In American autodom there is no better embodiment of the spirit of entrepreneurial success than the Model J Duesenberg. The Duesenberg family immigrated to the United States in the early 1880s when brothers Fred and Augie were young children. They lacked formal education in engineering, but similar to the Wright brothers’ story, they began racing bicycles in the 1890s and graduated to gasoline engines around 1900. The Duesenberg brothers experimented with automobiles both for road and racing. When the clouds of war formed, they were granted a contract to produce a Bugatti-designed engine under license from the French government. Armed with new engineering and technical expertise, Fred designed a new straight-eight that was produced under Augie’s manufacturing direction.
The new engine was placed on the freshly designed Model A chassis and was not only the first U.S.-built straight eight, but also had the first four-wheel hydraulic brakes offered on a U.S.-built automobile. The car was an engineering success but a commercial failure. In 1926 transportation industrialist E.L. Cord purchased the Duesenberg company and challenged Fred to design the best car in the world. Following over two years of development, the Model J was introduced to much fanfare. The 420 cid Model J engine produced a respectable 265 horsepower with the help of dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder; top speed was well over a hundred miles an hour. The initial price of the bare chassis was $8,500 with the cost of coachwork most often doubling that price.
The prolific Walter M. Murphy Company of Pasadena, Calif., created many beautiful bodies on a variety of chassis and is notable as having produced almost 25 percent of all the bodies placed on the Model J. Their bespoke creations were order driven, and between 1929 and 1934 there were only four town cars produced for the Model J. The Murphy-built town cars had unique features rarely seen on other town cars including narrow windshield posts, aluminum pillars and a relatively flat roof that conveyed a low, sleek image despite its enormous formal body actually resting on a 153.5” wheelbase. Interestingly, during the coachbuilt era, an open-bodied car was less expensive than a formal closed body, which required more material, labor and skill to produce.
This Murphy Town Car has resided since new on chassis 2401 with engine J-381. It is believed to have been purchased new by Nanaline Duke, widow of industrialist James Buchanan Duke. After passing through several owners, the car resided in the collection of Judge Fairchild of Fort Worth, Tex., in the late 1950s. It was purchased from his estate by Daniel Kruse in the early 1980s and sold to the McGowan brothers of Connecticut. Robert McGowan recently stated that they performed a basic engine overhaul, that there was no undue mechanical wear and that the car was running very well by the time they sold it to Bill Lassiter of Florida. Lassiter commissioned a comprehensive concours-quality restoration and had the car finished in charcoal and burgundy with a black leather top; the Lassiters’ initials were placed on the doors and remain to this day. The driver’s compartment is finished in black leather and the passenger compartment in tan cloth. Subsequent owners of this gorgeous town car include Ralph Englestad of the Imperial Palace Collection and Don Williams of the Blackhawk Collection.
Due to the exceptional nature of the restoration and fastidious care by its stewards, the refurbishment appears to have been done much more recently than it was. This Murphy Town Car has, of course, always been mechanically maintained, and runs and drives just as well as it displays cosmetically. As the original parts and bodies of many Duesenbergs have been swapped, modified or lost over the years, an example with its original chassis, engine and body is truly special. With only four Murphy Town Cars originally built and other extant examples placed in long-term collections, this will likely be the only one available in this decade.
In their success self-taught engineers and businessmen, Fred and Augie Duesenberg embody the spirit of the American Dream. So do many of the entrepreneurial clientele of their namesake firm, whose ingenuity paved the way for success and the accumulation of fortunes large enough to secure one of the finest American cars ever built or available today.
— By Jonathan Sierakowski