Model J Duesenbergs were built for the elite. In both their concept and their cost they were inherently accessible only to the most successful, influential and powerful.
It was inherent in E.L. Cord's positioning of the Model J with understated advertising showing a sparsely drawn black and white sketch of a gentleman, immaculately attired in crisp white, on the deck of his yacht with the only copy being "He drives a Duesenberg."
The Model J's specifications were second-to-none: 420 cubic inches, 265 horsepower, eight cylinders, 32 valves, dual overhead camshafts, choice of 142½" and 153½" wheelbase chassis. When introduced in late 1928 at the 1929 New York Auto Salon the Model J was twice as powerful as its next closest American competitor. So was its price: $8,500 for the bare chassis because it was assumed that the discerning Duesenberg Model J buyer would commission one of the day's fine coachbuilders to clothe it in individual style, equipment and colors.
E.L. Cord gave Fred Duesenberg the freedom to design anything he wanted, as long as it would be described in superlatives, using the finest materials and methods. Extensive use of aluminum kept weight low. Rubber mounts were employed for the engine and elsewhere throughout the chassis to isolate vibrations from the passengers. Aluminum castings were highly polished and cast iron was painted, giving the Model J's engine a level of presentation that most cars' exteriors could only dream of.
From the Model J's earliest days its buyers' roster read like the society, finance and entertainment pages of newspapers. Dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, band leader Paul Whiteman, Gary Cooper, Joe E. Brown, William Randolph Hearst, his companion Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Tommy Manville, Jr., Cornelius Whitney, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, John Wanamaker, Philip Wrigley, Archduke Franz Josef of Austria and Col. Jacob Schick all drove Duesenbergs.
As the Roaring Twenties slumped into the Depression years buyers for Duesenberg's Model J became fewer and farther between. The great coachbuilders like Murphy, Willoughby, Rollston, LeBaron, Brunn and others also withered in the absence of new work.
In Pasadena, California Walter M. Murphy company, builder of more Model J coachwork than any other, liquidated in 1932. Its equipment and some of its most skilled craftsmen coalesced into a new company under Chris Bohman and Maurice Schwartz, Bohman & Schwartz. One of the company's first commissions was a modern Town Cabriolet body on a 1935 Model J chassis for candy heiress Ethel Mars. In addition to having a raked, vee-shaped radiator shell, designer J. Herbert Newport created streamlined sidemount spare covers that became the car's signature design feature.
A few years later Bohman & Schwartz got another commission which Newport designed with the same sweeping enclosed sidemount covers. The order came from "John the Baptist" and included many unique specifications like star quarter windows, a crescent moon-shaped rear window, star-studded white headliner, a hydraulically operated folding landaulet and an elevating rear seat. It was for the Rev. M.J. Divine, "Father Divine," and it is one of the most famous of all Duesenbergs as well as the penultimate Duesenberg Model J delivered.
Father Divine was a charismatic preacher who founded the Universal Peace Mission Movement in the 1910's. Controversial throughout his life, Father Divine built a successful movement on messages of honesty, freedom from vices, sexual abstinence and equal treatment for all. The Universal Peace Missions provided lodging, food and a steady diet of Father Divine's messages in return for followers' turning over all worldly possessions and earnings to the Mission. Followers were welcomed from all races and treated equally. Father Divine was an early and successful exponent of the equal rights movement that would culminate in the Sixties.
While his followers labored in support of the Mission Father Divine lived a luxurious life while never owning a thing, taking only "loans" of houses and cars from grateful "Angels", the term the Universal Peace Mission applied to followers who had turned over all their possessions to the Mission. His Missions hosted sumptuous banquets for followers and visitors; in accordance with the Mission's precepts anyone was welcome, drawing thousands during the Depression's dark days.
In 1936 "John the Baptist", probably John Hunt, a wealthy convert to the Universal Peace Mission and leader of the Los Angeles area Missions, ordered this extravagant Duesenberg Model J as an offering for Father Divine. Father Divine's utterances were considered by followers to be holy and he was constantly attended by a bevy of secretaries who took down every word. It made for a generous retinue. The Duesenberg was created specifically to accommodate Father and Mother Divine and his attendants, the longest, widest, most commodious Duesenberg built.
