Leno and Shappy discover two dusty Duesenbergs
By Angelo Van Bogart
Every automobile enthusiast dreams of finding a rare or desirable car forgotten in a remote barn, scooping it up for a paltry sum, dusting off 50 years of neglect, and having a great story to tell at club meets and car shows.
For collectors around the world, the Duesenberg is the ultimate American car, and to locate one of these ultra-rare, powerful, and justifiably desirable cars hidden in a building is the ultimate find.
In late 2004, two collectors made such discoveries, and on opposite coasts of the U.S. Collector Dick Shappy, who is known for his excellent prewar Cadillac restorations, and car collector and TV personality Jay Leno each found a Duesenberg hiding for more than 50 years near their homes. Both concluded a deal with their owners, and both are preparing to re-introduce their cars to the highways and to the hobby.
Because of their beauty, raw power, and sophisticated design, Duesenbergs are considered among the most exotic automobiles in the world, but finding a forgotten one is unheard of, if not impossible. The cars are so rare that historians have counted the remaining cars and can instantly recognize a specific Duesenberg from a photo, old or new, and recite its serial number and history. To unearth examples would be the hobby’s equivalent of finding Noah’s ark to the archeological world. Yet, Shappy and Leno have done just that. Obviously, it’s not something that happens everyday, let alone twice in one year, but 2004 was blessed with the recovery of two Duesenbergs. Here are their stories.
The carriage house-cloaked J
Shappy appreciates many types of cars, but he is best known for his quality restorations of Classic Cadillacs. Shappy has always dreamed of owning a Duesenberg, but it is not a car he thought he would ever see parked in his garage because of their rarity and value. Luckily, fate had a different plan for his future, and late last year, a conversation started him on the path to Duesenberg ownership.
“I had gotten an e-mail that said a Duesenberg was coming up for sale,” Shappy said. “I’ve wanted a Duesenberg all my life, and my wife knew. When I told her there was a Duesenberg for sale, she told me to go for it. I’m very happy I did.” A request for more information from the message’s sender produced quick results.
“I said I’d like to learn more about it, and the next thing you know, Dan LaCroix (the broker involved in the Duesenberg’s sale) called me and said, ‘I got a call from a gentleman who said you might be interested in buying the car,’ ” Shappy said. Doubting the car was indeed a Duesenberg, Shappy requested that the broker send him some photos over the weekend.
In the meantime, Shappy called noted Duesenberg authority Randy Ema about the car. Shappy said Ema told him, “You’d better not let that thing sit there long. When everybody finds out it’s for sale, it won’t be there long.”
Throughout the weekend, Shappy checked his computer to see if the photos had been sent, but each time he checked, he logged off disappointed. A check of his e-mail the following Monday morning still didn’t yield photos from the broker. But at 10 a.m., Shappy again looked through his e-mail and found several photos from LaCroix. The images in the messages verified what Shappy hoped: the car was a Duesenberg.
The car carried a Derham convertible sedan body stripped of its paint and a few other items, but it was certainly within the realm of restoration and definitely worth inquiring about further. Shappy quickly picked up the phone and contacted the broker to make arrangements to see the car.
The broker suggested that he, Shappy, and the owner meet later in the week, but Shappy insisted that they meet that Monday. After the broker agreed, Shappy quickly dressed and prepared for the short jaunt to Boston from his Rhode Island home.
Within two hours, Shappy was at the three-story brick carriage house of Mrs. Margaret Cade. The brick building was a true time capsule unto itself. Upon entering the building, Shappy noticed names of horses above the stalls from the time when the building was home to horses instead of a valuable car. The walls of the carriage house were lined with racing posters from the 1940s, and Shappy would soon learn that they had a special meaning in this Duesenberg’s life. When he finally laid eyes on the Duesenberg, he noticed that the parts missing in the photographs were hanging on the car, which was recently placed on a set of rollers to ease his inspection.
The apple green straight-eight was resting next to the car in pieces. But, like the rest of the car, it was complete. Cade’s husband, Phil, had started rebuilding the engine in the 1950s, but some time in the early ’60s, he lost interest in the project.
