Duesenberg SJ Sells for Less Than a Million at Auction

Rare 1930 Duesenberg SJ Convertible Victoria Sells at Auction

RM Auctions, headquartered at Classic Car Drive, Blenheim, Ontario, Canada [nice street name!] ran their event on 28th July recently, where a Duesenberg SJ changed hands. Classic car enthusiasts know that any Duesenberg Model J is the Holy Grail for collectors of American classics of all time.

To be precise, the car in question is a 1930 Duesenberg Model SJ Quarter-Window Convertible Victoria by Rollston. With chassis no. 2293, engine no. J272 and fitted with body no. 516-4435 it has had an interesting history, as detailed below. The estimate before auction was in the range of US$850,000-US$1,200,000. On the day, the lot went for US$957,000, which was certainly not a record for an open Duesenberg, nor did it crack the $1 million mark. Still, that kind of money is an incredible amount to spend on a collector car. What did the buyer get for their money?

The Duesenberg Model J comes with an inline eight-cylinder engine of 420 cu. in. (6.9 Litres) with double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Such a specification suggests a modern high-efficiency engine, but the Model J was released early in 1929. The result of the Duesenberg brothers’ racing engineering experience, the ‘J’ was that rare combination of racing car efficiency and power, with luxury car reliability.

1930 Duesenberg Model SJ Convertible Victoria by Rollston - modified to SJ specs in 1933. Photo by Darin Schabel, courtesy of RM Auctions.

1930 Duesenberg Model SJ Convertible Victoria by Rollston - modified to SJ specs in 1933. Photo by Darin Schabel, courtesy of RM Auctions.

Speaking of power, the straight-eight delivered 265 bhp in normally aspirated form and 320 bhp when supercharged. To put this into context, this was at a time when 100 bhp meant a powerful car, and usually an expensive one. The most powerful American luxury cars of the 1930s weren’t even close: Cadillac V-16 – 180 bhp; Marmon V-16 – 200 bhp. Around the world, even the mighty Hispano-Suiza V-12 series mustered 200 bhp, and this from 11 litres capacity.

No production car surpassed the normally aspirated Duesenberg’s power output until the early 1950s.

With a centrifugal supercharger, those 320 horses were harnessed through a three-speed manual transmission and live rear axles. There was no synchromesh transmission strong enough to take the torque, so the Duesy made do without one. It was little inconvenience, for the grunt allowed the sometimes heavy cars to be left in high gear in most driving. Suspension was orthodox for 1930, with a solid front axle and semi-elliptic leaf springs all round. The wheelbase on J272 is a lengthy 142.5″ and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes provided much needed stopping ability.

Imagine the excitement as the Model J was introduced in 1929. Here was a luxury car with a racing pedigree that was instantly the stuff of legend. It fired the imagination of America’s business, entertainment, and social elite, who were ready to indulge themselves in the last heady years of the Roaring Twenties. The all-new Model J soon gave them the perfect opportunity.

The Model J’s announcement shook the automobile industry and even momentarily halted trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The first chance most of the public had to see the new car was as a chassis, displayed at the 1929 New York Auto Show. The Duesenberg stand was also lavished with several complete cars clothed in various custom bodies.

The beautifully designed radiator shell and tapering hood, together with ‘spoon’ flowing front fenders with the option of dual side-mounted spare wheel/tyres and artfully outlined hood side louvres made the Model J instantly recognisable, something that previous Duesenbergs had not been.

With a choice of two wheelbases – one long, the other longer – it was the perfect platform for ultra-high performance open cars or powerful limousines alike. All that was changed was the differential ratio.

The price of this lavish craftsmanship was $8,500 for the chassis alone, which with custom coachwork would exceed $10,000. One Model J show car (the ‘Twenty Grand’) was rumoured to have gained its nickname by costing that much. As a comparison, a Ford Model A could be had for as little as $450 and a modest house for $10,000.

