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The rebuild of the first Duesenberg nears the finish line

July 22, 2013

Over the past two seasons, we’ve checked in on the rebirth of the world’s first production Duesenberg at the exotic restoration shop run by ex-racer Bruce Canepa in Scotts Valley, Calif. Last fall, the neglected colossus — hauled out of storage in Hawaii by Californian Jimmy Castle, whose ancestor bought the unique Model A in 1921 — sat forlornly near far more racy Porsches and Ferraris, patiently waiting as pony-tailed restorer Dave Stoltz worked with a half-dozen black and white period photos as his principal guide.

This spring, my visit found the car disassembled, a massive automotive puzzle waiting to be pieced together from either reworked original parts, diligently sourced period parts or, in many cases, hand-sculpted parts that mirrored what was on the car when it left the factory.

With summer in full swing and the car’s 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance unveiling less than a month away, it was time to see how Stoltz was doing. In a few words, the car was now a car. Sitting on four massive wheels and slim white-walled tires, the jet-black Duesy was without its engine cover and trunk, but otherwise, with a slight squint, resembled the machine the elder Castle — a giant of a man whose custom interior reflected his size — had collected from Duesenberg’s Midwestern headquarters nearly one hundred years ago.

While not as preposterously elegant as Duesenberg’s fabled Model Js, driven by Gatsby-esque leaders and celebrities during and after the Great Depression, this stout Model A nonetheless represents the first time the company shifted gears from racing toward production cars, making it one of the most important American cars still in existence. Although this particular car has never left the Castle family, it required significant work due not only to age but modifications over the years to cope with Hawaii’s lava-hard country roads.

So much so that it almost wasn’t restored.

“Jimmy asked me to restore the Duesy and I said ‘No,’” Canepa says with a broad grin in his office surrounded by motorsports books and trophies. “It’s not like I didn’t have the facilities to do it. It’s just not what we do. But he insisted.”

Castle, whose fleet of regionally-based vintage racing cars Canepa has long overseen, was adamant that the car not be over-restored to something better than new, and that it be driveable. Canepa says his friend “is not the car-show type, but we’re eager to see how it will do in its class this year. There are about 10 Duesenbergs coming. I told Jimmy if we can score in the top three, that’s a win.”

Canepa made a last-ditch effort to pass the job on to people with deeper knowledge of Duesenbergs, such as the L.A.-based Nethercutt Collection. The ex-racer invited noted Duesy historian Randy Ema to visit his Santa Cruz-area shop, thinking he would help convince Castle the car needed another shop to oversee the project.

“But he didn’t, and that was that,” says Canepa. “The key for me was to not make any mistakes, and to have a crew of guys who really wanted to do this. My guys will always do a good job on anything I ask them to do. But this car was going to Pebble and needed 150 percent from everyone. Only then would it be the best.”

Canepa says he doesn’t plan to get into the Duesenberg restoration game, no matter how well this first Duesy does at Pebble. “It’s nice to prove we can do something like this, but we have so much other work to do,” he says, referencing a shop filled with vintage European racing and road machines. “But you learn something whenever you do a project, like when we took a torch to machined aluminum parts and got them to look like cast parts. So that’s great. Ultimately, maybe someone will see this car and think, ‘Oh, I want these guys to restore my Gullwing.’”

On the shop floor, Stoltz and nearly a dozen other workers swarm the Duesy. One is adjusting the three delicate levers on the steering wheel, which control the car’s throttle, timing and lights. Another is hunched over the straight eight-cylinder engine that was rebuilt by Ed Pink’s in southern California (“When it’s idling you can almost count the rpms, it’s so perfect,” says Stoltz). And a few other workmen huddle over the thick leather that will soon fill the interior.

For Stoltz, seeing the Duesy roll out the massive garage doors and witnessing its unveiling at Pebble Beach in late August will be a bittersweet moment.

“I’ve been working on it for so long now since we first started thinking about the project, and every time I look at it I see something that represented a challenge and how we overcame it,” he says, noting that the car’s pristine ribbed metal floorboard actual hides a flawless patch job that saved a piece that was not in any way replaceable. “At least I know it’ll be back in here soon, because there are already things we want to do after Pebble to make it more driveable for Jimmy, including making the brake lines thinner so there’s less of a spongy feel to the pedal.”

After this duesy of a restoration project, Stoltz’s phone will be ringing with offers to try his hand at another such beast. But he’s inclined to demur.

“On the one hand, it’d be fun, because all Duesenbergs were different,” he says. “On the other, I really enjoy working on customs and hot rods, where there’s so much more freedom with what you can do to a car. I guess I kinda miss getting crazy.”