The broker and the friend that gave him the lead told Shappy that the car was intact and had been sitting, but Shappy had no idea what it would look like. To say Shappy was pleased with the car would be a gross understatement.
“When I saw the car, I fell in love. I like them crusty, (and) I like it when they need my attention. That’s my purpose: to bring cars back from the dead. I really appreciate them when they’re original or apart, because that’s what I do.”
This Duesenberg was hardly dead, it was a little beaten down, and definitely crusty and in need of attention.
The paint on the Derham convertible sedan body had been stripped in the 1940s, exposing its aluminum construction, though the fenders retained their aged maroon color. It was one more piece of a puzzle that would soon be complete.
From Ema, Shappy learned the car had been bought new by Mr. Offield, a cousin to the multiple Duesenberg-owning Wrigley family. Cade continued the tale of the Duesenberg through several old photos of the car and family. It seems that the Cades bought the car from John Troka for $450 in 1941, and the car became Cade’s daily driver. After the Cades moved to Boston, Margaret Cade drove the car to visit her daughter at school in Iowa, and on other occasions, she and some of her friends would hop in the Duesenberg for a weekend out on the town. At least one of Cade’s trips with the Duesenberg involved a small disaster.
“The car caught fire on the rear seat after filling it up,” Shappy said of Cade’s trip to Iowa. “It did involve the fire department, and some of the leather was wrecked. You can still see where there was a fire.”
Despite the heat, the car was not structurally harmed, and even today, Shappy reports that there’s, “not a hint of rust, and the wood is as solid as the day they made it.”
Dick Shappy stopped for a photo with Mrs. Margaret Cade, who, along with her deceased husband, owned the Duesenberg for more than 60 years. The car sat in her carriage house undriven since at least 1950.
Mr. Cade, an engineer, eventually took over the Duesenberg and decided to stretch the car’s legs at Watkins Glen International raceway in Watkins Glen, New York, after the family moved to Boston. Cade stripped the black paint off the Derham convertible sedan’s aluminum body, removed the fenders and top, and painted the number 10 on the car’s side. In Shappy’s opinion, “the car didn’t look like a race car at all.” However, in 1949, the car placed 28th in the annual race at Watkins Glen.
Phil Cade stripped the fenders and paint, marked the number 10 on the sides, and raced the Model J at Watkins Glen in the late ‘40s. Here, it is pictured leading the number 24 Fiat 1100S sports coupe driven by Tony Pompeo in 1949. Either the J’s lead didn’t last long or Cade was being lapped by the Fiat in this photo, because the little coupe finished in 22nd place and the J in 28th.
“He raced the thing for a couple of races,” Shappy relayed from Cade. “There was no wear and tear on the car; time just caught up with it (and it couldn’t compete).”
Apparently disappointed with the J’s inability to keep up with the smaller, quicker competition, Cade bought a Maserati shortly thereafter and raced it. But he wasn’t done with the Duesenberg. He re-installed the convertible top and fenders, put Packard bumpers on the front and rear of the Duesenberg to push his Maserati around the pits. He also added a trailer hitch so that the Duesenberg could be used to pull his new sports car to the race track. The Duesenberg’s jockeying duties didn’t last long, and the car was parked within a year.
More than 50 years later, and after a brief examination of the car, Shappy and Cade had made a deal and the car was ready to see the light of day for the first time in more than 50 years.
The Duesenberg as it appeared when the Cades bought the car from Duesenberg dealer John Troka in 1941 for $450.
Shappy has been working quickly to get the Duesenberg ready to drive next summer. He’s already replaced the bumpers with original Duesenberg units purchased from Ema and begun rebuilding the engine with help from Brian Joseph and Sean Brayton, Shappy’s mechanics. The car has also been given to a restoration shop for paint. Shappy uncovered the original colors, which he refers to as a “horrendous” olive drab, and he’s not yet sure if he will return the car to that shade. The ancient tires have also been replaced and mounted on rechromed wheels in hopes of having the car ready for the road in 2005. The rest of the car will remain in original condition, including the bulk of the chrome.
“Maybe 10 people have offered to buy it from me, but it’s not for sale. I’m putting the car back together and driving it,” Shappy said.
That sounds like an excellent plan.