Basically, what Duesenberg Inc. did was manufacture about 500 chasses and engines in 1929-30, then store them until called for by customers. The majority of Model Js were assembled in the first few years of the model’s life, after which sales slowed to a trickle. The Depression not only reduced the number of possible customers for these expensive cars, but they also made them reluctant to be seen in something so extravagant.

The factory also refurbished second-hand chasses and engines and combined them to sell as a new assembly. They were new in all but a literal sense. Theoretically, one could still buy a ‘new’ Duesenberg as late as 1937, and the factory’s last chassis was clothed (re-clothed?) in a body in 1940.

The story of this particular car has some twists and turns. Built by Rollston in 1930, this Quarter-Window Victoria was one of only 16 convertible victorias built for Duesenberg, out of 57 Rollston-bodied Model Js in all. The coachbuilder built a total of just 218 bodies for all makes between 1927 and 1931, after which it was forced to wind down operations.

This body was designed under Rudy Creteur, who became Rollston’s chief designer in 1927 after holding that position at Locke. Creteur was responsible for most of Rollston’s designs, and this convertible victoria is typical of the Rollston approach. It has a low windshield and roofline, with restrained but elegant detailing.

This style in particular combines the good visibility of the convertible sedan with the sportier yet still-elegant open two-door body. The concept of additional side windows behind the doors for rear passenger vision soon became the template for factory open cars. Every production convertible built after World War II (that has a back seat) is a quarter-window convertible victoria.

Chassis 2293 was purchased new in May 1930, by Paul Whiteman, a famous band leader, now best known for his arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue”. He had coachbuilder LeBaron mount a Sport Phaeton body on his new chassis.

The car’s second owner was Mr. G. Tucker Smith, of Virginia. Mr Smith bought the car from the Duesenberg factory branch in New York City sometime in 1932, still with the phaeton body. Mr. Smith grew tired of the open body without wind-up windows, so in 1935, he bought the rare Quarter-Window Convertible Victoria by Rollston and had it fitted to his car. The body was probably built around 1930–31 and installed on another Duesenberg before showing up in Duesenberg’s factory inventory for resale.

When Fred Duesenberg engineered the supercharged version of the ‘J’ engine, it was brought to market in 1932 at a chassis price of $9,500. Some Duesenberg owners took the opportunity to return their cars to the factory to be upgraded to an SJ supercharged engine/chassis.

It should be noted that other owners returned their cars just to be modified to look like an SJ (with the supercharger pipes and details) without altering the engine. It appears that 265 bhp was enough for them!

Duesenberg owners could also swap to another body style, as sometimes discarded but perfectly serviceable bodies were stored by the factory as well. The original ‘spoon’ type front fenders could be exchanged for modernised skirted ones and brand new, more streamlined bodies could be designed and built to the owner’s specifications.

G. Tucker Smith did all three in 1935: the Convertible Victoria body; the skirted front fenders; and the SJ specifications – supercharger, side exhaust pipes and all. He also added a more flowing trunk design.

Later in the car’s life, the original supercharger was replaced with a highly accurate reproduction unit. Mr. Smith kept the car until 1938, when he traded it to a Cadillac dealership in Richmond, Virginia, presumably for a new Cadillac. The Jones Motorcar Company soon sold the Duesenberg to Mr. A. D. Price Jr., a local undertaker. In 1941, he sold it to Mr. Bruce Woodson, of Virginia, who repainted it in green before selling it on to Mr. Mike Hodich in 1945. By 1955, the car was owned by Dr. J. F. Martin in Pennsylvania. Dr Martin was clearly a collector enamoured with his Model J, for he owned it for 21 years before selling it to John North, a judge in Easton, Maryland, in 1976.

The next owner was Leo Gephardt in 1977. Gephardt sold the car in turn to Dr. Don Vesley in 1978; the next owner was John Farrell of Seattle, Washington, in the early-1980s. Farrell kept the car for 15 years, and financed a concours-grade restoration before selling it to David Kane, a noted Packard collector of Bernardsville, New Jersey.

