Auctions and Brokerage
Coachwork by The Walter M. Murphy Company
Formerly the Property of Harry and Virginia Robinson
The Duesenberg Model J
Soon after engineering the dramatic turnaround of Auburn and assuming the company presidency, E.L. Cord acquired Duesenberg as the crowning jewel of his fastgrowing industrial empire through a stock swap in 1926. As the makers of the mechanically advanced but low-volume eight-cylinder Model A and back-to-back Indianapolis 500 winners for 1924 and 1925, Duesenberg was the logical choice for Cord’s new prestige marque. Another Indianapolis win for 1927 provided convincing proof. Answering Cord’s famous challenge to create the world’s finest automobile, Fred Duesenberg certainly delivered with the mighty Model J, the announcement of which temporarily halted trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Long revered as the most outstanding achievement of Classic Era design and engineering, the Model J was initially priced from $8,500 for the chassis alone, making it by far the most expensive car in America. Fitted with coachwork, the delivered price of many Duesenbergs approached $20,000, a truly staggering amount in contrast to the typical new family car, which cost around $600. For the money, however, the Model J’s basic features were and remain impressive: double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, hemispherical combustion chambers, power-assisted four-wheel hydraulic brakes, automated chassis lubrication, and power output of 265 bhp in naturally aspirated form – or 325 bhp supercharged. Capable of reaching 115 mph while carrying some of the most elegant custom bodies ever conceived, the Model J rode on a choice of 142.5" or 153.5" inch wheelbase lengths.
The new Duesenberg was purpose-built for the era’s custom body industry, and Pasadena, California’s Murphy coachworks is generally recognized as the most successful coachbuilder on the Model J chassis. Remarkably simple yet consummately elegant, Murphy-built bodies consistently featured uncannily trim lines and an undeniably sporting character. These attributes seemed even more revolutionary when compared to the bodies emanating from Murphy’s East Coast contemporaries, which built consistently heavier and more ornate designs. Another Murphy hallmark was the distinctively thin “clear vision” windshield pillar, itself a Gangloff styling cue that was much admired by Murphy’s Frank Spring, who had earlier lived abroad in France. Given the enthusiastic spirit of the era surrounding the Model J’s launch, Murphy was the logical choice among Duesenberg’s select clientele for bodies. In fact, of the 481 Model Js produced, 125 of them – approximately one-quarter – were fitted with handsome Murphy-built bodies when new.
While all Duesenbergs are indeed “special,” the wonderful example offered here, J-108, is even more so as the very first Model J built new with Murphy’s athletic Disappearing-Top Convertible custom coachwork, design number 802. Among the many unique details distinguishing the body of J-108 from subsequent examples are its front-hinged doors, an alternate seat configuration, vertical edges at the rear of the side windows, the uncovered fuel tank, and the scalloped-crown detail that runs the length of the rear deck and rumble-seat lid. Perhaps most dramatically, J-108 also features a more steeply raked windscreen than most of Murphy’s open designs. J-108 can emphatically be described as a significant, and singular, Murphy Model J. Images of J-108, including a salon illustration, a factory photo, and a later image from the 1930s, appear on Page 223 of Fred Roe’s Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection. In addition, J-108 is listed in Josh Malks’ Illustrated Duesenberg Buyer’s Guide.
The first owner of J-108 was Mrs. Virginia Robinson, whose husband, Harry Robinson, was a member of the famed Robinson Dry Goods retailing family. Their beautiful home, which was built in 1911, is now known as Virginia Robinson Gardens, a California Historical Landmark listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, and remains famous today as one of the first homes built in Beverly Hills. Correspondence between Mrs. Robinson and J.L. Ebert, author of Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car, states that Mr. and Mrs. Robinson were enthusiastic Duesenberg owners with several examples of the Model A residing in their stable before the purchase of J-108. When new, the chassis of J-108 was painted white to match the car’s exterior finish, a unique feature that would have been specified by Mrs. Robinson. Later, J-108 was upgraded by Duesenberg at the California factory branch with radiator shutters, a new intake manifold, and a Stromberg downdraft carburetor.
In 1934, J-108 was driven by Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee, which received three Academy Award nominations. The film costarred Fred Astaire, and won the Oscar for Best Song. Several still images from the movie’s chase sequences depict the unique features of J-108, with the front-hinged doors of J-108 clearly apparent. Subsequent owners of J-108 include one Mrs. Cody, and Marshall Merkes of Glendale, California, who is reported to have owned the car until 1947. Mr. Ed Griffin, and then his widow, owned J-108 until 1960, when Mr. Gerald Strohecker, the successful grocer from the Portland, Oregon, area purchased it from the Griffin estate. Mr. Strohecker restored the Duesenberg with fellow longtime CCCA member Mr. Charles F. “Charlie” Norris and upon his death in January 1969, Mr. Strohecker bequeathed J-108, another Duesenberg, and the contents of his home to Mr. Norris.
Eventually, J-108 was acquired from Mr. Norris by noted collector Gordon Apker. It later joined the collection of Ken McBride, who engaged marque expert Brian Joseph of Troy, Michigan’s Classic & Exotic Service, Inc. to perform a truly comprehensive mechanical restoration during the mid-2000s. Next, Mr. John Groendyke of Enid, Oklahoma, acquired J-108 and commissioned a complete concours-quality restoration by noted Chicago restorer Fran Roxas in 2010. Following completion, J-108 was displayed at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and in August 2012, it was acquired by the current owner.
Under its current ownership by a noted connoisseur of the finest Classic Era automobiles, J-108 has received the care of Lebanon, New Jersey’s Steve Babinsky, and it has proven very successful on the show field with a class award at Amelia Island in 2012, followed by Best of Show honors at Radnor Hunt and St. Michael’s that year. In addition, Best of Show honors were also achieved at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Concours d’Elegance in 2012, a truly fitting accolade for this race-bred Model J. “One of one” and blessed with wonderful history including loving owners, period movie use, noted collectors, and a host of the finest restoration specialists in the business, J-108 simply “ticks all the boxes” for an astute classic Duesenberg purchase and as such, it will certainly continue to grace the show field and the next owner’s collection with its wonderful and winning combination of panache, presence, and provenance. This is a truly important and noteworthy Model J.