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Article written back in 2013

Scotts Valley, Calif. — Nobody would have called the car a beauty. Impossibly high-waisted, cloaked entirely in black, with boxy hips and awkward lines, it stood primly erect on the shop floor, a lonely figure amid seductive shapes.

When first approached about restoring it, the shop’s owner, Bruce Canepa, hesitated. The métier of his business here — part restoration facility, part racecar works and part collector-car dealership — runs to low-slung Cobras, Corvettes, Porsches and Mercedes Gullwings.

“We’ve got the expertise, but it’s just not our thing,” Mr. Canepa protested to the car’s owner, a longtime client and fellow racing enthusiast, Jimmy Castle. “Nearly everything we do here is postwar.”


Mr. Castle, who lives in Monterey, an hour’s drive south, insisted. He wanted Canepa to do the work, and he wanted to keep the project close to home.

Three years and some 10,000 hours of intensive restoration work later, the car, a single-bench-seat Duesenberg Model A coupe — the first privately purchased car from what many consider America’s most historically significant automotive brand — is to compete next Sunday at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance on the Monterey Peninsula of California.


The Duesenberg joined the household of the Castles, the missionary and landowning family with major interests in Hawaii, in 1921. Though a prestige model in its early days, it was later pressed into service as a work vehicle in Hawaii. Over the years, the car’s upholstery had been gnawed by horses, its wood frame invaded by tropical termites and its aluminum skin etched by the elements. The steel fenders were battered and rusted; original parts were missing or had been haphazardly replaced.

“She was pretty homely,” Mr. Canepa said.

Yet for all its issues, Mr. Canepa realized this was a car like no other. Not only is it the first Duesenberg purchased by a customer, it is the only one that is still in the family of the original owners, according to an authority on the marque, Randy Ema of Orange, Calif.

Before agreeing to take the job, Mr. Canepa polled his crew. “I wanted to make sure our guys, who are used to restoring Le Mans racers, really wanted to work on a 90-year-old Duesenberg.”

Most, however, had already grasped that this was more than another elderly automobile. “The more we looked,” Mr. Canepa said, “the more everybody just thought it was the coolest thing.”


True to the company’s racing heritage, the Model A Duesenberg was the first American passenger vehicle equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and an overhead-cam in-line 8-cylinder engine. In another sign of the maker’s competition past, the Castle car was fitted with full-length steel belly pans.

Typical of the era, the Castle coupe, car No. 601 in the factory’s record, was produced as a running chassis without a body. At a time when a Ford Model T roadster cost less than $400, a Model A Duesenerg’s price tag, including a coachbuilt body, could easily exceed $7,000, Mr. Ema said.

The coupe’s aluminum-skin body used an ash frame. “Everybody we talked to about restoring that frame said, ‘We’ll just scan it and make a new one,’ ” Mr. Canepa said. “We said, ‘No thanks.’ ”

“Today, the whole restoration philosophy is about preserving as much original content as possible,” he said. “From Day 1, that was our objective.”

Mr. Canepa turned to a local master woodworker, Charles Pyle, a specialist in Craftsman furniture and fastener-free joinery. Mr. Pyle took apart the frame, removing hundreds of tacks and nails and replacing rotted sections with new wood. For strength, the structure was infused with epoxy. Period-correct hide glue, made from boiled hooves, horns and animal skin, was used for final assembly.

Though Mr. Pyle’s work was done mostly with the same types of hand tools used almost a century earlier, there were exceptions, including a vacuum he designed to draw the epoxy into the wood. The frame restoration required almost a year and a half.

Rebuilding the engine was no simpler. The job went to Ed Pink Racing Engines in Van Nuys, Calif. “We’ve done quite a few World War I-era projects,” said Frank Honsowetz, Pink’s general manager. “But the Duesenberg was a quantum leap more advanced.”

Unlike modern cars, whose camshafts are turned by belts or chains, Duesenberg’s were driven by a geared vertical shaft at the front of the engine. With the existing gears badly worn and new parts unavailable, replacements were machined from solid stock, which took eight months.

Other work included replacing the brass carburetor, refurbishing the camshaft and connecting rods, fabricating finned-aluminum side covers and recoating the engine in its correct shade of gray enamel.

In 1928, when Duesenberg introduced the Model J, the Castle car was shipped back to Indianapolis for updating. Wheels and hubs, brakes, bumpers, steering, headlamps — even the trunk’s spare tire spindle — were replaced with Model J parts.

“That just meant more work,” Mr. Canepa said. “Our job was to deliver the car as new.”

