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Nude Duesenberg sculpture offered at auction

Murphy Torpedo convertible coupe originally purchased with Ford profits to be sold at RM Sotheby's 2021 Amelia Island sale

Some of the world’s most perfect sculptures are nudes: David by Michelangelo, Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch and this Duesenberg Model J Disappearing Top Torpedo convertible coupe by Murphy.

The automotive sculpture in question is the creation of multiple artists at Duesenberg and Walter M. Murphy coachbuilders, not just one artist, and that might make the feat even more impressive.

Upon the Model J Duesenberg’s debut in late 1928, coachbuilder Walter M. Murphy of Pasadena, California, was among the first to design bodies for the magnificent new Model J chassis. Among them was Murphy’s Torpedo convertible coupe, proportionally a mix between a taper-tail (“boattail”) speedster and Murphy’s existing convertible coupe design. The result was magnificent.

RM Sotheby’s will offer this Duesenberg Model J with Murphy Torpedo convertible coupe coachwork at its 2021 Amelia Island sale on May 22. 

RM Sotheby’s will offer this Duesenberg Model J with Murphy Torpedo convertible coupe coachwork at its 2021 Amelia Island sale on May 22. 

Ryan Merrill photo copyright 2021; Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

This Duesenberg, chassis 2199, wears its original Murphy Torpedo coachwork. It was recently restored to its original state of a bare aluminum body and will be offered at RM Sotheby's 2021 Amelia Island sale

While Michelangelo and Alexandros worked in marble, Murphy worked in aluminum over a wood frame. Murphy’s Torpedo body design featured a slightly raised peak in the hood that started behind the radiator with a V mimicking that in the Duesenberg radiator. The peak then widened to the width of the hood and then down to the beltline, which it then formed until it terminated at the tip of the tail. The tail of the car featured the design’s second but most obvious V shape, and of course gave the body design its name. These two V features were bridged by a cockpit with roadster-like features in the thin-pillar windshield (another Murphy feature) and the airplane-like cowl that swept around the driver and passenger.

A total of six Murphy Torpedo convertible coupes were built, none exactly like the other. What makes the Murphy Torpedo body on short-wheelbase chassis 2199 different than the others is its unique tail design. It also stands apart from most other Duesenbergs for the au naturel state of its aluminum-bodied Torpedo convertible coupe body.

For chassis 2199, the Murphy Torpedo convertible coupe body was left completely unpainted, bearing the car’s aluminum construction. The sides of the body were scratch brushed to exotic effect, and like the other Torpedo convertible coupes, the top was polished to a brilliant shine. Fenders of chassis 2199 were painted blue to contrast the exposed coachwork.

One David Gray of Santa Barbara, California, was the original owner of this work of art, and he was photographed in the car very early in its life. Gray came to afford this Duesenberg through his family’s wealth; his father had invested $10,500 during 1903 in Henry Ford’s third and finally successful automobile company. In 1919, Gray cashed out his father’s investment in the Ford Motor Co. for $26 million.

Original owner David Gray in the featured Duesenberg, which was licensed in California by the time of this photo. Also note the lack of vertical trim strips on the leading surface of the rear fenders. 

Original owner David Gray in the featured Duesenberg, which was licensed in California by the time of this photo. Also note the lack of vertical trim strips on the leading surface of the rear fenders. 

Less than a decade after Gray’s purchase of chassis 2199, the Duesenberg had been sold and began appearing on the silver screen. In 1937, chassis 2199 stole a scene in the film “She Had to Eat” and one year later, it graced theaters in “Red River Range.” By its silver screen debut, chassis 2199’s Murphy body had been cloaked in paint. Its radiator was obscured by a mesh cover, and it was clothed with less-revealing skirted fenders. The original 19-inch wire wheels had been updated to smaller 17-inch wheels, which were masked by wheel covers. While all of these changes were of the type commonly undertaken by Duesenberg to update its cars, they further obscured the naked beauty of chassis 2199’s coachwork.

Murphy Torpedo convertible coupe with chassis 2199 appeared in this scene of the 1937 film “She Had to Eat” alongside Rochelle Hudson and Jack Haley. It also appeared in the 1938 film “Red River Range.” 

Murphy Torpedo convertible coupe with chassis 2199 appeared in this scene of the 1937 film “She Had to Eat” alongside Rochelle Hudson and Jack Haley. It also appeared in the 1938 film “Red River Range.” 

In its 90 years, chassis 2199 underwent restoration work that added external exhaust pipes of the type used on supercharged Duesenbergs. In a previous restoration, chassis 2199 was further dressed with the rear fender trim that was standard on other Model Js, but originally and intentionally left off in Murphy’s original build of this car.

When offered for sale by RM Sothebys at its January 2016 Arizona sale, chassis 2199 retained all of these chrome dressings. However, the fenders had been returned to the original clam-shell style and exposed and uncovered 19-inch chromed wire wheels were reinstalled. The original Murphy body had been repainted resale red and in this state, chassis 2199 sold for $3 million.

Since that auction, chassis 2199 has been stripped of its dressings in a complete restoration by RM Auto Restoration to reveal its raw original beauty. The supercharger pipes are gone. The rear fender trim is gone. Most importantly of all, the paint on the Murphy coachwork is gone.

In its original glory, the Duesenberg has since appeared at just two concours events including the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the 2020 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance where it was awarded honors. It will return to Amelia Island on May 22 as part of RM Sotheby’s 2021 auction where it will seek a new owner to appreciate its exposed elegance. 

Duesenberg noted the Murphy Torpedo was a “very beautiful and unusual roadster when the top is lowered as the top folds completely out of sight into the body. This car is unusually fast because of its effective streamline. It has a rumble seat for one.” 

Duesenberg noted the Murphy Torpedo was a “very beautiful and unusual roadster when the top is lowered as the top folds completely out of sight into the body. This car is unusually fast because of its effective streamline. It has a rumble seat for one.” 

Blue interior complements the fender color. 

Blue interior complements the fender color. 

Ryan Merrill photo copyright 2021; Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Of the five Murphy Torpedo convertible coupes built, only this example and one other were known to have their aluminum coachwork unpainted. Of this presentation, Duesenberg said, “The top of the rear deck and the entire moulding of this body is polished aluminum. The lower part of the body is scratch brushed aluminum….” 

The original engine of chassis 2199 was J-178, which was replaced decades ago by J-414, which still powers it. 

The original engine of chassis 2199 was J-178, which was replaced decades ago by J-414, which still powers it. 

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