August 03 2011
Simon de Burton
In the summer of 1929, Captain George Whittell Junior sensed the onset of a seismic economic happening. Following his instincts, he shrewdly liquidated his entire stock portfolio just as events began to unfold that led to the infamous Wall Street Crash which destroyed businesses, devastated lives and crippled America. Whittell, however, was by then sitting pretty – on a useful $50m in cash.
The 47-year-old was used to substantial wealth, having been born into a prominent San Francisco family that had made a mint in banking, property and railways during the Gold Rush era. Yet he was anything but the conventional heir.
High society didn’t interest Whittell, and he first showed a rebellious streak as a teenager by running off with the Barnum and Bailey circus. Later, he is said to have sparred with world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey and survived a few hands of poker with the notorious gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. He also met and married a chorus girl, causing his outraged father to pay for the union to be annulled – a move that simply encouraged Whittell Junior to meet another chorus girl and marry her too.
Then there was the hard drinking, the ongoing womanising, the penchant for unusual pets (he counted among his companions an ex-Barnum and Bailey elephant called Mingo and a lion called Bill) and a desire for solitude that resulted in him buying more than 40,000 acres of land around Lake Tahoe and 27 miles of Nevada shoreline, just to avoid having neighbours. There he built the imposing Thunderbird Lodge, complete with a dedicated poker room (the Card House) and a 600ft tunnel leading to a boathouse where he kept a mahogany motor yacht that could touch 70mph.
What else could Whittell spend his money on? Cars, of course, and Duesenbergs in particular. Why Duesenbergs? Because they were America’s best: hand-built, exclusive, fast and pricey. No self-respecting multimillionaire’s motor house was complete without a “Duesy” – Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst, the Whitneys. They all had one.
Whittell, however, had six, all of the ultimate “Model J” variety. He bought his favourite in 1931, a specially lengthened version that cost him a cool $17,000 at a time when a Ford Model A could be had for $400. Only around half the cost went on the rolling chassis, the remainder being spent with the renowned Pasadena coachbuilder Murphy, which had achieved a reputation for dressing the most powerful and most expensive American automobile on the market in suitably lavish clothing.
Shortly before Whittell turned up at Murphy with his latest commission, the firm had hired a new young stylist called Franklin Hershey, who would go on to create iconic designs such as the Ford Thunderbird and the distinctive tail fins of the 1949 Cadillac. At 24, however, he was undoubtedly more than a little daunted at the prospect of being assigned to work on the eccentric captain’s car, not least since it was one of his first-ever projects.
But Hershey’s innate talent and Whittell’s visionary ideas gelled to produce what is now regarded as one of the most elegant – and whimsical – American cars ever created. The roof was made from a sheet of brushed aluminium and detailed to mimic the closed fabric top of a convertible, even to the extent of having a complete folding mechanism on the inside; the upholstery was trimmed in gleaming black patent leather; and the fuel tank was thickly chrome plated. Whittell also showed his disdain for Prohibition-era laws by specifying a secret compartment behind the seats that was probably used to stash illicit alcohol.
On the outside, “port” and “starboard” running lights were incorporated, along with a dozen chrome strips cascading down the car’s rear to allude to Whittell’s love of boats. The underside, meanwhile, was finished in a thick coat of gleaming crimson paint – the Christian Louboutin look, but 60 years early.
Although Whittell enjoyed the unique Duesy for the next 18 years, revelling in the turbine-like power of its 6.8-litre, straight-eight engine, he clocked up a mere 10,000 miles in it before giving the car to a female friend who promptly drove to LA and traded it for a new MG. Two more owners followed, before the Whittell Coupé was acquired by Georgia carpet mogul and legendary car collector Ed Weaver in the late 1980s.
The current owner bought the car in 1995, following Weaver’s death, and has since had it meticulously restored to Whittell’s exact original specification by renowned Duesenberg specialist Chris Charlton. The coupé will change hands again later this month, when it takes centre stage as the star of the Gooding & Company auction at the world’s most prestigious car show, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The most expensive Duesenberg to cross the block to date is the so-called Mormon Meteor, an outlandish-looking special that was driven to numerous speed and endurance records during the 1930s by Ab Jenkins, a racing driver and one-time mayor of Salt Lake City. It fetched $4.46m at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach auction seven years ago, when the collector’s car market was just emerging from the doldrums. But the Whittell Coupé, which has still only covered 12,000 miles from new, could make even more.
“A good Duesenberg is probably the most desirable American collector’s car there is,” says David Brynan, automotive specialist at Gooding & Company, “but the Whittell Coupé is probably more desirable than most. It has a unique body by Murphy, the best Duesenberg coachbuilder; it has a well-documented and fabulous history; it is completely fresh to the auction market; and it is exactly as it would have been when it was new. It is in nearly the same condition as in 1931, making it highly covetable. It’s likely to comfortably exceed the price achieved for the Mormon Meteor.”
It seems doubtful, however, that the new owner will be able to exceed the flamboyance of Whittell, who even managed to maintain his remarkable sense of style post mortem. He was buried in his favourite ermine coat.