Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Be Still, My Beating Heart!

Pic by Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions via the NYT
This fine example of American auto engineering from the early days of the car is up for auction. The backstory on this puppy was that it was the winner in a famous (for it's day) race with this car, a 1928 Mercedes-Benz S 26/180 Boattail Speedster:
Madness at Muroc references a duel in 1932 between a 1928 Mercedes-Benz S 26/180 Boattail Speedster and a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Phaeton, run at Muroc Dry Lake in Southern California, for a purse that by current conversions would equate to roughly $425,000. The Mercedes, missing for decades and recently discovered, was sold at auction in 2010 for $3.74 million.
Zeppo and Chico Marx, of the Marx Brothers comedy act, had to pool their resources to buy the cream-color, Murphy-bodied Mercedes-Benz S. It probably cost a bit less than the Duesenberg, but it was nearly as rare and revered by sportsmen; Model S cars had been raced with unparalleled success in Europe by Rudolf Caracciola.
The brothers challenged Phil Berg, a Hollywood agent who owned the Duesenberg, to a winner-take-all match race for $25,000, essentially the value of each car. This was during the Great Depression, and the prize money represented a staggering sum. Busloads of news crews and Hollywood glitterati came to the high desert for the big race.

Griffith Borgeson, the motorsports historian, described the event as “sort of an automotive gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a showdown between two of the biggest, baddest glamour wagons of all time.”

Berg had hired a ringer to drive his Duesenberg: Eddie Miller, a veteran of the Indianapolis 500. The heavy, LeBaron-bodied phaeton was stripped to racing trim, losing fenders, bumpers, running boards, headlights, top, trunk, windshield and any other extraneous equipment. Miller also tuned the 8-cylinder, 265-horsepower engine to racing specifications.

The Marx team hired Joe Reindl, a Mercedes specialist based in Hollywood, to drive for them. The brothers also ordered the car’s fenders and other equipment removed.

At 6:30 a.m., on the day of the race, the two cars lined up on a circular track at Muroc, a portion of which is now on Edwards Air Force Base. At the green flag, the Mercedes sprinted into the early lead. But Miller built up speed gradually and passed Reindl in minutes. It might be tempting to say Miller never looked back, but he did.

“As I came by the pole, where the people were waving and cheering, I looked back but could see no sign of my competition, swallowed up somewhere in my dust cloud,” he told interviews afterward. Miller estimated he was traveling at 108 miles per hour, “really pouring on the coals.”

“We had the muffler off, of course, and you can believe that that thing roared,” he added. “They must have heard it in Barstow.”

Despite great expectations, it was not a great race. The Mercedes slowed with mechanical trouble, and the Duesenberg cruised to an easy payday.
Well, even if it was a bad race, it still would have been very, very cool to see.

I have, for some reason, a particular passion for Duesenbergs. The long hood, the custom coachwork, and the immense amount of power. Sure, Cadillac had a V-16, but it wasn't supercharged, as some Duesy models, commonly referred to as SJs, were. The Duesy straight 8 was capable of 400hp, during the time when the ubiquitous Model T ran about 20hp. Some critics said it was the most expensive truck ever made for it's day, and there is truth to that. Before power steering, before power brakes,before syncromesh trannies, on skinny tires and primitive leaf suspensions - it was basically a truck. In fact, many old Dueseys were cut up and made into haulers after the bottom fell out of their value.

But so were all the other big cars of the day, so they weren't alone. And the styling - the various custom made bodies are just breathtaking. The luxury and excessive opulence they represented was very much over the top. And that long hood with a low cabin? How many cars have been chopped and channelled to get that "look" over the years? How many long hooded conventional trucks been sold, and dolled up to look lower? It's a primal design that still appeals.

I've only seen some in person twice - both at the Imperial Palace's Car Collection in Vegas. I went to Vegas twice, both times I made it a point to go here. I don't know if they still have it, because their current website says nothing about it, but they had a Duesenberg Room with ten or fifteen Dueseys in it. They also had a bar that had been salvaged from Front Street in Dodge City in the sixties. DC went through and urban renewal phase where they tore out most of the original downtown, including some landmark bars from the rowdy days. This bar was from one of them.

While that was cool too, that ain't why I was there. I got yelled at for leaning on the velvet rope too far to get a better angle at my favorite - a maroon French bodied sedan with no running boards, and no side mounted spares. They were mounted at the rear. It was also right hand drive.

Without those running boards, it was a very sleek looking car - very different than all the "standard" Murphy bodied cars that surrounded it. Of course, all those pics are gone now, just realized that while writing this....

I'd die a happy man if Jay Leno gave me a ride in one of his Dueseys and gave 'er hell.


jed said...

Oh, what fun, if only heaping piles of money would show up, to own something like that.

Speaking of cars, I just ran across the Tucker 48 over at Jalopnik. Geez, Louise, that was ambitious.

Did'ja know you can get a supercharged Caterham 7 these days?

Jeffro said...

Holy cow! Think of the power to weight ratio! Too bad I'd never fit in one....

drjim said...

Yep, they were the pinnacle of Engineering when they were made.
The 1968~1974 Pontiac Grand Prix got their "Model J" and "Model SJ" designations from the Duesenberg cars, a favorite of John DeLorean, who was at Pontiac at the time.

jed said...

This has turned into a bit of a wiki-wander. I learned that August Duesenberg developed the superchargers used by Auburn and Cord. Now, the 1936 Cord 810, that's just awesome.

Were we born too late? Well, living through the Great Depression ... kind of odd, that that period contained that and also these amazing cars.

Jeffro said...

Yes, and everything that came after certainly utilized the technology, but the extravagance was gone - at least until the fifties.

jed said...

Just for the record, apropros your comment elsewhere, I spent a good deal of time last night looking at chassis concepts for 'build your own car'. The 'Locost' -- poor man's Lotus 7, seems reachable, and various sorts of sandrails. But I keep thinking of a trike, partially because a tadpole config would be cool, and because the licensure is much easier.

I ended up watching some videos of the Ariel Atom. That might have to go at the top of my 'pile of money' list.