Leno’s Latest J – Recreating the lost Duesenberg Model J LaGrande coupe body
Story by Angelo Van Bogart; photos by Zefrey Thowell
Until Jay Leno stepped in, just three of the six coupes originally built on the Duesenberg Model J chassis remained in existence. Now there are four.
Thanks to the magic of computers, the craftsmanship of Duesenberg historian and restorer Randy Ema and the passion of Jay Leno, one of the two lost 1931 Duesenberg Model J LaGrande coupes is back on the road as a coupe again.
“The [coupe] body had been thrown away when it was just an old car,” said Leno of his recently restored LaGrande coupe. “I didn’t want to do an original design like the last guy did. He put some kind of horrible-looking thing on it. This was a LaGrande coupe on the long wheelbase so that is the one we decided to replicate.”
Today it seems impossible to improve upon the beauty of an original body on a Duesenberg chassis, but not everyone once thought that way. Since a Duesenberg’s horsepower wasn’t matched by another American production car until 1955, a handful of people took used Duesenberg engines and chassis and created modern bodies for them. At the time, they thought they were getting the best of both worlds — power and modern style — but history has since proven the error of their ways.
One of those errors was the atrocity committed just after World War II upon chassis number 2432, fitted with engine J-415. When Leno bought this long-wheelbase Duesenberg in 2008, the chassis was fitted with that “horrible looking” convertible coupe body that had been built for the chassis around 1945. While this bulbous convertible body appeared modern for the time, it didn’t match the grace of a Model J Duesenberg, nor did the crudeness of its construction equal the typical body quality found on a Duesenberg chassis.
One coupe crossed off the roster
The original LaGrande coupe body upon this Model J chassis was one of two built in 1931 to a Gordon Buehrig design. These bodies were actually built by the Union City Body Co. of Union City, Ind., for Duesenberg and then badged “LaGrande,” a prestigious-sounding made-up name created by Duesenberg for use on some bodies it would paint and upholster itself to increase its profit amid the Great Depression. Although this body design appeared in the 1932 catalog, no others are recorded as being built after the first two sold in 1931.
The other four coupe bodies on the Duesenberg Model J chassis included two built earlier by the J.B. Judkins Co. to a Gordon Buehrig design, one of which survives. The Walter M. Murphy Co. built a single coupe that looked similar to its popular convertible coupe design. The most noticeable difference between Murphy’s convertible coupes and its single coupe was the coupe’s fixed aluminum roof shaped like a convertible top. This car also survives. The last known coupe to have been built upon the Model J chassis was a very aerodynamic coupe built by the A.H. Walker Body Co. to a J. Herbert Newport design. It, too, survives, and is also in Leno’s collection.
The fate of the LaGrande coupe built upon chassis 2428 with engine J-406 is not known, but the history of Leno’s twin LaGrande coupe on chassis 2432 has been well documented by Ema.
“H.S. Lewis from Beaver Falls, New York, bought it on 5-23-31 as a LaGrande coupe,” Ema said. “He sold it to a Harvey M. Smith of Oneida, New York, in 1938 or ’39. He sold it to an army officer out of Newark in 1943. The army officer was driving through Indy and W. Jim Roberts of Hoster-Hiser Ford-Lincoln chased him down and bought it.”
It was Roberts who had the convertible coupe body built for the chassis by one of his body men. He is also to blame for junking the graceful original aluminum coupe body shortly after having it removed it. (A former Hoster-Hiser Ford-Lincoln employee once told Old Cars the original body was placed in a shed after its removal, then disappeared.) As a Lincoln dealer, Roberts had access to the Ford Motor Co. parts bin and he used many Continental components on his creation. During the process of building the convertible coupe body, many Duesenberg components besides the coupe body were discarded or irreversibly modified, such as the wheels, which were cut down to lower the car, and the aluminum firewall, which was also cut down to fit the lower convertible body.
When Roberts finished the car, he called it the “Imperial Duesenberg” and advertised it in a major magazine during 1949 for $27,500, but it didn’t sell. He then tried to have it driven it to Florida in hopes of finding a market there, but modifications to the engine caused it to spill oil into the belly pan created under the car. Fearing the leaking oil was a fire hazard, the driver turned back to Indianapolis. He had only gotten as far as Terra Haute.
