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1931 Duesenberg Credit: Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions

Darin Schnabel ©2012 Courtesy o

The Mercedes-Benz tri-pointed star was shining ascendant in most forms of motoring competition in the early 1930s, but it got badly dusted in a high-stakes, California desert match race against a stripped-down Duesenberg.

After three five-mile laps, the big American Duesy had left the racy German Merc behind in the powdery cloud it kicked up from the surface of Muroc Dry Lake. And left the Mercedes' owners, two of the legendary Marx brothers comedic trio, in a less than laughing mood. They had wagered a decidedly unfunny $25,000 on the outcome.

That Duesenberg – employing its unstripped-down title, a 1931 Model J Dual-Windshield "Barrelside" Phaeton by LeBaron – made some more money last month, changing hands for $1.3-million. Or about the modern equivalent of what the Marx boys handed over to its then owner, Hollywood talent agent Phil Berg, after the 1931 race.

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The Model J, once part of the Craven Foundation collection in Canada, was knocked down at the RM Auctions sale at the Antique Automobile Club of America's fall mega-meet in Hershey, Penn., which annually attracts some 1,500 classic cars.

The Cars

The Mercedes-Benz S arrived in 1927 as the follow-on model to the supercharged Model K designed by Ferdinand Porsche and was powered by a 6.8-litre, single-overhead-cam, inline-six-cylinder engine making 120 hp, which jumped to 180 hp when the driver engaged its screaming supercharger. It could top 160 km/h.

Only 146 were made, most fitted with factory bodywork, but some were sold as rolling chassis including the future desert racer. It was purchased from Mercedes' New York agency in 1927 and shipped to coachbuilder-to-the-stars Walter M. Murphy in California, where it was wrapped in then-trendy boat-tail speedster bodywork. In the early 1930s, according to the JWR Automotive Museum where it now resides, the S appeared with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in the movie Sylvia Scarlett and with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, before being purchased by Zeppo and Chico Marx.

Duesenberg brothers Fred and August began building cars in 1913 in Des Moines, Iowa, a long way from the glitter of Hollywood or the tracks of Europe. But their cars were well-engineered and fast enough to win the French Grand Prix in 1921 and the Indy 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927.

Duesenberg was taken over by E.L. Cord in the mid-1920s and this fast-mover challenged Fred Duesenberg to build "the best car in the world," a machine capable of taking on the greatest of the European marques. In 1928, the Model J was unveiled at the New York auto show, living up to its Cord-inspired billing with a massive chassis supported on solid axles and powered by a 420-cubic-inch, dual-overhead-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder straight-eight that produced 265 hp, giving it a top speed of 190 km/h.

The depression spoiled Cord's plans to sell 500 Model J's a year, but Hollywood agent Berg was obviously still raking in decent percentages from his star-filled client roster when he obtained one of seven bodied by coachbuilder LeBaron in "barrelside" phaeton form.

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The Bet

Automotive historian Griffith Borgeson, who wrote about the race for Automobile Quarterly under the headline Madness at Muroc, was told the tale by Berg. It began one night when he and his wife Leila were playing bridge at Al Jolson's Sunset Boulevard home and the Marx boys drove up in their flashy Mercedes.

As might be expected, some back-and-forthing ensued as to which car was faster and it was decided to race there and then to the beach at Santa Monica to prove the point, with a "few thousand" wagered on the outcome.

The cooler head of Leila prevailed to postpone the race to a saner (and possibly more sober) time and setting, but didn't apparently have any effect on the bet, which ballooned to the Depression-era lottery-win-equivalent $25,000.

With that much moolah on the line, both sides began to take things a lot more seriously.

Berg sought advice from a fortuitous neighbour, one E.L. Cord, who put him in touch with ex-Duesenberg racer Eddie Miller, who was hired to drive and prepare his car. The latter involving stripping away as much of the heavy machine's equipment – mufflers, bumpers, fenders, headlights, running boards, top, windshield, and tweaking the motor to peak performance.

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The Marx brothers hired gun was Joe Reindl, a west coast Mercedes expert who gave their S a similar going-over.

The Race

It was "sort of an automotive gunfight at the O.K. Corral," wrote Borgeson. "A showdown between two of the biggest, baddest glamor wagons of all time." And it soon turned into a celebrity event with hundreds of Hollywood types making the trek to Muroc Dry Lake, including Mae West, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.

The race was flagged off at 6:30 a.m. to avoid the Mojave Desert heat and the Mercedes jumped into an early lead, but by the three-mile mark the Duesenberg, which Miller said was hitting about 109 mph with plenty in reserve, caught up and passed, leaving the other car "swallowed up somewhere in my dust cloud."

The Aftermath

The Marx brothers reassembled the Mercedes and apparently sold it soon afterward. It then went through a number of owners and was photographed on a used-car lot in 1951 priced at $2,000, but then disappeared. It was purchased, in unrestored condition, by the JWR collection in 2010 for $3.74-million and returned to its former glory in time for the 2011 Pebble Beach concours.

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The Duesenberg also subsequently went through a series of owners and later collectors, becoming part of the Craven Foundation collection in Toronto in the 1970s, before being sold to the Roy Bowersox collection in Pennsylvania.

Back in 1931
Louis Schneider wins the Indy 500 in the Bowes Seal Fast Special, powered by an engine designed by Harry E. Miller, who served as official starter for the duel on Muroc Dry Lake.
Charlie Chaplin writes, directs and stars in City Lights, one of the last of the silent movies. The Tramp character falls in love with a blind girl and befriends a millionaire.
The Star-Spangled Banner becomes the American national anthem and Brother Can You Spare a Dime? by E.Y. Harburg becomes a popular anthem of the depression.
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