Rebuilding the first Duesenberg, one bolt at a time
On a recent fall morning, business is buzzing at the automotive candy shop that is Canepa Design. Over here, a Ferrari Daytona is having work done on its carbs, over there a vintage Mercedes Benz Gullwing is being stripped of paint. But sandwiched between other familiar sports cars -- a pair of Porsche 356s and a Shelby GT350 -- is a rare bird of a far different feather: The first passenger car to ever wear the name Duesenberg, an important piece of automotive history.
Dave Stoltz, Canepa's one-man restoration crew on this project of a lifetime, is hard at work on this doozy of a car, a 1921 Duesenberg Model A road-rocket that has been in the Castle family -- Hawaiian missionaries turned land and produce magnates -- since new and is being revived by California descendent Jimmy Castle. The car is the first production model of the storied racing-focused brand that later became synonymous with four-wheeled opulence. These visions of American luxury were driven by everyone from Al Capone to William Randolph Hearst, and custom-outfitted cost as much as $25,000 at a time when doctors earned around $3,000 a year.
Canepa Design's mission is to present this one-off car at the 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, just down Highway One from its Scotts Valley, Calif., headquarters. Although in its present state the car looks humble, restored it could well make a 1962 Ferrari GTO that recently traded hands for $35 million look like a cheap date.
"Duesenbergs routinely fetch eight figures, so for this one, the very first production car that's stayed in the same family, the price could well be more than $50 million," says Canepa spokesman John Ficarra, who adds that the restoration alone will cost more than a million, most of it in labor as Stoltz sets about either restoring or manufacturing myriad pieces using as a roadmap just four photos of the car in its heyday.
Not that the car's ultimate asking price matters. Castle doesn't appear to be selling. Duesenberg collector and comedian Jay Leno tried to buy the car a few years back but was politely rebuffed. He remains intrigued by the seminal machine.
"The Duesenberg brothers built racing cars, which eventually gave way to making a few production cars," Leno explains. "This car had a straight 8 (cylinder) engine, which was fairly new at the time, and hydraulic brakes. It was big, heavy and reliable. The first of anything is always significant. It's like a Honus Wagner baseball card. And some cars these days really are moving into the realm of kinetic artwork, investments that aren't unlike buying an early (Marc) Chagall or a Picasso."