1935 Duesenberg SJ Town Car by Bohmann & SchwartzSOLD

RM Auctions - Monterey Sports & Classic Car Auction - August 16-18

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Estimate: $2,300,000-$3,000,000 US

AUCTION RESULTS: Lot was Sold at a price of $4,400,000

Considered the most beautiful formal town car of the period, this outstanding one-off creation was penned by Christian Bohman and Maurice Schwartz. Commissioned by Mars Candy Company heiress Ethel Mars, SJ553 is one of just 36 factory supercharged Deusenbergs, and one of the few to retain its original coachwork, drivetrain, and chassis. It remains a superlative example of the art of custom coachbuilding in America.

320bhp, 420 cu. in. four valves per cylinder twin overhead camshaft inline eight-cylinder engine with Schwitzer- Cummins centrifugal supercharger, three-speed transmission, semi-elliptical leaf spring and solid axle front suspension, semi-elliptical leaf spring and torque tube live axle rear suspension, and vacuum-assisted four wheel hydraulic brakes. Wheelbase: 153.5"

The Inimitable Model SJ
The story of Fred and August Duesenberg and E.L. Cord is among the most fascinating in automotive history. The Duesenbergs were self-taught mechanics and car builders whose careers started in the Midwest at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Fred, the older brother by five years, was the tinkerer and designer of the pair. Augie made Fred ’ s ingenious and creative things work.

Performance was at the heart of everything they did. In 15 consecutive Indianapolis 500s starting with their first appearance in 1913, 70 Duesenbergs competed. Thirty-two – an amazing 46 percent of them – finished in the top 10. Fred and Augie became masters of supercharging and of reliability; their engines, because engines were Fred ’ s specialty, were beautiful and performed on a par with the best of Miller, Peugeot and Ballot. In 1925, Errett Lobban Cord added the Duesenberg Motors Company to his rapidly growing enterprise, the Auburn Automobile Company. Cord ’ s vision was to create an automobile that would surpass the great marques of Europe and America. Cadillac, Isotta Fraschini, Bugatti, Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza were his targets and Duesenberg was his chosen instrument. He presented Fred Duesenberg with the opportunity to create the greatest car in the world, and the result was the incomparable Model J.

This new chassis was conceived and executed to be superlative in all aspects. 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-cylinder engine had four valves per cylinder and displaced 420 cubic inches. It made 265 horsepower. The finest materials were used throughout; fit and finish were to toolroom standards. Each chassis was driven at speed for 100 miles at Indianapolis.

After the Model J ’ s introduction Fred Duesenberg worked on making it even more powerful, applying his favorite centrifugal supercharger to the Model J ’ s giant eight just as he had done so successfully to his 122 cubic inch racing eights a decade earlier. He died following a Model J accident in 1932 and Augie, until then independently and very successfully building racing cars, was retained to put the final touches on the supercharged Duesenberg. The result, christened “ SJ, ” was then – and remains today - the pinnacle of American luxury performance automobiles. The outside exhaust pipes inspired generations of auto designers and remain, 70 years later, a symbol of power and performance.

The Duesenberg SJ delivered 320 horsepower at speed while retaining the outstanding naturally aspirated performance of the original Model J at lower rpm. Duesenberg built just 36 SJs at the factory; converting a standard J to SJ specification was no small job. The engine required complete disassembly to fit stronger valve springs, high-performance tubular connecting rods and numerous other components.

The effect of the Duesenberg J on America can ’ t be minimized. Even in the midst of the misery of the Depression, the mighty Duesenberg was a symbol of American ingenuity and engineering excellence. Duesenberg ’ s advertising became a benchmark, featuring the wealthy and privileged in opulent surroundings with only a single line of copy: “ He drives a Duesenberg. ” In an early nod to gender equality, others read “ She drives a Duesenberg ” . The phrase “ It ’ s a real Duesy ” has become a permanent part of our language, referring to an object with exceptional quality or performance. Even now, at the start of the next century, the Duesenberg remains the ultimate symbol of performance and luxury.

The new Duesenberg was tailor-made for the custom body industry. It had the power and stance to carry imposing coachwork, and the style and grace of the factory sheet metal was ideally suited for the execution of elegant custom coachwork. While most of the leading coachbuilders of the day were commissioned to clothe the mighty J, many modern observers believe it was the Pasadena, California based firm of Bohman & Schwartz that consistently produced the most beautiful – and outrageous - designs.

