Vintage Motor Cars in Arizona
19 January 2007
1937 /40 Duesenberg Model SJ Cabriolet
Sold for $2,805,000
- Chassis no. 2405
320 bhp, 420 cu. in. four valves-per-cylinder; twin overhead camshaft; inline eight-cylinder engine with Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger; three-speed transmission; beam front axle; live rear axle; vacuum-assisted four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Wheelbase: 153.5"
THE LAST DUESENBERG
The tale of The Last Duesenberg is really three stories. First and foremost, it is the story of Rudolf Bauer, the brilliantly eccentric and flamboyant German abstract artist who, at the height of his meteoric career literally designed his own car. Secondly, it is the story of the incomparable Model SJ that provided the platform that inspired Bauer. And finally, it is the story of Rollson Coachbuilders and Rudy Creteur, for their role in giving form to Bauer’s vision.
Born in Lindenwald, Germany in 1889, Bauer displayed artistic aptitude at an early age. In 1915, Bauer was accepted into Der Stürm (The Storm), an avant-garde gallery which became the epicenter of the thriving Berlin art scene. There, Bauer exhibited his wildly abstract, non-objective art, while also arranging exhibitions and acquiring art for the gallery. And there he met Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenweisen — the daughter of an aristocratic Prussian army officer. With a shared passion for abstract art, Bauer and Rebay became confidants and lovers, although Bauer’s brooding arrogance, and Rebay’s naked ambition, ultimately turned the relationship into an obsessive and destructive estrangement.
By the 1920s Bauer’s paintings were gaining popularity among American connoisseurs, catching the attention of art patron and philanthropist Solomon Guggenheim. By 1929, Bauer had become Guggenheim’s favorite artist and his contact point for other European artists, helping to acquire the works of Kandinsky, Klee, and Chagall for Guggenheim’s burgeoning collection. When Hilla Rebay arranged to bring Guggenheim to Europe so he could meet Bauer, she quickly became Guggenheim’s exclusive art advisor.
Thanks to Guggenheim’s generous patronage, Bauer sold everything he could paint, and enjoyed an opulent lifestyle throughout the 1930s, indulging himself with his own private museum, a staff of servants, and a succession of Europe’s most magnificent marques, including Bugatti, Isotta Fraschini and Mercedes. Rebay, meanwhile, accepted a position in New York working for Solomon Guggenheim as Head Curator of the new Guggenheim Foundation, where she continued to fuel Guggenheim’s fascination with Bauer’s works as she orchestrated the opening of the Guggenheim Museum.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, new laws were passed labeling abstract art as “criminal” and “degenerate”. Soon, Bauer’s were the only abstract works that could still be seen openly in Berlin. Oblivious to his precarious position, Bauer even wrote to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, suggesting himself as Minister of Culture! As well as openly defying Hitler’s ban on abstract art, Bauer made the cardinal mistake of speculating in the black market for American currency, revealing his pro-West political leanings. On a trip to America in 1937, Bauer ordered from the Duesenberg factory in Auburn, Indiana a long-wheelbase, supercharged chassis to be shipped to Berlin — where Bauer intended to have custom coachwork built by Erdmann & Rossi. Soon after placing the order and returning to Germany, however, Bauer was seized and imprisoned by the Nazis. The Duesenberg would have to wait!
Back in New York, Hill Rebay prevailed upon Guggenheim to use his resources to free Bauer from Nazi prison. In the spring of 1939, Rebay traveled to Germany with a suitcase stuffed with Guggenheim’s cash, escorted by her uncle, a General in Hitler’s Army. The Baroness purchased Bauer’s release and deportation to the U.S., along with his cache of paintings from Das Geistreich, his private museum.
