A Duesenberg Dream

By Angelo Van Bogart |

S hawn Miller began collecting cars as a wheel-crazed teenager. His first car was a Standard Avon saloon, bought at the age of 13 with paper route money. He still has that car, and has since added others, but he never thought he’d join the small group of Duesenberg owners.

The Duesenberg purchase took more than paper route money, but his excitement over its acquisition made the wait worthwhile. It was also a bit of a reunion, because Duesenbergs are a part of the Miller family tradition.

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After dreaming about owning a Duesenberg, Shawn Miller bought this largely original 1922 Model A with Fleetwood coupe coachwork in time for the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Annual Reunion in Auburn, Ind., in 2004.

“[Duesenbergs] are a legend in our family,” Miller said. “My great uncle Fred owned a Duesenberg sometime in the 1940s or ’50s, but I have never been able to find a picture of that car.”

The Duesenberg now in the Miller family is a 1922 Model A with a Fleetwood rumble seat coupe body. With less than 100 Model A’s in existence, early Duesenberg passenger cars are a rarity, even more so than their Model J brethren. Add to that the fact Miller’s car is the only known Fleetwood coupe body to exist on a Duesenberg chassis and, for all historians know, it’s the only one to have ever been built.

Miller is a lifelong Indianapolis resident, and so it wasn’t just the Fleetwood coupe’s rarity that attracted him to the car, but rather its history.

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Duesenberg passenger cars feature coachwork from other companies, although some of those bodies were pictured in the company’s catalog. This coupe features Fleetwood coachwork, and is the only known Duesenberg to carry this style of coachwork from this maker. Fleetwood built several bodies for the Model A chassis, but most of them were open cars, such as roadsters and touring cars, or sedans.

“I always liked Indiana-built cars, and obviously the Duesenberg would be the ultimate Indiana-built car,” Miller said. And when he saw this particular unrestored Duesenberg in 2001, it made an excellent impression on him.

“I had first spied this beauty three years ago at Hickory Corners when CCCA member Jim Kaufmann of Atlanta let me ride in the rumble seat on a shake-down cruise,” Miller said. “As soon as I saw the car, I was intrigued by it.

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Cast-aluminum hardware lift rumble seat passengers into their perch. Also note the cast gas cap.

“Jim is a pretty spirited driver, and after several laps around the track, I asked to be let out. This was the first time I had ridden in a rumble seat, and my first ride in a Duesenberg. I was making plans how to get out of it if it rolled.

“I had expected the car to be pretty primitive, and was amazed at its speed and agility,” Miller said. “It has an advanced chassis for its time. This car handles really well.”

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A Duesenberg buyer bought the chassis and could demand any kind of coachwork he or she wanted, but the chassis choices were far more limited. In 1922, only Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels were offered, and they’re still present on this Model A coupe. Also note the early version of the Duesenberg’s trademark “STOP” taillamp.

That drive left enough of an impression on Miller that, when he learned of the car’s availability, he told Kaufmann he wanted his next ride to be in the driver’s seat.

Miller spent the next three years saving up Kaufmann’s asking price, but almost missed the car. By the time Miller had saved enough money to purchase the Duesenberg in 2004, he learned Kaufmann had just sold the car to a dealer. Luckily, a quick call between the dealer and Kaufmann helped move the car to Miller’s garage.

Miller’s timing got even better. The sale was made right before the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Annual Reunion in Auburn, Ind., so Miller immediately brought the car to the meet where he learned a lot about the car’s history.

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The intimate interior sports room for two passengers inside, and two in the rumble seat. There are also pull-down curtains at the rear and at each door for the original owner’s unknown, but suspicious, intentions.

“I took it to Auburn as soon as I got it,” Miller said, adding that he didn’t even take it off the trailer after retrieving it from St. Louis. He headed straight for the ACD Club meet in Auburn.

After unloading the car in Auburn, Miller found out the Duesenberg’s battery was dead. Roger Eddy of the Hotel Auburn helped out with a quick battery recharge, but another speed bump harmed Miller’s progress when he learned the vacuum fuel pump was empty. With the fuel and battery squared away, Miller was ready to have the car certified by the ACD Club. And even though he hadn’t purchased the car early enough to register it, the club allowed him to display it in the exhibition category and drive it in the Parade of Classics.

