Duesenbergs were the chariots of the famous and the rich and, in particular, the famously rich. Gary Cooper owned a Derham Tourster. Clark Gable drove a Central Body-built short wheelbase roadster. Howard Hughes and Mae West each owned Murphy convertible roadsters, but there’s no record of Hollywood starlet Katherine Hepburn ever owning a Duesenberg. However, Katherine Hedburn of Chicago, Ill., has owned a Duesenberg since 1961.
Katherine Hedburn may not have appeared in films or starred on Broadway, but her style and grace is such that she could have. Even while sitting in the passenger seat of her Murphy convertible roadster, Katherine exudes an elegance matching the star power of her car.
Despite its Murphy convertible roadster coachwork being the most common on the Duesenberg chassis, Katherine’s car, J-192, serial no. 2212, has stood apart from the rest since it was new. It has only been titled to women and sports a leather top that is as unique as the car’s past. Most impressive of all, it remains an unrestored survivor with only 33,000 miles from new.
But her car did not start out unique.
A star is born
The story of Katherine’s Duesenberg starts in Pasadena, Calif., where the Walter M. Murphy Co. built approximately 50 convertible roadster bodies for the Duesenberg short-wheelbase chassis, as well as two for the long wheelbase chassis. Katherine’s car is an early Murphy convertible roadster and was delivered to Duesenberg “in the white,” the phrase Duesenberg used for the unpainted and unupholstered bodies it received for show room stock. In this form, the Murphy coachbuilding firm charged Duesenberg $820 on June 12, 1929, for the body that graces the chassis of the car that eventually became Katherine’s Duesenberg.
Murphy convertible roadsters can be divided into two major series: 800-series models without a disappearing top and 900-series models with the disappearing top. In all but a few Murphy 800- and 900-series convertible roadsters, the angle of the windshield is exactly opposite of the back of the convertible top, adding to the car’s stunning looks and making the car especially attractive with the top up, not just in the down position. For the Murphy convertible roadster’s stunning appearance, there remains no question why it was a popular choice of coachwork by celebrities and socialites when it was new.
One of those socialites was Carolyn May Hoopes of Beaver Falls, Pa., wife of the president of Union Drawn Steel Co. In 1929, a young Duesenberg employee drove a new 800-series Murphy convertible roadster to Hoopes after she told her local Beaver Falls Auburn dealer she wished to own a new Duesenberg.
Former Duesenberg employee Karl Killorin was that lucky young man. He recalled delivering the new Murphy convertible roadster to Hoopes in 1974 Vol. 6 of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club’s Newsletter, but not before he shared the story of delivering the car with its then-new owners, Katherine and Paul Hedburn, at the couple’s first Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Reunion in 1961.
Paul recalled that, after the 1961 ACD Club Reunion parade in Auburn, Ind., Killorin approached him and said, “This must be the Carolyn May Hoopes car. I recognize the black leather top.”
Paul and Katherine assured Killorin that it was, indeed, the very same Duesenberg. Killorin then explained that, on a Friday afternoon in 1929, he was instructed to ride the night train from Duesenberg’s Indianapolis factory to Chicago where he would pick up a new Murphy convertible roadster from Duesenberg’s Chicago showroom at the posh address of 333 North Michigan Avenue. He would then deliver the car to Beaver Falls where a new customer — Carolyn May Hoopes — awaited.
Killorin’s trip was spurred by the sale of a black Murphy convertible roadster by Duesenberg master salesman Hubert Egender, who sold Hoopes the car through photographs and catalogs. Part of the deal included accepting an early-1920s Lincoln in partial trade.
When Killorin arrived at the Chicago Duesenberg showroom, the Murphy convertible roadster was removed from the dealership’s floor, then gassed up and serviced at the company’s nearby East Ohio Street garage. Killorin started out of Chicago early Sunday morning toward Beaver Falls.
Fortunately, Killorin didn’t report any problems with the car during his trip, as he had only been given the Duesenberg’s ignition key. Lacking the keys for the spare tires, hood and tool kit, he had no way to check the oil in the 265-hp, 420-cid straight-eight engine. Fortunately, the keys met him in Pennsylvania, courtesy of the postal service.
