I stumbled upon this car at the Packard Proving Grounds‘ fall open house.
Of late I’ve been enamored of classic dual cowl phaetons. Forget Lamborghinis, if you want to make a statement, a dual cowl phaeton from the late 1920s or early 1930s is the definition of arriving in style. While getting some photos of a burgundy red Packard phaeton, I noticed that the classic behind the Packard was a Duesenberg, or rather it had a Duesenberg hood ornament. It turns out that it’s a one-off replica of a Duesenberg built for a man who owns a real Duesey.
There are forgeries and then there are fakes. Owners of fine art paintings, oriental rugs and collectible precious jewelry will sometimes have replicas created for display purposes while the originals sit safely in a vault built to the satisfaction of insurance underwriters. Part of me asks what’s the point of owning something if you can’t enjoy it, but then do you really want your friends to be walking on a 17th century Isfahan? There’s a point somewhere where an item’s value as an artifact exceeds it utilitarian purpose, so the prudent thing would be to archive and protect it. Even art has a utilitarian, decorative function, and if it’s decoration we’re after, a well executed copy can be just as decorative as an original painting.
Errett Lobban Cord was responsible for many of the greatest American cars of the prewar era. Under his control, Auburn, Duesenberg and the eponymously named Cord brand produced cars that were technologically advanced for their day, in some cases revolutionary, with style and design that continue to enchant car lovers and design aficionados alike.
Fred and Augie Duesenberg were self-taught engineers who were making engines with overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder almost a century ago. The earned their reputation in racing, eventually winning the Indianapolis 500 three times and the 1921 French Grand Prix. As skilled as they were at making great cars, they were not great businessmen, and their company struggled. After taking control of Auburn, E.L. Cord bought the Duesenberg company in 1926 and tasked Fred Duesenberg with building the best car in the world. It was to be big, fast and expensive. After more than two years, Fred produced not just the finest American car made then, but a car that is arguably the finest car ever made in America, the Duesenberg Model J.
The Model J had a straight eight engine, assembled by Lycoming, another one of Mr. Cord’s companies, with two overhead cams operating four valves per cylinder. The 420 cubic inch engine was claimed by Duesenberg to put out 265 horsepower, an impressive figure in the late 1920s. At a time when few cars were capable of reaching 100 miles per hour, Duesenberg claimed that the Model J could do 94 in second gear and had a top speed of 119 mph. It was the fastest American car in its day. To stop the car from those speeds, the Model J had four wheel oversized drum brakes, hydraulically operated. From 1930 on, the brakes were vacuum power assisted. That may not sound impressive but they were the Brembos of their day – remember, Ford and Chevrolet sold cars with mechanically operated brakes well into the 1930s.
Equipped with a supercharger designed by August Duesenberg, the SJ models had 320 HP. The SJ had a 0-60 time of 8 seconds, zero to a hundred in 17, with a top speed of 135 mph or more.
The Model J was a big car, with a standard wheelbase of 142.5 inches. Frame rails were made of 1/4 inch thick steel and were 8.5 inches deep. Considering how big it was, though, it wasn’t as heavy as you’d think. With a body the Model J weighed a bit over two and a half tons. Weight was saved through extensive use of aluminum. Alloy components included dash, steering column, differential and flywheel housings, timing-chain cover, water pump, intake manifold, brake shoes, and the gas tank. Worthy of a car with the Model J’s racing heritage, it was fully instrumented: 150 mph speedometer, ammeter, coolant temperature and oil pressure gauges, a tachometer, brake pressure gauge, altimeter/barometer, and, the Trackmate of its day, a split second stop watch. The Model J also featured the Bijur automatic chassis lubrication system to which Frank added a warning light to remind drivers when to add lubricant. There were even warning lights for changing engine oil and topping off the battery water, predating Honda’s service indicators by half a century.
Talented designer Alan Leamy Jr., whose other notable works included the Cord L-29 and the Chrysler Imperial, gave the Model J a majestic front end. Customers could pick from a catalog of factory bodies, or take delivery of a rolling chassis to be sent to a coachbuilder like Murphy.
All that came at a price. A rolling chassis was $8,500 ($9,500 after 1930). Supercharged Model Js were $1,000 more. Factory body styles started at $2,500. The least expensive coachbuilt Model J could run $13,000, more typical Model Js cost about $17,000 and a few as much as $25,000. By comparison, a new Ford Model A Tudor was $500.
