Duesenberg ''caretaker'' Robert Duncan at the wheel of the
latest addition to the collection at the Warbirds and
Wheels Museum, at Wanaka Airport. Photo by Mark Price.
Wanaka earthmoving contractor Robert Duncan is a little
vague on how a 1934 Duesenberg Model J car once owned by
Hollywood movie star Carole Lombard came to be in Wanaka.
All he will say is the move, from the deceased estate of an
American car collector to the Wanaka Warbirds and Wheels
Museum, was achieved legally.
He also sidesteps any questions about how much the car cost,
but notes a similar model fetched $10.34 million at an
auction last year, potentially making this the most valuable
car in New Zealand.
Mr Duncan says he prefers to be known as the car's
''caretaker'' - ''because I say you never own these things -
especially a Duesenberg. You just look after it for a little
while until the next person gets it.''
Mr Duncan collects Cadillacs and Packards but was on the
lookout for a Duesen- berg because it was ''the iconic
''I mean, there is nothing better.''
The Duesenberg brothers, Friedrich and August, German
immigrants to the United States, started out early last
century with a bicycle shop in Iowa, before building
motorcycles and cars.
In the late 1920s, Fred was set the task of producing ''the
greatest automobile ever made in the United States'' and by
the mid-1930s was turning out eight-cylinder supercharged
cars capable of 140mph (225kmh).
Mr Duncan said they were far more powerful than most cars at
that time and were considerably more expensive.
Al Capone could afford one, and so could Howard Hughes,
William Hearst, Mae West, Clark Gable and his wife, Carole
There were 481 model J chassis Duesenbergs built over nine
years before the company folded in 1937, and 378 have
The Wanaka Duesenberg has some unusual features. The brake
lights spell out ''stop'', the two headlights turn with the
steering, there are separate windscreens for the rear
passengers and the exhaust manifolds are coated in green
Mr Duncan says the car would have cost $US17,000 new.
''To put that in perspective, a surgeon earned $US3000 a year
and for $18,000 you could buy three Cadillacs or Packards ...
and you could buy about 60 Fords or Chevs.''
Lombard and Gable, famous for his lead role in Gone With The
Wind, owned 15 Duesenbergs at various times, including the
one now in Wanaka.
Mr Duncan, who spent 18 months negotiating with the deceased
estate of a ''Duesenberg specialist'' in Nevada to get the
car to New Zealand, says there are rules in the United States
about removing rare vehicles. But the car ''went through all
''If it was a bit rarer; if it was only one of one, it
wouldn't have been allowed to leave America.
''It left America legally.''
Since then, Wanaka, Cromwell and Geraldine tradespeople have
been restoring it, re-creating some parts that were missing.
Mr Duncan, who owns and operates the family business of
Maungatua Contracting, said although the car would be on
display at the museum, he would drive it ''occasionally''.
Asked how one would drive such a valuable car, he said:
''Fast. They don't like going slow.''
And asked what it was like to drive, he added: ''Absolutely
.. awesome. It's so smooth, it's so powerful, it's just got
such a presence.
''You get a lot of smiles per gallon.''