In 1925, Errett Lobban Cord added the Duesenberg Motors Company to his rapidly growing enterprise, the Auburn Automobile Company. Cord's vision was to create an automobile that would surpass the great marques: Cadillac, Isotta Fraschini, Bugatti, Rolls-Royce, and Hispano-Suiza. He presented Fred Duesenberg with the opportunity to create the greatest car in the world, and the result was the Model J.
Conceived and executed to be superlative in all respects, the Model J was introduced at the New York Auto Salon on Dec. 1, 1928. It was powered by a straight-eight-cylinder engine with double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Displacing 420 cubic inches, the motor made 265 horsepower. This was later increased to 320 hp for the Model SJ, thanks to a centrifugal supercharger.
The new Duesenberg was tailor-made for the custom body industry. While most of the leading coachbuilders clothed the mighty J, many modern observers believe it was Brunn & Company who best combined exceptional design with outstanding build quality. One of the more remarkable designs of the era was its Riviera Phaeton body, a convertible sedan with a completely disappearing top that stowed in a compartment hinged at the rear bumper. It is that very coachwork that our subject car is fitted with.
The original purchaser of SJ528 was Lt. Col. Jacob Schick of razor fame, who drove it for two years. The car then had eleven owners until April 1950, when Harry Schultzinger of Cincinnati bought it and immediately began restoring it. For reasons unknown, Schultzinger replaced the frame with one from J551, frame 2577, although the rest of SJ528, including its engine, body, firewall, and drivetrain, are original. Schultzinger became the car's longest owner, finally selling it in 1975.
The Duesenberg then had seven owners until the vendor acquired it in 2001 from auction mogul Dean Kruse, who himself had purchased it from the Imperial Palace Collection. A third complete restoration was then undertaken by noted restorer Fran Roxas, including stripping the entire car to its bare metal and rebuilding and refurbishing every component as necessary.
SJ528 is said to be one of the best-running and most powerful Duesenbergs remaining today. It is one of just three Brunn Riviera Phaetons built, and one of just two fitted with a supercharger by the factory. It is an exceedingly rare event when a car with this specification, pedigree and provenance comes to market.
The SCM Analysis
This car sold for $1,320,000 at RM's Amelia Island auction, held on March 12, 2005.
Like most Duesenbergs, this car has a complete but complicated history. While no fewer than 20 individuals have owned it, it was Harry Schultzinger who made the car his own. He was a man whose mechanic used to kid him that he only knew two ways to drive, fast and faster. Schultzinger spent the money to hot rod SJ528, having his mechanics mount the whole car on a later frame, likely because his supercharged Derham sedan had a low-mileage chassis he felt might improve the Brunn Riviera's road manners.
Even better, when Hot Rod Harry had a disastrous engine failure because an errant timing chain sprocket spring became wedged against the rod and punched a hole in the #3 cylinder, he souped up the engine. It was bored out 0.125 inches and fitted with Jahns pistons, giving the car a substantially higher compression ratio than the standard 5.2:1.
Schultzinger even installed an overdrive Clark transmission from a White truck in his pride and joy. While this made first gear useless, the overdrive made the Duesenberg roll right along, to a reported speed of 140 mph.
While Schultzinger valued performance, some thought he was aesthetically challenged, since he painted his car green with black fenders. It was tired-looking on the outside but still performed like a Duesenberg should. One enthusiast recounted an impromptu race on the ACD Club Web site: The Duesenberg sedan he was in had just hit 100 mph and it was assumed they had lost Schultzinger. But a glance in the mirror showed the "Duesenbird"on the Brunn Riviera's radiator cap was just behind their rear window.
This same enthusiast remembers a show in the early '60s where Schultzinger had his big engine idling at about 100 rpm during judging, so slow you could see the individual fan blades. The judge asked him to speed it up, so Schultzinger floored it to 5,000 rpm and asked, "Is that fast enough?"
Harry Schultzinger died shortly after that weekend, presumably a happy man. His car, however, survives. No longer "bilious chartreuse," it now competes in beauty contests rather than street races. After its most recent restoration, it took a second in class at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2002. (First went to the famed 1933 Fernandez & Darrin-bodied, ex-Greta Garbo Convertible Victoria.)
The world of Duesenbergs is and has always been different from the one that most of us inhabit on a daily basis. The province of the exceptionally wealthy in the '30s, and the Holy Grail of Classic collectors today, it's no wonder that Duesenbergs even had their admirers when they were just old, used cars. At one time in the 1950s this car was supposedly offered for sale at around $3,500, which seems cheap now, but was still the price of two new Fords at the time.
As Duesenbergs attract the cream of the collector car crop, money is usually no object when it comes to buying and restoring them. That said, people smart enough to make the kind of money to afford a Duesenberg generally aren't going to throw their money away by overpaying for one.
With its rare coachwork and innovative styling, this Duesenberg is a very desirable car. The clamshell rear compartment Brunn devised for the Riviera Phaeton was as innovative as the double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and 320 hp of the SJ's supercharged engine. Even so, it must be said that the auction catalog's assertion that Brunn was the premiere Duesenberg coachbuilder is a revisionist view of history at best, if not an outright fabrication. The truth is that Brunn built only a handful of Duesenberg bodies, and was better known for building conservative and high quality coachwork for Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Lincoln.
While our subject car has been treated to a complete restoration and is in excellent condition, its value will always be affected by the numerous modifications it has endured over the years, including the removal of its original air scoops, the substitution of a reproduction supercharger, and the aforementioned frame swap. Still, its rarity and current condition seem to have offset the stories. By way of comparison, a private sale of a Riviera Phaeton several years ago was rumored to be around a million dollars.
The $1.3m paid here, while certainly a substantial sum, does not qualify this car as a particularly pricey Duesenberg, at least not compared to something like the 1934 Model J Convertible Coupe RM sold at its recent Arizona sale. Of course the $2.75m brought by this Walker La Grande-bodied car can be justified by it wilder lines, far sexier style, and better provenance.
I rode in the other supercharged Brunn Riviera Phaeton at the Grand Classic at the Gilmore Museum this past summer, and while soccer moms in their SUVs didn't take much notice, almost every 18-wheeler driver that we blew by, with exhaust cut-out open, gave a salute to true greatness. Money doesn't buy happiness—you have to convert it to toys. And great toys cost a great deal.
(Descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)