The wheelbase was extended to 178½ ", 8½" longer than the Bugatti Type 41 Royale. The body was designed by J. Herbert Newport for Bohman & Schwartz with a long and wide tonneau that included "throne" chairs for Father and Mother Divine under a folding landaulet tonneau. It was originally designed so Father Divine's chair would raise hydraulically but that feature was replaced with a supplemental cushion that raised Father Divine's seat several inches (he was slightly built at just over five feet tall) so he could be clearly seen and address his followers at gatherings through a built in public address system. Rear-facing jump seats behind the divider and the front seats both accommodated four-abreast seating, bringing the "Throne Car's" designed capacity to ten.
The body was seven feet wide. Even with spacers behind the wheels to widen the track the rear fenders nearly disappear within the body sides. Running boards were swallowed up by the body, replaced by folding step plates hidden within the doors. An intercom communicated Father Divine's instructions to the driver. Many of the more extravagant features originally specified including the hydraulically operated throne, star-studded headliner and oddly-shaped rear compartment windows where eliminated during construction.
Upon completion in 1937 it was presented to Father Divine by one of his disciples, Mary Bird Tree (John Hunt having been imprisoned for violation of the Mann Act). Father Divine, who owned nothing, immediately gave it back to her and it was registered in her name, joining a considerable fleet of luxury automobiles provided by grateful Angels for Father Divine's use. Over the following years it was seen frequently in New York and Philadelphia although in a 1949 letter to Duesenberg historian J.L. Elbert, Father Divine stated:
"I have had and presently have several different makes of American made automobiles, which have been made available by various members of some of the many Churches under MY jurisdiction for mY [sic] Personal use, which I consider to be superior in performance and comfort to the Duesenberg and a number of other foreign makes of cars in which I have ridden, out of respect to their owners.
"It was for this cause, MY respect for the one who owns the Duesenberg that I permitted her to place her car at MY disposal, but it has been some time, now, since I have used it, although she still owns it.
"Of course, I realize whatsoever I do is of interest to the public because the people, generally, realize that I have solved the economic, social and financial problems for millions, not only in this Nation, but throughout the world and not a true follower of Mine is in lacks, wants or limitations."
In 1948 the "Throne Car" was laid up with 100,743 miles on its odometer and its folding landaulet replaced with a removable padded rear roof section in a carriage house at Father Divine's headquarters, the "Woodmont" estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. Following Father Divine's surrender of his mortal body in 1965 it remained in the care of Mother Divine, in storage awaiting his return.
Many collectors attempted to acquire it in subsequent years. Eventually Bob Bahre was successful. He sold it to Robert Adams in February 1981 and Adams sold it to Rick Carroll in September 1983. Carroll passed it on to the Imperial Palace Collection two months later where it took a central place as one of the signature attractions in the IP's legendary collection of Duesenbergs until it was acquired in 1999 by the Dean V. Kruse Foundation, still in the badly deteriorated condition in which it had been rescued from Father Divine's carriage house.
It was acquired by John M. O'Quinn from the Kruse Foundation in 2006 and almost immediately sent to renowned restorer Fran Roxas's Vintage Motor Group where a comprehensive restoration was begun. Finished in 2009 in deep green with green broadcloth rear compartment and brown leather in the front, it was shown at the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and subsequently carefully preserved in the O'Quinn Collection.
Father Divine's "Throne Car" Duesenberg is without parallel in the history of great automobiles. Its specifications alone the longest, widest, heaviest Duesenberg built its position as the next-to-last Model J chassis and engine delivered by the factory, its famous, and fabulous, history with the Universal Peace Mission as Father Divine's "Throne Car" and exceptional provenance in some of America's most discriminating collections make it a singular example. It retains all its original components including the frame, firewall, engine and body. Its return from dilapidated and rusty to Pebble Beach quality is a masterpiece of both the restorer's art and John M. O'Quinn's devotion to preserving and maintaining America's automobile history.
The 1937 Duesenberg Model J "Throne Car" by Bohman and Schwartz is absolutely and without qualification unique, one of the most famous automobiles ever built and one without parallel even in the annals of the legendary Duesenberg Model J.