Entrusted with day-to-day oversight of the restoration was Dave Stoltz, a fabricator and machinist at the shop. Like Mr. Canepa, he is a former dirt-track racer who had never restored a car of this vintage but whose hands, his boss knew, could shape anything from metal.

The four known photographs of the car in its original condition were taped above his workbench. Mr. Stoltz devoted hours to research, and he reached out to experts like Mr. Ema, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind., and other specialists. “I’d love to claim I did everything myself,” he said, “but I’ve had many helpers.”

One who pitched in might easily have been a competitor. By coincidence, Arnold Schmidt was restoring the second purchased Duesenberg in Valencia, Calif., 300 miles south of the Canepa shop. Mr. Schmidt helped Mr. Stoltz complete the coupe’s steering assembly; when Mr. Schmidt needed to find where a fuel filter belonged, Mr. Stoltz returned the favor with a photograph he had found in his research.

Stumped for the coupe’s original spotlight, Mr. Stoltz found an identical piece on a Pierce-Arrow in a museum. Armed with a digital camera, tape measure, cardboard and scissors, he drew plans and fashioned a template. A British restoration company made a housing from his drawings, and Mr. Stoltz machined the light’s hardware to produce a perfect match — and followed up by creating new mounting stands for the headlights using old photos.

Mostly, however, original parts were painstakingly renewed. Rather than replace the car’s fenders, for example, Mr. Stoltz repaired rusted areas with fresh steel, seamlessly welding old and new metal together. Original nuts, bolts, washers and other hardware were sorted into piles, labeled and soaked in penetrating oil.

Early this year, some in the cliquish world of classic autos suggested that Canepa’s team might be in over its head.

Mr. Stoltz was unfazed. “I love thrashing on it,” he said with a flinty grin. “Especially when somebody says you can’t do it.”

Mr. Canepa assigned Mr. Stoltz a crew of helpers and put the job on 12-hour shifts. By late June, the most elusive pieces, including an original brake light (found on the Internet) and the correct wool pinstripe upholstery, were in hand.

On July 3, the crew flipped on the ignition and, for the first time since the late 1960s, the coupe’s engine sprang to life.

“Just think,” Mr. Canepa said with a smile. “When we started this project a lot of us couldn’t even spell Duesenberg.


The ash body frame of the Duesenberg Model A. “Everybody we talked to about restoring that frame said, ‘We’ll just scan it and make a new one,’ ” Bruce Canepa, the owner of the restoration shop, said. “We said, ‘No thanks.’ ” The body frame restoration took a year and a half.



Rotted sections of the frame were removed and replaced with new wood.



Behind Stuart Tifft, an upholsterer, is the exposed cushion of the seats, consisting of a wood platform and more than 100 coiled springs, each contained in its own muslin sock and tied together with hundreds of individual strings.



Dave Stoltz in late 2012. The hood’s aluminum top crown pieces are original, but the side pieces were replaced.



Unable to find proper mounting stands for the headlights, old photos were studied and a milling machine was used to cut replica brackets.



Working on the chassis frame, which had to be strengthened with additional rivets because years of hard driving in Hawaii had loosened its structure.
 

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The replacement steering wheel.


The coupe was disassembled, every nut and bolt cleaned, soaked in penetrating oil, sorted into piles and labeled. “Something to do with the pedals,” read one sign below a pile of roller pins and fasteners.



The car’s window cranking mechanisms are shown in foreground, with engine and freshly painted body in the background.



The Duesenberg radiator emblem designed for the Model A, which was originally called the Duesenberg Straight 8. Here, the brass emblem before being plated in nickel.



With its hemispheric combustion chambers and single-cam design, the car had a sophisticated straight-8 engine. Ed Pink, who worked on the rebuild, said the valve train was very similar to that of a BMW from the 1980s or ’90s.



During the restoration, the shop reached out to Randy Ema, an authority on the Duesenberg brand, who said the car was the only one still in the family of the original owners.


Bruce Canepa turning the key on the side of the road. The car was then returned to the shop for further work on the fuel feed.
 

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Awesome! I love those stories. Thanks for sharing. :thumbup::beer:
 

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helluva project



 

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I'd read articles three times longer over restorations like this. Great work to the shop there. :thumbup:
 

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One of the few photographs of the original car

 

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The valve cover and the bracket that routes the spark plug wires are just beautiful - All of this was probably state-of-the-art engineering for its day. The fragus that's belt-spun by the fan is maybe...the oil pump? Really interesting design with the shaft running out of it that turns what looks like the generator, which is turning the distributor - It all looks so simple yet elegant. And that ribbed plate behind it all, was that supposed to be some kind of access hole?

