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Leno’s Long Lost Duesies


As throngs of people descend on the 18th hole at the Pebble Beach golf course this morning, we are at home. Circumstances prevented us from attending the world’s most prestigious automotive event this year, but we can guarantee that one person will be there. Jay Leno appearances are common during Monterey auto week so we think it is only fitting to run these stories from The Hemi in the Barn today about some of his best barn finds. We are sure that everyone on the Monterey Peninsula will have a good day and as for the rest of us, we can all enjoy these great tales and dream…

Duesenbergs are very, very rare. For example, Ford built fifteen million Ford Model Ts while Duesenberg built a total of 481 Model J, SJ, and JN cars during the Depression era of 1928 to 1937.

Duesenbergs were also very expensive. When a new Ford Model A roadster could be had for $380, Duesies sold for between $16,000 and $25,000, even more for a few cars with custom coachwork. “People who bought these cars new were Fortune 500–type guys,” said Randy Ema of Orange, California. Ema is a Duesenberg expert. He’s also the guy Duesenberg enthusiast Jay Leno relies on for advice on his favorite brand of car.

When Duesenbergs were built, they were without question the finest cars in the world, surpassing Rolls-Royce, Mercedes, and Hispano-Suiza in power, ride, and technical sophistication. In the 1930s, an unsupercharged Model J produced a claimed 265 horsepower from its twin-cam, thirty-two-valve straight-eight engine—quite a lot when Ford V-8s of the same era, considered powerhouses, produced just 85 horsepower.

The most advanced cars built at the time, Duesenbergs were packed with innovative features, including a self-lubrication feature on the Model J. Owners included kings, princes, gangsters, religious leaders, and celebrities such as William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. And now Jay Leno.

In addition to nearly a hundred other interesting cars, Leno owns several Duesenbergs, and he is somewhat of an authority on the marque. So when he heard about a couple of “forgotten” Duesenbergs, he was all ears.




“When people see me on TV and learn that I’m a car collector, they want me to see their cars,” said the host of NBC’s Tonight Show.

“Sometimes they want me to own their cars.”

Such was the case with the 1927 Duesenberg Model X garaged in Burbank, California, just a few miles from the NBC Studios where Leno works each day.

“This guy named Harry owned a garage and was a race car enthusiast,” Leno said. “He bought this old Duesenberg for three hundred dollars out of Chicago back in 1946, probably with the intention of restoring it.”

Harry had the car transported to California on a train. Because his purchase had a blown engine, Harry tied a chain around his car’s bumper and towed the Duesenberg from the station to his house in Burbank. He put it in his garage behind the house, locked the door, and didn’t open it again for almost sixty years.

“I always knew Harry had something interesting in his garage,” Leno said. “He had a Duesenberg racing engine that had won at Indianapolis stored in a box in his yard. But he’d never let me inside the garage. “I’d drive by his house with my Stanley Steamer, blow the horn—beep-beep—and take him for a ride around town. But still he kept the contents of the garage a secret.

“‘Hey, Harry, what’s in the garage?’ I’d say. ‘Wouldn’t you like to know,’ is all he’d answer.”

But when Harry was ninety-two years old, and about to enter a nursing home, he called Leno and said he could go into the garage—which was no easy task, since earthquakes over the years had made the doors almost impossible to open.

When Leno and his friend Ema finally got inside, it was like he was walking into a time capsule. “There were newspapers stacked up in there with news about the end of World War II,” Leno said. “There were Orange Crush soda cans and old porcelain signs from the era.”

According to Ema, thirteen Model Xs were built, and four exist today.

“It was nice enough, but had a worn-out engine,” Ema said. “Thank goodness Harry left the windows closed, so there were no moths or mice in the interior.”

Harry had had a change of heart, and now he wanted Leno to own the car. Leno negotiated with Harry’s daughter, who, although she lived in the house nearly all her life, knew nothing of the prestigious car in the backyard garage. Leno wanted the car, but wanted to be fair about the price, so he suggested that the family have appraisers come in and determine a price. Leno agreed with their price, and he made the purchase, not only of the Model X, but the entire contents of the garage.

“I bought all sorts of neat items—the signs, old parts,” he said. “There was also another Duesenberg in the garage, a Model A that had been hacked up with some kind of Packard body.”


