It’s hard to fathom that the mighty Duesenberg Model J, the finest American automobile ever, was designed and engineered by a German immigrant who left school after the eighth grade. With natural mechanical talent, by the time he was 17 in 1893, Friedrich S. Duesenberg was fabricating replacement parts and repairing windmills and farm machinery. An avid bicycle racer and shop owner, within 10 years he was in the automobile business. Then, in 1913, he and younger brother Augie—a gifted fabricator—started the Duesenberg Motor Company to build racing cars.
By the mid-teens, the Duesenberg brothers’ racing cars attracted top driving talent and earned race wins—including at Indianapolis and the French Grand Prix. In 1920 they started developing their Model A passenger car. Introduced in 1921, the Model A was still in production when the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Co. entered receivership in early 1924. It struggled financially until 1926 when E.L. Cord of Auburn acquired the company. To him, Fred Duesenberg was the most important asset – neither racing, nor brother Augie, figured in the plan for the reorganized Duesenberg Inc.
With Fred Duesenberg as Vice President in charge of engineering, one priority was to assemble the 13 examples of the Model X that had been under development before the acquisition. Next came the challenge of designing, engineering, and building a car to meet E.L. Cord’s lofty goal of the world’s finest luxury car. This was a change of direction for Fred Duesenberg, who preferred, smaller, more nimble cars such as the racers he and Augie had built.
The heart of the new Duesenberg Model J was a double-overhead camshaft straight-eight displacing 420 cubic-inches. Equipped with four valves per cylinder, the company claimed 265 horsepower, making it the most powerful passenger car engine in America. With the engine design handed off to Lycoming—another E.L. Cord company—for production, Fred Duesenberg and his staff began designing and sourcing the other components needed for the new car. The masterpiece of an engine was initially mated to a four-speed manual “crash” gearbox by Brown and Lipe but was soon replaced with a stronger Warner Hy-flex three-speed unit to handle the mighty 335 ft lbs of torque. The entire assembly was mounted in a robust ladder frame available in 142.5 and 153.5-inch lengths. The I-beam front and hypoid rear axles were basically as specified for the Model X, while the four-wheel, hydraulic drum braking system was similar to that used on the Model A.
The bold and powerful-looking radiator grille and swept fenders came from the drawing board of Auburn chief designer Alan Leamy. Bodies came from a variety of prestigious custom coachbuilders including Derham, Murphy, Willoughby, Rollston, and LeBaron, among others.
Introduced in late 1928, when the economy was still healthy, few people were able to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 ($172,500 and $345,000 today) on a Model J. Less than a year later, the stock market crashed and the pool of clients all but vanished. Prospective buyers needed very deep pockets, as well as a very large garage. Both were true of the Lehmann family of Lake Villa, Illinois. Like Fred and Augie Duesenberg, Ernst J. Lehmann was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States during the mid‑1800s. He opened a jewelry store in Chicago and as his business grew, he expanded, offering all kinds of clothing and household goods, eventually occupying an entire city block, calling the huge store “The Fair.” Although Lehmann died in 1900, his family continued to successfully operate The Fair until 1925 when it was sold to S.S. Kresge, who built the “dime store” empire that became K-Mart.
According to once source, E.J. Lehmann’s son, Otto, was the buyer of this beautiful LeBaron-bodied Model J Convertible Berline, 0chassis 2380 and engine J-362. However, Duesenberg historian Randy Ema asserts that Otto’s sister Augusta (named after her mother) was the owner, although Otto was later involved in its sale. However, it isn’t clear whether serial Model J trader John Troka actually bought J-362 or just facilitated the sale to Dr. Leo Fry. Ema’s records show that in January 1942, a man named Komiechik acquired J-362, although it was soon in the hands of machinist William Tollagsen. In 1967, Jim DiBickero persuaded Tollagsen to sell him J-362, by which time the handsome Convertible Berline was showing its age.
New owner DiBickero gave J-362 a comprehensive restoration and retained it until approximately 1981 when it joined the 700-car collection (including 30 Duesenbergs) of Houston developer Jerry J. Moore. In the late-1990s the LeBaron Duesenberg found a new private owner, who sent it to RM Auto Restoration in Blenheim, Ontario, for a complete restoration. Michigan collector J. Peter Ministrelli then bought the fresh Duesenberg, which became part of a large collection maintained by Brian Joseph of Classic & Exotic Service in nearby Troy.
During Mr. Ministrelli’s ownership, J-362 was extensively shown in Classic Car Club of America competition, and for four years it participated in the ACD Club National reunion. The LeBaron Convertible Berline changed hands again when it became part of the Paul Andrews collection in Texas. After just a few years, it was sold by Gooding & Co. in 2010, spending the next 12 years in a private collection.
Today, J-362 retains its original coachwork, with engine, chassis, crankshaft, and firewall numbers corresponding with production records. Resplendent in a rich maroon accented by black fenders, it’s hard to believe that it has been more than 20 years since RM restored the car to original glory. The chrome wire wheels, bumpers, and headlamps all sparkle, while the beautiful woodwork and red leather interior have taken on a pleasing character from use, while the polished cam covers, green engine block, and porcelain manifolds all gleam as if new. A truly lovely car, it will still acquit itself well on any show or tour, and it will also look fantastic as part of any fine collection.
Offers welcome and trades considered