2024 |Amelia Island Auctions
1931 Duesenberg Model J Disappearing-Top Convertible Coupe
Coachwork by Murphy
$2,750,000 - $3,500,000
Among the Most Iconic and Desirable Body Styles of the Mighty Model J
Undisturbed in Private Storage in Illinois for over Five Decades
Single Family Ownership from 1961 to 2022; Retaining Original Chassis, Coachwork, Engine, Crankshaft, and Firewall
Fascinating, Historical Provenance Since New with Notable Owners
The Final Known Sportingly Styled Model J Duesenberg to Emerge from Hiding
An Incredible Find, Never to Be Repeated
420 CID DOHC Inline 8-Cylinder Engine
Single Schebler Downdraft Carburetor
265 BHP at 4,200 RPM
3-Speed Manual Gearbox
4-Wheel Hydraulic Drum Brakes
Front Solid Axle with Semi-Elliptical Leaf Springs
Rear Live Axle with Semi-Elliptical Leaf Springs
Gene Gordon Culver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (acquired new in 1931)
David Archibald Smart, Chicago, Illinois (acquired from the above in 1938)
Sigurd Olsen, Chicago, Illinois (acquired from the above via John Troka in 1941)
William A. Burns Jr., Cincinnati, Ohio (acquired in 1953)
Culver Military Academy, Culver, Indiana (acquired from the above in 1959)
Tom Hawkinson, Chicago, Illinois (acquired from the above in 1961)
Current Owner (acquired from the above in 2022)
Motorcade of America, Illinois, 1952
Classic Car Club of America Annual Review, Ohio, 1954
Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival, Indiana, 2023
AACA Fall Nationals, Pennsylvania, 2023 (National Driver’s Participation Award)
Once or twice, every year or two, an important classic automobile will come to the public’s attention after having been found tucked away in an inconspicuous corner of the world. As significant as those occurrences are, the emergence of this Murphy-bodied Model J Duesenberg Convertible Coupe, hidden since 1967, is headline news when compared with most of the other finds.
Incredibly powerful, beautifully constructed, and technically advanced, the Model J Duesenberg was equally adaptable to both open and closed designs – and even with the heaviest and most elaborate coachwork, it was able to easily outrun its competitors. E.L. Cord and Fred Duesenberg’s Model J is the pinnacle of classic cars, with many of its specifications and capabilities not improved upon for decades. It earned (and deserves) its continued reputation as the greatest of all American classics. Today, nearly a full century later, its status remains unchallenged.
Of the long and distinguished list of American coachbuilders, the Walter M. Murphy Company firmly established itself among the most celebrated and memorable. The lion’s share of this notoriety is due to the wonderful work Murphy coachbuilders completed on the Duesenberg Model J chassis, crafting an unprecedented 140 bodies for the 481 examples built. While Murphy offered a wide array of styles, including formal town cars and clear-vision sedans, the most popular and emblematic was the convertible coupe design that accounted for over one-third of Murphy-bodied Duesenbergs. An innovative Murphy feature incorporated into just 25 of these convertible coupes was an articulated deck behind the passenger compartment, beneath which the convertible’s top would stow completely into a well at the rear of the car, allowing it to be hidden and giving the bodywork a sleek, speedster-style profile with a crisp, coherent appearance. This coveted option has become known as the “Disappearing Top.”
The story of the Model J presented here, chassis 2365, engine J-346, begins in the early months of 1930. Chassis 2365’s body was completed in March 1930, and its engine was assembled the following month. The car was delivered to Duesenberg’s Philadelphia branch over a full year later, in July 1931; it was likely used as a factory demonstrator in the intervening months. The first owner of 2365 was 25-year-old Gene Gordon Culver who split his time between several major cities, and was co-founder of Chicago’s Oak Brook Polo Club. Around 1935, the Duesenberg returned to the factory, where the fenders were modernized with skirted sides, a common upgrade to keep the magnificent Model Js in current fashion. The nephew of Culver Military Academy founder Henry Harrison Culver, the younger Culver would later enlist in the armed services in October 1940, as he sensed the US would soon be drawn into WWII.