Introduced to great acclaim at auto salons in the US and Europe in 1928 and 1929, the initial projection was to sell 500 Model Js a year. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression made those projections unrealistic and only 481 Model Js were produced in eight years. Today, it’s not unusual for a Duesenberg Model J to fetch more than a million dollars on the auction block. They are the creme de la creme of American classic cars.
A real Duesenberg Model J engine (in a sort of real Duesenberg)
As great a car as the Model J is, as advanced at it was in 1929, that was 83 years ago. Vacuum boosted hydraulically operated oversized drum brakes may have been state of the art in 1929 but would you want to try to stop a 5200 lb car from 135 mph with them today? Also, though we may make fun of trailer queens, would you risk driving an irreplaceable million dollar car in traffic? Winning a blue ribbon at a top shelf concours may be worthwhile but how much fun can you have driving a car from a trailer to a show field and back to the parking lot?
So an unnamed Duesenberg owner who wants to be able to drive in Duesenberg style without risking damaging his own real Duesenberg commissioned Steve Pasteiner’s Advanced Automotive Technologies to build an accurate replica of a Duesenberg Model J Murphy convertible coupe. AAT is one of the companies that builds prototype and concept cars for the major automakers. Car companies are not set up to make one-off cars so most of that work is jobbed out to companies like Metalcrafters and AAT. You may remember the Buick Blackhawk concept built for Buick’s centennial. That was built by AAT. When GM was melting down financially prior to its bankruptcy and bailout, the Blackhawk was one of the cars from its Heritage collection that GM sold at Barrett-Jackson’s January 2009 auction. It sold for $475,000 (plus a 10% fee for the B-J folks), the highest price GM got for any of the cars it sold.
The Ford V-10 Tritron engine is not as pretty as the Duesenberg straight eight Model J, but it’s rated at 362 HP vs the Model J’s 265. The slick routing of the steering shaft with its universal and Heim joints should give you a clue about the first rate build quality.
The Packard Proving Grounds show was the replica’s first public showing after a four year build. The Model Js bodied by Murphy of Pasadena, California are held in particularly high regard by Duesenberg collectors. Unlike East Coast body builders who used heavier and more ornate designs, Murphy bodies reflected California tastes. Sporty looking but elegant cars with simple and trim lines including Murphy’s trademark narrow “clear vision” A pillars. Perhaps Murphy’s Duesenbergs are successful designs because that trim and elegant design ethos manages to keep the massive cars from looking truly gargantuan. Cars from that era in general are tall, the components and body sat on top of the frame, but Auburns and Duesenbergs are just plain big. If you look at the people in the photographs, you’ll see that the cowl of the car is about as high as a man’s chest.
Now normally, replicas aren’t my cup o’
plastic tea. A few things, though, made me take a second look at this one. To begin with, as soon as I asked Steve if it was a Duesenberg he readily said that it was a replica. Also, there are no Duesenberg logos anywhere on it. As one of AAT’s employee’s said to me, “it’s not a Duesenberg”. It does have a Duesenberg hood ornament, a reproduction made by Don Sommer’s American Arrow. The body is mostly fiberglass reinforced plastic, though the hood, running boards and door frames are steel. That body is dimensionally accurate. It may use GFRP but this is no kit car. When I first saw it, I thought it was real. In case you’re hoping for AAT to build one for you, it’s a true one off, Pasteiner vociferously shook his head no when I asked if they’d build another.
To replicate the most patrician of American automobiles, Pasteiner, who started AAT after a career as a designer for GM in the 1960s and 1970s, used the most workmanlike of vehicles imaginable, literally. The donor car was actually a truck, a brand new 2007 Ford E-350 work van with a V-10 Triton engine. The van’s body was removed, the frame was narrowed, the engine was moved back considerably behind the front axle line (the replica Duesey would qualify as a “front mid engine” layout by a foot or more), and a custom frame was fabricated for the back half of the car. The frame members look just as massive as those used by Duesenberg. Unlike the Duesenberg’s ox-cart rear suspension, the replica uses a modern four-link setup plus a Panhard bar to control the solid axle in the back.
In the back, four trailing links, a Panhard rod, coilovers and big disk brakes are an improvement over the original Duesenberg’s leaf springs, drum brakes, and lever action shock absorbers.
