There was once a time when town cars and other formal-bodied cars were unsaleable, often being tossed aside by their original owners whether the cars were used up or not. Those few cars that made it past the first wave of destruction were often employed to haul pigs and other livestock, or undertook other demeaning duties. Sometimes, their bodies were altogether removed and replaced with more sporting coachwork.
Because few people in the position to own a chauffeur-driven car sought "used" examples, finding such a formal car today, on any chassis, is a rarity. But finding a Duesenberg with its untouched town car body, and in the hands of the original family, is downright unheard of, unless you have the right connections.
Jay Leno, host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," is one such person. The comedian is deeply involved in the hobby, and he frequently receives leads on cars. And when a lead includes the word "Duesenberg," Leno's car-hunting divining rod perks up. In this case, the car was a 1931 Duesenberg Model J with a town car body by F.R. Wood and Sons of New York.
"I heard about [the Duesenberg] years ago," he said. "It was one of those rumors you hear about for years and years. I put [this story] in the same category as the 'Corvette that the guy died in that's for sale for $300.' But the interesting thing about rumors is that there's some speck of truth to them."
In this case, the rumors about a Duesenberg parked in a garage off New York's posh Park Ave. were true. To see the car, all Leno had to do was ask the parking garage attendants for a peek.
What he found was a complete, unrestored, 7,000-mile Duesenberg Model J town car covered in decades of dust.
Leno learned from parking ramp employees, including an attendant who had been there 44 years, that the car still belonged to the original owner's son, who had parked the car there in the 1930s.
Despite the low mileage, poor storage conditions had left the town car in need of serious work.
Particularly, a leak in the third floor had caused water to drip onto the Duesenberg parked below.
"For 70 years, one drop of water hit the rear fender," Leno said. "It was like Chinese water torture." Additional punishments from Mother Nature affected other parts of the car, too.
Randy Ema, present owner of the Duesenberg company, also had a chance to survey the car while it was in the parking garage. He found the car's paint was buckling off in chunks, the plating was very pitted, the trunk rack was broken, and the roof covering had shrunk from the moisture. The driver's compartment covering was also severely damaged, and it came apart when it was retracted for the first time in more than 70 years.
Human contact hadn't helped the Duesenberg's condition, either.
"The right front fender was dented, and that is recent," Ema said. "The interior would have been nice, if there hadn't been tires stored in it." Curious hands also robbed the Duesenberg of its spark control knob on the steering wheel within the last decade. Surprisingly, no one took the radiator cap, hood ornament, or the valuable chronograph.
How the car came to be such a derelict involves a tale of a father and son, a lien, and several unanswered questions.
The Duesenberg was first purchased by a New York department store owner as a chassis from the 1931 New York auto show. Upon purchasing the chassis, the owner had the car delivered to F.R. Wood and Sons for town-car coachwork. Though little known in Duesenberg circles, Wood built a reputation for attractive bodies on other chassis since 1880.
"They were pretty fashionable [in their early days], but by [the time they built this body], their work was pretty conservative," Ema said. But that's probably what the original owner wanted.
"It was 1931, and the market was bad," Ema said. "Once [the original owner] got it, the market got worse, and I think he was worried about looking ostentatious."
Ema pointed out that this town car is the only Wood body on a Duesenberg Model J chassis. It also features some uncommon characteristics.
"This car has an unusual folding-out windshield that hinges out to allow air to get in," Ema said. "It's not by any means plush; it's pretty plain."
Though the car was eventually left to deteriorate, the car was well maintained while it was in the hands of the original owner.
"I think they were mesmerized by it, and I think they babied it for a long time," Ema said. "I think he had it serviced and checked over all of the time."
The Duesenberg was also in good company. According to Ema, the son of this Duesenberg's original owner also had a Bugatti Type 57 Atalante and a Rolls-Royce New Market Springfield. Ema has noted several updates and changes to the Wood-bodied Duesenberg that were consistent with factory upgrades conducted until the company shut its doors.
"The common thing with age was that the distributors locked up, and it has a replacement," Ema said. Even the muffler has been replaced by an improved factory part.
When the son inherited the car, care for it continued ' at least initially.
"When the father passed away, the son trailered it up to Jim Hoe's in Connecticut and had new tires put on and the [engine] serviced," Ema said.
From Hoe's famous garage, known for maintaining Rolls-Royces and Duesenbergs after the factory closed, the son drove the car back to New York City. Along the way, he stopped at a Classic Car Club of America meet. For some reason, the car never put its tires back on to the street once it was back in New York City.
Aside from its special story, the town car remains a remarkable car. It was the last unrestored Duesenberg to remain in the hands of its original owner's family.
"There are other Duesenbergs that are in original condition that are not original-owner cars, and there is another original-owner car, but it's not in original condition," Ema said. "This is the last original-owner, original-condition car."
While the Duesenberg sat parked through several presidential administrations, its parking bill continued to grow along with the U.S.'s budget deficit. When Leno learned that the Duesenberg would be available for sale through a lien by the parking garage, he missed the sale. Fortunately, the garage didn't have the paperwork in order, so he had a second chance to purchase the car. But he wasn't the only one hot on the Duesenberg's trail.
"I was not the first one to hear about it for sale, but I think everyone assumed [the garage owners] didn't know the car's value," Leno said. The parking garage was low-balled by several parties, and their offers were turned down by the garage owners. When Leno went after the car, he showed up with the documentation to reflect the car's true value and to make a fair offer.
"I went to the garage and said, 'I'm a collector, and I'm not going to sell it. Here's what it's probably worth.' " His offer to purchase this important piece of history was accepted.
Even before he brought the car home in late 2005, Leno knew it was probably too far gone to leave it in unrestored condition.
"The thing about this car is it's too far gone to keep original," he said. "It is the last original-owner car, but unlike the Model X I bought, this sat in a damp New York garage."
A comprehensive restoration has not yet been undertaken, but preparation for Ema's pending work has begun.
"We've soaked the engine and filled it with oil so it will come apart easy," Ema said. "We've made up new water plates and a water pump."
Ema and his crew have also taken steps to repair or replace the rusted fenders, as well.
Although the car is not a sporty speedster or a capricious coupe, Leno is very happy with the Duesenberg.
"Duesenbergs are like pizza ' even if it's not very good, it's still pizza," Leno said. "Ultimately, is a town car my favorite body? [If it were sportier], that would make it worth 10 times what I paid for it."
While the town car's styling isn't the most beautiful body type, Leno appreciates its uniqueness.
"When I get in it, it's different. [A town car offers] a driving experience you can't replicate in any car. When you're in it, you can have the top open or closed."
Leno also enjoys explaining the antiquated body style to people unfamiliar with prewar cars.
"It's a real piece of history," Leno said.
And it will be a piece of history that will again be treasured by a caring owner, just as it was in 1931.