Astounding Duesenberg to Headline at Villa d'Este

Images: Courtesy Automobiles Classiques, Bill Lyons, Steve Brauer & Gautam Sen

The ultimate star of the Incredible India class at this year’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este could very well be this astounding Duesenberg.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _01
Very early black-and-white image of the Duesenberg as provided by A.F. McNeil in 1949 where the car seems to be in two shades, of which the main one was the lighter one - so was it mainly orange in colour, with black at the top and on the fenders? 

This SJ version (chassis # 2614, engine number J585) was ordered by the Maharaja of Indore, Yashwantrao Holkar II, via Duesenberg’s London dealer (R.S.M. Automobiles), and the bare chassis-mechanicals were delivered to the London-based coachbuilder of J Gurney Nutting, at their facilities in Chelsea, London.

Named after his most famous ancestor, the legendary sixth ruler of Indore, Yashwant Rao Holkar (who ruled from 1798 to 1811 and was considered by many as the Napoleon of India for his exploits at successfully winning a series of wars against his neighbouring states with the objective of building an empire), Yashwantrao Holkar II found himself on the throne, in 1926, at the tender age of 18 due to some infamous indiscretions of his father, Tukajirao Holkar III.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _02
Orthogonal drawings of the design by A.F. McNeil for the Duesenberg

The young maharaja was perhaps one of the finest aesthetes amongst India’s 565 princes and had the most refined tastes in art deco objects and automobiles.

One of the very first cars that he purchased was a Delage D8 with exquisite Figoni coachwork, after it starred at the Figoni stand in the 1931 edition of the London Motor Show, at Olympia. This car now belongs to Dr. Ravi Prakash, who also owns the ‘Purdah’ Rolls (featured last Friday), and may have been a better car to have had on display, alongside this Duesenberg.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _03
A picture of the Duesenberg in the collection of images that were with the late enthusiast Protap Roy. The car appears to be sporting a very dark shade, most likely black, throughout the body, with the streak of a relatively lighter shade at top... which may have been orange

Partial to good-looking French cars, the maharaja also had a Bugatti, a Delahaye, a Hispano-Suiza J12, as well as a very handsome Mercedes-Benz 540K and a strikingly beautiful Alfa Romeo 8C2900B Spider with Touring coachwork. As well as several Bentleys and a couple of Rolls-Royces.

Most of the latter (as well as the Hispano J12) had coachwork by J Gurney Nutting, which was the maharaja’s favourite coachbuilder.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _04
The Duesenberg made the cover of the American magazine The Classic Car for their Fall, 1963 issue, after it had been imported into the US, and restored back (?) to black and orange

It has been rumoured that he may have had a stake in J Gurney Nutting. Either way, he surely believed in patronizing the English coachbuilding firm, and seemed to have had a special connect with J Gurney Nutting’s renowned chief stylist A F ‘Mac’ McNeil, and his assistant John Blatchley (who would later go on to become the chief stylist at Rolls-Royce).

Amongst the many J Gurney Nutting-bodied cars that Holkar owned, this Duesenberg qualifies as the most exuberant of them all.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _05
Brilliant rear three quarter shot of the Duesenberg in action

Built on the longer JN chassis (153.5 inches/3.9 metres wheelbase), this car has the SJ’s 320bhp supercharged engine, which gives the car a top speed of almost 225 km/h!

Once that amazing body had been built on the Duesenberg chassis, the car was first sent off to the US, initially destined for Holkar’s American residence, at Santa Ana, California, before it found its way to India, to Indore.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _06
Front end of the Duesenberg as featured in an article in the French Automobile Classiques

At some point the car was sold and bought by another princely family, that of Idar, who in turn sold it to a Bombay-based Bollywood movie star named Sheikh Mukhtar (who also owned another extraordinary car, a Cadillac V16 with Pinin Farina coachwork—the car is in the US now, in the late Robert M. Lee collection).

In the late 1950s, Sheikh Mukhtar emigrated to Pakistan and both the Cadillac as well as the Duesenberg were apparently shipped to (or smuggled out?) to Pakistan on a dhow, and then found their way to the US.

Duesenberg_Incredible India_Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este _07
That magnificent supercharged straight-eight engine of the Duesenberg made it one of the fastest bolides of its time

The Duesenberg has been in the long-term ownership of marque specialist General William Lyon, until his passing in 2020. His son Bill Lyon will be presenting the car at Villa d’Este.

There has been some confusion and multiple opinions proffered on what was the car’s original colour scheme. More on that in a subsequent article.

In the meantime: What are the odds that this could be the class winner... and eventual Best of Show?

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


Sign in or become a deRivaz & Ives member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.