Late in the 1920s, Duesenberg was struggling as an automobile manufacturer. Their stellar reputation on the track had not translated into the sales success they hoped for, and now their only offering, the Model A, was getting long in the tooth. A new model would have solved their problems, yet sales of one or two cars a week didn’t produce the funds to develop a replacement. Fred and August Duesenberg needed a savior if they hoped to continue their dream of creating America’s finest automobile. Thankfully, a savior came in the form of Errett Lobban Cord. He had already transformed moribund Auburn’s fortunes and envisioned a motoring empire with a glamorous flagship. It was the perfect match, as Cord could essentially buy an established reputation for engineering excellence, and the Duesenberg Brothers finally got the resources to develop the cars they were capable of producing. In 1926, E.L. Cord purchased the Duesenberg Motors Company and reincorporated it as Duesenberg, Inc. Cord installed Fred Duesenberg as Chief Engineer, and the two quickly set to work designing their vision of the world’s most prestigious automobile.
The result of their efforts, the much-lauded Model J, first appeared on the show circuit in the fall of 1928, with production cars reaching the first customers about a year later. With its powerful, 420 cubic-inch, twin-overhead cam inline eight-cylinder engine, the Model J debuted as the fastest, most expensive and most exclusive car in America. Only the best coachwork would suit the spectacular machine, and the work of Willoughby, LeBaron, Murphy, Franay, Gurney Nutting and many others graced the Duesenberg J chassis. While a variety of coachbuilders created bodies for the Model J, the shape of the iconic radiator grille and numerous other details came from the pen of Gordon Buehrig. One of the twentieth century’s most influential and prolific industrial designers, his work for Duesenberg included a number of bodies offered through the factory catalog. Business moguls, Hollywood stars, and royalty would all clamor for a chance to be seen in the stunning new Duesenberg. The Model J and its derivatives would go on to become the Gold Standard of the Classic Era, and one of the most influential collector cars of all time.
One of the most distinctive and stylish of Buehrig’s designs is featured here on car number J-354, one of just two Model Js fitted with the fabulous and sporting Victoria Coupe coachwork. Built atop a short-wheelbase chassis and realized in the metal by Judkins Company of Merrimac, Massachusetts, this coupe counts among the sportiest of closed Duesenbergs and it was one that Mr. Buehrig was particularly proud. He achieved the breathtaking proportions by utilizing the short, 142.5-inch wheelbase chassis, and adopting a unique seating arrangement. Alongside the driver’s seat was a small jump seat, with a two-passenger bench and built-in hat box in the rear. There are subtle differences between the two Victoria Coupes built by Judkins (J-333 and J-354). Buehrig described J-354 in his autobiography “Rolling Sculpture,” and this is the only one of the two that incorporates all of the features of his original design, such as the folding front jump seat.
Marque experts have thoroughly documented the history of J-354. Sold new in September 1932, the first owner was Mortimer Warren Loewi, a successful New York financier who supported the development of America’s earliest television networks. Mr. Loewi enjoyed his $14,750 Duesenberg for only a short period before selling it to Hilton Motors of New York in August of 1934. The second owner is believed to be C.M. Peele, who also traded it back Hilton Motors in relatively short order. S.F. Williams then bought J-354 and kept it until 1943, selling it to Norvin T. Harris, an officer in the United States Army. Harris enthusiastically drove the Duesenberg from New York to his home in Louisiana. When he was deployed to fight in World War II, he stored the car at Camp Claiborne (or possibly Camp Polk). In 1949, the magnificent Duesenberg resurfaced at a used car lot in Harris’ home town of New Orleans, where it was snapped up by Dr. R.B. Dunham of Corpus Christi, Texas. Dr. Dunham kept the car for a few years before it traded to fellow Texan David Pennington. A noted Duesenberg enthusiast and ex-fighter pilot, Pennington owned several examples over the years. At least one historical record suggests he swapped the engine with that from J-223, a LeBaron-bodied Sweep Panel Phaeton which he also owned. However, it is important to note that at some point they were swapped back, as this car’s bell housing and crankshaft carry number 354.
In 1954, Dave McGahey of Texas bought the Victoria Coupe, keeping it for nearly 30 years. He did a light restoration, noted as “ongoing” in Fred Roe’s 1982 book Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection. By the time it sold to Frank Kleptz of Terre Haute, Indiana, J-354 was ready for a complete, nut and bolt restoration. A noted collector and restorer, Kleptz was a successful businessman and a beloved character in the classic car world. He set to work restoring the car to his typically high standard, taking well over a decade to complete. Though still unfinished, the first public appearance was at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg National Reunion in 1994. It appeared in 1996 (this time completed) and again in 2001 and 2002. Shortly after the restoration, J-354 was photographed for a feature in the book Duesenberg by Dennis Adler.
Following Frank Kleptz’s passing, stewardship of J-354 fell to his son David, and since 2015 this spectacular Victoria coupe has been a cherished part of the Hyman Ltd collection, receiving expert care and maintenance since its arrival. Following its acquisition, it went to renowned specialist Brian Joseph of Classic and Exotic Service in Troy, Michigan. There, it received a comprehensive freshening, update, and detail. While the restoration was still quite beautiful, Joseph and his team went bumper to bumper to ensure every nut, bolt, and fastener was scrutinized and absolutely correct for modern concours standards. More recently, the chrome wheels were restored at considerable expense by the award-winning experts Brightworks of Piqua, Ohio. The same no-expense-spared approach was taken to dial in the car mechanically for dependable running. The engine now features high-strength Carrillo rods, and the rear axle is updated with high-speed gears. It runs beautifully, delivering astonishing performance for a Classic Era automobile. Aside from its mechanical upgrades, the only deviation from the original spec is the addition of a marvelous period-correct Crosley radio fitted by Kleptz in the rear compartment.
Finished in elegantly judged hues, with a unique straw-colored relief treatment on the doors and complementary upholstered roof, Duesenberg J-354 presents today in gorgeous condition. It has received the finest in expert care while also being thoroughly enjoyed on numerous tours, events, concours, and casual weekend drives. Highlights of its exploits during its time with Hyman Ltd include a coveted Rolex Award at the 2015 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Also, it won Best in Show (Elegance) at the 2018 Milwaukee Concours d’Elegance, participated in the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and Tour d’Elegance, and won awards at the Hilton Head Concours, St. Johns, San Marino Concours, Boca Raton Concours, and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club festival. It performed flawlessly on two recent Duesenberg Tours and continues to be enjoyed on casual weekend drives. There is no question that this is one of the best driving and most enjoyable Model J Duesenbergs on the market today.
As a testament to the quality of the original restoration and consistent care, the presentation remains superb with exquisite paint and brightwork, and slight mellowing to the soft trim. It is on the button and ready to enjoy virtually anywhere as intended. J-354 is an award-winning car with important upgrades and known history from new. Its sale represents a one-off opportunity to acquire a spectacular and uniquely stylish Duesenberg Model J, envisioned by one of America’s most brilliant design minds, Gordon Buehrig.
For more information on finding a classic Duesenbert Model J or on our car consignment program, contact us today. Our car specialists are here to help!