In 2001, it came into its current ownership. The current owner recently detailed and returned J272 to running and driving order. Among the items addressed, the wheels were removed from the car and the brakes and wheel cylinders were inspected, the fuel tank was removed and cleaned out, the carburettor rebuilt, and a new battery installed. The Duesenberg was serviced, with all fluids flushed and engine oil changed.

This car sold at auction for US$957,000, which seems a relative bargain for an open Duesenberg of such strong provenance.

Other antique, vintage and classic (pre-WWII) vehicles sold by RM Auctions were:

1935 Chrysler Airstream Eight CZ, 4-door sedan, $27,500

1921 Cadillac Type 59, 7-passenger touring car, $22,000

1929 LaSalle, Convertible Coupe, $46,750

1936 Packard Twelve, Club Sedan, $34,100

1911 Overland Model 46, Torpedo Roadster, $35,200

1922 Chevrolet, Canopy Truck, $19,800

1934 Oldsmobile Eight, Convertible Coupe, $57,200

1935 Packard Twelve, Close-Coupled Limousine, $56,100

1934 Pierce-Arrow Twelve, Sedan, $39,600

1931 Cadillac Model 355-A, 2/4-Passenger Convertible Coupe, $165,000

1909 Washington 30hp, 5-passenger touring car, $71,500

1907 Dolson Model F, 7-passenger touring car, $74,250

1924 Moon Series A, 5-passenger touring car, $26,400

1930 Lincoln Model L, Convertible Phaeton, $100,000

1931 Cadillac Twelve 370-A, Roadster, $160,000

1918 Detroit Electric Model 75B, Brougham, $44,000

1907 Locomobile Model E, Roadster, $74,250

1911 Stanley Steamer Model 63, Toy Tonneau, $165,000

1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II, Sport Saloon, $192,500

1937 Ford Model 78, Deluxe Phaeton, $46,750

1936 Cadillac Sixteen V-16, Town Sedan, $247,500

1937 Packard Twelve, Coupe Roadster, $352,000

1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, Springfield Saloon by Tilbury, $60,500

1933 Packard Twelve, Club Sedan, $110,000

1932 Lincoln V-12 KB, Coupe, $154,000

1925 Ahrens-Fox N-S-4, Triple Combination Pumper, $198,000

1930 Ahrens-Fox P-S-14, Hose and Equipment Truck, $93,500

1929 Ford Model AA, Popcorn Truck, $77,000

1922 Milburn Electric, Light Brougham, $56,100

1931 Cord L-29, Boattail Speedster by LaGrande (Recreation), $368,500

1935 DeSoto Airflow, Sedan, $22,000

1907 Cadillac Model K, Victoria Runabout, $88,000

1932 Nash Series 980, Convertible Victoria, $63,250

1932 Pierce-Arrow Model 54, Club Brougham, $57,200

1937 Dodge, Westchester Suburban woody wagon, $88,000

1912 Chalmers Model 9, Torpedo Roadster, $57,750

1914 Detroit Electric Model 46, Cape Top Roadster, $99,000

1912 Baker Electric, Special Extension Coupe, $148,500

1931 Chrysler Imperial CG, Close-Coupled Sedan, $101,750

1930 Packard Deluxe Eight Series 745, Convertible Victoria, $275,000

1928 Cadillac, Al Capone armoured Town Sedan, $341,000

1933 Packard Twelve, Convertible Coupe, $385,000


In further Duesenberg news: out on the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center in California’s Monterey peninsula, auctioneer Gooding and Company is preparing for a huge sale of classic cars, with the biggest star expected to be the Clark Gable Duesenberg SSJ Speedster (the only other SSJ was built for his friend Gary Cooper). Some have speculated that bidding may approach $10 million. That will surely be an appropriate prelude for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance later.

My thanks to Katherine McFadden of RM Auctions for her assistance with this article and permission to use photos by Darin Schnabel.

Igor Spajic

VCH Correspondent























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