Bohman & Schwartz
The coach building business was difficult, requiring outstanding design and creativity, exceptional salesmanship, superb craftsmanship, and careful cost control. Weakness in any of these areas could – and often did – result in the demise of an otherwise promising firm. Fortunately, the principals of Bohman and Schwartz understood these principles well, and their company survived until the market for their products vanished – even as the Great Depression came to a close.

Christian Bohman was a Swedish coachbuilder who emigrated to America where he found work at several northeastern firms, including Holbrook and Brewster. In 1921 he moved to Pasadena, California, recruited by Murphy, Inc., whose wonderfully light and stylish coachwork had made the firm a leader in the industry.

Maurice Schwartz learned the business in Vienna at Armbruster, the carriage-maker to the Viennese royal family. By 1924 he had emigrated to America, also joining the Murphy body company.

In 1932, after Murphy failed, Bohman and Schwartz teamed up and purchased much of their former employer ’ s equipment. They set up shop, and quickly began work – which was initially mostly repairs and updates – but soon they found they were being approached by those among Murphy ’ s clientele who could still afford to commission elaborate coachwork. Examples include Clark Gable, Barbara Hutton, Jeanette MacDonald, Bill Robinson ( “ Bojangles ” ), and Philip K. Wrigley. Ultimately, Bohman and Schwartz would be credited with nine complete Duesenbergs, five of which were rebodies, leaving just four clean sheet original designs, of which SJ553 is perhaps the most unique.

Although many of their designs were developed in house, as the business expanded, the partners called on a variety of talented designers they had worked with at Murphy – including Herb Newport and W. Everett Miller. Modern observers credit Bohman & Schwartz with some of the most beautiful - and outrageous - coachwork on the Model J chassis. The Duesenberg was itself larger than life, and its owners were some of the most interesting and charismatic personalities of the time. They were not shy, and they wanted cars that reflected their love of life.

In the mid 1930s, SJ553 was listed as a bare chassis in the inventory of the Duesenberg Factory Branch in Los Angeles, CA. It is widely acknowledged that the car was designed by Herb Newport expressly for screen star Mae West. She never took delivery, although she did buy another Bohman & Schwartz Duesenberg – J370, a convertible coupe. It was much less expensive, and many believe that was the reason she chose it – though given her enormous income, it is equally likely that having made up her mind to have a Duesenberg, she simply couldn ’ t wait for the completion of J553.

As it turned out, J553 was destined to become the prized possession of one of the country ’ s most influential businesswomen when Ethel Mars took delivery of her astonishing new Duesenberg on April 14th, 1935. Her purchase must have made waves in the business and financial community, telegraphing her arrival as CEO of the Mars Candy Company – and sole heir to one of America ’ s great fortunes. So significant was the car that it was featured in the November 16th, 1936 issue of Time magazine, over the caption “ The costliest car in the United States is Duesenberg, a Cord product ” . And expensive it was, with Ethel Mars having paid more than $20,000 for it.

She kept the car at her home in the Chicago area for several years, where it was often seen – uniformed chauffeur at the wheel – in Chicago ’ s financial district. Eventually, Mrs. Mars sold J553 to to Edward Engle Brown, who was chairman of the board of Chicago ’ s First National Bank and Trust. Brown owned the car until the late 1940s, eventually selling or trading it to Harry Felz, a Chicago area Cadillac dealer, who resold it – for $2,500 - to Edward D. Jaffe and his brother Oscar, both of Chicago. In the early 1950s, SJ553 went to John Troka, a well known early Duesenberg specialist in Chicago. Three more Chicago area owners followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s - Frank H. Croke, Mrs. W.P. Doyle, and Mrs. Walter J. Podbielniak.

Mrs. Podbielniak sold SJ553, along with two other cars to famous Reno collector Bill Harrah in March of 1966. The car remained in Harrah ’ s collection until his death, when it became one of the highlights of a three part auction of the collection by Holiday Inn Corporation, which had purchased Harrah ’ s casino and hotel operations. While at Harrah ’ s, the car underwent its first restoration – which was not completed in time for the catalog photography.

Richard Dicker, retired chairman of Penn Central Corporation, now living in Scarsdale, NY, bought the big Duesenberg at the Harrah ’ s auction in the mid 1980s for the then princely sum of $860,000.

He commissioned Hibernia Restorations to undertake the car ’ s second restoration. A comprehensive and staggeringly expensive restoration, the car was finished in a fine metallic silver gray. Dicker kept SJ553 until he died, at which point it was offered for sale by Sotheby ’ s in June of 1995, where it was purchased by RM Classic Cars, who ultimately sold it to noted collector John Groendyke of Enid, Oklahoma in 1997. The vendor, a serious and knowledgeable collector, acquired the car from Groendyke in 2000.

SJ553: Two Women, One Car
The history of SJ553 – designed for one woman, but delivered to another – is unique in Duesenberg history.
Mae West, of course, is well known. Born in 1893, her good looks, creativity, and comedic talent made her an international star. Signed by Paramount, she starred in several movies with Cary Grant, including “ She Done Him Wrong ” , and “ I ’ m no Angel ” . Her talent for the double entendre was legendary, and modern popular culture is filled with her lines – perhaps the most famous of which was “ Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? ” , delivered to a police officer who had been assigned to provide security at one of her public appearances.

She was renowned for her wit – she popularized the double entendre. She also used her talents to champion sexual equality. A believer in human sexuality, she fought censorship and campaigned for sexual freedom in any form. Her stunning good looks and flair for publicity made her a media darling, and she used that platform to promote her beliefs.

Mae West continued to perform on stage, screen, radio, later television until late in the 1970s, as she neared 80 years of age. Her last film was “ Sextette ” , which remains a cult classic today.

Ethel Victoria Mars was the second wife of Franklin Mars, founder of the Mars Candy Company, and inventor of the Milky Way and Snicker ’ s chocolate bars.

The couple was among America ’ s wealthiest families, both then and now. In 1930, they purchased 2,800 acres of land in Tennessee and proceeded to build a farm and lavish home – which boasted 21 bedrooms and the largest private dining room in the state. For three years, the construction of the home and farm was the largest employer in the county, with a payroll of more than 900 men.

Franklin Mars died in 1934; Ethel began raising and training racehorses on the property, under the name “ Milky Way Farms ” . Her ability to judge horses, and her willingness to take risks quickly made Milky Way the top income earning stable in the country.

She produced many championship winning horses including the 1940 Kentucky Derby winner, Galladion.

In a fascinating coincidence linking these two very interesting women, a 1937 article in Time magazine listed Ethel Mars as the highest paid businesswoman in America, with a salary of $120,000. The only woman who earned more that year was a Hollywood star – Mae West!

Condition Report
Today, SJ536 remains in excellent condition. Refinished and retrimmed by RM Auto Restoration several years ago, the black paint holds a deep gloss, and is very close to flawless in condition. The car ’ s chrome plating is similarly excellent, showing little or no evidence of aging. The driver ’ s compartment is trimmed in black ostrich leather, which seems utterly appropriate in a car of such grandeur.

The rear compartment is a masterpiece of Art Deco design, with the door and division wood trim accented by a classic waterfall pattern, and finished in a deep, high gloss burgundy. The upholstery – in a matching deep red – is expertly fitted, showing dead straight stitching and no puckering or awkward corners. A radio is installed behind a lovely pair of cathedral-shaped doors on one side, while a vanity is fitted behind the other.

The instrument panel is in excellent condition, and the instruments are both correct and in near perfect condition. A complete engine rebuild was recently carried out by Steve Babinsky, a noted New Jersey restorer. The engine bay has been detailed for concours presentation, and shows no evidence of soiling or age since restoration. Similarly, the chassis is nearly perfect, although upon close examination, minor evidence of careful use can be found.

A recent road test revealed that the car starts easily and runs well. There were no indications of mechanical faults, and the big supercharged engine pulls strongly in all three gears. The steering, while not light, is pleasant and accurate. The brakes are quick acting and pull evenly. Although the weather was pleasant, there was no indication of overheating.

The Mae West Duesenberg: The Ultimate Statement?
The SJ must surely represent the ultimate Duesenberg. Cars have been personal statements for many years – but nothing can be more personal than a spectacular one-of-a-kind design, fitted to the ultimate chassis. In the midst of the horrors of the Great Depression – a time of hardship, economic tragedy, and personal sacrifice, Mae West ordered her Duesenberg. It was not to be just any Duesenberg, and certainly not a somber, conservative limousine, as most would have done. Rather, it was to be an extravagant statement, something that suited her personality – a design her fans would both understand and expect.

And extravagant is perhaps an understatement. At a time when many felt wealth was to be hidden, the Mae West Duesenberg is an open front town car – not only a chauffeur driven style, but one in which the driver is clearly on display – in his ostrich-lined open compartment – for everyone to see. Of all the Classic Era bodies, open drive town cars were normally the most conservative; they were the automotive equivalent of a white tie and tails. Coachwork tended to be both traditional and understated.

The brilliance of Mae West ’ s Duesenberg is that it was none of those things. It was flashy and stylish. Town cars were expected to blend into the streetscape; Herb Newport ’ s design could not be more distinctive. SJ553 ’ s ultramodern design begins with a lovely swept back radiator shell, banishing the upright and conservative Duesenberg radiator inside the engine compartment, flanked by a pair of up-to-date streamlined headlights. The twin side mounted spares are sculpted into the fenders, and topped with aerodynamic covers. The windshield is a work of art, with narrow pillars in a vee configuration, sloping gracefully to the rear. Finally, the body itself is softly curved, without hard edges or right angles, and finishes with a gently sloping tail.

There is no doubt that the body Bohman and Schwartz crafted for SJ553 was both beautiful and outrageous at the same time – but the coup de grace was the chassis. One of just 36 factory supercharged cars, this was also the most powerful town car ever built. Its signature external exhaust ensured that no one could miss it, or confuse its owner with anyone else, then or now.

Perhaps the signature element of the design of SJ553 is its stunning Art Deco interior. The style – known in the period as Art Moderne – was popular from the early 1920s until the advent of WWII, although for most observers today, its heyday was the 1930s. Seen today as nostalgic, at the time Art Deco was sleek and modern, featuring clean lines, strong colors, and modern materials. It was also highly unusual in automotive interior design, as the buyers of the most expensive cars tended to be older and much more conservative in their tastes. Seen from this perspective, Ethel Mars ’ choice of such a contemporary design ethos reflects her youth and implies an exceptional aptitude for the arts.

Today, we are grateful that her strong will and exceptional taste resulted in the creation of what many see as an icon of the period, combining outstanding exterior design with exquisite interior appointments. SJ553 – Among the Rarest of the Rare.

The survival rate of normal Duesenbergs is remarkably high – a reflection of the high regard their owners have had for the cars throughout the years. They are wonderful cars, offering the finest engineering of the time, a testimonial to the ingenuity and innovation of the American spirit.

As good as the standard chassis was, it is the mighty SJ that will always be remembered as the rarest and without question the most desirable of all the Duesenbergs. Massively powerful and frighteningly expensive, less than ten percent – about 36 cars by most counts – carried the ultimate Duesenberg engine.

Of these, less than thirty survive. Of the survivors, many have suffered the indignities of engine, body, and even chassis changes. Even so, most carry fairly standard coachwork, similar or identical to bodies mounted on other, non supercharged chassis.

Only ten cars exist with true coachbuilt one-off bodies originally fitted to supercharged chassis.

Surely, then, these must be the “ top ten ” Duesenbergs. SJ553 is one of these – and the only town car. It has an unbroken chain of ownership since new, and a fascinating provenance involving two of the most important women of the time. It retains its original body, chassis, and drivetrain – and the quality of the restoration is second to none.

Of the ten, some have joined permanent collections, never again to be in private hands.

Even in the best collections, other cars may come and go, replaceable at any time. Only the very best can never be replaced; they are only rarely offered – perhaps just once in each generation. SJ553 is one of these rare and beautiful jewels.

Reference Number 10215

as of 6/6/2007

Car 1935 Duesenberg SJ Town Car by Bohmann & Schwartz
Exterior / Interior Color      Black /      Black 
Configuration Left Hand Drive (LHD) 
Transmission Manual Shift 
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