1933 Duesenberg Model SJ sweep panel phaeton by LaGrande. Photos by Darin Schnabel, courtesy Auctions America.
LaGrande, Duesenberg’s in-house coachbuilder, constructed a total of 11 “sweep panel” phaetons on the long wheelbase Duesenberg J chassis, and of these, just three left the factory with supercharged engines. One of these three, chassis 2540, spent 24 years south of the border, earning the nickname the “Mexico City SJ.” On September 2, this remarkably original and well-documented 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ sweep panel phaeton by LaGrande will cross the auction stage in Auburn, Indiana, likely as the main attraction in Auctions America’s annual Labor Day sale.
Chassis 2540, carrying supercharged engine J-510, was delivered to its first owner, Wall Street trader Bernard E. “Ben” Smith, on August 22, 1933. While others were devastated by the effects of the Great Depression, Smith profited from it, earning an estimated $10 million in 1930 alone through the short sale of stocks. Ironically, his family estate in Bedford Village, New York, was known as “Nestledown Farm,” and for the first decade of its existence, that’s where the Duesenberg resided.
Though labeled as a phaeton, the LaGrande body carried by chassis 2540 used a folding rear windshield that could be tucked behind the front seat, giving the car the appearance of a convertible sedan with the top folded and the rear windscreen stowed. The absence of a full rear cowl made entry and exit easier for passengers, while giving the car a sportier, less formal appearance. Combined with the supercharged 420-cu.in. inline eight engine, rated at 320 horsepower (55 hp more than the normally aspirated Model J), the Duesenberg delivered the spirited performance to match its looks.
In the early 1940s, Smith entered into a business venture in Mexico, where he helped fund the construction of the Hipodromo de las Americas, a horse racing track near Mexico City. Though accounts differ as to the exact year (1944 or 1946), the Duesenberg eventually made its way south as well, where it was either sold or gifted to the Hipodromo’s general manager and promoter, Bruno Paglie. Prior to its Mexican odyssey, and perhaps to aid reliability in preparation for the trip, the Duesenberg’s centrifugal supercharger was removed by a New York factory agent, then subsequently lost to history.
Paglie kept the phaeton until 1950, when it was acquired by Valentine G. Melgarejo, a used car dealer with a flair for promotion and an eye for business. Using the Duesenberg to advertise his business, Melgarejo waited patiently as the market for such opulent classic cars began to rebound. Even after U.S. collectors became aware of its presence, Melgarejo rebuffed any attempts at buying the car, remaining its caretaker for 18 years.
In 1968, persistence paid off for Dr. William J. Wetta, a classic-car enthusiast from Alabama who trailered his new prize home from Mexico, later documenting the trip. Opting for refurbishment instead of a full restoration, Wetta, who died in 2016, entrusted the work to local restorer Pierre Fontana. In 1975, Wetta sold the Duesenberg to dealer James Southard, who funded a comprehensive restoration of the car.
Finished in the Damask Maroon and Texas Sand livery it wears today, chassis 2540 also received an engine rebuild and new tan leather upholstery. Following the completion of the work, the Duesenberg scored an impressive 99.75 points at a 1977 Allstate meet in Chicago, backing this up with a score of 98.75 points at the Indiana Grand Classic in Indianapolis, where it also captured a National First Prize.
In 1978, the Duesenberg sold to Gene Sands, who added a reproduction supercharger built by Leo Gephardt to restore the car to its original SJ specifications and output. Sands kept the performance-enhanced phaeton until 1983, when it sold at a Christies auction to General William Lyon, a retired major general in the United States Air Force, noted car collector, and Orange County, California, real estate developer.
The SJ proved to be a relatively good investment for Lyon, who paid somewhere north of $300,000 for the car at the time of its purchase, then sold it to the consignor at an RM Sotheby’s auction 25 years later, in 2008, for a fee-inclusive price of $1.69 million.
The car’s value is enhanced by several factors. First, open Duesenbergs typically sell for more than enclosed examples, and those sporting the original engine, chassis, and body tend to command the highest prices. This SJ checks all those boxes (with the exception of its original supercharger), and its entire history is well-documented, meaning that there are no surprises awaiting the next owner. While its restoration is now four decades old, the car has been well cared for by all subsequent owners, and to some buyers, such preservation is more valuable than over-restoration. This time around, Auctions America is predicting a selling price between $2.5 million and $3.0 million when the Duesenberg Model SJ sweep panel phaeton crosses the auction stage in Indiana.
The Auburn sale takes place from August 31 through September 3 at the Auburn Auction Park in Auburn, Indiana. For additional details, visit AuctionsAmerica.com.