“Bringing the car to Auburn was one of the smartest things I could have done,” Miller said. “Auburn is a special place where they’ll let you take a car and help you out.”

While at the ACD Club meet, Miller learned the car was purchased new or early in its life by Mr. McGarvey of Pennsylvania, who owned the car until his death in the 1970s. Bill Harrah purchased the car from McGarvey’s estate for Harrah’s Sparks, Nev., car collection, and from there, it went to Mark Smith. The car was then sold to a German car collector, who toured through Europe with it. After adding some miles to the odometer, the German owner sold the car back to Mark Smith, who sold the car to Jim Kaufmann of Atlanta. Kaufmann then sold it to Miller.

It was in Europe that the largely original emerald green-and-black Duesenberg Model A received its most changes in its 85-year-long life.

“The seat leather and the top vinyl [are the car's biggest changes],” said Miller. “I guess the car was used to tour and was out in the rain, so it became necessary to replace the top.

“The guy who sold it [to the European owner] said he was sorry he sold it to him, because those parts were fine and shouldn’t have needed replacement.”

The Fleetwood coupe-bodied Model A also made an impression on another person, who told Miller he remembered seeing the car approximately 40 years ago. His story helped Miller fill in another detail regarding the Model A’s wonderful state of preservation.

“A helpful gentleman said he remembered my car from Hershey in the 1960s,” Miller said. “He said the owner was evidently feverishly cleaning the car with a disgusted attitude [at the event]. When the gentleman talked to the car’s owner, he said [the Duesenberg] had been left outside overnight only twice in its life and, ‘I should have known better than to bring it here’ [in the rain].”

The care from that long-term owner helps explains why the original green paint on the aluminum body remains in such good condition, as does the paint on the black fende rs. Of course, 80-plus years of driving has chipped the green in a few places, but those few spots offer some insight into how the Fleetwood, Pa., coachbuilder created the body.

“Fleetwood was on the edge of paint technology,” said Miller. In those spots where the green paint is chipped, a yellow primer can be seen on the body. It’s here that Miller notes Fleetwood’s advanced paint and primer technology. Obviously, Fleetwood was on to something, because the emerald green paint still shines as deeply as the gem it’s named for.

The Duesenberg’s paint didn’t shine that well when Miller bought the car in 2003. He spent a generous amount of time polishing the car’s paint and German silver-plated hardware before the car’s first Auburn appearance in almost 50 years to remove oxidation on the car’s surface. It’s also work that has caused him a bit of grief, too.

Since its appearance at Auburn, people who hadn’t seen the car’s paint in its oxidized state don’t realize it’s never been painted until Miller tells them so.

“I believe a car deserves to look shiny,” Miller said. “It’s really an honor to have such a fine example [of an original car]. There’s a difference between a ratty original and a fine original car, and I am not the kind of guy who would own a ratty car and not restore it. I think cars should look as they left the factory, and not be left in a decrepit state. I am honored to have a fine original car that shouldn’t be messed with.”

In addition to cleaning the Duesenberg, Miller plans to continue enjoying the car the way it was meant to be enjoyed ‘ he plans to keep driving it.

“It’s a monster. It’s a big car, and it’s powerful,” he said. “So, yes, I do enjoy driving it.”

Along with the Duesenberg brothers’ race-inspired chassis, driving the Duesenberg makes for an exciting driver with its overhead-cam, 260-cid straight-eight cranking out 88 horsepower.

“As far as Model A’s go, it’s a fairly sporty car,” he said.

As the proprietor of SignificantCars.com, a business that sells collector cars, Miller said some people were skeptical of his intentions with the car.

“When I bought the car, nobody knew if I was going to sell it again or keep it,” Miller said. “I sell other people’s cars so that I can keep my own. I have somewhere between not enough cars and too many cars, and most of them are what I call ‘over-my-dead-body cars.’ This is one of them.

“I never thought I would be able to get a Duesenberg, but I was lucky to get a nice one.” And now that he has such a wonderful example, you can bet it’s not going anywhere for a long time.

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