By on March 9, 2016

Tom Mix Duesenberg front 3/4 right, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

The high-dollar-custom Ridler Award at the Detroit Autorama gets a lot of worthy attention, but real salt of the earth Detroit car culture can be found in Cobo Hall’s basement, The promoters bill the area as Autorama Extreme, and I always make it a point to check out the cars and people downstairs. There’s usually something worthwhile down there like “the first Mustang,” a bassackwards, mid-engine Ford F-1 pickup, or even an Allison V12-powered ’39 Chevy.

This year, walking past the bandstand where a local rockabilly band was doing a Jerry Lee Lewis song, I spotted something around a corner and immediately recognized it as a Duesenberg I’d written about before here at TTAC. It’s a distinctive car. For aesthetic reasons, I doubt anyone would make a replica. So even before I got near enough to see the longhorns up front and the tailfin that looks more like a hunchback’s deformity in back, I knew it was the so-called Tom Mix Duesenberg — a real Doozy in more ways than one.

Tom Mix Duesenberg front, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

What would a genuine Duesenberg Model J be doing at the Autorama Extreme with the rat rods, minibikes, and half finished project cars? It actually fits in with all the misfits. In the late 1940s, whoever owned the car removed what was by then a very old fashioned Beverly Berline body by Murphy and replaced it with a custom dual cowl thing-fish that mashed up Cadillac and Oldsmobile body panels. I’m not sure how the rear passengers were supposed to get in; there are no doors or steps to the rear compartment.

Tom Mix Duesenberg side, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

If you squint really hard, particularly looking at the car in profile, you can get a glimpse of the reach that the designer and fabricators failed to grasp. I suppose the owner thought the results looked sporting and contemporary — there’s a Jaguar XK120/Cisitalia 202 fender line. Both of those highly influential cars were introduced in 1948, the year the Duesenberg was rebodied. While I’m sure the goal was something modern, the owner (I presume it was a he, most women have better taste) added a classic touch. The two tone color scheme was effected by covering the upper body panels with beige leather, something cars from the 1920s and earlier might have featured. The proportions aren’t bad, but the devil is all in the details, including those horns, which are, like a cat’s whiskers, wider than the body.

Tom Mix Duesenberg rear seat, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

One thing that I’ve learned since I started working with stereo photography (3D) is that things don’t look quite the same in person or three dimensions as they do in mono photography. I always reserve final judgment on a car’s styling until I see it in person. This car is even more hideous in person than it is in photos. Besides depth (it’s nice to know if the tiger is on your side of the river), stereo vision also gives us our sense of shape. Looking at the car in person makes me think that maybe what I’ve been describing as a tailfin was possibly an attempt at creating a boattail rear end. My sense of shape tells me that attempt failed.

As I mentioned, you can almost get an idea of what the designer was going for. Perhaps in the hands of a more talented stylist it could have been magnificent. Instead it’s an oddity.

Tom Mix Duesenberg hump, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

It may be an oddity but it’s a valuable oddity. It’s a genuine, possibly numbers matching Duesenberg chassis underneath the dross. The car has passed through the hands of a number of collectors including, recently, the late Texas lawyer John O’Quinn. He had a fabulous car collection, funded by his billion dollar legal career suing tobacco companies and manufacturers of breast implants. After he died, the estate tried to sell the Duesenberg via Bonham’s in 2011, but it failed to meet its reserve price. The following year it sold for just under $300,000 at a no reserve auction. That seems to me to be about right for a genuine Duesenberg chassis (#J-462) with an ugly body.

Tom Mix Duesenberg interior, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

I didn’t get a chance to talk to the owner; a representative was showing the car at the Autorama on the owner’s behalf. I told the rep that I’d written about the car and thanked her for bringing it. I thought it prudent to not mention my opinion on its looks.

