John O’Quinn has assembled perhaps the most significant collection of Classic automobiles since Bill Harrah.
But rather than in Reno, O’Quinn’s collection calls Houston, Texas, home.
O’Quinn is an auto mechanic’s son who has grown into one of the most successful litigators in U.S. history with a passion for Duesenbergs (see the Garage DeLuxe YouTube O’Quinn interview). Upon entering the collection’s private showroom, one sees a glittering array of perfectly restored Duesenbergs. Even among such rarified surroundings, some cars immediately stand out. Such is the case of Duesenberg SJ-397 (Chassis No. 2405), known alternately as “The Rudolf Bauer Duesenberg” for the artist who designed the car for himself, or “The Last Duesenberg.” The twists and turns of this particular Duesenberg story are reminiscent of a Greek tragedy.
At first glance, the Bauer Duesenberg seems as perfectly restored as its stablemates. However, this car is parked slightly apart from its Indianapolis cousins, confirming its status as something special. I was allowed the rare privilege of closely inspecting the Bauer car in minute detail.
Its doors and engine compartment were opened, the hand-tailored luggage was removed from the boot for closer inspection and I was allowed to sit behind the wheel. At the time O’Quinn purchased the car, the price paid was a world record for any Duesenberg, save the Mormon Meteor, which makes my unrestricted inspection all the more incredible. The experience was sort of like being handed the “Mona Lisa” and told to look the old gal over.
Interestingly, the hood is louvered and the sides are covered with mesh so that details of the magnificent 420 c.i.d., dual-overhead-cam, supercharged straight-eight can be seen from outside the car. However, upon raising the side-opening hood, the top of the engine is completely covered by an aluminum panel. This would seem to negate any benefit of the hood louvers. Perhaps the attractive louvers allowed too much water onto the big mill, and the panels were added as a nod to practicality while preserving the artist’s flourishes.
The car delivers the illusion of lowness and great speed when standing, with an almost indescribable stance. Bauer accomplished this by emphasizing the large scale of everything, which tricks the eye into making the car look smaller. It appears Teutonic in the manner of a Mercedes 540K, but has a certain visual lightness that eludes the Mercedes. The car looks tailor-made for high-speed motoring along some picturesque sea.
Several things about the car were surprising. One might surmise the car has an older restoration showing slight patina. However, not only is this the last Duesenberg delivered, but the car is thoroughly original with only 10,843 miles traveled since new. The catalog from the auction where O’Quinn purchased the car made much of the authentic World War II “A” rationing sticker and 1943 New Jersey registration stamp. I discovered something even more interesting — an “Essolube” oil change sticker dated Oct. 14, 1941, with a mileage of 4,854. It seems the car traveled half its total mileage within 18 months of its delivery on April 25, 1940.
The car also sports a huge Buell air horn that looks as though it was made from the bell of a trombone, perhaps for a locomotive. On anything else, it would look ridiculously huge, but on this car, it’s just right. I fought an urge to honk it, but was afraid I might be the recipient of a withering look at disturbing the calm in this temple of Duesenberg.
The car’s purple upholstery was described by Bauer as violet, and the top is silk. Bauer spared no expense in constructing this masterwork. In fact, the final toll was more than $20,000, an astronomical sum in 1940. Bauer said it was his intention to shock and provoke discussion, at which he certainly succeeded.
Earlier, O’Quinn executive director Gayla Miller had shown me original Bauer artwork, much of which is very geometric and colorful and somehow very pleasing, even to my untrained eye. During the 1920s, much of Bauer’s art depicted the risqué German Cabaret scene with many of the works being very erotic, and some almost cartoon-like. In an odd way, the purple interior makes perfect sense in the context of Bauer’s art.
Rudolf Bauer was born in Lindenwald, Germany, (now Poland) in February 1889 to an engine fitter. At an early age, he demonstrated an almost savant-like talent for making art. He left home and settled in Berlin at age 15 to begin an art career over the objections of his father. As a young man, Bauer supported himself by completing elaborate cartoons and magazine illustrations.