The following Monday morning, Killorin met Egender, the master salesman, at the Beaver Falls Auburn dealer. Needless to say, the car needed a good clean-up following the 450-mile trip and before it could be presented to Hoopes at her 17-acre estate where the Beaver River meets the Monongahela River.
The Murphy convertible roadster Killorin drove to Pennsylvania was completed early in Duesenberg Model J production, when only non-disappearing top, 800-series convertible roadsters were offered in the Duesenberg catalog. Like many of the early Murphy convertible roadsters, the body was painted black by Duesenberg and fitted with a canvas convertible top, its interior upholstered with a black leather seat and carpeted in what restorers now call a black-and-white “pepper” pattern, and it was added to inventory.
It was in this condition that J-192 was first delivered to Hoopes, and it was in this state she requested a change. Apparently, she did not care for the light canvas top upon seeing the car and wanted a trunk fitted with traveling cases.
With that, Killorin drove the Duesenberg back to Indianapolis where the factory installed a black leather top and a Packard trunk rack framed in chrome trim and mounted with a Packard trunk holding four cases: a dress case, two overnight cases and a hat box. These features separated Duesenberg J-192 from the other Murphy convertible roadsters built. Two weeks later, Killorin drove the black Murphy convertible roadster back to Beaver Falls and into the hands of a very satisfied Carolyn May Hoopes.
Many years later, Killorin admitted to Paul that he couldn’t resist racing a Limited locomotive traveling parallel to Route 20 while he was en route to Pennsylvania, having his share of fun with the straight-eight via the accelerator pedal along the way.
Hoopes drove her Duesenberg, though not often enough to greatly add to its mileage (and probably not as spirited as Killorin). Certainly one of her longer trips with J-192 was from Beaver Falls to Battle Creek, Mich., when Hoopes checked into a tuberculosis sanitarium in the early 1940s. While in Battle Creek, Hoopes gave the Duesenberg to her doctor’s wife, a Mrs. Wilson, who drove it for a relatively short time before the car was sold to Dema Dyer of Climax, Mich.
Audition for Duesenberg ownership
Brass-era car collector Paul Hedburn had wanted a Duesenberg ever since his friend, Bill Snyder, drove home a Duesenberg Rollston town car purchased from Tom Barrett, an Oak Park, Ill., collector car dealer. Barrett, of Barrett-Jackson auction fame, also had a Murphy convertible roadster on his showroom floor at the time of Snyder’s purchase, but it was priced at more than Paul wanted to spend. Not buying Barrett’s Murphy convertible roadster may leave some hobbyists kicking themselves, but it turned out to be a very wise move for Paul.
In April 1961, Katherine and Paul decided to drive to Pontiac, Mich., to check the restoration progress on their 1909 Packard limousine. While in Michigan, the couple followed up on a 1904 Autocar they heard may have been available for purchase. The Autocar was offered by fellow Veteran Motor Car Club of America members Harold and Dema Dyer.
The impromptu decision to visit the Dyers was well-timed: the couple was just returning to their Civil War-era Michigan estate from wintering in Scottsdale, Ariz. Harold Dyer, a gentleman farmer, had flown back to Michigan in his personal aircraft and was mowing the lawn in preparation for a Classic Car Club of America tour. Harold’s wife, Dema, had chosen to fly on a commercial jet and had not yet arrived. Harold escorted the couple through the many buildings housing his car collection.
“We looked at all of the cars and learned he didn’t want to sell the Autocar, but he told Paul he would sell this one,” Katherine said while resting her hand on J-192 at the 2007 Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Reunion. “[Harold and Dema] didn’t like it.”
It was clear during Katherine and Paul’s visit with Harold that his interest lied with the individual touring style of the brass-era car owners. It was also evident that Harold had an interest in finishing his lawn-care duties, so Katherine and Paul left shortly after their tour of his collection.
“I thought Paul was going to say something about buying the Duesenberg, but we went down the driveway,” Katherine said. “I asked Paul, ‘Why didn’t you buy that car?’ He said it was a lot of money. I said, ‘No, we have to get that car!’”
Katherine and Paul turned their car around and found Harold still cutting the grass. When they told Harold they would buy the car, he said they would have to come back on Monday, when Dema returned from her trip. Since the car was in Dema’s name, she would have to be present to sign over the car to Katherine and Paul.
