1929 Duesenberg Model J Disappearing Top Torpedo Convertible Coupe by Murphy. estimate $3,000- $3.500,000. Sold for $3,000,000. Darin Schnabel/Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
Chassis no. 2199 - Engine no. J-414 - Body no. 876 - Firewall no. 2199
265 bhp, 420 cu. in. DOHC inline eight-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission, beam-type front and live rear axles with semi-elliptical leaf springs, and vacuum-assisted four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 142.5 in.
- Delivered new to California sportsman and early enthusiast David Gray
- One of six original examples built; features a one-off tail design and numerous unique features
- Original body, firewall, and chassis; ACD Club certified Category One (D-119)
- One of the all-time ultimate designs on the Duesenberg chassis
The most well-known design of Pasadena, California, coachbuilder Walter M. Murphy on Duesenberg Model J chassis is the Disappearing Top Convertible Coupe, of which about 25 were made, all featuring a distinctive convertible top that hid neatly within the rear smooth deck when lowered. Yet, there is a rarer of beasts, the Disappearing Top Torpedo Convertible Coupe, which is considered by many to be the utter pinnacle of Murphy’s work on Duesenberg chassis. It combined the standard convertible coupe’s lines with the flowing tapered rear deck of a “boattail” speedster, often finished in bare aluminum that extended forward through the beltline and down the center of the car’s cowl, giving an extra touch of sparkle in the California sun.
Few Duesenbergs so beautifully combined the marque’s performance ethos with the glamour of a status symbol. Accordingly, the Disappearing Top Torpedo Convertible Coupe has become one of the most remembered and revered of all the company’s creations and is among the most hotly desired by enthusiasts worldwide.
CHASSIS NUMBER 2199
Typical of the Duesenberg’s custom-built nature, each of the six original examples of the Disappearing Top Torpedo Convertible Coupe differed in their detailing. Body number 876, used on the car offered here, was one of two early examples that featured a prototype early disappearing top design, in which the top is covered with a flexible leather tonneau, secured by pushbuttons around its edges; it is the only one of the pair without the chrome “rub strips” on the rear fenders, as indicated by the late Duesenberg historian, Don Howell. Most distinguishing of all is the design of the car’s tail, which, rather than forming a clean point, as on other examples, flares out again at the bottom, extends out to the sides, and then curves to meet the rear fenders, serving to more elegantly hide the rear axle and apron.
Importantly, this car was also originally built with a rumble seat, as is shown in a surviving Murphy factory photograph. Tailored to fit the tapered tail, the rumble seat seats exactly one adult, for what must have been an extraordinarily exciting ride!
According to the records of the late Duesenberg historian Ray Wolff, chassis 2199 was originally equipped with engine number J-178 and body number 876. It was sold new to David Gray of Santa Barbara, California, whose father, John, had made the wise decision in 1903 to invest $10,500 in the fledgling automobile company of Henry Ford. Few better investments have ever been made; in 1919, David Gray sold the family stock back to Mr. Ford for $26 million and lived quite happily for the remainder of his life. Not only a Duesenberg owner, Mr. Gray was also an early antique automobile enthusiast on the West Coast, focusing on early Packards.
His Duesenberg was sold on in 1933 to William McDuffie of Los Angeles. Later in the 1930s, like so many Duesenbergs, it was modernized with the addition of skirted JN-style fenders and the smaller 17-inch wheels. In this form, it was apparently noticed by Hollywood, as it made an appearance on the silver screen in a memorable scene of the film She Had to Eat, accompanied by Rochelle Hudson, Jack Haley, and Franklin Pangborn.
The car continued to enjoy the care of a handful of Southern California caretakers through the late 1940s, including the Beverly Hills attorney and longtime Motor Trend columnist Robert J. Gottlieb.
In 1951, it was purchased by William Coverdale, an early and longtime Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club member from Waynesville, Ohio. A member of an old railroad family, Mr. Coverdale was an extremely avid Duesenberg enthusiast who regularly hosted the faithful at his farm, where this was notably his favorite. By the time of his acquisition, it was missing the original engine, which had been used by the Los Angeles dealer Bob Roberts as a source of parts. Coverdale was able to acquire another original Duesenberg engine, J-414, which he installed in the car. It remains under the hood to this day.
With the “boattail” returned to presentable running order, Mr. Coverdale often enjoyed driving it. It appeared at an early ACD Club meeting in Avon, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1950s, and would occasionally reappear at Auburn over the years. It remained a prized possession of its owner until 1985, when he was finally convinced to part with it after 34 years. Soon the car was part of the famous Rick Carroll Collection in Jensen Beach, Florida. Subsequently, it was acquired by its present owners, in whose collection it has now remained for over two decades.
The car was restored in the early 1990s by Mike Fennel, with new fenders made to the original design and the popular updates of side exhaust and a chromed radiator shell. Refinished in a brilliant burgundy, the body retains the polished bare aluminum finish of its beltline, cowl molding, and rear deck, as when new, with an interior in tan leather accentuated by elaborate inlaid wood marquetry of the inner door panels. The engine bay and underside remain very clean and presentable, and the paint is in overall good condition, while only light wear and wrinkling show to the leather interior. It was presented to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club in this restored form and was certified Category One. Today, it shows 17,069 miles at the time of cataloguing.
Through the years, the restored car has been featured on the cover of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Newsletter (Number 7, 2002, misidentified as J-476) and in most of the well-known Duesenberg tomes, including Josh B. Malks’s Illustrated Duesenberg Buyer’s Guide (p. 49), J.L. Elbert’s Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car (p. 49, plate 39), and Fred Roe’s Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection (p. 236, center, misidentified as J-476).
Chassis number 2199 is one of four Disappearing Top Convertible Coupes that retain their original coachwork. It is the first of the four to have been made available for public sale in recent years, the others remaining closely held in private collections or, in one case, in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum. With its unique details and fascinating history, it ranks among that elite class of automobiles considered so beautiful and so desirable that, once sold, it may never become available again.
RM Sotheby’s, ARIZONA, 28-29 January 2016