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One-off Exner-designed Duesenberg Model D revival prototype comes up for sale

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Photos courtesy Joe Bortz.

The stars all appeared to align for Duesenberg’s return in the mid-Sixties: a Duesenberg family member at the helm, an Exner-designed and Ghia-built prototype, confirmed orders for production models, even a factory taking shape. Yet the dream of a de-extinct Duesenberg never came to be, and now that prototype has come up for sale on the open market for the first time in more than 50 years.

The concept that Fritz Duesenberg, Augie Duesenberg’s son, and Milo Record, an Indianapolis-area promoter, pitched in early 1964 certainly sounded like a Duesenberg of yore. It would have a thunderous engine of 500 cubic inches and 500 horsepower and sit on an extra-long wheelbase; old-world craftsmen would build each one by hand; luxury would permeate every surface; and the price tag would hang well out of the reach of mere mortals at about $20,000, more than twice that of Cadillac’s most expensive model.

All they needed was money, somebody to design the car, and some way to build the car. Financing appeared to come via Fred McManis, engineering through former Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg engineer Dale Crosper and former Chrysler engineer Paul Farago, and an Indianapolis-based investor group put up the money for a new factory on an 88-acre parcel of land in northern Indianapolis. While early articles on the project got the attention of plenty of stylists, two names rose to the top: Virgil Exner and Virgil Exner Jr.

After the elder Exner left Chrysler in 1961, he and his son formed a design consultancy and set about imagining what some of the late great marques of the prewar era would look like as modern cars. In its December 1963 issue, Esquire magazine published four of the duo’s designs, including a Duesenberg envisioned as a dual-cowl sport phaeton with an upright grille and clamshell front fenders that stretched nearly to the rear wheelwells.

The Exners’ Duesenberg sketch for Esquire.

According to Virgil Exner Jr., the Esquire sketch inspired Fritz Duesenberg and Milo Record; however, according to an Automobile Quarterly interview with Virgil Exner Sr., the revival project already seemed underway by the time the Esquire sketches were published. Whatever primacy of the chicken or the egg, the Exners met with Duesenberg and Record in January 1964, and over the next several months continued their discussions, offering design sketches and consultancy on tooling methods, cost structures, and production schedules necessary to build a luxury automobile like the Duesenberg.

In his biography of Exner, Peter Grist wrote that the Exners signed a two-year contract with the new Duesenberg Corporation in September 1964 and produced 14 different exterior designs, a number of interior designs, and three 1/4-scale clay models. As Exner told Automobile Quarterly, the design philosophy behind the so-called Model D was simple: “A new car with enough borrowed from the old to satisfy the nostalgic. We want it to be more than just a big car – but a lean, graceful and elegant one as well, with that classic aura of dignity, a car to benefit the Duesenberg name.”

The final design took the shape of a four-door sedan rather than a dual-cowl sport phaeton, but the upright grille remained from the Esquire sketch, as did the clamshell fenders, though far more integrated into the overall body envelope.

In addition to styling expertise, Exner brought to the table his continued relationships with Chrysler and Ghia and so managed to have an Imperial chassis, its wheelbase altered to 137.5 inches, sent to Ghia just as the coachbuilder was wrapping up its work on the stretched 1965 Crown Imperial limousines. No 500-hp V-8, the V-8 that came with the Imperial chassis still put out 340 horsepower.

As Ghia’s craftsmen set to work on the Model D prototype in the summer and fall of 1965, the Duesenberg Corporation began soliciting $5,000 deposits against the $19,500 base purchase price from prospective customers. Many of those customers presumably appeared at the formal unveiling of the prototype in March 1966 at the Sheraton-Lincoln Hotel in Indianapolis; the car’s public debut followed at the Indianapolis 500 that year, and then Exner held a private showing in his studio that, as we’ve argued, heavily influenced Detroit’s neoclassical/brougham period that lasted throughout the Seventies.

Largely positive reviews followed each event, and Fritz Duesenberg began to promise a convertible and limousine to follow the sedan. But in October 1966 McManis pulled his support, leaving the company without reliable funding and with mounting debts (the Exners signed a royalty contract, so they never got paid for their work on the Duesenberg). Within a year and a half, all that was left of the company was the prototype Model D itself, and it went to auction at the Larz Anderson museum in May 1968.

According to Ken Gross’s story on the Model D for the February 1983 issue of Special Interest Autos, collector Harry Resnick bought the prototype for $37,500 – nowhere near the $60,000 it reportedly cost to build – and in turn sold the Model D to a Long Island-based replicar collector.

For many years that collector displayed the Model D at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, where dream car collector Joe Bortz spotted it and decided he needed to have it in his collection. “He said ‘Call me next year, but think of it as your car in my garage,'” Joe said. “I finally got the car 32 years later.” According to Bortz, the Duesenberg remains in entirely original condition with less than 500 miles on the odometer.

The Duesenberg Model D is currently listed on for $475,000.