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Memories of a big yellow Duesy

Published on: July 15, 2015

One man’s love and legacy  

By LISA STARK

Leonardo DiCaprio in his role of Jay Gatsby in the movie The Great Gatsby, posing beside his yellow Duesenberg.

Leonardo DiCaprio in his role of Jay Gatsby in the movie The Great Gatsby, posing beside his yellow Duesenberg.

I can still remember the smell of the soft leather seats and the gleaming yellow hood sparkling in the sun as we drove down the side streets of San Diego, my grandfather’s hometown in California.  It was the Fourth of July in the late ’60s, and I was a gawky young tomboy with infuriating stick-straight hair and a gap between my front teeth that made whistling a breeze. But I felt like a princess that day, sitting beside my smiling, suntanned grandfather in his elegant canary-yellow car, which he said was a “Duesenberg,” and very, very rare.

It was a car of such enormous proportion and grandeur it made me feel a little dizzy just sitting in it.  Grandpa sat upright in the driver’s seat, looking proud as a peacock with his crew-cut that stuck straight up on the top of his head. His pale blue eyes were like ocean water in the afternoon sun, and they crinkled at the corners when he smiled.

My mother had told me that Grandpa loved the cars in his collection more than anything else in the world. Sitting by his side with the wind blowing in our faces, I could see what she meant.

From left: I, my mother Jeananne and Grandpa in San Diego in 1986.

From left: I, my mother Jeananne and Grandpa in San Diego in 1986.

That summer marked the most exciting travel adventure I’d ever experienced in my young life. Like the Griswold family in National Lampoon’s Vacation, my father had loaded four of us children into the family station wagon to embark on a brave cross-country road trip from Ohio to California, stopping along the way to take in the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park.

Our arrival in California held even more majestic wonders, including Big Sur, Monterey, the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito.  Inexperienced as I was, I found myself awestruck with every new change of scenery.

When we finally arrived in San Diego, Grandpa and Grandma Grace took us out for our first taste of Mexican food, then gave us a tour of their astonishing car collection. Although I can’t name them all, I know that the pack contained a Model T Ford, a 1930 English Invicta, a Pierce-Arrow Roadster, a Packard Phaeton, two Jaguars, a ’57 T-bird, and a 1913 Cadillac Roadster.

Later I learned that Grandpa was considered to be one of the largest classic-car collectors in the United States. It was reported that at one time he owned as many as 26 cars, which he lovingly brought back to life, restoring them to their original condition.

Grandpa and Grandma loved sharing their classic cars with family and friends, and showing them at holiday parades and community events.

Grandpa and Grandma loved sharing their classic cars with family and friends, and showing them at holiday parades and community events.

A graduate of Ohio State University, my grandfather, Gerald Wright, moved to San Diego in 1942 from Columbus, Ohio, and became an engineer for Consolidated Air, which later became General Dynamics. He retired in 1968, devoting his retirement years almost exclusively to his cars. With painstaking attention to detail, Grandpa spent his days restoring dozens of antique cars in his garage, developing a network of car-club friends who named themselves the Tuesday Lunch Bunch.

One of Grandpa’s favorite pastimes was holding mock races between himself and my grandmother in their his-and-her Jaguars. Later in his life, he and my grandmother sold off many of the cars. He said that the car he had the most difficult time parting with was his beloved Duesenberg.

Duesenberg was an Auburn, Indiana-based automobile company founded in 1913 by brothers August and Frederick Duesenberg. Built entirely by hand, the Duesenberg was considered one of the finest cars of its time, a symbol of style and prestige during the Roaring Twenties. My grandfather’s Duesenberg, a 1932 Model J, became one of the most popular luxury cars in America, as well as a status symbol  driven by the rich and famous, including Al Capone, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Clark Gable and William Randolph Hearst.

GreencarJay Gatsby, the mysterious title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, drove a 1929 Duesenberg in the 2013 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  Though critics argued that the story, set in 1922, could not have possibly contained a 1929 Duesenberg, moviegoers didn’t seem to mind much.

The supercharged Model J with a 320-hp engine (often referred to as the “SJ”) was introduced in 1932. To make room for the SJ’s supercharger, the exhaust pipes were creased so they could be bent and extended through the side panel of the hood.  The Model J Duesenberg can be recognized by those shiny creased tubes, which the manufacturer registered as a trademark.

Today, the Duesenberg name still stands as a symbol of opulence and luxury, representing the largest, grandest, most elegant car ever created.  Duesenberg Model Js and SJs are among the most desired collectible cars in the world. It is not uncommon for a Duesenberg in good condition to sell for well more than $1 million in today’s market.

Grandpa Wright passed away in 1997 at age 95. The afternoon before he suffered his fatal stroke, he and Grandma Grace took their usual Sunday drive in their bright red Miata convertible from Mission Hills to Fiesta Island in San Diego.

Grandpa’s 1932 Model J Duesenberg on display in a Los Angeles car show.

Grandpa’s 1932 Model J Duesenberg on display in a Los Angeles car show.

Grandpa amazed his friends by working out at the YMCA every day up until his death. Grandma Grace, who shared her husband’s passion for cars, remained active in the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) for the remainder of her life. Grace and the other women of the AACA were known to search for vintage era outfits to wear at their car club events, sewing and repairing them back to their original condition. Grandma Grace died in 2009 at age 97.

People will remember Gerald Wright as the past president of the Convair Sports Car Club, the San Diego Horseless Carriage Club, San Diego MGT Register, and the San Diego Region of the AACA.

I will remember him as my tanned, elated Grandpa whose blue eyes sparkled with delight as we cruised around the sunny streets of San Diego in his big yellow Duesy.

Model-T

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