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WE CONTINUE THE tale of a wonderfully eccentric man, George Whittell, Jr., and one of the six Duesenbergs he commissioned, the 1931 Model J Long-Wheelbase Coupe. Yesterday in Part 1, The Captain, as he liked to be known, lived a life of wealth and eccentricity. Today in Part 2, his car encounters adventures as well, including one with a petite young woman.
My primary source for these tidbits is David Brynan’s The Whittell Coupe, assembled for Gooding & Company’s 2011 Pebble Beach Auction.
In the Introduction, David Brynan writes, “During the late 1920s and early 1930s, technology advanced at such a rapid pace that it profoundly influenced every aspect of modern life. Throughout that period, artists were inspired by the new found dynamism and looked to technology as an unexplored forum for creative expression.”
The Whittell Coupe’s Designer. One of these artists was Franklin Q. Hershey, whom Brynan calls “an artist in metal.” Hershey worked part-time with coach builder Walter M. Murphy while attending Southern California’s Occidental College. Upon graduation in 1930, he joined the coach builder’s staff full-time.
Notes Brynan, “In quintessential Murphy fashion, Hershey promoted strong graphic elements and horizontal-line dynamism, but a trademark style and variety of signature flourishes gained him individual recognition. Extensive use of aluminum, harmonious proportion and careful consideration of brightwork are characteristics that have helped define the designer’s oeuvre.”
The Whittell Coupe is a rolling affirmation of this.
The Captain’s Coupe. When George Whittell, Jr., commissioned this particular Duesenberg in 1929, he already owned five other Model Js, all but one bodied by the Murphy firm. For this latest Model J, The Captain specified a Long-Wheelbase chassis, its wheelbase 11 in. greater than the already extravagant 142.5 in. of the standard Model J. (To put this in perspective, the original Austin Mini’s overall length was 120.8 in.)
Brynan notes that The Captain ordered his Duesenberg “with a number of unusual features, including a second taillamp, an exhaust cutout, and an exceedingly rare freewheeling device.” Specified as well was an intimate two-seat layout with raked windshield and a brushed aluminum top.
The top was fixed, but fashioned to echo design of a convertible with faint ridges to give the impression of top bows. Within, there’s even a faux folding mechanism with chrome hinges and wooden bows, as well as a mohair lining.
Among others of The Captain’s toys was “Thunderbird,” what Brynan calls “one of the most glamorous wooden boats ever constructed.
Given its owner’s nautical proclivities, the Whittell Coupe has running lights, located low, just aft of the car’s spare tires on the front fenders. “As expected,” Brynan notes, “in the evening, the starboard side emits an errie green glow, the port side a lurid red.”
The Whittell Coupe was fitted with a state-of-the-art Philco Transitione cathedral radio. Its antenna lurks beneath the left running board.
Gooding provides a short video of the Whittell Coupe in action.
The Young Woman on the Booster Seat. Brynan describes the mystery in which The Captain and his Coupe parted ways: “Like a scene from a noir film, in 1949 a petite young woman appeared in Los Angeles, peering out from the steering wheel of Captain Whittell’s imposing Model J Coupe. As can best be surmised, the driver was either a ‘friend’ or ‘employee’ of Whittell.” The young woman’s stature necessitated a booster seat.
The car ended up at Rob Robert’s sports car dealership in Hollywood, where this mysterious young woman traded it for an MG TC.
Gooding Results. At the Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach Auction, August 2011, the Whittell Coupe fetched $10,340,000, breaking the record for Duesenberg auction prices. In 1929, The Captain paid $17,000 for the car (around $256,000 in today’s dollars).
This reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose narrator says in The Rich Boy, 1926, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
And so are their cars. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com
I saw the stunning Whittell Coupe when it sold at Gooding, but also was at Harrah’s before it was reimagined as The National Automobile Museum, where I saw the one non-Murphy Whittell Duesey, the Weymann boattail speedster. It’s one of the longest two-seat open cars ever built, and surely one of the most beautiful. It had (if memory serves) about 1400 miles on the clock, reportedly because he got tired of fighting his way through gawking crowds to get to the car. I suspect it was more the collectors’ dilemma – with so many great cars, they each don’t get driven much. I believe it was at Pebble Beach in 2007 where its original tires were beginning to show their age.