Alan Leamy Duesenberg catalog custom

When I last wrote about the “Tom Mix” Duesenberg, I said that if I ever had a large fortune, I’d buy the car, remove the body and put it in a museum to show folks what silly things people did 70 years ago. Then I’d commission Fran Roxas to custom build me one of Alan Leamy’s designs for Duesenberg’s “catalog customs” that never got built back in the day. These days I’m partial to Leamy’s 4 Place Cabin Speedster. Today we’d call it a four door coupe. Roxas — a respected restorer of prewar Packards and Cadillacs and a Pebble Beach concours winner — took a couple of Cadillac V-16 chassis and gave them bodies he picked from the Fleetwood custom catalog that nobody had ordered back in the day. It’s sort of a weird coincidence that the funny looking Duesenberg would show up at the Autorama. I first became aware of Fran Roxas after seeing his Packard Myth coupe at the Autorama. It was the first custom car Roxas had built and was a Ridler Award “Great Eight” finalist in 2011.

You can see the full photo gallery here, but why would you?

The Detroit Autorama provided me a media pass to the event. I paid for my own Ryba’s fudge.

[Images: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars; Alan Leamy drawing courtesy of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum]

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28 Comments on “This Duesenberg is Even More Hideous in Person...”

  • avatar

    Its the “The Homer” of Duesenbergs.

  • avatar

    Yep, pretty awful. That’s a waste of nice leather when some quality paint could be displayed instead. The dials are so small it might be hard to keep an eye on your speed. I wonder why the little metal railing is between the front and back seats since it doesn’t look like a wind deflector could be mounted on it, though the passengers back there would surely need one – if not helmets and goggles.

    Separate question, and Ronnie I figure you’ll know this. On those old cars with the fold up rear seat (rumble seat) was there any mechanism holding up the heavy metal door besides the passengers backs? In a crash, did they just die?

  • avatar

    What? You don’t like the inverted hot dog paint job?

  • avatar

    I can’t help wondering if the sombrero and serape aren’t covering something up. Because they look so darn good there.

    • 0 avatar

      Odd placement of odd articles on an odd car. Normally I would agree that those items appear to be very out of place, but here… can’t really judge because everything is just so wrong. For example: explain the Martini glasses Christmas light deal please.

      Does the driver sit in the center with two kids by his side with the wife and nanny riding in the “trunk seat” (TM)?

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    Do those horns meet pedestrian impact regulations?

  • avatar

    It would be perfect car for president trump.

  • avatar

    Well-written piece, Ronnie. Gave me a few chuckles as well, particularly, “You can see the full photo gallery here, but why would you?”

    Have to agree with all your observations regarding styling, and it’s nice to know that some people would pay $300K for a rolling paean to bad taste. I think it must be the horns that really appeal to the right buyer. The rest is just a showcase carrier for them.

    Needs a giant audio system with brass horns continuously playing “Home On The Range” LOUD, if any any observers somehow miss the point.

  • avatar

    I’m glad Ronnie didn’t see my roadster at the other end of the hall. Who knows what he might have written about that.


    • 0 avatar

      Maybe he’d have asked why it was on the bottom rather than top floor?

    • 0 avatar

      As I mentioned, two of my favorite Autorama cars have been downstairs. I was having transportation issues and wasn’t able to get down to Cobo till Sunday afternoon. I didn’t get to see everything.

      Tell us about your roadster.

      • 0 avatar

        My roadster was downstairs, right by the entrance from the atrium. It was the first car you saw, if the crowds weren’t too great.

        It’s in black primer right now. It’s my attempt to recreate 30s elegance in a modern package. Wheelbase is 126 in, length 195 in. Grill is a 38 Lasalle, but the rest of it I created myself. I designed and built both the body and the chassis, designed the steering system and the rear suspension.

        Give me an address and I’ll send you a picture.

        Bob Elton

  • avatar

    I think you misspelled “awesome”

  • avatar

    Hmmm… Interesting old heap to say the least!

    As far as guys doing stupid things to cars 70 years ago, nothing has changed! Witness all the goofy wannabe boy-racers who destroy their Civics and other worthless old junkers with ill-fitting, can’t-afford-to-paint gray-primered ground effects panels, fart-can mufflers, sub-woofers that rattle the interior apart, under-car neon lights, stick-on portholes, over-sized wheels that are worth three times what the car is worth and who knows what else!

    Come to think of it, I wanted to do goofy stuff to my old cars – and did to one of them and regretted it.

    I am also guilty as charged!

  • avatar

    No Cupholders? Weren’t cups invented by then? That’s a deal breaker!!

  • avatar

    Speaking of Deusenberg, who owns the name now?
    Maybe it can be resurrected before the Chinese start using it.

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