Lot 5145

Auburn Fall 2014

1935 Duesenberg Model SJ


$1,265,000 USD | Sold

United States | Auburn, Indiana



Identification No.
  • One of the most exciting Duesenbergs to be offered in years
  • Single ownership for 35 years
  • Original body and chassis, with factory SJ-specification engine
  • Formerly owned by George Lamberson
Addendum: Please note this vehicle is titled as a 1936 Duesenberg

Coachwork by LaGrande

Chassis no. 2552

Bell-housing no. J-523

Body no. 1006

The era of original owners having long since sadly passed, the best that a modern enthusiast can hope for is not “a Duesenberg in the barn,” but “a Duesenberg in the garage.” That is to say, a car which was purchased by a relatively early enthusiast and then tucked away after some years, not to emerge, as its owner’s tastes, interests, and lifestyle changed. Offered here is one of those cars, one whose history is well-known to enthusiasts, and one that has been sought for many years, but never – until now – has been made available for sale. It is a combination of all the best Duesenberg features: a desirable, beautiful open body, with a factory SJ engine and long-term known ownership history. It is one of the most sought-after of all American Classics.


By 1933, the buyers whose wealth had survived the Great Depression were steadily moving towards more modern designs. The original “sweep panel” Dual Cowl Phaeton, designed and built for Duesenberg by LeBaron since 1929, was looking rather out of date. In addition, Duesenberg’s legendary designer, Gordon Buehrig, was brought in to update the design, which he did with his usual skill.

As Buehrig recalled in his autobiography, Rolling Sculpture, the LaGrande Dual Cowl Phaeton was “obviously a copy of Ralph Roberts’s LeBaron design.” Buehrig’s modifications to the design included improving the cowl’s curves, making the body more narrow, and lowering the top, which was redesigned to be able to fold flat and provide a better silhouette with the car open. A dozen of these stunning cars were built.

Chassis 2552, a 142.5-inch short wheelbase version, and engine J-523 were united with LaGrande Dual Cowl Phaeton body no. 1006. One of the final Dual Cowl Phaetons to be built, car J-523 was one of only four to be fitted with the supercharged J engine, now known to enthusiasts as the SJ. This engine incorporated a centrifugal supercharger, steel connecting rods, and other high performance modifications, and in its gentlest state of tune would produce a rather awe-inspiring 320 horsepower. As ACD Automobile Museum archivist Jon Bill once noted, “The supercharger…provided higher top speed, improved hill climbing ability, and snappier acceleration. A Model SJ, with its 265-hp, 420-cid double-overhead-camshaft inline eight-cylinder engine, could be throttled down to 3-mph in top gear and accelerate to 100-mph in 20 seconds. Top speeds of 130-mph were not uncommon and 104-mph was attainable in second gear.”

The early years of J-523 remain shrouded in elusive mystery, although it has been attributed variously to such personalities as Listerine heir and aviation pioneer, Stafford Lambert; Pennsylvania Governor James Earle; and even racing driver Ralph dePalma! Its earliest definitive owner was R.J. Woods, a New York resident who, in 1947, brought the car to former Duesenberg factory man Marion Roberts for modern restyling, mostly limited to a cut-down windshield, “scoops” cut into the front fenders, and the installation of 17-inch wire wheels. Following this work, the Duesenberg was traded through enthusiasts in Buffalo, Peter Schmidt and Francis Schrome, and then to a C.B. Frye of Hamburg, New York.

Around 1950 it was acquired from Hamburg by George Lamberson, an early and avid Duesenberg enthusiast in suburban Chicago. During Mr. Lamberson’s ownership, the Dual Cowl Phaeton is known to have exchanged engines with his other Duesenberg, J-526, one of the four original Torpedo Phaetons. Today, such an exchange would seem like heresy, but in the simpler times of the 1950s, it was simply a case of practicality: the Torpedo Phaeton was Mr. Lamberson’s favorite, but the Dual Cowl Phaeton had the better-running engine. Both cars retained their original “J-numbered” bell housings, and, therefore, their original identities – and both remain powered by the other’s engine to this day.

In 1952, Lamberson passed the Dual Cowl Phaeton on to Harry Whithall of Chicago. After remaining with a Mr. Dickens with several further years, it was acquired in 1961 by Homer Fitterling of South Bend, Indiana, a longtime Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club member.

By the time that age and family considerations influenced him to sell his collection in 1989, Mr. Fitterling would collect the world’s largest assembly of Duesenbergs, an infamous horde equivalent in the ACD world to the A.K. Miller Stutz barns or the Schlumpf Bugatti trove. Like Mr. Miller, he seemed relatively unimpressed with his own achievement. The collection earned him a feature article in the August 1974 Road & Track, titled "Mr. Fitterling's Duesenbergs," in which, with typical Hoosier affability, he referred to J-523 as his collection’s “utility car,” prepared for an occasional ride through the Indiana countryside. “If it were the only one we had,” he explained, “it would be good enough.”

Shortly after that article was written, J-523 became one of the few Duesenbergs Mr. Fitterling parted with prior to 1989. It was acquired by L.K. Newell, an enthusiast in Oklahoma, who traded a custom motorcoach bearing his name to the Fitterling's for J-523. At the time it was a value-even trade and all parties were pleased with the transfer. Mr. Newell then set about restoring the Dual Cowl Phaeton back to its original appearance and condition. The original body panels were restored in a robust two-tone scarlet, with tan upholstery and a matching top, and the factory SJ engine was completely rebuilt. The famous “scooped” front fenders, J-523’s calling card for so many years, were filled in with new metal and returned to their original appearance.

With its new restoration complete, J-523 would trade among collectors several times being acquired by its present owner in 1978. Not one for shows or tours, the owner rolled the Duesenberg into his collection, brought down the door, and there the car has remained ever since.

Recently, in preparation for this sale, the car was sent to Brian Joseph’s Classic & Exotic Service of Troy, Michigan, the premier Duesenberg service depot on the East Coast, and recommissioned following its many years in dry storage. Today, the Duesenberg is back in good running order and moving quickly under its own power, having completed about 60 test miles with Mr. Joseph and his team. In its present form, it is running as a normally supercharged J engine, with no supercharger; Classic & Exotic Service advises that an installation for this car would be a simple process, should the owner elect to return the car to its original configuration.

The opportunity to acquire a Duesenberg that has been hidden away for well over three decades is rare indeed, and is as close as today’s enthusiasts may ever come to the fabled “barn find Duesy.” It is an exceptional opportunity for either continued driving enjoyment, in the Lamberson and Fitterling tradition, or for a concours restoration of a factory SJ with stunning open coachwork. The choice is for the next lucky connoisseur to take on the custodianship of J-523.