This Convertible Coupe passed to its second owner in 1938 when Chicago’s David Archibald Smart traded his Duesenberg Murphy Beverly Sedan for it. The roadster-style coachwork better suited the trendsetting lifestyle he portrayed as the cofounder and publisher of Esquire men’s magazine. In May 1941, Mr. Smart sold the Duesenberg to industrialist and fellow Chicagoan, Sigurd Olsen. Later in 1951, the Duesenberg received the silver paint, re-trimming of its interior in green vinyl, and likely the repainting of its straight-eight engine and inner hood panels in the red tone that still remains today. Refreshed, the car was featured at the 1952 Motorcade of America, and a brass plaque affixed in the interior memorializes this exhibition. Shortly thereafter, William A. Burns purchased the Convertible Coupe and relocated it to Cincinnati, Ohio, taking part in the Classic Car Club of America’s Annual Review in 1954, and became an early member of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club in 1956. In an amazing coincidence, Mr. Burns was a supporter of the Culver Military Academy and donated the Duesenberg to the institution in 1959. The organization made the car available to cadets interested in motorcars for their exploration in an auto mechanics course. The cancellation of the program prompted the Model J to be advertised for sale in the Chicago Tribune in October 1961. Unsurprisingly, a flood of inquiries was received in the first week; however, it was Tom Hawkinson of Chicago whose $5,000 bid was successful in besting all competition, and he brought the car back home to Chicago.
After a few years of enjoyment by the Hawkinson family, the Duesenberg was placed in their heated garage in 1967 where it would sit, completely undisturbed, for an astounding 55 years. In the ensuing decades, Duesenbergs emerged as the ultimate American classic car; long-held and sequestered examples were, one by one, purchased, restored, and exhibited. As the Hawkinsons had no interest in selling, the advances of the handful of insiders who recalled 2365’s whereabouts were, each and all, rebuffed for over half a century. In 2022, advancing age and new priorities convinced the Hawkinsons to consider selling the Duesenberg that was in their sealed garage. The search for a knowledgeable and trustworthy partner in the sale was found in Doug Pray, proprietor of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Co. of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, whom they had seen as a guest on the popular antique-hunting program American Pickers. Excited, Mr. Pray and his wife arrived in Chicago to see the car, and they were greeted by the Hawkinsons, as well as 2365’s factory-original, riveted, two-piece “Duesenbird” radiator mascot sitting on the kitchen table – an apt foreshadowing of the treasures that awaited them.Being exposed to daylight for the first time in generations, the Duesenberg was extracted from the garage and transported to the Oklahoma workshop.
The consignor’s long-term friendship with Mr. Pray led to his being offered the opportunity to purchase 2365 from the Hawkinsons, and plans were soon made for the car’s next chapter. The consignor initially envisioned completing a full restoration on the Convertible Coupe, which would have included finishing it in what appears to be its original royal blue color, which can be seen in numerous places on the car. In the end, it was simply returned to running status; the engine received extensive work – including the installation of modern connecting rods and pistons – and the fenders were taken back to their original profile. The Duesenberg was driven at the AACA Fall Nationals in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 2023 and was given the National Driver’s Participation Award, recognizing its importance. The next owner may enjoy the Model J as it currently is, then have the honor of debuting it at international-level concours events around the world following its restoration. Duesenberg expert Randy Ema recently inspected the car, signed off on its pending ACD certification, and advised on its light refurbishment. A substantial parts cache accompanies the Model J, including horn trumpets of the proper length, the warning light timing box, which was kept aside during the refurbishment, and a very rare, high-speed ring and pinion set, which was procured for the car – reportedly in the same ratio as Ab Jenkins’ Mormon Meteor.
In short, this Duesenberg is the very last example known to exist of a sporting body style that had yet to reemerge to the public eye; as such, this Murphy Disappearing-Top Convertible Coupe is the last of its kind – a modern-day unicorn. Fortunate is the collector who takes it home; we shall not pass this way again.