Amelia Island

9 March 2013

Lot 156

1931 Duesenberg Model J Tourster by Derham

To be auctioned on Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sold for $825,000

  • Chassis no. 2456
  • Engine no. J-444
  • Body no. 2322


265 bhp, 420 cu. in. four valves per cylinder DOHC inline eight-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission, front beam axle and live rear with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and vacuum-assisted four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 153.5 in.

  • Offered from the Estate of John O’Quinn
  • “The Joe E. Brown Tourster,” later owned by Hughes Aircraft
  • The best-known of the eight original Derham Toursters
  • Ex-Otis Chandler and John McMullen
  • Multiple concours award-winner


The Tourster was Gordon Buehrig’s favorite Duesenberg. There is a lot to say about this handsome automobile, but the fact that of all the creations the master designer drew up for the mighty Model J, he preferred the Tourster, speaks loudest of all.

The design was for a five-passenger touring car on the long 153-1/2-inch wheelbase Model J chassis, which in his 1972 autobiography, Rolling Sculpture, Buehrig described as being “severely plain in ornamentation and [having] the unusual virtue of being equally handsome with the top in the raised position or when it is lowered.” The length of the chassis was exaggerated by the car’s lowered proportions, created by moving the rear seat ahead of the rear axle and the footwells within the frame rails, which increased room for passengers while allowing the top and sides of the body to be lower than on a standard phaeton.

With the Tourster, Buehrig also sought to solve a common problem of dual cowl phaetons of the time. They were often equipped with second windshields to give weather protection to rear seat passengers, but these windshields were mounted on hinged metal tonneaus that had to be clumsily swung up out of the way each time a passenger entered or exited the automobile. The Tourster’s solution was a rear windshield that slid up and down out of the back of the front seat with the turn of a crank, providing a windbreak that also looked appropriately dashing, and stayed out of the way.

Toursters were built exclusively by the Derham Body Company in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, which had, since the 1880s, catered to the carriages, motorized and otherwise, of Philadelphia high society. Eight were originally produced, of which the car offered here, 2456/J-444, is the third.

The original owner of 2456/J-444 was noted comedian and actor Joe E. Brown. Brown’s career had begun on Broadway in the 1920s, but by the end of the decade, he found himself working for Warner Brothers. His big break came in 1929 with the release of the first color talking movie, On With the Show. A series of other films followed, all major studio productions, including Song of the West in 1930. He was 29 years old and at the top of his career when he took delivery of this car, after it was delivered to him as a surprise gift at the Los Angelese Union Station on October 13, 1931.

Brown kept 2456/J-444 for seven years, during which time he was regularly seen driving it to the studio. After Brown’s ownership, the Tourster passed through a Cadillac dealer, who turned it over to Clement Hirsch. When World War II began several months later, Hirsch traded the car to his brother-in-law, Mark Jelmeland, who traded it into yet another dealership, Kal Kam Ford. The Ford dealer sold the car to William Hunter, from whom it was purchased by Hughes Aircraft.

The company of legendary aviator Howard Hughes elected to remove the rear body section, in order to use the Model J to tow gliders aloft. The car’s exceptional torque made it ideal for launching even the largest aircraft, and it continued to serve as a test vehicle for Briegleb Aircraft after it was sold to them in 1945.

In 1948, Briegleb sold 2456/J-444 to Robert Straede, of Santa Monica. It then passed to Lassiter Hoyle, an early and long-time member of the California classic car scene. In a letter to later owner Otis Chandler, Hoyle noted that “the rear portion of the body was missing. I’d go so far as to say it was in good condition, and otherwise complete.”

Hoyle sold the car in June 1949 to Fred Buess Jr., who kept it 11 years before selling it to Nate Derus in January 1960. Now missing the remaining body panels, 2456/J-444 eventually passed to Phil Renick and then to Lewis Iandoli, who arranged for restorer Harry Andrews to reconstruct the original body.

The restoration was completed in the mid-1970s by new owner Frank McGowan, returning the Joe E. Brown Tourster exactly as it appeared when new. McGowan sold the finished car to the late Otis Chandler, a legendary collector and classic car enthusiast. Chandler kept the Duesenberg 10 years, during which time it was shown occasionally and displayed for the rest of the time in his beautiful private museum in Oxnard, California. During Chandler’s tenure as owner, the car was awarded a CCCA National First Prize, followed by its Senior Award in October 1989. He conducted extensive research into the car’s history, copies of which are included in the sale.

In March 1996, Chandler elected to sell the car; the buyer was yet another noted collector, John McMullen, of Michigan. For the next two decades McMullen and his Tourster were regularly seen at the country’s most prestigious concours events. It garnered Best in Show at the Gilmore Car Museum’s Grand Experience in 2001 and numerous Best in Class and class awards, including, notably, Best in Class at the 1995 Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance and the Gordon Buehrig Memorial Award for Best ACD Car at the same event the following year.

The car was acquired by the late John O’Quinn from the McMullen Collection in 2007, and it has remained in the O’Quinn Collection ever since. Its black paint holds a deep gloss and is picked out by a beautiful, bright aluminum molding. The tan leather interior and top are elegantly complemented by yacht-like varnished floorboards.

The Duesenberg has, to our knowledge, not been shown during Mr. O’Quinn’s ownership; therefore, its opportunity for sale here presents a chance for the new owner to freshen the car and return it to the show field. It will always be admired for its long history of enthusiast ownership and for its legendary owners, not least the smiling figure of Joe E. Brown and the enigmatic but exciting Howard Hughes.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alain Squindo


Detroit, Michigan

Alain Squindo joined RM Auctions in 2007, after graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in History. R... read more

Alex Classick

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United Kingdom

Alex Classick joined RM Europe in 2011 as a car specialist, after graduating from Nottingham University with a degree in Business Mana... read more

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California, USA

Alexander Weaver joined RM Auctions in 2011 as a car specialist, after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born into ... read more

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Germany

With post-secondary degrees in Economic Science and Mechanical Engineering, Annette Abaci initially worked part-time at Mercedes-Benz ... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

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United Kingdom

Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a senior car specialist, after more than a decade in the collector car hobby... read more

Dan Warrener

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Ontario, Canada

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Don Rose

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Don Rose joined RM Auctions in 2006, after many years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputatio... read more

Donnie Gould

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Florida, USA

Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

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Ontario, Canada

Gord joined RM Auctions in 1998, initially responsible for the transportation and logistics of the company’s auction and restora... read more

Ian Kelleher

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New York, United States

Ian Kelleher began his automotive career immediately following his graduation from Oberlin College, with a B.A. in Politica... read more

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Ontario, Canada

Jack Boxstrom joined RM Auctions in late-1996 to assist with the recently acquired, and subsequently record-breaking, auction in Monte... read more

Max Girardo

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United Kingdom

Max Girardo started his career in the vintage automobile industry in 1998, joining Brooks Auctioneers (now Bonhams) as a car specialis... read more

Mike Fairbairn

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Ontario, Canada

As one of the three founding partners of RM Auctions, Mike Fairbairn has a longstanding interest in the classic car industry. Graduati... read more

Peter Wallman

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United Kingdom

Peter Wallman joined RM Europe in 2007, following nearly two decades in the international advertising industry, read more

Rob Myers

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Ontario, Canada

As chairman and founder of the RM Group of Companies, Rob Myers’s entire career has been devoted to the classic car industry. Ro... read more

Shelby Myers

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California, USA

Shelby Myers literally grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to w... read more

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California, USA

Vinnie Mandzak joined RM Auctions’ California office in 2012 as a car specialist, following more than 30 years’ experience... read more