 

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wow

Unlike modern cars, whose camshafts are turned by belts or chains, Duesenberg’s were driven by a geared vertical shaft at the front of the engine. With the existing gears badly worn and new parts unavailable, replacements were machined from solid stock, which took eight months.
 

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The valve cover and the bracket that routes the spark plug wires are just beautiful - All of this was probably state-of-the-art engineering for its day. The fragus that's belt-spun by the fan is maybe...the oil pump? Really interesting design with the shaft running out of it that turns what looks like the generator, which is turning the distributor - It all looks so simple yet elegant. And that ribbed plate behind it all, was that supposed to be some kind of access hole?

I believe that fragus is actually what spins the fan, as I don’t believe the camshaft turns it. I believe that side of the engine is where the shaft for the cam drive is, as you can see it turns the generator and then the distributor. The plate is usually an inspection cover but with this engine being OHC I’ve no idea what’s behind it. I’m more familiar with the DOHC J engine, the distributor is run right off the cams and sticks out of the intake valve cover.
 

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Car was oversized...

The original owner was oversized.

The first thing that strikes you about the car is the size of its two-passenger cabin, which is framed in wood. The oversized dimensions stem from its first owner's massive size, said to be some seven feet tall and three hundred pounds. But changing that seat position is likely the only thing Stoltz will mess with on this car; his mandate is to spare no expense to make the car look like it did the day it left the Duesenberg factory.
 

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What a great story and restoration. :thumbup:
 

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April 1923 Endurance test



Except to stop for tires and driver changes, the April 1923 endurance tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were non-stop. During this 24-hour record run, the engine was never shut off and the car was refueled in motion from another Model A chassis equipped with a large storage tank. And you thought the Air Force thought this up!
 

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Motoramic•November 16, 2012

Dave Stolz









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.


"It's like a Honus Wagner baseball card," says Jay Leno

"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."

What makes this car unique is that despite its massive size it was, relatively speaking, a spry coupe in its day, says Randy Ema, one of the nation's foremost Duesenberg experts who owns what's left of the manufacturer's records and blueprints and has provided some assistance on the restoration.

"The car could hit 80 mph and rev up to 4,000 rpm, which was really unheard of back then," says Ema. "It was a light, nimble little car when compared to a Packard or Lincoln. It also cost $9,000 when a Ford cost around $280. But what makes this model so special is it's the first and only remaining original-owner car."

While this particular Duesenberg isn't accompanied by much documentation save vintage photos, "Fred Roe's book on Duesenberg indicates that it was built and sold before the end of 1921 and that the original owner's assertion that it was the first car sold is probably correct," says Jon Bill, archivist at the Auburn Cord Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind. (Auburn Automobiles owner E.L. Cord bought Duesenberg in 1926.)



The first thing that strikes you about the car is the size of its two-passenger cabin, which is framed in wood. The oversized dimensions stem from its first owner's massive size, said to be some seven feet tall and three hundred pounds. But changing that seat position is likely the only thing Stoltz will mess with on this car; his mandate is to spare no expense to make the car look like it did the day it left the Duesenberg factory.

"Not long after the first owner bought the car he shipped it to Hawaii, where the lava roads and farm life were very taxing," says Stoltz. "So he eventually shipped it back to the factory, and they beefed things up a lot, all of which we are getting rid of. I now have these four (original) photos ingrained in my head, and I've been making new parts as we go along."


This rebuild is as complete as they come. Time and the ocean's salt air ate away a good deal of the car's aluminum and steel, and the deterioration was exacerbated by decades of storage in Hawaii and California. So far, Stoltz has hand-fabricated bumpers, parts of fenders, an intricate luggage rack, a brass gas cap, and headlight stands - a part you can barely see once the British-made brass headlamps take up residence on top of them. Stoltz pulls off the stands, two pieces of flowing sculpture that he says could be made using computer technology for around $7,000 but which he crafted from molds for $5,000.

"Besides the cheaper price, I liked the fact that they wouldn't be totally perfect, because no one back in 1921 was using computers to make anything," snickers the pony-tailed Stoltz, whose recently helped restore a 1959 Ferrari Testarossa to its former glory. "This is definitely a dream job for me. This Duesy is like a ghost car, because no one has seen it for years. But in the end a car's a car. If you're willing to put in the hours researching, scouring the Web looking for parts, making parts, starting from scratch when you have to, then anything is possible."

At present, the body of this 1921 Duesenberg is waiting to be joined by its suspension and engine, the latter being worked on by fabled Ed Pink Racing Engines in Los Angeles. We'll be back with more as the car comes together.
 
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