Portico New York, Inc.

The Longest Duesenberg

Just as Duesenberg was shutting its doors forever, artist Rudolf Bauer commissioned it to create a one-of-a-kind car


by John Apen


Faced with the surreal scale of the Duesenberg's chassis, some designers attempted to reduce the scale of the car. Not artist Rudolf Bauer. His intent was to create the longest, most distinctive Duesenberg ever built. And he did.


Bauer emphasized the dominant theme of the chassis--its sheer size--rather than hide it. Accordingly, his sketches depict a narrow, elongated hood extending well beyond the Model J radiator shell and reaching all the way back to the low vee windshield. A canted, streamlined grille conceals the standard grille, recessed behind, and reveals the influence of the Art Deco and Streamlining movements.


Bauer created a long, low, and provocative example of automotive art, more magnificent and decadent than any of his paintings--and significantly more valuable. Parallel rows of 27 hood louvers further accentuated the car's great length. Dual rear mounted spares bring the overall length to 20' 6"--the longest Duesenberg ever built.


Bauer took delivery from Rollson in April 1940. The original Rollson invoice accompanies the car. (The Smithsonian Archive of American Art has a file on Bauer's Duesenberg). Bauer recorded just 9,884 miles on his Duesenberg before parking it at his mansion in Deal, NJ. He died of lung cancer in November 1953 at 64, and his widow soon advertised the car. Bill Pettit purchased it and stored it at his Museum of Motoring Memories in Virginia for 45 years, preserving it in pristine, untouched condition. Pettit drove it 1,000 miles, and of his six Duesenbergs, he said this one drove like a new car. Its black lacquer is original, evidenced by the stone chips on the cycle fenders. The car also retains its original violet leather interior, deep purple carpets, silk top, and even its original six Vogue double-sided whitewalls.


The SCM Analysis


This car sold at RM's January 2007 auction in Phoenix for $2,805,000, the second highest price at auctions that week. Dave Kinney, Sports Car Market's man on the spot, reported: "Even though the body style and the unusual front end look better in person than in the catalog, this car is not the most elegant or graceful Model J ever seen. Condition: 2."


The car last sold in 1998 at Christie's Tarrytown, New York, auction for $1,267,500, and the SCM reporter described it as "all original, with a great story. Ignore the fact that from the rear, it looks like a Chevy Caprice-based Classic Tiffany. A sure show-stopper."


This price breaks the Duesenberg road car record of $2.64 million paid for Otis Chandler's one-off LeBaron phaeton at Gooding & Company's auction last October. The overall record is still $4.4 million for the Mormon Meteor, which was achieved at the 2004 Gooding auction in Pebble Beach.


How the "Last" Duesenberg happened


Since neither the engine, J397, nor the chassis, 2405, are the last actually made by Duesenberg, but the car was the last new Duesenberg delivered, there's a story to tell here. Josh Malks, current editor of the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) Bulletin, detailed it in a letter in the August 1996 Bulletin, commenting on a May 1937 ad from a Chicago car dealer, Harry Felz, for "Duesenberg Bargains" and a new chassis. The new chassis Felz advertised was 2405/J397, that of our subject car. It had carried a body in 1931 and was a factory demonstrator. During that service a cylinder was scored, so the body was removed and the chassis leaned for years against the wall in Duesenberg's Indianapolis factory.


In January 1937, Bauer inquired about the purchase of a new chassis to create his car but Duesenberg was closing down. 2405/J397 was remembered and since no new Lycoming J engines were available, a local firm was engaged to re-sleeve the damaged cylinder. Soon afterward, Felz bought all 17 Duesenbergs remaining at the Duesenberg branches, along with the chassis for $18,000. Bauer finally made up his mind in August, and commissioned the principals at Duesenberg to build him a car. Augie Duesenberg bought back the chassis from Felz, and the process commenced.


Donn Hogan, a former Duesenberg salesman, supervised the work needed to rebuild and lengthen it, since Bauer's order was for a long wheelbase. This required several suppliers and craftsmen. Ray Reinbolt in Chicago worked on the chassis, and Shirley Mitchell in New York supplied a supercharger, which was rebuilt and installed by Reinbolt.


The completed chassis was to be shipped to Ger­many, for the coachworks. But Bauer was arrested by the Nazi government in March 1938 in Berlin and thrown into a Gestapo prison. He was released in July with the help of his talented fellow artist and one-time lover, Baroness Hilla Rebay, who was the founding director of the Guggenheim Art Foundation. Bauer immigrated to the U.S. in 1939. Hogan introduced Bauer to Harry Lowen-schein, president of Rollson, who, guided by Bauer's extensive sketches, built the car. It was delivered in April 1940, at a total cost of just under $21,000 ($290,500 in 2006 dollars).


Bauer wrote in 1948: "the construction of the Karosserie took seven months. Although the finished car did not measure up to my expectations, especially in the finer details, I still regard it as the best auto I have seen. Speaking of Duesenberg, I possess two more Duesenbergs, both Phaetons, one black, the other blue-green in racing style with special pistons."


More valuable than the paintings


This Duesenberg might be Rudolf Bauer's best-known work; it's certainly the most valuable. He began his career as a cartoonist and caricaturist in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century, and while his illustrations delighted his audience, it was his avant-garde experiments, and his leadership in the revolutionary "Non-Objective" art movement in the 1930s, that established his reputation.


With the help of Hilla Rebay at the Guggenheim Museum, the paintings of Bauer and Kandinsky formed the basis of the famous non-objective art collection at the New York Museum and made Bauer a rich and respected man. But after 1960, with a change in leadership at the Guggenheim foundation, his work was consigned to virtual oblivion.


Curiously, at $2.8 million, this car fetched far more than any of Bauer's abstract paintings, none of which have sold at auction for more than $1.2 million. His exaggerated interpretation of '30s automotive design seems to have more in common with his pre-1915 caricatures, but has sold for more than his most revered abstract painting. So this, his final caricature, has defined his legacy. Perhaps it has also become art.


139 Spring Street, Suite 2B  |  New York, NY  |  10012

Open to Public by Apppointment Only