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Duesenberg: Was it best of the best?

2014-01-14 11:15

HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME: This 1931 Duesenberg is one of only 36 made and the only one outside the US. Image: DAVE FALL


It was about 15 years ago that I first read of the Model J Duesenberg, touted then as the most expensive and luxurious car yet made. While over in the UK for Christmas 2013 I tracked down the only one outside the US.

It’s at the biggest, but arguably not the best-known, car museum in England: Haynes Sparkford Motor Museum deep in the rolling hills of Somerset.

The eponymous owner of the museum is John Haynes, publishing group founder, who still specialises in producing do-it-yourself motor and motorcycle maintenance manuals.


He’s a real auto enthusiast who “tends to select exhibits based on their renowned speed, handling, social standing, innovation, quirky features or sheer beauty” - to quote from the 40-page souvenir catalogue.

Between Boxing Day and New Year I decided to venture out of London to Sparkford, about 195km but still a trip that took me almost seven hours. Did the Brits stay at home for the festive season? Not a bit of it – they all hit the roads to visit  relatives… the traffic jams found across Salisbury Plain in Hampshire the proof or the (Christmas) pudding.

The weather had been particularly cold and wet most of my stay but nothing like the storms that were brewing and about to batter Britain’s south-western coast. The British drivers seemed to be cool, calm and collected – never once did I see on using a cellphone (mobiles, they call them); few exceeded the speed limit or drove recklessly.

The diesel Honda Civic hatchback, our courtesy transport for the holiday, was fitted with all the mod cons: heatable seats and auto wipers, but perhaps more importantly GPS that took us off the busy A304, through the narrowest of roads, right into the museum’s car park.

All one has to do to find your destination in the UK is tap in a postcode.  Why, oh why don’t we have this superb feature on our obviously Third World’ GPS?*


Back to the 1931 Model J Derham Tourster Duesenberg, to give it it’s full title.  Duesenberg produced cars for only four years before being absorbed into the Auburn/Cord family – remember this was the era of the 1929 Wall Street crash.

For me, apart from its sheer size and magnificence, the Duesenberg was the advanced styling for 1931. A Rolls-Royce or Bentley of the same era was angular, boring and almost vulgar by comparison.

Under the bonnet (let’s call it ‘the hood’ for this story) is a straight-eight 6.9 engine with four valves per cylinder(!). The Duese had hydraulic brakes that were servo-assisted and cost $18 000 (R180 000) back then. By way of comparison over in the UK you could buy 35 Bullnose Morris cars for the same  money!

Talking top speeds, one particular Duese fitted with a supercharger managed 206km/h on a track. The Duese could be thrown around corners faster than anything comparable, the steering was as light as a feather, so I’m told. Not bad for a car weighing 2.5 tons.


Sales wise, Deusenberg seemed to have sold only to the billionaires of this world – and film stars. Clark Gable and Gary Cooper each owned one. John Haynes bought his particular car from (Ms) Payne Whitney (of aircraft fame) in 1995 as the flagship entry among the other 400 or so exhibits at the museum.

So carefully was it wrapped for the trip that the museum’s curator, Mike Penn, travelled with it back across the Atlantic and even slept in it in the customs shed at Heathrow while awaiting for clearance.

• See the museum's website for opening times and ticket prices. For me it was the best tenner spent in the UK for many a year!
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