The Model X car was in good enough condition when it was pulled from the garage that Leno made the decision to not restore the car. “I’m going to keep it just the way it is,” he said. The car has already been displayed on the lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours and was featured in a Discovery Channel special. (See it on Jay Leno’s Garage).




Leno had heard the rumors about a Model J Duesenberg—the most prestigious model in the company’s line—for at least ten years. The stories revolved around a tale that in the early 1930s, the original owner of a Duesenberg parked it in a garage in New York City and never came back to pick it up. But according to Leno, stories of Duesenbergs are many, and almost none are true.

“There are some vehicles—Vincent Motorcycles, Alfa Romeos, some Harley-Davidsons—that have myths that develop around them,” Leno said. “Duesies are certainly that type of vehicle.”

Leno was not able to resist the appeal of the myth. While he and his wife were in New York City for a shopping trip several years ago, he decided to take a side trip and do a little hunting.

“I’m not much of a shopper, so I decided to hit public garages and see if I could actually find some of these lost New York City collector cars that I’d always heard about,” he said. “I’d go up to a garage operator and ask if there were any old cars in there, and they’d say ‘Sure.’ And sometimes you’d find a 1920s Rolls-Royce, and sometimes you’d find a Ford Maverick.”

“Eventually I walked into a garage on West 57th Street off Park Avenue, and the guy said to go upstairs and take a look. There, on the third floor, next to the window, was the Duesenberg I’d heard about.”

The myth was true.

“It was the last unrestored, original owner Duesenberg on Earth,” Ema said. “It was a 1931, was parked in the garage in 1933, and not removed for seventy years. It only had 7,085 miles on the odometer. The original upholstery would have been in great shape, but someone piled a bunch of old tires in the car about fifty years ago, so the chemicals in the rubber stained and ruined the interior.”

The car had a Woods Body mounted to the Duesenberg chassis. Woods, according to Leno, was the body company that built President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral coach.

The car was parked next to a window that was always open. According to Ema, there was six inches of dirt all around the car because nobody had swept around it in almost three-quarters of a century.

And because there was a small leak above the car, when it rained, over seventy years—drip, drip, drip—a hole developed in the fender.

“Other people had known about this car,” Leno said. “I had heard about the hidden New York Duesenberg for years, but when I actually found it, I didn’t want to lose it. So I made up a story—no, it was an absolute lie—that the car couldn’t be removed from its third-floor home because the new elevator that had been installed several years earlier was too small to fit the car.”

Leno contacted the Duesie’s owner, and he heard those words so many of us barn finders hate to hear: “No, it’s not for sale.”

But then he heard from a friend that it might, in fact, be for sale, but the matter was complicated.

Since the car had sat for so long, and the original owner’s son was behind on paying for the storage, there was about $80,000 owed in parking fees. So when most of the people who had known about the car offered $10,000, the owner simply said no.

“The highest offers he received were about $35,000 to $45,000, but it was worth more than $100,000,” said Leno. “So when I offered the owner fair market value, he jumped at it. I think I got it for a good price, and I didn’t treat these people like idiots.”


The Duesenberg was trucked from New York to California, where it was delivered first to Ema’s shop, where it was inventoried and cleaned up. Then it was delivered to Leno’s Big Dog Garage.

According to Leno, this car will be sympathetically restored (See it now). “It’s just a little too far gone to be preserved,” he said. Leno isn’t finished with searching for forgotten cars. He’s on the hunt for a couple of intriguing cars he recently heard about.

“There’s a 1933 Cadillac that was apparently put on blocks and properly stored in 1935,” he said. “It’s still owned by the woman who bought it new. She’s ninety-five years old.”

And he has learned that the same gentleman who bought the Duesenberg Model J also bought a Bugatti in 1936 or 1937. And it, too, is hidden somewhere in New York City. But Jay’s not speaking.

“I think lots of old stuff that was found in the 1960s is going to come back on the market,” he said. And Leno is going to try to own as many of those old relics as he can.


  1. jim

    Awesome story..!!

