Under The Hood

Leno Rebuilds Duesenberg Model J LaGrande Coupe

Extinct Duesenberg coupe brought back from beyond


The rebuilt LaGrand coupe as it appears today. (Photo by Zefrey Thowell)

Just six coupes were originally built on the Duesenberg Model J chassis and until last December, just three were left in existence. Now the tally is back up to four.

The number of coupes didn’t rise through the magic of a time machine but rather the efforts of comedian Jay Leno and automobile restorer and historian Randy Ema, who specializes in Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs (Ema is also the current owner of Duesenberg).

About 10 years ago, Leno bought a Duesenberg chassis that had originally been paired with one of the two LaGrande-badged coupe bodies built for the Model J chassis by the Union City Body Co. of Union City, Ind. At the time of Leno’s purchase, the chassis still wore the ghastly aluminum convertible coupe body that had been hand built for it in the mid 1940s by Indianapolis Ford-Lincoln dealer W. Jim Roberts. As hard as it is to believe today, Roberts trashed the original LaGrande coupe body when he made room for his new convertible coupe body.

The Duesenberg immediately after W. Jim Roberts scrapped the original LaGrande coupe body and replaced it with this hand-hammered convertible body. The body was built of aluminum by an employee of Roberts’ Indianapolis Lincoln dealership. (Randy Ema collection)

The fate of the other LaGrande coupe is unknown, but one of the two Judkins coupe Model Js still exists (the other is believed to have been wrecked). The Murphy coupe still survives, as does the sixth and last Model J coupe, an aerodynamic job that Ema previously restored for Leno.

After Roberts completed this “conversion” from Classic coupe to modern convertible, he tried to sell his Duesenberg for $27,000, even advertising it in a late-1940s magazine with a full-page ad. There were no buyers at that price. It did later sell, but for a paltry $1000.

In this convertible form, the Duesenberg Model J appeared in J.L. Elbert’s book “Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car” and later in Fred Roe’s “Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection.” It also appeared at a few shows through the years, including the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club’s Annual Reunion in Auburn, Ind., but it was largely out of the public eye.

The Duesenberg was essentially a forgotten footnote in automotive history by the 2000s, both in its convertible form and even its original coupe configuration. In almost full secrecy, Leno had Ema and his team remove the convertible coupe body with the express idea of building the Duesenberg to exactly how it had been originally configured in 1931, right down to the LaGrande coupe body.

Duesenberg had two of these coupe bodies built for its Model J chassis in 1931. The bodies were built by the Union City Body Co. but were badged “LaGrande,” a made-up name for Duesenberg’s fictitious in-house coachbuilding firm. Although the bodies themselves were built by Union City, Duesenberg did paint and trim them. This factory photo shows either Leno’s car, J-415/chassis 2432 or its twin, J-406/chassis 2428. (Author’s collection)

When Ema tore down the car, he found the chassis, No. 2432, was pretty beat up. The original engine, J-415, had been hopped up back in the day and needed a full rebuild. The wheels had been cut down to lower the car, but at least the original Duesenberg Model J engine, transmission and axles were in place, although they needed restoration. No original Duesenberg body parts remained under the convertible body, and even the firewall had been modified to fit the lower body. A few original Duesenberg instruments remained, but they were accompanied by some 1940s Lincoln components. In fact, throughout the body and interior, Ema found many Lincoln components since the convertible coupe had been built by a Ford-Lincoln dealer.

A view of the car’s original interior showing the lacewood trim and the adjustable seats. Note the windshield wiper goes through the glass of the windshield. (Randy Ema collection)

It took 10 years of on again, off again work of making entirely new parts and sourcing a few original Model J parts, but in December 2016, Ema was able to finally deliver the Duesenberg to Leno just as it appeared when sold to its first owner, H.S. Lewis of Beaver Falls, New York, on May 23, 1931, probably from Duesenberg’s New York City showroom. This car and its twin had been built on spec by the Union City Body Co. for Duesenberg and were delivered “in the white,” meaning they were unpainted an untrimmed. Idle Duesenberg employees then painted the bodies, installed the lavish interiors (which featured unique-for-the-time adjustable seats) and installed the bodies on long wheelbase chassis.

Knowing how much I enjoy Classic-era coupes, Ema told me of his secret project and he and Leno allowed us to follow up on the car once it was finished. We are thrilled to have seen the work of Leno and Ema finally completed, and we’re excited to share our photographs and interview with Leno and Ema in an article appearing in the March 8, 2018, issue of Firsatsaatleri. (You may purchase a back issue of this copy of while supplies last.)

Firsatsaatleri would like to thank Jay Leno, Randy Ema and Helga Pollock for access to the car and its past.

The special fold-out cover of the March 8, 2018, issue of Firsatsaatleri.

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