Not long after Bauer reached the U.S. in 1939, Rebay persuaded him to sign what became the infamous contract between Bauer and The Guggenheim Foundation. In exchange for his freedom, a magnificent seaside mansion in Deal, New Jersey, and the interest income from a richly-endowed trust fund, Bauer was duped into gifting all of his future life’s work to the Foundation (Bauer neither spoke, nor could read English). Rudolf deeply resented the contract, and was so humiliated by Rebay’s treachery that he refused to paint again, ever. To spite his former paramour, Bauer summarily married Louise Barry, the housekeeper paid for by Guggenheim and personally selected by Rebay! Rebay promptly slandered Barry as a “tramp and whore” — triggering a futile libel lawsuit by Bauer. The result was that Rudolf Bauer lived out his final years in bitter isolation, and never painted again. But he did create one final piece of abstract art, his crowning achievement, a work so outrageous, imposing and flamboyant that its value today far exceeds that of any of his paintings1 – SJ-397, the Last Duesenberg – and he would treasure it until his death in 1953.
THE MIGHTY DUESENBERG SJ
The story of Fred and August Duesenberg and E.L. Cord is among the most fascinating in automotive history. The Duesenberg brothers were German immigrants, self-taught mechanics and racecar builders who first made their mark at the Brickyard. In 15 consecutive Indianapolis 500s starting in 1913, 70 Duesenberg race cars competed. Thirty-two—-an amazing 46 percent—finished in the top 10! Fred and Augie became masters of supercharging and of reliability; their engines were beautifully cast, and brilliantly efficient.
In 1925, Errett Lobban Cord added the Duesenberg Motors Co. to his rapidly growing enterprise, the Auburn Automobile Company. Cord’s vision was to create an automobile that would surpass the grand marques of Europe and America. He presented Fred Duesenberg with a blank check, and the mandate to create the greatest car in the world. The result was the incomparable Model J, conceived to be superlative in all respects. Its short- wheelbase chassis was 142.5 inches, nearly 12 feet; the long-wheelbase car added almost a foot more! The double overhead-camshaft, straight eight engine had four valves per cylinder, displaced 420 cubic inches, and made 265 horsepower.
After the Model J’s introduction, Fred Duesenberg worked on making it even more powerful, applying his race-proven centrifugal supercharger to the Model J’s giant eight. The result, christened “SJ”, was then—and remains today—the quintessence of American luxury performance automobiles. The Duesenberg SJ delivered an astonishing 320 horsepower at full throttle. Regrettably, Duesenberg built a mere 36 SJs at the factory; modifying a standard J to SJ specifications was no small job. The engine required complete disassembly to fit stronger valve springs, high-performance tubular connecting rods and numerous other upgrades.
The effect of the Duesenberg Model J on America can’t be minimized, despite total production of just 474 examples. Even in the midst of the misery of the Depression, the mighty Duesenberg was a symbol of American engineering prowess. Duesenberg’s advertising featured the wealthy and privileged in opulent settings with but a single line of copy: “He Drives a Duesenberg...” The outside exhaust pipes of the SJ inspired generations of auto designers and remain, 70 years later, a symbol of power, panache, and performance. “It’s a real Duesy” still refers to something that is the very finest of its type.
The new Duesenberg was tailor-made for the custom coachbuilding industry. It had the power and stance to carry imposing coachwork, and the proportions were ideal for the execution of elegant custom bodies. While most of the leading coachbuilders were commissioned to clothe the mighty J, the New York-based firm of Rollston (and its successor Rollson) best combined exceptional designs with outstanding build quality.
THE COACHBUILDER: ROLLSON AND RUDY CRETEUR
Coachbuilder Henry Lonschein started Rollston in 1921, after mastering his craft at Brewster. His unique, and costly, framing approach involved hand carving frames into final shape only after first assembling the individual timber frame members. To this day, restorers agree that Rollston bodies still demonstrate their precision with perfect shut lines; their strength in the way doors close; and their rigidity with an almost complete lack of squeaks and rattles, even decades later.
