There’s never been another American car like the Duesenberg Model J. Introduced in 1929 just as the stock market crashed, the Model J was exclusive and wildly expensive. A bare chassis was $8,500, or $120,000 today. In 1932, the price went to $9,500, and that’s all you got; Duesenberg did not build bodies. So add another $5,000-$10,000 or more for a custom body. By comparison, a new ’29 Ford sedan was $585!
Built in Indianapolis, the cars were engineered by Fred and Augie Duesenberg, whose technically advanced race cars won the Indy 500 and everything else. The company sold only 481 Models J, JN and SJ. They had massive 420-cubic-inch, 265-hp, twin-cam 32-valve straight-eights; 36 were supercharged to 320 hp. Their four-wheel hydraulic brakes could be modulated for dry, wet and snowy roads—a knob on the dash changed the settings.
The Depression hit the company hard, and it went out of business in 1937. But even when the company wasn’t worth anything, Duesenbergs were worth more than anything else. The lowest price I ever saw for a Duesenberg was in an old photograph taken on a used car lot in the late 1930s. It was $800. The Ford next to it was $10. They were always unique and special—like this car, J-554.
It was designed by J. Herbert Newport and built by the A.H. Walker Co., with a LaGrande nameplate. LaGrande was Duesenberg’s captive coachbuilder. It cost $25,000, or more than $475,000 today. The first owner was Josiah K. Lilly, heir to the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. He kept it on his private Indianapolis estate—the site that’s now the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Since it was built in the depths of the Depression, out-of-work people threw rocks at it. Mr. Lilly was modest. This sleek coupe was too much for him, so he sold it. It went to England, returning to the States in 1938. It went through two owners before it ended up on Long Island.
The car’s shape is futuristic and stunning, with its streamlined body and skirted fenders. It’s reminiscent of Figoni and Falaschi and Jacques Saoutchik. It’s also the only wind-tunnel-developed Duesenberg; the taillights are knife-edged, so the air flows through them.
Even among Duesenbergs, it’s really something. I heard about it from master restorer Randy Ema, who knows where all the Duesenbergs are. People had been looking for this car for years. Luckily the guy who owned it called Randy looking for some parts—that’s how he found it. I went to see the owner. He was in his 80s (this was 25 years ago) and he was just doing a cheapo restoration, not high-caliber work. He was putting white leather upholstery in it and doing other odd things. There was enough Bondo in the body to start a Bondo factory. It had a towing rig in the back from the previous owner who’d actually used it as a wrecker.
The guy I got it from paid $400 for it. Let’s be kind and say he was thrifty. He was also very wealthy. When I approached him, he wanted half a million dollars. I said, “It needs a full restoration.” But he didn’t want to hear it and wouldn’t lower the price.
We talked and talked. Finally, I said, “OK, I’ll buy it from you for that.”
He replied: “OK, but don’t pay me now because I don’t want to pay the capital gains. The government is a bunch of crooks.”