He eventually participated in a group exhibition at Der Sturm (The Storm) in 1915. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Der Sturm was the center of the Berlin art world. Also during this time, Bauer met 25-year-old Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, an art student, and his soon-to-be-lover (and, according to Bauer, his future betrayer). Hilla Rebay was the aristocratic daughter of a Prussian army officer. Bauer was shy, arrogant and brooding, and Rebay unrelentingly ambitious. He was from a poor family, she from a background of privilege. It is not difficult to see how their obsessive relationship eventually disintegrated into one of estrangements and finger pointing.
By around 1922, Bauer had been exhibited in the U.S. Worcester Art Museum, Smith College, Detroit Institute of Fine Arts and Vassar College. In 1927, Hilla Rebay traveled to the United States and shortly thereafter met philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim, who awarded her a portrait commission. Rebay encouraged Guggenheim to start a collection of Non-Objective art, with Baroness Rebay facilitating; Bauer became Guggenheim’s favorite artist and soon his man on the ground in Berlin. Though they had not yet met, the works acquired by Bauer for Guggenheim are now considered the core masterpieces of the Guggenheim collection and include paintings by Kandinsky, Klee and Marc, among others.
Rebay brought Guggenheim to Europe in 1930 to meet the artists in person, including Bauer and Kandinsky. This cemented Rebay’s relationship with Guggenheim, with her soon becoming his art advisor. Through the introduction provided by Baroness Rebay, Guggenheim purchased several Bauer works and, more importantly, awarded him a stipend that allowed him to open a museum for his work and other painters of what had become known as the “Non-Objective” school, headed by Bauer and Kandinsky. Bauer named his museum Das Geistreich, or “The Realm of the Spirit,” though the name can also be interpreted as “ingenious.”
By the time the Nazis came to power, Bauer had become a rich man due to Guggenheim’s largess and an attentive audience in the United States and Europe that snatched up Bauer works as fast as they were completed. Bauer lived as lavishly as a Guggenheim, and spent huge sums on every aspect of his life to the constant dismay of Rebay. He apparently had rarified taste in motor cars, too, including Bugatti, Isotta Fraschini, Mercedes and Duesenberg. Starting in 1933, Bauer and Rebay began hurried purchases of artwork to prevent them from being destroyed or falling into Nazi hands. This provided funds so many Jewish and non-Jewish collectors could escape. This and Bauer’s relationship with the Jewish Guggenheim inevitably led to trouble with the Nazis.
Bauer did not himself travel to the United States until early 1937. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, S.C., near the Guggenheims’ winter home where the Guggenheim collection was having its first public debut. This was part of an extended stay by Bauer that generated huge amounts of publicity. During the same period, the Nazis hosted an exhibit of “degenerate art” featuring art by Bauer and his contemporaries. For some time before this, Bauer’s work was the only abstract work that could be seen openly in Berlin. This apparently lulled him into a false sense of security of potential consequences. To the Nazis’ dismay, the display of “degenerate art” proved hugely popular with the public, eventually being seen by more than one million people.
Bauer originally inquired about ordering the car around the time of Duesenberg’s closing in January 1937, but didn’t make up his mind until August. Actually, the engine and chassis were originally utilized in a 1931 factory demonstrator whose engine was damaged. The body was removed and the chassis cast aside at the Duesenberg factory, eventually becoming the property of Chicago Duesenberg re-seller Henry Felz. After Bauer made up his mind, Felz reportedly sold the chassis back to Augie Duesenberg, who personally supervised its construction with the assistance of former Duesenberg employees and a number of outside craftsmen.
The intention was for the completed chassis to be prepared for shipment to German coachbuilders Erdmann and Rossi for body construction to Bauer’s design. After completion, the chassis was duly coated in Cosmoline and wrapped in burlap. Unfortunately, Bauer’s arrest by the Nazis put the entire project on hold. Some contend that Bauer’s sister fingered him to the Nazis due to a lack of support and jealousy of his success, and he eventually spent a year in prison. The intervention of Baroness Rebay, with assistance from her uncle (a German general), along with a large suitcase of Guggenheim’s money, secured Bauer’s release, along with his intact household.
