have survived in greater numbers than sedans

So how does this car stack up in the hierarchy of values? As with most collectible cars, the open models are at the top of the desirability list. And aesthetics rule. About 268 or so-56%-of total production were soft top models, and these have survived in far greater numbers than the staid sedans and limousines, many of which are now rebodied with swoopy open coachwork. Some were converted in the 1930s and the factory bought cars back, rebuilt the chassis and engines and mounted a more desirable body for resale.

Among the soft tops, sales were equally divided between convertible coupes and phaetons, while convertible sedans ran a close third. Convertible sedans are distinct from phaetons since they are completely enclosed by the side door glass. A phaeton requires attaching side curtains and even in the few phaetons with wind-up door windows, complete enclosure requires the addition of some side curtain pieces.

The first Model J-the star of the New York Automobile Salon in December 1928-was a LeBaron sweep panel phaeton, the most popular LeBaron design and the best-selling open four-door style. About 24 were built. The sweep panel design by Ralph Roberts features an insert panel that begins at the radiator cap, broadens toward the cowl and sweeps into the door in a reverse curve. As on this car, it is often the demarcation for two-tone colors.

So popular was this design that around 1931 Gordon Buehrig, Duesenberg’s 27-year-old chief designer, drew up Duesenberg’s own version. Although the sweep panel is the dominant feature of the two designs, Buehrig’s version had several improvements. The folded top lies much flatter due to an ingenious trunk with a hinged part that opened to accommodate the top. Post-war, the iconic sweep panel design has spawned at least six LaGrande replicas and perhaps four of the LeBaron design.

J510-a restored, nice original

This car, J510, is also highly valued because it has all its original major components. Of the approximately 481 Duesenbergs originally made, Randy Ema, keeper of the factory records, restorer, and historian, estimates that 378 still exist today-an amazing survival ratio. Also amazing is that Mr. Ema has seen all but about ten of the 378. Of the survivors, it’s estimated that about 170 well-documented cars, like J510, have all major components as they were delivered. Perhaps 20 of these were never restored. Our LaGrande phaeton is one of 36 cars originally equipped with a supercharger, a big plus.

While the restoration is 30 years old, the 1933 Duesenberg LaGrande was also a very nice original that had never been allowed to deteriorate. Recent sales of factory supercharged cars have been higher than this, but given changing economic conditions, I would call this price market correct today.

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