The front suspension is one reason why the Ford Econoline was picked as a donor. The customer wanted something that looked like a real Duesenberg but drove more like a modern vehicle. Trick rear suspensions are one thing, nobody can see the rear suspension, but in a classic car, the front suspension is usually right out in the open for all to see. The original Duesenbergs were advanced for their day but their day was still a bit early for independent front suspensions. The Model J had a front beam axle on elliptical leaf springs. Not many modern vehicles have front suspensions that could pass for something from the classic era. Ford does, though, continue to use their famed Twin I-Beam Front Suspension in their F-350 and E-350 trucks. Works like a truck, drives like a car, as the old ads say. It’s not an ideal independent front suspension, tires wear more unevenly than with A arms, but it’s a lot more controlled ride than a beam axle, and out at the exposed working ends of the I beams they still look like a solid front axle.
So using an E-350 was a clever way to solve a few problems. You can see from the original tape layout that Pasteiner did on the side of the van before removing the body, the dimensions work out. It also gives you an idea of just how large the Model J is. Note how the seating position in the replica is not that much lower than that of the E-350 truck. The Duesenberg Model J engine was powerful and torquey. For a replica you’d want an engine that has some grunt. The V-10 Triton may not be as pretty as the shiny green and chrome DOHC straight eight in the real Model J, but the Ford truck motor puts out 362 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque. That’s more power than a supercharged Model J put out and the replica body weighs less than an original Murphy, so the replica is likely to be faster than the original. However, if the patron who commissioned the replica has a need for eveb more speed, or just wants to have a supercharger like the SJ Duesenbergs, Vortech sells a blower kit for the Ford V10. Besides being faster, the replica has a much more sophisticated suspension than the original, so the ride is better and the handling is much better. While the twin I beam front suspension pulls off a vintage look, one concession to classic style was not made. Large disc brakes at all four corners replace the drums of the original. Coilover shock units and a power steering rack out of a Dodge Ram truck complete the front end.
Ford’s “Twin I-Beam Front Suspension”, coilovers, and a Dodge Ram rack & pinion give AAT’s Duesenberg replica modern handling and ride characteristics while retaining the look of the original’s solid front axle.
Some vintage parts were used. The headlamps and fog lamps are off of a period Hupmobile. The taillights are retro-futuristic, with a vintage STOP diecut that lights up, but the actual lights are LEDs. One side of the hood has mesh, the other has four flexible stainless steel exhaust pipes that drop through the fender into a polished collector. Those exhaust parts are props, the V-10’s original cast headers are still being used. The wheels are very art deco looking discs, but they are modern two piece units of custom machined and polished aluminum. They’re actually a bit larger than the original Duesenberg’s. Pasteiner, as a retired designer, has an affinity for larger than standard wheels. They’re also wider. The Model J put that 320 horsepower to the road through 19X5 inch wheels shod with bias ply tires. The replica sports 20X6.50 inch wheels mounted with modern radials from Coker that look like vintage tires.
On the inside is a lot of red leather. The dashboard is machine turned aluminum, turned on machines right at AAT. Though the replica uses the same 5/6 speed TorqShift automatic transmission that came with the E-350, to keep the vintage look, there’s a dummy clutch pedal and the gear selector looks like a normal three-speed manual shift lever. The electric window switches are activated by traditional window cranks. Though Murphy Duesenbergs had conventional doors, they were custom made cars with personalized features so in the spirit of a custom coachbuilt car, the replica has suicide doors. A removable fiberglass hardtop was also fabricated though the car is destined for a life in southern California and it will likely be driven as an open car. Should it get hot in LA, the car comes with something that no real Model J ever had, air conditioning. Fit and finish is show car quality. The doors close with a solid thunk. It didn’t look out of place sitting parked next to a concours quality restored Packard. You can see photos of the build in progress at AAT’s website.
The net result is a car that looks like a classic Duesenberg but drives like a modern vehicle. Steve’s been around classic cars for a while, he’s been a judge at top level concours, and he says that it drives better than a real Duesenberg. The car will be shipped to California next week, unless they can figure out a way to delay shipment so they can drive it some more. It has more power, it’s lighter and it handles and stops better than a vintage Duesenberg ever could. Also, because of the reduced weight, the new rear suspension and the change in the engine’s location, it undoubtedly drives better than the E-350 upon which the replica is based. It certainly has more style than the donor.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS