Oct 6, 2011


J-101 in its current colors (2011)
The New York Automobile Salon in December, 1928, displayed all the latest car designs.  Perhaps the most impressive was the new Model J Duesenberg.   The car on display was a silver and black dual-cowl phaeton with coachwork by LeBaron.  It was the first and only Model J that had been completed in time for the salon show.  The chassis sold for $8,500.  Coachwork would add several thousand more to the price tag.  It was like nothing ever seen before and became the start of a legend.  Perhaps no other car in America's love affair with cars evokes the same awe as the Model J Duesenberg.  The car on display became the personal car of August Duesenberg, the younger of the two brothers who designed and built it.  It would remain in his possession until his death in 1955.

J-101 made headlines in the late 1960's when it changed hands for the then-unheard-of price of $235,000 at an Atlanta auction.  My brother and I were both car enthusiasts and I remember discussing that sale with him at the time.  We simply couldn't imagine anyone spending such a fortune for an automobile!

A few years later, probably about 1975, Bill and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for the annual Fall meet of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA).  We had a large trailer load of Lincoln-Zephyr parts to sell in the flea market.  As is often the case, it decided to rain on Saturday and the flea market area (unpaved in those days) became a quagmire.  We braved the storm, standing by our table of goodies hoping to sell some parts to pay for the trip.

On Saturday afternoon, a distinguished-looking older gentleman dressed in a yellow slicker and hood approached our table.  "Do you have any Lincoln Model K parts," he asked.  I admitted that Model K Lincolns were a little rich for my blood.  "Do you own a Model K?" I asked.  He replied that he had several.  (The Model K Lincolns were all hand built, all recognized as full classics, and were very expensive cars.)  I asked what other cars he might own.  He described a collection of nearly 40 cars -- Cadillacs, Packards, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Pierce Arrows, Lincolns, Marmons, Chryslers, and a Duesenberg.  It was an impressive collection.  We inquired what year and body style the Duesenberg might be.  "I own J-101," he answered.  Bill and I were speechless.  What were the odds that we would ever meet the owner of J-101!?!

In spite of the downpour, this fine gentleman took the time to tell us the story.  His name was Walter Spilsbury and he lived in Huntington Station, New York.   He had learned of the Duesenberg sale several months before it took place and had told his secretary to remind him when the auction was to occur.  He told us that he went to work one morning and his secretary reminded him that the auction was to take place that very day.  He hopped on a jet and went to Atlanta.

As he related it to us, he simply got caught up in the excitement of the moment and the next thing he knew, he had bought the car.  At this point, he had not even informed his wife that he had gone to Atlanta.  She was home "dying Easter eggs with our two small boys."  Shortly after he bought the car a newspaper reporter from Long Island's Newsday called Mr. Spilsbury's residence and asked his wife what she thought about her husband having set a new world's record for buying the most expensive car up to that point.  She told the reporter that he must be mistaken; her husband was at work in New York City.

It was a great story as he told it.  He graciously invited Bill and me to come to his home to visit his collection and even drive the Model J if we were so inclined.  He was a most gracious individual.  We never did take him up on his offer, however.

J-101 ended up in the William Harrah collection in Nevada and upon his death was sold to General William Lyon.  I believe the car now resides in the Lyon Air Museum on the west side of the runway at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.  It is still a car that is an important icon in American automotive history.
I feel really blessed that I encountered, on a rainy field in Hershey, one who was privileged to serve as its caretaker.


Anonymous said...

Hello. I just read your post about the Duesenberg J-101 from several years ago.

Your historical background information about the J-101 is great, but I am sorry to tell you that your information about Walter Spilsbury needs some editing.

I knew quite well Walter from the early 70's until his death in the late 90's. He lived in Huntington Bay, NY and he owned a very successful State Farm Insurance Agency in Huntington Station. He did not work in NYC and there certainly was no company jet.

He did have a large collection of outstanding cars and he did own the J-101 for about 10 years. He was very proud of it; but also somewhat secretive.

I was lucky enough to have taken a long ride in it with him in the mid 70's.

His family was very surprised at the purchase especially when the news hit the papers. He was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the owner of the most expensive car in the world in the 70's. I believe he paid $240k for it. That was a huge sum in those days!

Sorry to be a nitpicker, but since I happen to know the real story I thought I'd pass it along.

Bob said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I've made corrections to my original post. I appreciate the input.