Leno’s mysterious Model X
In an unlikely coincidence, a similar formula of discovery transpired, this time, on the opposite coast of the U.S. Like Shappy, NBC “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno uncovered a forgotten Duesenberg late last year, and not far from his home.
Leno had heard there was an old car tucked in a southern California garage, and he decided to approach the owner one day while he was out touring in his Stanley steamer. The owner greeted Leno, but he would not show him what he was hiding in the garage. Even after several conversations with the gentleman at his home over the course of 20 years, Leno did not know exactly what was in the garage.
Although content that he had at least made a friend over the years, Leno caught a break in finally uncovering the mystery in the garage. The older gentleman had moved to a retirement home and decided that the time had come to allow Leno to see his secret. With the help of the owner’s daughter, Leno finally walked into the garage to see what had been hiding under wraps. The daughter herself hadn’t been in the two-car, stuccoed garage since 1950 and only knew that there was an “old car” parked in it. The anticipation had grown, and before he saw the old car, he told her he didn’t care what it was, he just wanted to buy it.
When the door was finally lifted, he laid eyes on a large sedan surrounded by old newspaper clippings declaring “Japs attack Pearl Harbor,” empty oleomargarine jars, porcelain signs, and other artifacts that made the garage look like a tomb that hadn’t been opened since the ’40s. The dark blue sedan turned out to be an example of America’s premier automobile, and one of its rarest. Not only was the car a fabled Duesenberg, but it was a Model X, one of a scant 13 produced by the Indianapolis company.
“I was thrilled it was in as nice of shape as it was,” Leno said. “It’s a real ‘car-in-a-barn’ story.
“I grew up in a small town with stories about cars hidden in barns. There was always a World War II Jeep in Cosmoline, but it never turned out to be true, so the fact this story really was true was exciting.”
Of the 13 Model Xs, only four remain. Two of those Xs are Locke sedan bodies, like Leno’s car. The third is a Locke dual-cowl phaeton, and the fourth is the single McFarland-bodied speedster built.
How a southern California man came to own such a rare automobile and store it for more than 50 years is actually a tale about the car collecting hobby’s infancy.
When living in Chicago in the late 1930s, the gentleman began collecting Duesenbergs. He was in the right place since there was a factory distributor of the marque in that city, and it was close to Jim Troka, a car collector and dealer who dealt in Duesenbergs and Rolls-Royces when they were just “used cars” in the 1940s. In the late 1930s and into the ’40s, the gentleman secured at least three Model A Duesenbergs and, finally, this Locke-bodied Model X sedan. When the gentleman moved to California, the Model X followed him, but not under its own power. Since the Model X was not in running condition, the man had the car shipped via rail to California, then dragged the car to his home behind his Model A dual-cowl phaeton.
While in his care, the Model X was not driven. Or painted. Or reupholstered. Nor did it need any of it. The owner simply parked it, still draped in its original paint, rolled up the windows to preserve the original interior, and left the car to age like a fine wine. The garage preserved all of the car’s original features, with the help of the California climate.
The owner agreed that he had kept the Model X long enough, and made a deal with Leno to sell the car. Luckily, Leno appreciates fine original features, and will not be restoring the Duesenberg. Instead, he and his friend, Ema, are working to get the car running, and are cleaning up 50 years worth of dust on the body and in the interior. The duo’s goal is to get the car roadworthy and, perhaps, enter it in the preservation class at the 2005 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Comedian and “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno recently uncovered this Locke-bodied Duesenberg Model X sedan in a California garage near his home. The car had been parked since 1947. (Randy Ema collection)
“I’ll drive the car and use the car,” Leno said. “I don’t care if it gets an award.”
Leno is definitely excited about getting behind the Duesenberg’s wheel, and he’ll be able to do it sooner than some of his other acquisitions.
“This is the first I’ve found that’s nice enough that it doesn’t have to be restored,” he said. “This is the only unrestored car in my collection that still has its original paint. They’re only new once.
“The nice thing about this car was it didn’t need a complete restoration,” Leno said, adding that it did require some mechanical work. “Others I’ve found in the past have had to be ground-up restored. Or 80 percent of the time, they have to be re-restored, because they weren’t intended to be driven and the bolts weren’t tightened in order to avoid cracking the paint.”
