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Coachwork by Coachwork by Rollston | Updated by Bohman & Schwartz
From an Important Private Collection<br>Originally Owned by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
The history of this remarkable American classic begins in February 1935, when Rollston of New York shipped a new five-passenger Berline (body no. 555) to the Duesenberg factory in Auburn, Indiana.
The coachwork that Rollston supplied was designed specifically for the new JN series that Duesenberg had recently introduced to bolster sales. For the new model, Rollston succeeded in combining streamlined contours with the elegant, classical restraint of the original Model J. In total, just three body styles were offered: convertible coupes and convertible sedans were available on the standard-length chassis, and sports sedans were produced strictly for the long-wheelbase chassis.
Designed by legendary stylist J. Herbert Newport, the JN featured soft, sweeping curves, smaller 17” disc wheels, skirted front fenders, small dual taillights in place of the classic Duesenberg stop light, and elegant carriage- body sills that brought the bottom of the doors very close to the running boards. On all JN body styles, the roofline, beltline, and side molding were carefully arranged and integrated to introduce a long, sloping rear deck and thus, a graceful profile.
In spring 1935, Duesenberg prepared chassis 2587 with engine J-559, trimmed the Rollston body, and delivered the completed car to the New York factory branch as a stock unit. On July 9, 1935, Duesenberg Sales Corporation of New York sold the Model JN Berline to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson for the princely sum of $17,500.
Although Robinson took delivery of his car in New York, it did not remain on the East Coast for long.
In 1936, the JN was sent to Bohman & Schwartz Coachbuilders in Pasadena, California, where it was updated with Cadillac bullet headlamps, special parking lights on the front fenders, modern one-piece bumpers, and a painted radiator shell with matching headlamps.
Additionally, the windshield was reworked so as not to open forward, as intended in the original design.
Freshly restyled in the latest automotive fashion, the Duesenberg was one of Robinson’s proudest possessions and was often seen parked in front of his Paul Williams-designed home in the heart of Los Angeles. After retiring from Hollywood, the world-famous tap dancer returned to New York with his stylish Rollston Berline in tow.
When Robinson passed away in 1949, his Duesenberg was stabled at famed New York garage Zumbach Motor Repair Company, Inc. at 127 West 53rd Street, where it underwent service and repairs. As a $900 repair bill was still owed on the Duesenberg, Robinson’s widow sold the aging car to actor, singer, and nightclub entertainer Phil Regan.
An interesting character in his own right, Mr. Regan was known as “New York’s singing cop,” due to the fact that a radio producer discovered the singer while he was working as a detective for the NYPD. Shortly after purchasing the Duesenberg, Regan relocated to Pasadena and restyled the Berline with popular custom features of the day, giving the Model JN the appearance of a 1950s California hot rod.
During this period, the Duesenberg was painted dark blue, the padded top was re-covered in off-white canvas, a Continental-style rear- mounted spare replaced the original side mounts, and a blue-tinted Plexiglas sunroof was installed. The interior was similarly updated with new cloth upholstery, a Cadillac “banjo” steering wheel, and sun visors.
In March 1951, while driving the Duesenberg on a Pepsi-Cola tour through Arizona, Regan sold the car to William Graham Bell, owner of Worldwide Motors, the Tucson Jaguar dealership. Impressed with his latest find, Mr. Bell presented the Duesenberg to his wife; however, she found the car “too hard to stop,” and it was immediately put up for sale. Jay “Bourbon” Bullen purchased the Duesenberg from Mr. Bell and, in October, sold it to W.C. Wilkinson, a fellow Tucson resident.
In a letter to a potential buyer, Mr. Wilkinson described the finer points of the mighty Model JN, stating, “Performance is sensational. Have easily surpassed new Cadillacs in speed runs. Car operates at 30 miles per hour per thousand revolutions per minute. Top speed has never been tested, but it reached 100 mph very easily. Capable of 90-95 in second.”
In April 1952, Mr. Wilkinson sold the Berline to Lamont M. Cochran, who maintained residences on Park Avenue in Manhattan, New York, and in Westport, Connecticut.
About a year later, Mr. Cochran acquired a Model J Murphy Roadster and began to interchange components between his two Duesenbergs. Under the supervision of legendary Duesenberg mechanic Jim Hoe, the JN’s original engine, J-559, was substituted for J-500, and the Rollston Berline received the Murphy’s 19” wire wheels, chromed radiator shell, and instrument panel.
Once this work was carried out, Mr. Cochran consigned the Rollston Berline with Hoe Sportscars to be sold. On January 24, 1955, an enthusiastic MIT student named William Deibel paid $3,200 for the well-used Model JN.
After a decade of regular outings and enjoyment, Mr. Diebel set about restoring the aging Duesenberg to its former splendor. The process, which began in 1966 and lasted through 1970, saw the car transformed from a worn-out used car into a most impressive show-ready classic. Even after the initial restoration was completed, Mr. Deibel continued to perfect the car’s presentation and went to great lengths to document its rich, fascinating history.
In 1971, the Duesenberg was exhibited at the CCCA Indianapolis Grand Classic and, between 1979 and 1984 it was loaned to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, where it served as a popular display.
In April 1984, Mr. Deibel collected his Duesenberg and drove it straight to Jim Kaufman’s shop in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After being carefully prepared and equipped with new pistons, Mr. Deibel and two friends drove the car from Wisconsin to Seattle, often maintaining speeds in excess of 85 mph. In June 1990, Mr. Deibel’s extensively researched history and personal connection to this car was presented as an article in The Classic Car, the official magazine of the CCCA.
Having been maintained in an important private collection for more than a decade, the Bojangles Duesenberg presents very well considering that the initial restoration was carried out more than 40 years ago. Tastefully presented in dark brown metallic with a complementing padded leather top and Bedford cord upholstery, this Model JN has a distinctive and undeniably attractive appearance that suits its restrained design.
The sale of this car is accompanied by an extensive file of documentation that includes restoration records, archival photos, ACD certification report, ownership documents, and extensive written correspondence from almost every owner, mechanic, or historian ever associated with this car. It is safe to say that there are few classic cars as comprehensively documented as this Duesenberg.
Since leaving the factory in 1935, this sensational Model JN has been owned by a remarkable cast of caretakers, driven at least 100,000 miles, and transformed from a celebrity’s prized possession to a Southern California custom, and then back to a significant and collectible classic. Widely regarded as one of the most attractive late-production Duesenbergs, this unique Rollston Berline has been pictured in countless books on the marque, from J.L. Elbert’s Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car to Fred Roe’s Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection.
Given its extraordinary qualities, the appearance of the Bojangles JN Berline at auction represents an exciting opportunity for the devoted classic car collector who has always dreamed of owning one of the finest, most historic examples of the legendary Duesenberg marque.