Okay, you got us. There is no such thing as a 1958 Duesenberg. Such was simply the dream of the late Mike Kollins of Detroit, and we’ve bought into it, too.
The last real Duesenberg had been built more than two decades before, a crime too horrible for Kollins to let stand. Imagine instead that Duesenberg had not gone out of business in 1937, but continued to build the Model J into the 1950s—around the same magnificent twin-cam, straight-eight engine, but with up-to-date chassis and contemporary bodywork. That was his vision.
Kollins, an engineering manager at Packard and Chrysler, was a racer, historian, and consummate Motor City car guy. He crewed for Frank Brisko at Indy as a teenager, falling in love with the Speedway and with the Duesenberg legend. But by the time he could afford his own Duesenberg, the marque was long gone, obsolete.
So back in 1950 Kollins started building his own Duesey, convinced that with some updates, the make could still run with anything on the road. He bought a 1930 J with a Judkins four-passenger coupe body (2358/J-333), and tossing aside everything but the engine, transmission and accessories, he erected his creation on a brand-new 1950 Packard Super convertible bare frame, with a reinforced K-member added to support the weight of the massive Duesenberg straight eight.
The all-steel, two-place convertible body was fabricated by an unsung collection of Detroit body men. A brass badge on the right front fender celebrates the hypothetical carozzeria Kollins Le Grande. (Le Grande, spelled various ways, was Duesenberg’s in-house coachbuilder label, but the actual work of Central Manufacturing, Union City, or Walker.) Clearly, the major challenge in Kollins’ design was hiding the straight-eight’s considerable size inside modern package dimensions.
To reduce the engine’s extreme height, Kollins installed four Carter side-draft carburetors and relocated the distributor from the cam cover to the generator drive. He bumped the compression ratio up to 7.5:1 while he was at it, and with an overbore he increased the displacement to 435 cubic inches, confidently claiming 400 hp. (The stock Duesey was rated at 265 hp.) Still, the hood opening is six-plus feet long, while the tall central hood blister, wrapped tightly around the cylinder head, stretches from the authentic Duesenberg grille straight back through the windshield — an ingenious solution and a powerful styling statement.
The shifter for the Warner three-speed gearbox sprouts from the bottom of the dash, while a full set of Duesenberg gauges fills the engine-turned instrument panel. As enormous as the car is for a two-seat roadster, the proportions are spot-on, and the build quality is easily as good as the Italian stuff of the time.
Detail development recalls the Facel Vega and Dual Ghia, while the thick wheelhouse moldings and the wire wheels are borrowed from the Packard Caribbean. The sweep spears and side panels are a perfect complement to the profile, and help to disguise the massive surface area of the flanks. The embossed aluminum material may be period theme for 1958, but today it seems insufficiently elegant for a Duesenberg.
Kollins updated his Duesenberg continuously, adding power steering and other features. He spent eight years completing his dream (thus the 1958 model designation) while working and raising three kids. For 30 years Kollins was a respected official at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in 2001 the Society of Automotive Engineers published his four-volume history of the early auto industry. A car guy’s car guy and a true student of the automobile, he passed away in 2003 at the age of 91. Today, his truly one-of-a-kind 1958 Duesenberg resides in a private collection.
This story by MCG originally appeared in the October 18, 2004 issue of AutoWeek, and has been edited and adapted for the web.