Frederick and August Duesenberg are undoubtedly best known for their iconic Model J of the 1930s. However, their groundbreaking road cars may never have been built if it weren’t for the notoriety they achieved in motorsport in the early 20th century. The brothers’ racing efforts began in the mid-1910s, with their proudest moment coming in 1924, when one of their supercharged, twin-cam racers won the prestigious Indianapolis 500 mile race. Despite their on-track prowess, the brothers struggled to achieve financial success. Various partnerships with financial backers saw the brothers bouncing around, building automobile, marine and aircraft engines; none of which proved terribly rewarding for Fred and Augie.
Beginning in 1920, a new workshop was established in Indianapolis and the Duesenberg brothers began production of a road car under their own name, which they hoped would help fund their sporting aspirations and provide them some financial stability. The overhead cam, straight-eight Model A was a brilliant machine, but delays in production dampened enthusiasm and a post WWI economic recession hurt sales which almost spelled the end for the fledgling company and the Brother’s hopes of becoming full-fledged car manufacturers.
Thankfully, the Duesenberg’s reputation in motorsport caught the attention of E.L. Cord, who had recently acquired Auburn and was looking to build a flagship motorcar for his own growing manufacturing empire. Cord had successfully revived the ailing Auburn, reestablishing the marque as a worthy competitor to Cadillac and Packard. Now he set his sights on building a car that could compete with, and surpass, the greatest names in Europe such as Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza and Rolls-Royce. Cord bought out the Duesenberg brothers, and put Fred in charge of engineering the finest car in the world, giving him free rein and a clean sheet. Fred relished in the opportunity to simply focus on building the best car he could, meanwhile August clashed personally with Cord; ultimately leaving the firm and playing little to no role in the development of what would become the iconic Model J, only to return after E.L. Cord’s empire began to collapse.
The Duesenberg Model J was no doubt a world-beating automobile. With a Bugatti-inspired twin-overhead cam, four-valve inline eight, four wheel hydraulic brakes, a three-speed gearbox and 265 horsepower (or 320 with the optional supercharger), the Model J could handily top 120 miles per hour. It was built to a standard of quality that was unparalleled for its day, and it was of course, astonishingly expensive. A bare chassis started at $9500, with complete cars costing from $13,000, and surpassing $25,000 for the most spectacular custom-bodied examples. The greatest coachbuilders in the world such as LeBaron, Franay, Murphy, Gurney Nutting and others displayed their talents on the Model J chassis. Duesenbergs would carry a wide variety of coachwork that ranged from short-wheelbase speedsters to lavish limousines. Of the 481 units of the Model J built, including the SJ and SSJ derivatives, approximately 378 survive today, and it remains one of the most storied and important motorcars in history.
We are thrilled to present this stunning 1935 Duesenberg Model J Special Berline. This gorgeous long-wheelbase Model J, serial number 2557, retains its original engine; number J-540. The original and elegant coachwork is by J.B. Judkins Co. of Amesbury, Massachusetts. Judkins bodies are most commonly attributed with Lincoln chassis, though the firm was quite well-known for fitting a number of bodies to Duesenberg, Packard and Pierce-Arrow chassis among others. Judkins’ specialty was in closed cars, and their craftsmanship and finely judged style was highly regarded by manufacturers and wealthy clientele alike. According to records, J-540 was originally delivered to Mrs. William W. Willock of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Syossett, New York on May 9, 1935. It passed through just four subsequent owners before finding its way to the most recent caretaker who set about restoring the car to its former beauty.
A comprehensive, fully researched restoration was performed by Fran Roxas at Vintage Motor Group in Chicago over the span of two years. During that time, the correct original colors and interior materials were discovered, and J-540 was subsequently returned to its striking original two-tone brown livery, topped by a brown leatherette roof. The sophisticated style of the Judkins body features rather handsome skirted fenders as well as a unique split windscreen and dual side-mount spare wheels. Blackwall Dunlop tires on 17-inch chrome wheels add just a hint of sporting appeal to this otherwise formal design. The presentation is magnificent, and the quality of the finish work is truly outstanding, as one would come to expect from such a high-level restoration by a marque expert. Since its exceptional restoration it remains in stunning order, having been shown in numerous prestigious events. In more recent years, J-540 has been used on the road and always maintained in top order.
Like the exterior, the interior is a blend of driver-focused appeal and luxurious accommodations. The Judkins Berline is distinguished by its blind rear quarters and lack of a divider window, as the car was intended as a personal limousine that could also be owner-driven. The configuration allows for more comfortable seating up front, while still maintaining plenty of room in the rear compartment. The lush interior is trimmed in leather and cord cloth, executed in a lovely oatmeal tan color that complements the body quite well. The driver faces an original steering wheel and a full array of beautifully restored instruments including an altimeter and Jaeger chronograph clock. As with the body, the interior is beautifully presented; having mellowed ever so lightly in the time since it was restored but still appearing fresh and inviting.
Mechanically, J-540 is in excellent order, having been subtly upgraded for reliable high-speed touring. The gorgeous Lycoming-built 420 cubic inch inline eight is fully detailed and correctly finished in its signature bright green with polished alloy cam covers. It is very well presented, with just a bit of character from use apparent in places, and it runs exceptionally well. In the interest of high-speed capability, a full-synchromesh Tremec 5-speed gearbox has been discreetly adapted to the engine, allowing the car to drive exceptionally well and with greatly reduced effort. Importantly, the original gearbox and associated parts will be included in the sale should one wish to return it to original spec. With its 153 ½ - inch wheelbase chassis, the Duesenberg rides exquisitely and the chassis has been fully sorted by Mr. Roxas to ensure the car’s performance lives up to the legend. Since its restoration, J-540 has been shown at numerous events, including the 2011 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance where it earned an Amelia Award in the Duesenberg class.
Comprehensively restored and fully sorted, this magnificent Duesenberg Model J has been maintained in show-worthy condition, and thanks to the subtle upgrades, it is ready to impress on CCCA CARavan tours, ACD tours and any similar road event. This elegant Model J Berline is a breathtaking example of what it arguably the greatest American car ever produced.