Auctions and Brokerage
Coachwork by Murphy
Soon after masterminding the turnaround of Auburn and assuming the company presidency, E.L. Cord acquired the Indianapolis 500-winning Duesenberg company as the crown jewel of his fast-growing industrial empire in October 1926. Answering Cord’s challenge to create the world’s finest automobile, Fred Duesenberg delivered with the Model J. While long revered as the finest achievement of Classic Era design and engineering, the Model J remains a true automotive landmark today. Initially priced from $8,500 for the bare chassis, a Model J often approached $20,000 “as-delivered” with its coachwork and accessories fitted. The Model J’s specifications remain impressive today, including double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, hemispherical combustion chambers, power-assisted four-wheel hydraulic brakes, automated central chassis lubrication, and a prodigious output of 265 hp normally aspirated, or 320 hp when supercharged. Carrying some of the most elegant custom bodies ever created, the Model J was capable of exceeding 100 mph.
Tailor-made for the custom body industry, the new Duesenberg had the power and stance to carry the most imposing coachwork, and the style and grace of the factory sheet metal was ideally suited for elegant custom bodywork. Established in 1920, the Murphy body company of Pasadena, California, is generally recognized today as the most successful coachbuilder on the Duesenberg Model J chassis. Murphy-built bodies were remarkably simple yet elegant in design, with trim lines and an undeniable sporting character. Murphy designs seemed even more revolutionary when compared to those from their East Coast contemporaries, which built heavier and more ornate designs. A trademark of Murphy body design was the “clear vision” windshield pillar, which Murphy advertised as “narrower than the space between a man’s eyes,” a design they claimed eliminated blind spots.
This magnificent Duesenberg Model J Town Car, chassis 2531, was completed in March 1934, for Ethel M. Dorrance, the widow of John Dorrance who pioneered the manufacture of condensed soup and eventually owned the Campbell Soup Company. Exceedingly wealthy, Mrs. Dorrance of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ordered her Model J as a formal Town Car on the long wheelbase with coachwork by Murphy. She specified modest, folding jump seats in the rear compartment, and no trunk rack on the rear – a woman of her social status would have no need to carry large parcels.
The next owner, Bayard Badenhausen, stated in his memoirs compiled by CCCA historian Ron Verschoor that he was smitten with the Duesenberg when he happened upon it during his college years in a Philadelphia-area garage in the 1940s. After negotiating its purchase for $1,300, he marveled at the car’s completeness, which appeared virtually new with just over 1,800 miles in total. He later heard that Mrs. Dorrance had sequestered the car at her estate following an incident with a man enraged by the unbridled capitalism the car represented to him, throwing a brick at the side and leaving a quarter-sized indentation.
Dr. Badenhausen, who went on to a long life of collecting fine American and European classics, had numerous memorable adventures with the car, including his wedding in 1948, before selling it the following year to E.E. Schwartwelter of Ohio, via Model J authority Jim Hoe. Following a short stint of ownership by a Philadelphia-area doctor, 2531 was acquired by local enthusiast Harold Johnson, Jr. in 1956, and remained in his ownership for sixteen years. Under his care, the coachwork, top, and wheels were refinished in a bright shade of white. In 1972, it was added to William Harrigan’s collection in Alabama, where extensive restorative work was completed.
In 1976, the Duesenberg joined the respected Michigan collection of Richard and Linda Kughn and remained in their stable for nearly 15 years, appearing occasionally at events in the Midwest. In about 1990, the Duesenberg joined Ken Behring’s respected Blackhawk collection before being acquired, in 1992, by the consignor whose private collection consists of some of the world’s finest automobiles. That same year the Town Car was inspected by the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club and received its Category 1 certification, as a components-matching example.
The Duesenberg was sent to restorer Mike Fennell in the early 1990s and was refinished as it appears today, in dramatic solid black with polished aluminum and silver accents. The top and chauffeur’s compartment are impeccably finished in black leather, while the rear is trimmed in luxurious gray wool and spectacular Art Deco accents of wood and chrome. Twin jump seats fold neatly into the center division and the glass panels above slide for ventilation and ease of communication.
Infrequently displayed over the past 30 years, 2531 has made two appearances on the lawn at Pebble Beach, gracing the Duesenberg class in 1990 and again in 2010. This magnificent Murphy Town Car appears today much as it did when first ordered by Mrs. Dorrance. As one of just six such Town Cars built, it offers the next owner the same opportunity to experience its unparalleled style and grace, and its return to the public eye will surely be met with enthusiasm and adulation.