There’s an indescribable allure to the Duesenberg Model SJ.
The name is magnetism enough, but seeing the gleaming black leviathan shimmering in the midday sun, it proves irresistible; everyone comes closer to peer into the cockpit and beneath the open bonnet, drawn by the car’s intoxicating combination of glamour and presence.
It’s doubly appealing on home territory, where the marque seems seared into the nation’s psyche as one of the ultimate prizes of the American Dream – a pot of gold sitting at the end of the rainbow so rare and so desirable as to almost drift into the arena of mythology.
Such a rarified position in American history is hardly surprising when you consider both the timing of its arrival and its astronomic price-tag.
At a time when the average home cost $5500 – and the average annual income was $4900 – even an unsupercharged Model J would have set you back a barely comprehensible $8500. And that was before you had bodied it.
By the time your chosen coachbuilder had made your Duesie for you, the final bill could soar beyond even $20,000.
But despite its eye-watering cost and the dire state of the economy in the early 1930s, the great and the good of US society queued up to be seen in ‘The World’s Finest Motor Car’.
Everyone from Hollywood actors such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper to confectionery empire heiress Ethel Mars opened their pocketbooks to own a Duesie.
That the Model J even came close to achieving its production run of 500 examples in such turbulent economic times is a measure of its success, but it certainly didn’t happen overnight; the indelible mark it left in history was a long time in the making, a story that can be traced back to the arrival of the young, German-born Duesenberg brothers in the United States in 1885.
Both Frederick and August were gifted engineers who quickly turned their talents towards transportation, opening a bicycle shop together before mastering internal combustion and producing their first car in 1905.
Badged as a Mason in deference to their financial backer, Fred’s clever four-cylinder engine – an intriguing design with vertical combustion chambers and horizontal valves – brought the firm competition success, but the enterprise ultimately went under in 1913, prompting the brothers to set up their eponymous marque that same year.
Focusing on competition cars and the engines to power them, Duesenberg began to make a name for itself just as the world was plunged into the First World War.
Like so many talented engineers, the brothers turned their hands to munitions, building the Ettore Bugatti-designed King-Bugatti ‘U-16’ engine before dreaming up their own V16 aircraft unit, using many of the principles honed in their time as Mason.
The advent of peace heralded Duesenberg’s return to the track, powered by a brace of new engines.
First came a 300cu in (4.9-litre) straight-eight with a single overhead cam and three valves per cylinder, followed by a 183cu in (3-litre) unit built to meet new regulations.
A strong showing at Indianapolis in 1920 was magnificently eclipsed by Jimmy Murphy’s win in the1921 French Grand Prix at Le Mans – the first and only by an American car until Dan Gurney’s Eagle-Weslake victory in Belgium in 1967.
Where the brothers struggled was translating competition success to the road.
Despite being the first full-production US automobile to be powered by a straight-eight engine, and the first to feature four-wheel hydraulic brakes, the 1921 Duesenberg Model A never quite lived up to its potential owing to lethargic performance and often dreary coachbuilt bodies.
By 1924 the firm had run out of money, and after restructuring in 1925 it went bust again in 1926.
A reprieve came in October of the same year with the arrival of Eric Lobban Cord, the canny industrialist who had dragged Auburn kicking and screaming into the Art Deco era.
Cord shrewdly recognised the brothers’ engineering skill and, crucially, the esteem in which their family name was still held.
He quickly threw down the gauntlet, challenging Fred to build a world-beating road car truly worthy of the Duesenberg name.
The combination of Cord’s enterprise and Duesenberg’s brilliance proved a marriage made in heaven, that within just two years had produced one of the greatest automobiles of its era: the Model J.
The newcomer quickly gained a reputation for unparalleled quality, a reflection of Fred Duesenberg’s engineering genius.
At a time when even sporting cars rarely broke the 100bhp barrier, his advanced 6882cc double-overhead-cam straight-eight – incorporating four valves per cylinder and aluminium pistons and conrods – produced a thundering 265bhp.
As per the racing cars, braking was hydraulic rather than via rods or cables, and everywhere you look there are clever engineering solutions.
Any Model J cuts an impressive figure, but it’s the supercharged SJ version that truly captures the verve and extravagance of the Great Gatsby era.
Its four-branch chromed exhaust manifold is a picture of purpose and, in the case of Jack Teberg’s jet-black Murphy Disappearing Top, some considerable menace.
Fortunately, its owner is rather less intimidating.
As he rounds the corner, a beaming smile traced across his face, it’s clear that Teberg is a larger-than-life character – and not just for his towering frame, which he carefully lowers into a seat arranged in front of his prized Duesie with help from his son, Larry.
If ever there was a personification of the sheer joy that classic cars can bring, it’s embodied in the former oil man who, despite being intimately familiar with his Model SJ, drinks in every detail like a first-year art student laying eyes upon the Mona Lisa.
His passion for classics began with a collection of woodies that included a ’49 Chrysler Town and Country Convertible that once belonged to Bruce Springsteen, but, like many US vintage car enthusiasts, the Indianapolis-built titans were never far from his thoughts.
“It was always Duesenberg,” he says with a lingering smile. Though his lifelong ambition to own a Model SJ was eventually fulfilled, the path to his dream car was long and not without its trials.
“I bought the car about 14 years ago from the Bill Hach Collection in Chicago,” he explains. “Bill Hach had a bunch of cars – maybe as many as 100 – in various states of repair in his warehouse, including six or seven Duesenbergs.”
