The Story Behind Jay Leno’s 1930 Duesenberg Involves World War II, Diamonds, and Death

It’s clear—there’s something special about this car, even for Leno.

byMáté Petrány|
People photo

Augie and Fred Duesenberg were German-born engineers who found success in America after setting up their first engine factory in St. Paul, Minnesota. The company then moved to Indianapolis in 1919, only to expand its portfolio from building engines and racing cars to road cars as well by 1921. Five years later, it was E.L. Cord's takeover that led to the creation of the Model J, the most innovative luxury car America has ever seen.

Introduced just before the Great Depression in 1928, the big "Duesy" features a 7.0-liter straight-eight engine with double-overhead cams, four-valves per cylinder and hemispherical cylinder heads, all good for a whopping 265 horsepower. The world's most expensive car also came with a three-speed gearbox, a heavy-duty chassis, mahogany running boards, hydraulic brakes and the hottest gadget of 1928: an altimeter on the dash. Other features include an automatic chassis lubrication system, and mechanical warning lights that remind drivers of their service and fluid-change intervals in due time.

420 cubic inch DOHC straight-eight., YouTube | Jay Leno's Garage

Believe it or not, Jay Leno's pride and joy sitting on a 142.5-inch wheelbase is the sportier variant of its time, since long-wheelbase translated to 153.5-inches in Duesenberg's book. This four-door dual-cowl phaeton LeBaron Barrelside is one of the only 6 or 7 of its kind, and the sole example with a fixed front windshield. Luckily, the rear one still folds.

Purchased by Leno some 30 years ago in neglected yet all-original and complete condition, it was subjected to a complete "100-point" restoration by Duesenberg historian Randy Ema, while Leno went on to discover its fascinating origin story.

Apparently, in the early 1920s, a wealthy 17-year-old called William Ashton got $17,000 worth of stocks from his car fanatic grandfather. While William's father couldn't care less about automobiles, the teenager and his grandpa decided to cash in, only to take home this fully loaded Duesenberg in 1930. William's father was absolutely outraged, yet the stock market collapsed soon enough, after which the youngest of Ashtons kept driving his LeBaron Barrelside until 1958. He then sold it to a former G.I. who got wealthy by being among the firsts to raid Berlin at the end of WW2, only to take diamonds and other gems from the banks, hide them inside a German motorcycle's chassis and then smuggle the bike into the U.S. a year later.

After setting up his estate in Connecticut and buying this car from Ashton in 1958, personal issues led to family tragedy, as the former soldier decided to end his life by running his Duesenberg in a closed garage until his lights went out. Following his death, his brother just wouldn't sell the car to anybody familiar with the story.

However, Leno had no idea. Instead, the two got talking about Augie and Fred Duesenberg at a motorcycle meet in Pennsylvania, after which the brother offered him to show the car. Soon, a deal was made, and this unique 1930 Duesenberg became a fully restored show winner that's still regularly used by the Lenos. After all, with 265 horsepower, 11 miles to the gallon and a single engine fire in thirty years, it's the perfect car for L.A. traffic.

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