Barn finds are the most magnetic part of the collector car hobby. Like Howard Carter entering the pharaoh's tomb, collectors feel like they're walking in on history. Journalist and SCMer Tom Cotter has even written a book on barn finds, The Cobra in the Barn: Great Stories of Automotive Archaeology, and is part way through a second edition.
Comedian and talk show host (and SCMer, of course) Jay Leno is known for his dedication to collector cars and motorcycles and is an admitted sucker for barn finds. With about 80 cars and the same number of bikes, Leno once cracked that his friends in L.A. tend to have multiple girlfriends and one car. He's the other way around.
His vehicles are as eclectic as a Rolls-Royce Phantom II powered by a 1,000-hp, 24-liter Merlin engine from a Spitfire, and a 1920s German Megola motorcycle. He also has six Bugattis, five Stanley Steamers, and four Bentleys in his collection and is a regular subject for, and contributor to, automotive magazines.
His particular fascination is with Duesenberg, the classic American supercar manufactured from 1921 to 1937. The company's apogee was the Model J, along with the supercharged SJ, developed following Errett Lobban Cord's takeover of the company in 1927 and the combining of Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg.
Of course, the Depression wasn't the best time to launch a car whose bare chassis cost $9,500, with a complete car double that (as a comparison, the 1934 Chevy Standard Series DC sedan cost $540). All 474 Model J chassis were made in 1929 and gradually sold over the next eight years, until Cord's empire went bankrupt in 1937.
But what a way to go. The supercharged SJ model boasted 320 hp, twin cams, 8 cylinders, 32 valves, and 130 mph in the 1930s, when Joe Average's Model A Ford was flat-out at 50 mph.
Rescued from the Barn
Leno's appreciation for both Duesenbergs and barn finds is evidenced by the 1927 Model X he rescued from a garage six miles from his home a couple of
years ago. The Model X was a modest transition from the Model A, which Cord halted when it took over. Leno's car was trailered out from the Midwest in 1947 and parked in an eternally dark garage. In fact, when the lockup was opened last year after the owner went to a rest home at age 93, the owner's daughter hadn't seen the car since she was a small child.
"Her father had closed the garage door in 1947," Leno recalls. "There were old Coke bottles and oleo tins, newspapers with headlines like 'Japs Attack Again!' It was fascinating."
Expert Duesenberg restorer Randy Ema revived the Model X with a brake job and tune-up; Leno took it to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance for the Preservation Class in 2005.
The Next Find
Leno's latest Duesenberg has an even better story. It was parked in a New York City garage in 1933 by a wealthy owner who didn't like it. Leno heard about it ten years ago and decided to track it down one day while his wife Mavis went shopping.
"I figured it was one of those rumors I heard when I was a kid, like the $300 Corvette somebody died in and they couldn't get the smell out, or the Hemi Road Runner where the guy went to Vietnam and never came back," he says.
"I hit about 16 parking garages and asked if they had any old cars upstairs. I'd find some mid-'70s LTD and I would get discouraged. Then I found this Duesenberg sitting next to a 1932 Rolls-Royce. It was a situation where a great deal of money was owed for parking. The guy was wealthy but wouldn't pay the parking, a lien sale ensued, and I got the car," he recalls.
What Leno bought was the only Duesenberg bodied by F.R. Wood and Sons, a small New York body shop. It's a square, formal Town Sedan, most of which were converted over the years to more valuable open cars.
Fred Roe, who wrote the definitive book Duesenberg, the Pursuit of Perfection, photographed Leno's car covered in dust in the corner where he found it. "Wood made cars from 1904 to 1930, but in very limited numbers," says Roe, a sprightly 86-year-old. "Their main business was building bodies for commercial cars and trucks, so their car bodies came from contacts with store owners."
Leno says he paid a fair price for his car, considering it will cost $200,000 to restore. He shipped it to Ema in California, and was thrilled by the expert's condition report.
"The car has covered 7,085 miles," says Ema. "It's the last original-owner, original-condition Duesenberg to be found. There's one other in the original family's hands, but it's been reupholstered."
Ema has restored 52 Duesenbergs in his 30 years in business; six Model Js restored by him have scored first places at Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. He reckons he has 28,000 original drawings and 1,000 patterns to make Duesenberg parts. "We can make exact reproductions, as opposed to those which look okay and are a testament to the success of guesswork," he says.
The Woods town car will need significant work after sitting in a leaky garage for 60 years, unlike the Model X, which snoozed in warm, dry California. Duesenberg's New York service department maintained the Woods car until 1937, then it sat until the owner's son inherited it in 1953 and got it running. "He went to a classic car meet, but he didn't like them, so he took it home and parked it," said Ema.
Ema plans a complete mechanical rebuild and says the body will require considerable attention. One front fender has been hit, the leather top is rotted, the trunk rack is broken, the chrome is dismal, and a 50-year drip has rusted through a rear fender. The interior was sound until somebody stored a pile of old tires on the back seat, says Leno.
The Woods Town Car joins six other Duesenbergs in Leno's stable. He has the aerodynamic Walker coupe that once belonged to Eli Lilly, and looks like an oversized Peugeot D'arl'Mat; a Murphy SJ convertible coupe; a LeBaron barrel-sided, dual-cowl phaeton; a Murphy-bodied Beverly; the Model X; and a Model J chassis.
A man who drives and enjoys all kinds of cars, Leno is a passionate Duesenberg advocate. "It's one American car you don't have to make excuses for. You can clone a Hemi Barracuda or a Hemi Challenger or any one of the supercars by getting parts, but you can't recreate a Duesenberg--there's not enough money," he says.
Leno drives his Duesenbergs in the fast lane and says it's a crime that most languish in garages and museums. "It's a sad thing but the English have it on us. I've got some 8-liter Bentleys and whatever part you want is available. People drive them and repair them. They've learned how to update and modernize them--I can be confident driving mine. But Duesenbergs--no one seems to use them. You can call owners and say, 'Chip in ten grand and we'll make some parts,' and they say, 'No, I don't drive mine.'"
With more than 50 years of inactivity, the Woods Town Car would seem to be the ultimate undriven car and, as the last unrestored Duesenberg to be with its original owner's family, the ultimate Duesie barn find.
I asked Leno if the size-related rumors I had heard about the car were correct--he has been quoted as saying it was stuck on the second floor of the garage because the elevator had been remodeled and it was now too long to fit.
"No, that's not true," he admits. "I exaggerated so people would think it would have to be dismantled. Hey, it chased people away for ten years."