1927 was a pivotal year for Rollston, as it heralded the arrival of Rudy Creteur, one of the most talented designers of the Classic Era. The combination of Rollston’s proven build quality and Creteur’s design genius placed Rollston at the pinnacle of the industry. Even though Rollston built more bodies for Packards than any other marque, the firm’s best-known work was on the Duesenberg chassis—-not surprising given Rollston’s reputation for superb quality. Two of the most famous Duesenberg’s of all—the Cary Grant Roadster, and the Arlington Sedan built for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and better known as “The Twenty Grand” (a reference to its nearly unthinkable cost)—were bodied by Rollston.
As the Depression wore on, and demand for ostentatious coachbuilt cars waned, Rollston refused to lower its prices or compromise quality. The result was spiraling losses, and finally in 1937, bankruptcy. In 1938, Lonschein and Creteur managed to secure a contract to build town-car bodies for Packard, and hand picked a small crew of the most talented craftsmen from Rollston. They named the new company “Rollson” to circumvent the law, which prevented using the name of a bankrupt firm until its debts were paid. It was not the Packards for which Rollson will be remembered, however, but rather a single magnificent achievement that proved to be the swan song for both the company and the designer - the incomparable Bauer SJ, The Last Duesenberg built.
THE BAUER SJ
When Bauer placed his order for a Duesenberg chassis in 1937, the factory was in the process of closing its doors. Dedicated Duesenberg employees, under the direct supervision of Augie Duesenberg, secured the last available chassis, motor and supercharger, assembled it, and prepared SJ-397 for shipment to Berlin pending Bauer’s instructions. Arrested by the Nazis in 1938, Bauer of course was in no position to take delivery! After 8 months in prison, Bauer was liberated by Guggenheim, and arrived triumphantly in the United States, invited immediately by both Harvard and Yale to lecture on non-objective art. But Bauer’s first act was to arrange for delivery of his Duesenberg to the baronial mansion on the New Jersey shore.
Bauer’s selection of Rollson and Creteur to implement his vision was an inspired choice. In Rudy Creteur he had one of the top design talents of the time; in Rollson he had the skilled craftsmen who could satisfy his Germanic demands for unique details and build quality. Bauer met with Rudy Creteur and presented him with 3 drawings and a list, in German, of quite specific features: “No running boards; slanted vee windshield; 2 rear spares; glass visors; violet leather interior; black silk top; fitted suitcases; dictograph; 21/2" wide pleats,” and so on. Bauer even specified Vogue 7.50 x 19 whitewalls, and sketched the braided leather, rear-passenger assists. But it is the coachwork drawings themselves that are truly remarkable.
Other designers, faced with the almost surreal scale of the Duesenberg’s mammoth chassis, added sidemounts, smaller wheels, skirted fenders, and smaller lights — all in an effort to reduce the visual scale of the car. But clearly Bauer’s intent was to create the lowest, longest and most distinctive Duesenberg ever built. Thinking as an artist, Bauer thus chose to emphasize the dominant theme of the chassis — its sheer size — rather than hide it. Accordingly, his sketches depict an extremely narrow, elongated hood extending well beyond the standard Model J radiator shell, and reaching all the way back to the low and sinister vee windshield — with no hood seam at the firewall to interrupt the exaggerated hood length. A canted, streamlined grille conceals the stock Model J grille recessed deeply behind, and reveals the influence of the Art Deco and Streamlining movements on Bauer’s vision. The body is dropped down over the frame rails for a low, menacing stance. The extraordinary cycle-style fenders — with no running boards or sidemounts to visually interfere — emphasize the expanse between them, leaving the 4 massive chromed exhaust pipes and ostentatious Buehl air horn completely exposed. And the dual, rear mounted spares bring the overall length to an imposing 20’ 6” — the longest Duesenberg ever built. So detailed was Bauer’s design that he even specified the uniquely oversized “Duesenbird” hood ornament, the imposing grille, the vast ventilation screens on both sides of the engine compartment, and the parallel rows of 27 hood louvers — all to further accentuate the car’s great length. Bauer’s design does not apologize for its size, but celebrates it!
