A deusey of a classy lady
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Once upon a time this car had the sort of star power today’s Hollywood greats can only dream of. It was first owned by actress Carole Lombard, wife of Clark Gable, in the days when the media sold the gloss, not the goss.
She bought the 1934 Duesenberg Model J Le Baron Sports Phaeton new but it disappeared from sight not long after her death in a plane crash in 1942, when she was just 33 and at the height of her career.
Current caretaker Robert Duncan bought it from a deceased estate in Reno, Nevada, in the US, which had owned it since the late 1950s. He’d been looking for one, and a car friend in America heard about it and put him in touch. When it arrived in New Zealand around 2010 it had been partly restored.
“Someone had sprayed paint over everything — to preserve it, I guess — but it was 95 per cent complete.”
He had to do a fair bit of research on it, and found the worldwide Duesenberg network fairly unhelpful. He got the impression they didn’t want too many more on the road, perhaps to safeguard their “investment”.
There are about 378 survivors of the 481 cars built from 1928 to 1937, Robert reckons, and about eight of these sports phaetons were built.
The bodies were built by a separate “coachbuilder”, and Duesenberg had 38 on its books to choose from, opting for Le Barron for this car.
“Many of the wealthy folk who bought them would get two bodies, a summer body like a roadster or sports phaeton, and a winter body, like a four-door sedan, and the factory could change them over in about two hours. The body would bolt to the [engine] cowl with about eight bolts at the front and eight on the chassis, and all you had to do was undo the bolts, disconnect the vacuum tube for the windscreen wipers, and disconnect the wire that worked the interior lights.”
Sadly, Robert never discovered what the original colour was. “The only photo we have of Carole Lombard with that car is in black and white. She had an after-market hood ornament and the headlights which turn as you steer, though the mechanisms were jammed with dust.”
That sort of tech cost mega-bucks in those days and, with one body, this car sold for about $19,000 when new — equivalent to three Packards or 60 Fords, or closer to $30,000 with a sedan body also thrown in at a time when the average American’s income was US$3125.42. But Lombard earned $500,000 a year — she was the highest-paid female actor of the time, earning six times the salary of a US president — and could afford such flim-flam, along with items such as the carved red onyx gear knob, an option at the time.
It took 18 months for Robert to complete the restoration, with the work being done by Wanaka-based experts, and since then it’s twice been trailered to Napier Art Deco (this year held next weekend, on February 15-17), and it’s driven little more than 3000km, mostly around its Wanaka home, where Robert confirms it prefers to drive at speed; “The Model J couldn’t leave the factory until it had done 100mph [160km/h ] in second.”
You get the impression Robert would never sell this car, although if he did he’d be set for life. Such rare vehicles must be hard to value but they’re worth more with famous provenance — Clark Gable owned a 1935 Duesenberg which sold recently for US$22 million ($31.8m), something this writer didn’t know when offered a drive of the Model J.
Get over the fact one is piloting a very rare and valuable car, and it’s easier than expected to manage. Sure, changing between the three gears can be something of a dark art, but you can drive almost anywhere in top gear and it proved remarkably tractable, thanks largely to how flexible this 200kW, 6.9-litre straight-eight engine is. At least it was smooth and easy on the open road — things became a little fraught around town, where threading a pricey 6m-long car around crowded Napier without power steer proved a little stressful.
The Duesenberg won’t be at the Napier Art Deco Festival this year, but those visiting Wanaka should visit the Wings and Wheels museum, its usual home.