Work has already been underway to make the Model X a functioning car. More than 55 years of storage are difficult on any car, and Leno’s Duesenberg is no different.
“We started looking, and it (the engine) was nothing but trouble,” Ema said. “We had to scrap the rods. We had to bore the engine, make a whole new distributor, and the front axle was cracked. Tons of stuff had to be done that we didn’t plan on, but we’re bringing it back.” Ema expected to have the car running again by the time you read this.
Maintaining a car’s mechanics is completely acceptable and expected in shows and clubs that welcome original and unrestored cars. Except for the rear axle, all of this Model X’s mechanics will be rebuilt by show time, and while he’s at it, Ema and the employees in his shop will detail the engine.
“It will have a painted up motor, but everything on the outside will be original.We’re not touching the hood or radiator shell, and the interior is very nice; (there’s) not a pinhole in it. Fortunately, they left the windows up, otherwise the moths would have eaten it up.”
Only a few details on the exterior of the car will need to be tended to before the car is show.
“The car had a peach can for a gas cap, so we made a new one and plated it,” Ema said. “It has 1940 Ford-style bumpers, so we’ll make new bumpers for it.”
The Model X also had small, incorrect headlights on it when Leno purchased the car, but Ema had a correct set and installed them on the car. Other than these small details, the exterior and interior of the car is as it was built by Locke and Duesenberg for an unknown original owner, who is thought to have lived in Indiana.
In fact, until the car was owned by Troka, little is known about its history, and in general, less is known about Model Xs than their Model A predecessors and Model J contemporaries.
“I figure, around 1940, somebody dragged it out, did some homebrew work to get it on the road, but they really screwed things up,” Ema said. “It was just crude work. They tried to get the brakes to work, [and the result of their work was that] the front axle filled with brake fluid. By 1947, it ended p in Chicago and Troka offered it for sale.”
Ema also believes that this was a show car, “Because it had a polished oil pan and transmission, which, in most Model Xs, they are not (polished).” The block on Leno’s Model X was also filled with filler to make the surface smooth.
Ema said no early photos exist of either one of the Locke-bodied sedans, nor does he or any other Duesenberg historians know where this car was displayed when it was shown. Because of its attention to chassis detail, he believes it was used to show custom coachwork elements.
With Leno’s Model X in his shop alongside another owner’s Model A, the differences between the cars can be clearly illustrated.
“It’s been interesting to compare the Model A in our shop and the Model X. You can see some of their logic where they would see things that wouldn’t work,” Ema said. Because Model As and Xs were built in-house, the engineers could readily see how components worked in a car, and then modify or redesign them for improvement. With an in-house machine department, this also aided in developing the Duesenberg into the ultimate automobile.
Since the Model X is a transitional car between the Model A and Model J, it’s not surprising that most of the mechanical parts on the Model X are modified Model A parts. It is surprising, however, that few if any parts are interchangeable between cars, making the 13 Model Xs extremely unique.
According to Ema, the straight-eight engine blocks are nearly the same from Model A to X, and there are some significant changes. And while the pistons and rods are the same, the valve angle was changed on the Model X, allowing the engine to have more of a hemispherical combustion chamber. These changes provided the Model X with a 12 hp increase over the Model A’s figures for an even 100 hp in the Model X.
Leno will soon have a chance to test that figure when his Duesenberg is ready to hit the road early this year. His story, along with that of Shappy, prove that cars are still out there, waiting to be found, and if it’s true for one of America’s rarest and sought-after automobiles, then there’s hope of finding that ’67 Mustang, ’56 Corvette, or ’42 Studebaker on your wish list.
But if it’s acquiring a Duesenberg that remains high in your priorities, ask any Duesenberg historian about the Model J that still hides in a New York City parking garage it was parked in several decades ago. Or ask about the Duesenberg Model J roadster that has been parked in a California parking ramp for several years. If you can get them to talk, that is.
Dick Shappy is deeply grateful to author, Angelo Van Bogart, for permission to display this text and images on this website. They originally appeared in Old Cars Weekly Vol.34 No.9 March 3rd 2005.