Is $10 million too expensive for a used car? |

Is $10 million too expensive for a used car?

This four-door 1931 Model J Duesenberg once owned by Nevada gaming pioneer Bill Harrah is among 10 “Duesys” on display at the Lyon Museum in Southern California. In the background is a WW II B-17 “Flying Fortress.”
David T. Henley Photo |

Would you pay more than $10 million for a used car?

Well, someone has.

The car, once owned by the late George J. Whittell Jr., who in the 1930s built the massive Thunderbird Lodge estate at Crystal Bay on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, is much more than a “used” car.

Sold for $10,340,000 at a Northern California auction to an undisclosed buyer, it’s a pristine, two-door 1931 Model J Duesenberg that can reach 110 miles per hour and is considered to be one of the most spectacular, coveted and luxurious automobiles ever produced. Whittell was in good company when he purchased the car: Other J model buyers have included film stars Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and assorted foreign princes and maharajas.

Bought new by Whittell for $17,000, it became known as the “Whittell Car” for its unique features that include a brushed aluminum roof resembling a folding convertible top, chrome stripes down the rear deck that create a waterfall effect, black polished aluminum trim, a black body and red undercarriage.

The car also had port and starboard green and red running lights that reflected Whittell’s love of the water… his yacht, the “Thunderbird,” was one of the largest on Lake Tahoe.

Whittell, who at one time owned six Duesenbergs, garaged them at his 50,000-acre lakefront property which occupied 20 miles of shoreline and included the Thunderbird mansion, five guest houses, five servants’ houses, a “card house” for poker games, stables, two boat houses and a lighthouse.

He also owned a Boeing four-engine airplane fitted out with three lounges, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, kitchen, dining room and sleeping quarters for a crew of five.

Born in 1881 to a multimillionaire who had made a fortune in mining, banking and real estate, the flamboyant and eccentric Whittell never worked a day in his life.

Given a lion cub by the second of his two wives, he tied the animal named “Bill” to a leash and took it with him wherever he went, including parties, nightclubs and hotels. He also kept an elephant named “Mingo” at Thunderbird as well as 40 mynah birds. Following his death in 1969 at age 87, he was buried in a Colma, Calif. cemetery wearing his favorite ermine coat. He willed the Thunderbird mansion to a non-profit Nevada corporation which today operates it as a museum.

His Duesenbergs were subsequently sold, and the $10 million-plus J model was the last in his fleet to be auctioned off.

Whittell, whose name was given to George Whittell Jr. High School at Zephyr Cove in Douglas County on Lake Tahoe’s south shore, was one of several prominent Northern Nevadans who owned Duesenbergs. Two of them, business mogul Errett L. Cord and gambling pioneer William F. Harrah, stand out in particular.

Cord, who was born in Indiana in 1894, at one time owned or controlled more than 100 corporations including American Airways (now American Airlines), several radio stations and a company that manufactured the Auburn and the appropriately-named Cord automobiles. He owned a half-dozen Duesenbergs and in the mid-1930s bought the Duesenberg Corp.

Beginning his career as a used car salesman, Cord eventually became fabulously rich and also owned a mansion in Reno, three Nevada cattle ranches and the sprawling Circle L Ranch in Fish Lake Valley in Esmeralda County. The ranch was later owned by heirs of the Kellogg cereal family, and today is a bed and breakfast.

A Democrat, Cord also served in the Nevada State Senate representing Esmeralda County, but for only two years. And he was not elected to that position, having been appointed by the Nevada governor to fill out the remaining term of Sen. Harry Wiley who had died in office. Although Cord did not run for election when his term expired in 1958, he was forever called “senator.” Later offered the opportunity to run for governor, he declined for undisclosed personal reasons.

The Cord Automobile Museum in Auburn, Indiana, contains several of his Duesenbergs. Cord died of cancer in 1974 at the age of 79.

As for Bill Harrah … as a young man, he ran a bingo parlor for his father in Los Angeles. Striking out on his own in 1939, he moved to Reno, opened a bingo and card parlor on Commercial Row in the downtown district, and it wasn’t long before he owned casinos and hotels in Reno, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas.

Harrah (1911-1978), who married seven times, also owned Duesenbergs, and several of them as well as one owned by singer-actor Sammy Davis Jr., can be found at Reno’s Harrah Automobile Museum.

I was fortunate to discover one of his “Duesys” while attending a special showing of 10 Duesenbergs at the Lyon Museum in Orange County, Calif., and my son, Dave, took its photo that accompanies this column.

The car, a four-door 1929 J model that’s painted dark blue, is worth between $2 million to $3 million, a museum official told me.

And it has a great history… Frank Sinatra rode in the back seat of the car and waved to the crowds when he served as grand marshal of the 1980 Pasadena Rose Parade.

In the 1982 movie “Annie,” Harrah’s Duesenberg was the car that chased down and rescued Little Orphan Annie who had been kidnapped by a band of gangsters.

I also learned that 481 J models were produced by the Duesenberg Corp., and 378 of them are still in existence.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN and may be reached at