As seen in many of Bauer’s works, he was inclined towards vividly contrasting colors and exaggerated shapes, unexpected sometimes in their juxtaposition. In this way, Bauer hoped to shock the viewer, provoking strong emotions and spirited discussion. Thus it was completely in character for Bauer to order a black body, heavily laden with chrome accents, barely able to contain a shocking violet leather interior, set off by deep purple wool carpets — and crowned with a black silk top. Bauer had in fact created an impossibly long, low and provocative example of automotive art, infinitely more magnificent and decadent than any of his paintings — and significantly more valuable.
Bauer took delivery from Rollson on April 25, 1940 at a completed cost, including coachwork, of over $20,000 — a staggering sum! The original Rollson invoice, hand signed by Rudolf Bauer, accompanies the car. On it, separate charges appear for the 13 custom features ordered by Bauer including: “Special Marchal Headlamps”; “Special Instrument Panel plus Additional Instruments”; “Four Blinker Direction Lamps with Violet Glass”; “Special Radiator Emblem”; “3 Special Black Leather Custom Suitcases”; and others. Each of these 13 items of original special equipment remain with the car today!
Bauer’s original “A” WWII gas rationing stamp still is affixed to the side window, along with his last New Jersey registration stamp from 1943. As a result of limited availability of gasoline and failing health, Bauer put just 9,884 miles on his Duesenberg before parking it beneath the mansion at 179 Ocean Avenue. He died of lung cancer in 1953, and his widow soon advertised the car in the New York Times. Fortunately for automotive history, Bill Pettit purchased the car and stored it carefully at his Museum of Motoring Memories in Virginia for the next 45 years, preserving it in pristine, untouched condition.
Today, SJ-397 of course retains its original aluminum body, motor, chassis and running gear, recognized by its ACD Category One Certificate awarded in 1989, which also formally recognized the Bauer car as the last Duesenberg built. Remarkably, its black lacquer paint is entirely original and has never been retouched in the slightest, evidenced by the stone chips still appearing on the cycle fenders. The car also retains its original violet leather interior, original deep purple carpets and rear footrests, original chrome plating, original silk top, and even its original 6 Vogue double-sided whitewall tires! One can easily imagine Bauer blasting away to the Hamptons for weekend outings with the art cognescenti, supercharger screaming and the exhaust cutouts wide open — trumpeting his arrival with a blast from SJ-397’s unique, three foot long external Buehl air horn!
By any standard, the Bauer SJ is one of the top ten Duesenbergs in existence. But it is, of course, far more, as it is not only The Last Duesenberg, but also:
• One of just 36 factory-supercharged Model J Duesenbergs built.
• The last completely unrestored Duesenberg.
• The lowest mileage Duesenberg extant (just 10,843 miles).
• The longest Duesenberg built and, though subjective, certainly the most
outrageous Duesenberg ever created!
SJ-397 has only been owned by three automotive connoisseurs. As the last Duesenberg built, to a striking, one-off design — it is the rarest of the rare, and surely one of the most historically significant automobiles of the Classic Era. Its impeccable provenance includes important historic documents, including Bauer’s hand-signed invoice from Rollson, and period photographs. Its multitude of special features add an even greater aura of luxury and exclusivity — and all remain with the car. Its unprecedented low mileage and stunning originality cannot be duplicated anywhere, for any price. Lastly, and remarkably, SJ-397 at age 67, still retains gleaming paint, lustrous chrome and supple leather — all burnished with years of a carefully nurtured patina that imparts a character and presence that no freshly restored automobile can hope to match.
There will never be another Bauer Duesenberg. And The Last Duesenberg, after this auction, is unlikely ever to be offered again in our lifetime.
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