- Offered from the Estate of Frank Ricciardelli
- The last LaGrande “Sweep Panel” Dual-Cowl Phaeton built
- Originally the New York Duesenberg factory branch demonstrator
- Multiple award-winning restoration by the noted Steve Babinsky
- A respected example with original frame, firewall, engine, and coachwork
- Auburn Cord Duesenberg (ACD) Club Certified Category 1 (D-196)
THE LAGRANDE ‘SWEEP PANEL’ DUAL-COWL PHAETON
During the Duesenberg Model J’s production run, company president Harold Ames decided to bring some of the more popular body styles fully under Cord Corporation’s direct control. The iconic “Sweep Panel” Dual-Cowl Phaeton, originally produced by LeBaron, was reworked by the talented Duesenberg designer Gordon Buehrig, who raised the beltline to meet a reverse-curved cowl and gave the “sweep panel” itself a more subtle but no less attractive curve. Buehrig was a master of minor tweaks to a design that made all the difference, which on this body included designing the top so that it would fold nearly flush with the rear of the coachwork when lowered. This formed the phaeton’s lines into a single cohesive shape.
The new dual-cowl phaeton design was produced by the Union City Body Company, a Cord Corporation holding. Union City not having a particularly graceful or elegant ring to it, the name “LaGrande” was conjured into being. A total of 15 examples of the dual-cowl phaeton are believed to have been produced under the LaGrande label, on both the short- and long-wheelbase Model J chassis, and were numbered between 1000 and 1015; body number 1010 was, for whatever reason, not used. A dozen of these cars have been positively identified and, in testimony to their enduring appeal, all but one remain extant.
DUESENBERG NO. J-537
Body number 1015, the last of the LaGrande “Sweep Panel” Dual-Cowl Phaetons, was delivered to Duesenberg “in the white” in February 1934, and was mounted to chassis number 2558 and engine number J-537 several months later. This body featured suicide-style front doors, believed to have been a characteristic of the last five bodies produced. At the time that J-537 was completed, Duesenberg was transitioning to a more aerodynamic, modern appearance, and thus the car was outfitted with the newly specified stylish skirted fenders and 17-inch wheels.
In this form, J-537 was used for over a year as the demonstrator at Duesenberg’s factory branch in New York, undoubtedly being test-driven by many of the well-known personages considering Duesenberg ownership. Duesenberg historian Ray Wolff noted that the car was in inventory in New York as of September 1935. On 28 October 1936, the car was finally purchased by its first known private owner, Hugh Bancroft, Jr., the 26-year-old heir to Dow Jones & Co., publishers of the Wall Street Journal.
J-537 eventually made its way cross-country and, immediately following World War II, appeared in the ownership of a Chevrolet dealer in San Francisco. Several brief ownerships ensued before the car was sold by John Lane Ward of Modesto, California, to Tom Carstens, an early enthusiast in Tacoma, Washington, in early 1951. Mr. Carstens kept the Duesenberg for nearly a decade, fitting it with side exhausts. A fire occurred in 1958 but according to both Paul Kaufmann, whose father Joe was a later owner and restorer of the car, and restorer Steve Babinsky, who got to know every inch of J-537 in undertaking its present restoration, the damage was largely restricted to cosmetic injury to the right side of the car, the rear cowl, and the rear seat.
In 1960 the Model J was purchased by Robert Jelinski of Wisconsin, who sold it in 1968 to the late, great Duesenberg specialist Joe Kaufmann of Manitowoc. Known as “Dr. Duesenberg” to his many friends and clients, Mr. Kaufmann restored J-537, managing to preserve the original sheet metal and much of the original wood. He enjoyed showing it in Midwestern competition, winning many awards. His friend Charles Johnson of Florida eventually pried it away from him in a creative trade in 1972, and continued showing the car extensively, garnering many further show honors.
Noted collector Tom Lester of Florida purchased J-537 in 1980 and kept it himself for several years before it moved to Europe at the height of the collector car boom. By the end of the decade, however, it had returned to the United States in the hands of Mark Smith of Virginia, who continued to maintain and enjoy it.
J-537 was acquired in 2000 by Frank Ricciardelli, a dear friend and longtime client of RM Sotheby’s, and a fresh restoration was soon begun in the hands of Steve Babinsky’s Automotive Restorations of Lebanon, New Jersey. In a recent conversation, Mr. Babinsky recounted that despite its earlier restoration the car remained remarkably pure, retaining its original componentry, and all of the original sheet metal was able to be saved and used in the restoration. No stone was left unturned in making the car an exceptional example, including fully rebuilding the engine with Carillo connecting rods.
Such was the quality of the restored chassis that it was exhibited without its coachwork as part of a Classic and Vintage Chassis class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2002! The following year the Model J returned to Pebble Beach for its debut with bodywork installed, and received First in Class, followed by a Lion Award and the Buehrig Memorial Award at the Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance in 2004 and Best in Class at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2007. In early 2014, J-537 received its Classic Car Club of America Senior Premier honors with its third consecutive perfect 100-point score, and took home the Warshawsky Award for Best of Show at the CCCA Annual Meeting—the first Duesenberg to be so honored. While in the current ownership the car has also been Certified Category 1 by the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club.
There is likely no finer restored example of this superb Gordon Buehrig design—a truly outstanding Duesenberg with all the characteristics of quality, elegance, and unparalleled presence that characterize the best survivors of the marque. Further elevated by its intriguing provenance, history of enthusiast ownership, and its meticulous restoration by a master of the craft, J-537 it offers its next caretaker an exceptional opportunity to experience the very finest in Classic Era motoring.