When famed industrialist E.L. Cord purchased the foundering Duesenberg automobile company in 1926, he made a simple demand of talented engineering brothers Fred and August Duesenberg: design and build the finest automobile in the world. Cord, who already owned premium auto manufacturers Cord and Auburn, set his sights on Duesenberg becoming the standard of luxury, style and performance.
The result was the spectacular Duesenberg Model J, unveiled at the New York Auto Salon on December 1, 1928. Presented to the world as a bare chassis, engine and running gear, the Model J targeted the wealthiest and most-discerning buyers, who would engage prestigious coachbuilders to build custom bodies and interiors for their impressive cars.
This was Fred Duesenberg’s statement of automotive greatness as he stretched out his prodigious skill without financial restraint, the blank-check budget of E.L. Cord providing the backing. What he created was nothing less than a revolution for big, powerful American luxury cars that performed as well as they looked. The Model J was also extravagantly expensive, with the chassis alone priced at an unheard-of $8,600 — equivalent to more than $200,000 today — with the body and finishing work easily doubling that. A Ford Model A could be had for as little as $500 in 1928.
This 1929 Duesenberg SJ LeBaron “Sweep Panel” Dual Cowl Phaeton, presented in the Salon Collection of Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale collector car event is one of the greatest examples of the Model J, with its brawny, supercharged straight-8 engine and magnificent body built by New York coachbuilder LeBaron. The race-bred, twin-overhead-cam engine produces 320 horsepower from its 420-cubic-inch displacement, and a prodigious amount of torque that moves the huge car with ease to speeds well above 100 miles per hour.
The LeBaron Dual Cowl Phaeton body and interior is considered to be the most attractive and most luxurious design ever applied to the Model J, created by LeBaron’s own Ralph Roberts. The buyers of Duesenbergs employed a number of top designers in North America and Europe to complete their cars, but LeBaron was considered among the best.
The “sweep panel” refers to the inset on the massive hood that begins at the radiator cap, broadens toward the cowl and sweeps into the door to terminate in a reverse curve. As well as looking bold and handsome, the inset serves as a demarcation line for two-toning, which in this case is done in a stately maroon and black.
The Duesenberg SJ, chassis number 2158, is being offered at Barrett- Jackson by the famed Blackhawk Collection of Danville, Calif. This car was the first of the LeBaron phaetons offered on a Model J chassis. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful Duesenbergs ever produced,” said Don Williams, head of the Blackhawk Collection and a renowned expert on classic cars. “It’s a beautiful body style, and it would still be a beautiful car even if it wasn’t supercharged.”
This is one of only 24 Duesenberg Model Js with supercharged engines “from birth,” Williams added, with the engine numbered as J-292.
Supercharging took the already awesome performance of the standard engine and stepped it up to Supercar territory for that era. It was invited to two Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it was judged in 1988 and again in 2011. “It’s prestigious to own a Duesenberg and ever more prestigious to own one of the original superchargers,” he said.
Duesenbergs were among the highest-performance cars of its day; the World Land Speed Record was set by a Duesenberg in the late 1920s, and it stayed unbroken until the 1950s.
This beautifully restored example was originally owned by renowned playboy and noted race driver Martin Alzaga Unzué of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who competed in racing events worldwide, including the Indianapolis 500. To make his Duesenberg more competitive, he removed the back half of the body and fitted it with a short, simple speedster rear, which Williams noted was an effective but unattractive solution.
“It was a low point in (the car’s) life before it was brought back to its original specifications,” he said, noting that the car was rebuilt and returned to its LeBaron Dual Cowl design during the 1960s. In Williams’ view, the Duesenberg loses nothing in value due to its body rebuild since it was returned precisely to original.
Alzaga Unzué’s ownership of the Duesenberg underscores the international acclaim of Duesenbergs, which were owned by people of celebrity and nobility around the world. In 1931, Alzaga Unzué opened the celebrated cabaret “El Morocco” in Buenos Aires, which catered to famous people for decades. Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote were among the wide range of stars entertained in the exotic club.
Duesenbergs were status symbols for the rich and famous, even during troubled economic times; the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression happened less than a year after the Model J’s introduction. The Model J cars were favorites among Hollywood icons of the era, such as Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. The world’s most wealthy people, including William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes and the Wrigley family, possessed them. The cars were also proudly owned by such figures of European royalty as the Duke of Windsor and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.
Today, the Duesenberg Model J in all its permutations is recognized as a gold-standard classic, the focal point of great automobile collections, and an enduring star of collector-car auctions that often exceeds seven-figure sales. “It was heads and shoulders the Number 1 car ever built in America,” Don Williams said.
Beauty, performance, massive presence and a short but brilliant history of excellence puts every Model J on the pinnacle of automotive greatness, but especially one such as this 1929 LeBaron Dual Cowl Phaeton with supercharged engine and elegant “sweep panel” design offered in Barrett-Jackson’s Salon Collection. And like the luminous people who once drove them, this Model J should be the star of the show.