Beautiful beast: a supercharged Duesenberg Model SJ

Jim Schneck Duesenberg Model SJ

Jim Schneck is on the short list of people who have preserved this unique Duesenberg (engine J-525, chassis 2555). Its previous owner held onto the car for 50 years. Above right is the car as it appeared shortly after it was repainted in the early 1950s.

Jim Schneck’s supercharged Duesenberg Model SJ was built for a beauty contest, but its striking Brunn Riviera Convertible Torpedo Sedan body hides a beast.

“In this Duesenberg, you get a feeling of being in a monster,” Schneck said. The heart of the monster is Duesenberg’s apple-green 420-cid straight-eight engine (J-525 in chassis No. 2555), one of just 36 topped with a centrifugal supercharger boosting the Lycoming-built engine’s output to an incredible 320 hp. But even the beastly engine in Schneck’s car is built for looks above and beyond any other Model SJ powerplant. J-525 alone features a damascened engine compartment with engine turning on every exterior aluminum component, from the camshaft cover to the cast aluminum firewall to the supercharger itself. Such work would have taken days, if not weeks, by a patient and skilled craftsman. That’s a lot of work to be seen by only a mechanic or two, a salesman and the customer to whom he sold it, so it’s not surprising Duesenberg had much more in mind for this racy Brunn Riviera.

“The history of the car is that it was commissioned by Duesenberg [in 1933] for the New York Auto Show,” Schneck said. “They had the body built by Brunn in Buffalo, and they assembled that body on the chassis and shipped it in the fall to the show.”

There’s no way to know how many other Duesenbergs were sold by the appearance of the flashy deep red wine- color Brunn Riviera’s at the New York Auto Show, but two other Brunn Rivieras were built: J-528, a supercharged example without the engine-turned parts, and J-521, an unsupercharged car.

“The Brunn Riviera is one of three produced by Brunn in that particular style. They produced six cars [on Duesenberg Model J chassis] altogether, and all three Rivieras survive today,” Schneck said. The other three Brunn bodies have been lost to history — a torpedo phaeton that crashed over a desert cliff, a town car and a limousine.

The Brunn Riviera was originally a deep red wine color.

“Brunn was a good body builder,” Schneck said. “The car has a cast-aluminum body; the door skins and the rear clip are cast aluminum and the hood is aluminum, but the fenders are steel, of course.” The cast-aluminum body construction allowed Brunn to build a strong body that could incorporate a convertible top hidden under a curved body panel (rear clip) in a novel fashion when lowered. To facilitate this feature, the rear clip swings opens from the rear, allowing the convertible top to be stowed. When closed, the rear clip makes the body appear very modern for the period; in effect, the rear deck is incorporated into the body in a fashion similar to the famous Torpedo Phaeton.

“It’s a miniature Brunn Torpedo Phaeton,” Schneck said of the Brunn Riviera. “I think it’s the best-looking convertible sedan there is.” Certainly other owners agree, based on the 100 percent survival rate of the body style.

Schneck believes his Duesenberg’s life in private hands began in 1934 when its good looks attracted a New York City customer by the name of Hirsch. By the 1950s, it was acquired by B.C. Hartline, a Cleveland-area enthusiast who was already collecting Classic cars. This Duesenberg, in particular, was well-suited to Hartline’s desire for speed.

“B.C. was quite a character,” Schneck said. “He drove this car at 85 mph in second gear. He’d open up the pipes and rev it up and drive it down the road at 80, 85 mph.”

Hartline was a longtime Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club member and would often bring the car to the club’s annual reunion in Auburn, Ind., on Labor Day weekend. Although Schneck often attends the event, it was not there that he first spotted the car. Credit for that — and Schneck’s interest in Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs — goes to well-known Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg restorer Joe Kaufman.

“He has been active in the ACD Club for many years,” Schneck said of his fellow Wisconsin resident. “In the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was restoring a Duesenberg,” and Schneck was fascinated. In 1970, Schneck bought his first Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg product, a Super-Charged 1937 Cord 812.

“I had the car for two or three years, but I was living in an apartment, so I sold it and used the money for a down payment on a house,” he said. “I got back into cars in 1984 and bought my first project, a 1935 Auburn boattail Speedster. At the time, I thought that’s the only car I want. Well, I lied.”

That little white lie wasn’t completely Schneck’s fault. When Kaufman learned of the availability of Brunn Riviera J-525, he contacted Schneck, who was familiar with the unforgettable Brunn Riviera from an earlier experience.

“[Kaufman] maintained the car, and I saw it in his shop, probably in the mid 1990s,” Schneck said. “B.C. Hartline was still alive and the car wasn’t for sale. That was the first and only time I saw it.”

Later, at an annual ACD Club Reunion in Auburn, Kaufman caught up with Schneck and asked if he was interested in the car.

“At Auburn in 2002, I happened to be in [Eckhart] Park and Kaufman said, ‘B.C. Hartline died, are you interested in the car?’ I will call Mrs. Hartline on your behalf.’”
Duesenberg SJ line drawing

An original illustration of the Brunn Riviera Convertible Torpedo Sedan.
Three were built and only one of them was not supercharged. That
unsupercharged car is represented in this rendering.