    Like 1
  2. Charles Gould

    I absolutly LOVE these hidden treasure and barn find stories, and have several hundred of my own barn finds, although nothing of this caliber.
    I wonder why no mention was made of the car that was parked adjacent to the Model J Duesenberg, Can you shed any light on what it is, and what the history is, and whether Jay also purchased that car, or whether it might stuill be available? Were there any other fascinating cas in that or the other garages that he scouted in New York?
    Thank you,

    Like 1
  3. Rick C

    Here’s another angle to the story even more interesting, information about the original owner and some more detail of the darker circumstances in which this purchase occurred.


    Like 1
  4. Dolphin Member

    “So when I offered the owner fair market value, he jumped at it. I think I got it for a good price, and I didn’t treat these people like idiots.”

    I might not laugh at every one of Jay Leno’s jokes (just most of them), but I admire and respect every one of his collector car purchases, how he accomplishes them, and what he does with them after they get to his garage.

    I think the key to his success in collector cars goes way beyond having money available. It’s also knowledge, a big range of tastes, and especially respect for both the cars and the cars’ owners. Jay Leno is a great ambassador for the hobby.

    Like 1
    • scot

      ~ i agree completely, though Rick C.’s link casts some shadow on the circumstances and facts surrounding this Duesenberg.
      . i remember reading the words you quote from The Hemi in the Barn when i first read Tom’s 4th in the series. i thought at the time it was the wisest phrase i had ever read about the hobby, and still do.

      Like 1
  5. jim

    another great story. also show how important it is to make sure all the paperwork is correct as not everyone can afford a legal battle. i do think BF should summit the story about the volvo 142 to Tom Cotter for use in the next ” in the barn ” book.

    Like 1
  6. Jeff Morningstar

    What a story. Glad Jay gave the people what the cars were worth. Looking for old muscle cars or old race cars. Any stories.

    Like 1
  7. Scott Avnaim

    We had a 32 boat tail speedster in the town where I live. The last owner saved it from being customized by a kid in 1950. I had seen the car and my mother actually sat in it. The owner said that when he got to where he couldn’t drive it, he would donate it to the Auburn, Cord Duesenberg Museum. It is now there and looks great.

    Like 1
  8. twwokc

    Think there were some legal issues with the NYC car. I am sure with Jays money they all went away.

    Like 1
  9. A.J.

    Nice story and I like Jay, but both of those cars were known to the Duesenberg guys, Jay was the only one who could actually buy them.

    Like 1
  10. Will

    It would be interesting to know what Jays plans are concerning his estate. I don’t think he has any kids to argue over it I hope he someday makes it open to the public but every car needs to remain on the road.

    Like 1
  11. Dolphin Member

    Well, I’m already on record as a Jay fan, so I might as well chime in here again.

    One thing I really admire about Jay Leno is that he makes his cars available for public viewing through his website and by showing his cars on TV. This is really different from some other collectors, who hide their collections away in undisclosed locations. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but Jay Leno’s openness with his collection really stands out. The fact that he drives them in traffic on public roads, with a running commentary on how the car drives and performs, and that it’s all filmed for his TV show makes him unique. Not even car museums do that.

    Like 1
    • scot

      ~ again you have struck the harmonic, Dolphin. i think that the ideal future will include Jay retiring from the Tonight Show to devote his full-time energy to sharing his knowledge, resources, and enthusiasm for historic vehicles with all of the excited believers, ie, us.

      Like 1
  12. Foxxy

    I have a small Deusenberg Story. When I was in the 7th grade I had a neighbor that was a sports car guy. He took me under his wing so to speak and taught me many things that have stayed with me for 50 years. He was a horse trader when it came to cars and motorcycles, but his favorite was Jags. He was trying to trade with an older man that was a mechanic and we went to his garage one evening so he could try to talk a deal. When we walked in that garage it was full of huge cars. there were 4 or 5 of them. I ask about the closest one to us and he told me it was a deusenberg. I remember it being an open top car but not much else about it because I was learning about sports cars and I didn’t pay much attention to this big thing. He told me to get in and sit down while they talked. I remember thinking the steering wheel was very big and had controls in the hub and there were many gauges in it. Now days when I think about it I wonder what ever happened to those cars. I do know that the garage was directly behind a big funeral parlor, so the might have been older funeral cars. -peace-

    Like 1

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