Once Leno bought the car from a subsequent owner’s heirs, Ema and his crew immediately began tearing off the ’40s convertible coupe body to determine what they had to work with. The chassis was bent, the transmission was missing the correct gear shift tower, the original 420-cid straight-eight engine had several incorrect parts and its head was bad. None of the coupe body components remained under the convertible coupe body, but the car had been fitted with a Duesenberg radiator shell at some point after it was originally modified. However, even this component had been modified to fit the lower convertible coupe body.
“We had to come up with shocks, fender brackets, running boards, running board brackets, fenders….” Ema said. “The fenders we had were original skirted fenders [from another car] that we had to un-skirt and make new front sections, and we had to make new brackets for the front fenders. We had one cut sidemount bracket and we had to make the other one.”
Sourcing replacement chassis components and making new ones was less challenging than completely replicating the Gordon Buehrig-designed coupe body, however.
“I had someone else start a body for me and it was just way off, and it was like tens of thousands of dollars and it just didn’t look right, so we started again,” Leno said.
Just three factory photos of the original LaGrande coupes are known to exist, but they were of immeasurable help to Ema when he was charged with recreating the body and interior. Ema had the images scanned on a computer and then measured every possible aspect of the car using the digitized images. To determine the dimensions of the original body, he compared the unknown dimensions of body parts to those standard Duesenberg parts with known dimensions, such as the length of the long-wheelbase running boards and the circumference of the 19-inch wheels. When the LaGrande coupe was originally photographed, the factory used a wide-angle lens, but Ema figures he was able to get all of the dimensions within one centimeter of the original car.
With accurate dimensions in hand, Ema and his crew then booted down their computers and went to their tool bench, creating the new body using old world coachbuilder methods. Greg Morrell built a new wood frame for the body and Marcel DeLay of DeLay Custom Metal skinned it in aluminum, just as the Union City Body Co. had done in 1931. While Ema and his team have experience building body parts on coachbuilt cars, creating an entirely new body from scratch was a first for them.
“We have done other Duesenbergs that we had the pieces of — we had the fenders, we had the cowl, we had the seats, we had to build the doors and build the back section of the body and make a new top deck and truck deck — but we had a lot of the pieces and had to build in between them. But on this car, we had nothing — just the chassis,” Ema said.
“Basically, what we did was as a coachbuilder. But in those days, they would spend four to five weeks in wood, four to five weeks in metal. Most of that they would sublet… and they would send them the parts. We didn’t have that advantage; we had to make it all ourselves. So what [a coachbuilder] could do in three months, it took us all that time to do. We were just two months over a year when we were fitting all the cosmetic stuff.”
Recreating the LaGrande coupe body was just one part of the challenge. A body needs hardware such as hinges for the doors to open and handles in order for the windows to roll down. In the coachbuilt era, these parts were sourced from a variety of companies in a dizzying array of styles. Hardware matching that on the LaGrande coupe was non-existent and had to be made from scratch.
“We used 3D printing for the door handles,” Leno said. “We had pictures of the original door handles and scaled them up in the 3D printer. I mean, that is the future of the old car hobby, because there are no junkyards anymore. You’re not going to find pieces for White steam cars or Duesenbergs. I mean, you go to junkyards now and they might have some pre-1990, but certainly not 1950s and 1930s. None of that exists anymore so this is what you have to do.”
“Everything is right on,” Ema said. “The bezels on the [courtesy] lights, the window cranks, the window crank bezels, the interior wood, the windshield wiper location, which is just weird, but that is how it was (through the passenger side of the windshield). I think they built the car and said, ‘Oh, [expletive], we have to put a windshield wiper on this thing.’ It all looks identical.”