Teberg’s future Duesie was definitely at the lower end of the ‘states of repair’ spectrum, being little more than a chassis, assorted engine components and parts of a later body built by Bob Gassaway in the early 1960s, the original Murphy coachwork having been removed and lost decades ago.
“I had a building in Rochester, New York, that I used to store cars, and the Duesenberg sat there for a long time.
“A very long time. I eventually found a restorer to start working on the car and an engine builder who got it pretty well running.”
Despite making some progress, the project only came into sharp relief when the Teberg family was rocked by life-changing news.
“My dad was diagnosed with cancer – stage three – a multiple myeloma,” says Jack’s son Larry.
“The oncologist that first took care of him told us it was stage four to impress upon him how serious it was, but there are only three stages. Basically, he told my dad he was going to die.
“It became clear we had to put pedal to the metal to get the car built, so we pulled it from New York and brought it out to California in October 2017.”
Though the car was then much closer to home, the project proved just as difficult to oversee and progress was painfully slow, while funds were also being haemorrhaged at an alarming rate.
“My dad fell in with a builder out here who was somewhat less than reputable,” explains Larry
“He had about $300,000 in the vehicle and all they had done was to take everything that was intact and operating and disassemble it.
“It had gone backwards two steps from where it was when we first brought it to California. I saw what was happening and told the gentleman, ‘We’re pulling the car.’”
While a great deal of money had been expended for very little – if any – gain, the real cost was precious time.
The family’s luck finally began to change shortly after deciding to take back the SJ, when Larry walked into a small workshop in Santa Clarita belonging to Arnold Schmidt.
“Arnold worked at The Nethercutt Collection for years, but funding ran out and he found himself out on the street – so he started his own shop and was desperate for work.
“He said: ‘Come on Larry, we can do this.’ Arnold came down with his truck to find the transmission on the ground and the wheels removed; it wasn’t running and couldn’t be started.”
With renewed determination to see the restoration through, the Duesenberg was taken back to Santa Clarita while Larry dedicated himself to the cause by taking a sabbatical and throwing himself into the rebuild, spending every day in the workshop.
“It was like a miracle,” says Jack, “the two guys working together, it was magic. I was so interested that I called them every morning at 9am – on FaceTime! It was the highlight of my day, watching what they were doing and how they were doing it. It was just amazing.”
“Every morning, whoever was in the shop that day would gather around the phone and have a conversation with Pops. It always started with ‘yoohoo!’ – that became our thing,” laughs Larry.
“When we got the car it was a rolling chassis, but the engine hadn’t been reassembled. The body was missing 50-60% of the pieces that made it whole. It was a very ambitious project.
“There was quite a bit of work done in Rochester, but also a lot of work that wasn’t done; it kinda came down to the hard stuff. All the small bits and pieces, all the soft goods, the seats, the interior – nothing was there.
“Fortunately, we had a fabulous motor mechanic – Pete Francia – who we brought back from New York to help with reassembly.”
Teberg believes that the engine started life in a naturally aspirated model, but the decision was taken early on to rebuild it to SJ specification, the ‘S’ denoting the addition of a centrifugal supercharger – mechanically driven at five times engine speed – that took power from 265 to 320bhp.
“The engine was put together using all the best parts, including Arias pistons and Carrillo conrods, with balanced reciprocating gear. Pete did a wonderful job on the drivetrain and was pivotal in us moving forward again – everything had been negative up to that point.”
As well as bringing decades of expertise to the build, Schmidt had a wealth of contacts from his time at The Nethercutt including upholsterers and painters, not to mention a few famous friends.
“Arnold had restored a Doble steam car for Jay Leno and basically had the keys to his studio in Burbank,” says Larry.
“Leno allowed us to come in and take pictures, and even take parts off his Duesenberg! Using a 3D printer we were able to chronicle the parts three dimensionally, and make plastic resin duplicates that we could then have cast.
“Doorhandles, for example, are hard to find and were specific to that car. We had to make all those little bits and pieces, and we made them authentically correct.
“Everything from the lash that locks down the folding lid to the locks themselves – all of those components were fabricated by hand. Arnold can make anything out of metal, he’s one of the most incredible fabricators I’ve ever met.”
After a Herculean effort, the small team completed the Duesenberg in a scarcely believable six months, much to the delight and surprise of owner Jack.
“It was such a sweet feeling,” says Larry.“I brought it down and delivered it to his front door. But would you believe I got him down to the car and he couldn’t fit in it – he couldn’t drive it!
“In his glory my dad was 6ft 6in – he lost a couple of inches along the way, but even so we just couldn’t fold him up compact enough to use the clutch properly.
“Unfortunately, he couldn’t operate it and never has, but he always says: ‘I live vicariously through you.’ When I take him out he shouts, ‘You stand on it!’ – he wants to see the thing go. I put my foot down and he says it feels as if the front wheels are going to come off the ground.”
Though the Duesenberg is unquestionably an exquisite machine, Jack Teberg’s affection and pride are as much a reflection of his love for his son.
More than period-correct bolts and polished parts, the SJ represents the hundreds of hours spent to help realise his old man’s dream.
“It really is one of the biggest reasons my dad is still alive,” says Larry. “It brought him such joy – it gave him a reason to go on.”
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Bob Wilson, Olin Johnston and all at Crevier Classic Cars