Kaufman knew this was a good opportunity. The Duesenberg had around 40,000 miles on it and, aside from a repaint to a tan color and possibly a new top, the car was very original and its history was known back to the time it was new. With its combination of an original supercharged engine and great coachwork, it was an impossible Duesenberg to beat.

Within weeks after Auburn, Schneck and Kaufman met with Hartline’s widow in Cleveland to discuss the sale of the car.

“I asked if I could drive the car and she said, ‘No — it has no insurance,” Schneck said. “It was parked in a trailer in the back of the yard, and she said, ‘If you can get it running you can drive it around the yard.’ She was right — it didn’t drive very well. She wanted all the money in the world, but I said, ‘I will pay your price.’”

Mrs. Hartline had one more demand.

“She said, ‘Could you give it to me in cash?’ Schneck said. “I looked her right in the eye and said, ‘Sure, but we’ll have to go to the bank.’ Then she started to reminisce and said, ‘We had a lot of good times with the car.’”

No money changed hands that day, and Schneck began to worry if the sale would go through at all. Was the 94-year-old Mrs. Hartline having a change of heart? She also explained that Schneck might not hear from the lawyer for her husband’s estate for more than a week. But the day he returned from vacation, the lawyer called Schneck to complete the sale. He also said a heap of cash wasn’t necessary — a check would be fine.

After its lengthy stay in a trailer, the Duesenberg was running rough and needed some attention from Kaufman and his son, Paul, who had joined in the work.

“We went through the car for about six weeks and just did a good maintenance on it and replaced the points and put a new exhaust system the car,” Schneck said. “When it was finished it was a pretty good-running old car, then I drove it in the spring of 2003 and I took it on the ACD tour [during Fall Auburn]. In the winter of ’03, I decided the mechanics were weak so we pulled the engine. We did the engine, and that’s where I got involved in doing the head.”

Although Schneck admits he leaves the major mechanical work on the car to the Kaufman family, he had a keen interest in his car’s internals and the parts that make it rumble. He has even begun a side business re-creating straight-eight Duesenberg engine heads for other surviving cars that need them. In the 81 years since the Model SJ was first built, many Duesenberg engines have become useless, but with the availability of Schneck’s new heads, some dormant engines will run again. Since the head on the engine of Schneck’s Duesenberg was good, and he had access to the original drawings, they formed the basis for buildilng the new engine head.

While J-525 was being rebuilt, Schneck had the car rewired. He also had a new set of 3.72 gears in the rear axle installed so he didn’t have to shift through all three gears when going through an intersection, which obviously “makes it easier to drive,” Schneck added. Maintenance was also undertaken to preserve the handsome coachwork.

“We did a few things on the body, [including] re-shimming the doors,” Schneck said. “The wood is great, but the metal does sag into the wood over time. We did the door hinges because the doors were loose. We put new dovetails in the doors, because the doors are relatively heavy.”

After all that work, it’s clear Schneck still finds the Brunn Riviera as intriguing as the day he bought it. “The thing that appealed to me about this car, number 1, it had not been disturbed,” Schneck said. “He had this car painted… in the early 1950s. He painted it from its original real dark wine color, and it had painted wheels. I have got some pictures with B.C. shortly after he bought it, but he never did anything with it. He owned the [Duesenberg] ‘Twenty Grand’ and other big cars, so this was just one he owned, and he never spent any money on it. It was still an unspoiled car. At that time, it had 42,000 miles and every bolt and washer was in the right place.

“It was also a New York Auto Show car, so it had all the options on it – a supercharged engine, the famous engine-turning, white gauge faces with the sweeps and the air horns on it. And it’s a great style.”

Despite the car’s prominent place in Duesenberg history, Schneck isn’t afraid to let out this beauty’s beastly side. Like B.C. Hartline before him, he’s been known to open the supercharged J’s exhaust bypass and let his car snort through the streets of Auburn on Labor Day weekend. It sometimes causes a small ruckus on concours fields around the Midwest, too, and for Schneck, that’s all a part of the fun of owning a supercharged Duesenberg Model J.

“I am going to continue to drive it…I have no plans to sell it, I have no plans to restore it,” Schneck said. Instead, he’ll use that valuable time to drive and enjoy his one-of-a-kind piece of Duesenberg history.

Opportunities to see Jim Schneck’s Duesenberg Brunn Riviera this summer include the Milwaukee Masterpiece Aug. 21-22, which will honor Duesenberg historians Ray Wolff and Joe Kaufman and Duesenberg cars (including Schneck’s J-525). Learn more at www.milwaukeemasterpiece.com or call 414-225-1342.

The car will also appear at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club’s annual Reunion and the Ab Jenkins Memorial Exhibition of Speed Sept. 3 at the Kendallville (Ind.) Airport runway. Learn more at www.acdmeet.org.

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