1933 Duesenberg SJ LaGrande Phaeton

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.

John Apen

John Apen - SCM Contributor

John holds degrees in engineering and operations research from the University of California-Berkeley, New York University, and Johns Hopkins. He vintage raced a Ferrari TdF for 13 years and has been restoring old cars for nearly 50 years. He owned the Atlanta Ferrari-Maserati dealership, FAF, for 17 years. He’s always had an affinity for obscure American cars, and in high school, he drove a 1936 Packard convertible coupe, followed by a 1949 Olds Holiday hardtop that got him through college. Today his garage includes 11 cars, including a Top Flight 1960 Corvette he’s owned since day one, a 1957 T-Bird, and several vintage Ferraris. His automotive library contains over 5,000 magazines and books and 1,800 auction catalogs. He has contributed to SCM since 1996.

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