Fearing interest in the Duesenberg by Classic Car Club of America members, who would be visiting the Dyers’ home the next day, Paul insisted that he leave a deposit with Harold, which he accepted. However, the sale was contingent on Dema’s approval of the Hedburns.
The couple faithfully returned to meet Dema that Monday and found her a refined and gracious host, all the while realizing Dema was interviewing Katherine and Paul as the next potential owners of J-192. Over tea, Dema also shared the story of her Duesenberg before finally granting approval to the young couple as the fourth custodians of her 27,010-mile, original-condition Duesenberg.
Setting the stage for ownership
The next obstacle for Paul and Katherine was funding the unplanned purchase. They borrowed some money from Katherine’s father, and returned a month later to pick up the car.
Accompanying Katherine and Paul during the drive to Chicago was Bill Snyder, owner of the Rollston town car and the man who helped inspire Paul’s interest in Duesenbergs. Snyder is well-known in automotive circles, partly because of his role as a former editor of the Classic Car Club of America’s publication. He has also driven many Duesenbergs. In his opinion, Katherine and Paul’s car is among the finest driving Duesenbergs.
“This is the nicest driving car of all,” Snyder said. “Some say Duesenbergs are ‘trucky’ to drive, [but] this is a nice car.”
According to Paul, Duesenberg historian Marshall Merkes agreed.
“Marshall Merkes visited one time and said it was the easiest-steering and best Duesenberg he’d ever driven,” Paul said. “He credited it to never having been apart.”
It doesn’t take a seasoned Classic car collector to appreciate a Duesenberg. Almost immediately, Katherine found the Duesenberg a pleasure to drive, and it led to her becoming the car’s current owner.
“Katherine took the car out on her own and came back with a smile on her face, so we put her name on the title,” Paul said. That signature made Katherine the fourth female owner of J-192.
Sharing J-192 with the world
Since buying J-192, the Hedburns have added approximately 6,000 miles to its odometer, many of those miles put on driving to car shows in the 1960s and 1970s. Among those events were several Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Reunions and Classic Car Club of America Grand Classic events in Indiana. During one of those CCCA events, Paul took the Duesenberg around the track at Indianapolis, where he put the speedometer up to 75 miles per hour.
“The track is banked more than it looks, so it’s easy to do curves with the car,” Paul said.
On another occasion, Katherine and Paul made particularly good time returning to Chicago from Indianapolis while driving the Duesenberg.
“One year, when we went to Indianapolis, we left at 5 p.m. and got home at midnight,” Paul smiled. “It’s been a great car.”
Other interests began occupying Paul and Katherine’s time, and by the 1980s, the Duesenberg had come to rest in the couple’s garage. As more time passed, more reasons were found not to take the slumbering Duesenberg out of the garage. By 2005, that changed.
With the assistance of his friend Ed Seratt, Paul was filling the tires of the cars with air when Serott urged Paul to get the Duesenberg back on the road. The pair removed the gas tank and prepared it for fresh fuel. They then installed new rings in the engine and replaced its corroded water jackets. The apple-green straight-eight’s head also came off so that the valves could be lapped and the valve stem tolerances could be set. All of the engine work was completed without removing the powerplant or the front fenders.
The original ivory-painted wheels appeared chalky, so Paul and Serott attempted to steam clean them, but the original paint lifted. The paint loss left them with little choice but to have the wheels glass-beaded and repainted in the original color. New tires were installed, though Paul has kept the originals.
In 2006, Katherine and Paul were ready to expose Katherine’s Duesenberg to the sun’s rays and spectator’s ogling eyes again. Today, J-192’s yellowing convertible top window, mile-deep black laquer, gleaming leather convertible top and pepper-patterned original carpet and other interior materials leave crowds in awe. Even the hobby’s most experienced restorers have been found pouring over the original details of J-192, learning from the manner in which the doors are upholstered and reading the part numbers from the original spring covers, which are nearly always absent from a nearly 80-year-old car.
It may not be the silver screen or a Broadway play, but today, there’s no question that J-192 and its owner are the stars at every show in which they appear. And the hobby is a richer place for every experience with Katherine Hedburn and her wonderful Duesenberg.
Author’s note: Special thanks go to Randy Ema, who provided some details for this story.