The pièce de résistance
In 1939, Bauer made a triumphant entrance in the United States. One of his first acts upon arrival was to arrange completion of the Duesenberg. He specified several options for the car: a long wheelbase chassis with a supercharger on the 420-cid straight-eight engine, Marchal headlamps, a special instrument panel with additional instruments, four-blinker directional lamps with violet glass, a special radiator emblem, three custom black-leather suitcases and several other features, including Vogue tires.
Due to the ravages of the Depression, bankrupt body builder Rollston morphed into Rollson. Rollston was the body builder of several famous Duesenbergs, including the 1933 Torpedo Sedan, aka “The Twenty Grand.” It proved to be an inspired choice for the renamed Rollson to bring Bauer’s sketches to life.
Bauer’s sketches to body builder Rollson specified the absence of running boards, smaller wheels, a vee windshield, cycle fenders, dual rear-mounted spares, a canted and streamline grille and numerous other custom features. Of the completed car, Bauer wrote J.L. Elbert for his 1948 book “Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car” and said, “I made a design of the car and did supervise to some extent the construction of the Karosserie, which took seven months. Although the finished car did not measure up to my expectations, especially in the finer details, I still regard it as the finest auto I have seen. Speaking of Duesenberg, I… possess two more Duesenbergs, both phaetons, one black, the other blue-green in racing style with special pistons.” No doubt he was convinced only a German body builder could execute a car built to his lofty standards.
Then came the betrayal. Hilla Rebay presented Bauer with a contract from the Guggenheim foundation written in English, neither of which Bauer spoke or wrote. The contract stipulated that Bauer could live in a palatial Guggenheim home in Deal, N.J., complete with staff. He would also have a large trust fund established for his use, but with several “kickers.” The Guggenheim foundations would own any future art he produced, and upon his death, the trust would revert to the foundation. The foundation also paid the astronomical bill for the Duesenberg. Regardless, when Bauer understood what he had signed and that he owned nothing, including his work, he was furious.
The impetuous Bauer responded by marrying his housekeeper, Louise Huber, who had been personally selected by Rebay. Rebay responded by calling Huber a “tramp and whore.” Then Bauer filed a futile libel lawsuit against Rebay. After 1940, Bauer never painted again and lived in virtual isolation. When Rebay was replaced at the Guggenheim foundation, Bauer’s artwork was basically consigned to a basement where it remained for 45 years. Bauer and Rebay did not speak for the final years of Bauer’s life.
Bauer died in 1953 and the car and Bauer’s other Duesenberg were acquired by Bill Pettit, who preserved it and stored it for 45 years while adding approximately 1,000 miles to the odometer. Pettit claimed it was the best-driving Duesenberg in his stable. Interestingly, Gary Cooper tried unsuccessfully to acquire the Bauer Duesenberg before the purchase by Pettit, and now, O’Quinn is the fourth owner of the car. The last Duesenberg is a stunning example of the artist’s vision, and has eclipsed the value of his artwork by a large degree.
O’Quinn and his longtime companion, Ms. Darla Lexington, have acquired several Bauer artworks from the Weinstein Gallery of San Francisco. No doubt inspired by the car and Bauer’s story, O’Quinn and Lexington purchased four: “Presto XI,” “Composition 115,” “White Cross” and “Symphony in Three Movements.” We look forward to the day when O’Quinn and Lexington will exhibit the last Duesenberg with Bauer’s other artwork.
Author’s note: The Bauer Duesenberg will be featured at the 2010 Glenmoor Gathering of Significant Automobiles. Special thanks to Briana Tarantino of the Weinstein Gallery, and Gayla Miller and Firat Ozsoy of the O’Quinn Classic Car Collection.
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