As with the body and the hardware, Ema worked tirelessly to replicate the LaGrande coupe’s plush interior, which featured unique-for-the-time “individual chairs adjustable for comfort,” stated the catalog. Each individual brocade seat was edged at the back in a lavish silk swatch, and the windows were framed in lacewood from an Australian sycamore tree, just like the original. Somehow Ema painstakingly tracked down the original-style silk trim, accurate down to every line in the pattern, and even remnant lacewood panels from the extinct Australian sycamore to faithfully recreate the snug cabin. The cabin of the original LaGrande coupe was also fitted with what Duesenberg called “aviatrix cases” behind the seats, which is why the cabin and rear deck are bulkier on this body design than other coupes, but no pictures of these cases were available to replicate them.
In every other aspect, the result is a completely accurate and thoroughly authentic return to 1931, when the LaGrande coupe was sold to H.S. Lewis, probably off the floor of Duesenberg’s New York City branch for a factory price of $14,750.
“Randy Ema did a great job,” Leno said. “Marcel (DeLay) built the body and they just did a wonderful job. This is the first time we have taken on the whole thing from scratch (built a body). They did an amazing job. It was really pretty impressive.”
A Duesenberg for the road
“This is a driver, this is not a show car, so it didn’t need to be perfect, although Randy did do a perfect job on it,” Leno said. “It’s just a car I like to drive.”
In the 30 days or so since the coupe had been completed, Leno had already spun the odometer to the tune of 500 miles and he was making plans to keep it spinning. While the LaGrande coupe might be seen flying down “The 5” around LA, don’t expect it to appear on the lawn of a concours.
“You know, you take it to a show and park it,” he contemplated. “The idea is to sit there with tweezers and pull grass out of the tread. You know, it gets a little silly.
“The one thing I admire most about the Bentley Driver’s Club is they actually drive the cars and they use the cars,” he said. “There’s a wonderful guy named Jim Schneck who just passed away, sadly. He went to the trouble of making heads for these Duesenbergs. It’s a very complicated process and extremely expensive. But a lot of Duesenbergs owners said, ‘Ah, I don’t drive it. It’s just parked, it’s just on display.’ Well, I mean, if you don’t make the parts, you don’t drive them, then there’s nobody to fix them, then you forget how to fix them.
“You know, the Bentley Driver’s Club, they drive them all over the world, they blow them up, they make new parts and… there are guys who make a living just fixing those Bentleys. There are really only a few Duesenberg mechanics; these are unique vehicles that are different. I mean, a valve job is 40 hours on this thing. It’s a week to do. You know, you have four valves per cylinder and it’s very tricky so the people who know how to do it, if there’s no work for them then, well, they forget. It just disappears… it goes away. So that’s why it’s fun. You restore it to 100 points, you drive it down to 10 or 15 points and then you just restore it again.”
While he says he enjoys the coziness and rigidity of the coupe, Leno doesn’t necessarily consider himself a coupe kind of guy. In buying this car, he was more interested in the fact it was a Duesenberg that needed to be restored, which is a process he enjoys. However, of those four existing Duesenberg Model J coupes, Leno owns two, and they are totally different machines. While this Buehrig-designed LaGrande coupe carries traditional Duesenberg styling, his J. Herbert Newport-designed Walker aerodynamic coupe is incredibly streamlined to the point it doesn’t look at all like a Duesenberg. Leno has racked up enough miles in each to offer a comparison of the respective driving manners of the two very different coupes.
“You know, the aerodynamic coupe, the aerodynamics really work and at 60, you’re probably going faster at a lower rpm with that car,” he said. “I mean, with [the LaGrande coupe] and the big flat windshield, in a crosswind, I mean ‘whoa,’ you find yourself pressing on the gas a little bit more.
“The idea in those days was a big radiator to push the wind out of the way,” he said of the traditionally styled Duesenbergs. “The aerodynamics were sort of, ‘Well, yeah, you might need it, but look at this with the big flat radiator at the front to push the wind out of the way!’
“You take your foot off the gas, with a flat windshield, flat radiator car, you feel yourself slow quicker.”
“Slow” isn’t a speed Leno typically drives his cars, and on a cool California day, you might just catch the blur of his jet black LaGrande coupe passing by.
“I’ve got a Murphy disappearing top supercharged car, and in a colder climate, this [coupe] is kind of fun.”
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