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Rebuilding the first Duesenberg, part two: The break-up

3 May 2013

Last fall, I checked in on what remains of the world’s first production Duesenberg, currently undergoing a ground-up restoration at Bruce Canepa’s eat-off-the-floor shop in Scotts Valley, Calif. Back then, the hulking beast was a drab shell of its former self, squatting near a stripped Mercedes 300SL, with a deadline less than a year away.

On a more recent visit, it was in pieces.

“It should be put together soon, but there are still things we’re waiting on,” says Dave Stoltz, the pony-tailed master craftsman who has been charged with reviving a Duesy that was purchased new in 1921 by an ancestor of Californian Jimmy Castle, whose family made its fortune in Hawaiian land and produce. “We’ve had some interesting hurdles to clear in rebuilding this thing using just four black and white photos. But it’s getting done.”

The completion target date remains mid-August, in time for an unveiling at the fabled Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, which this summer celebrates Duesenbergs. Canepa’s crew has just cleared away space for this Duesy next to an old Volkswagen bus, which owner and racer Bruce Canepa — whose facility also sells some of the most pristine exotics around — is looking to stuff with a twin-turbo Porsche engine so it can rocket to 170 mph.

“We’ll lay some nice carpet down here, and watch her evolve back into the way she looked when new,” says Canepa marketing chief John Ficarra. “Then it’s off to Pebble.”

Behind Ficarra, the car’s suspension parts gleam in their new coat of black paint. A few stalls away, the car’s long and narrow frame awaits a paint job, as does the carriage-like body resting a few feet away. Nearby is a disassembled dash.

Missing is the car’s engine, a straight-eight that could rev to 4,000 rpm and hit 80 mph, a blistering road-going speed for the day and likely a frightening one given the car’s lack of safety features and meager stopping power. “Ed Pink’s is doing the engine, and, well, we’re still waiting,” says Stoltz of the legendary Van Nuys powerplant building shop.

Most Duesys are seven-figure cars, or more. But Ficarra speculates that this car’s value could hit mid- to high-eight figures if its owner were to sell, which he won’t. Fellow Duesenberg owner Jay Leno has confirmed he sought to buy the car in its former state of dilapidation (it was stored for decades in an old Hawaiian farm house) and was politely refused.

Stoltz is the only expert who has been working on this project for years, and the cost of his time and hand manufacturing prowess will be sizeable. Says Ficarra: “The minute the world sees what Dave did to bring this car back using just photos, often making missing parts by hand, well let’s just say that I don’t think we’ll be able to get him again. He’ll just be too busy.”

But Stoltz is a modest man and shrugs off such talk. He prefers to keep the conversation on the object of his obsession. He ticks off a short list of project hurdles, most of them already overcome through long searches or fabricated ingenuity.

“When we took the car apart we found a lot of things that had been changed from original, for good reason,” he says, noting that the steering box in the car was from a Model J instead of the original Gemmer box. “I finally found a guy in the Midwest who had one, and he’s getting it ready for us. They weren’t that good and didn’t last long, so that’s why it was changed out. But we want this to be original, and obviously once it’s done it’s not like this car will be driven that much.”

One item remains elusive. “We can’t find a second T-shaped door handle. We have one, and we’ve found others with no locks. But this car had handles with keys and locks, so if I don’t find it I will make it.” In fact, so far Stoltz has had to hand-make more than one-third of the car’s parts, mainly using those four period photos slapped on the walls of Canepa’s neon-lit shop.

“I expected to find missing things, but I was naive about how few parts would be available for this car,” says Stoltz. “All these cars were one-off machines, so a lot was unique just to this vehicle. But, that’s what makes this project such a great challenge.”

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