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The Duesenberg is an American classic, and nobody knows the cars better than Randy Ema. His lifelong love for them shines through each time he coaxes one back to mint condition with his ... : Restorative Powers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jay Leno is on the line. Again. Like the child traveler asking “Are we there yet?” he wants to know if his car is ready. If his 1934 Duesenberg Model J coupe is ready.

Yes, Randy Ema tells him after two calls this hour, it’s ready.

The automobile is loaded into an enclosed truck for its trip from Ema’s shop in Orange County to the Los Angeles home of “The Tonight Show” host.

The coupe is the latest in a two-decade-long line of Duesenbergs Ema has meticulously restored on behalf of clients who possess the wealth to own the cars.

Ema knows the Duesenberg like nobody else--save perhaps Fred and Augie Duesenberg, the brothers who built and promoted the car in the 1920s and ‘30s as the “perfect” motorcar. Today, as in the past, only the very wealthy can afford a Duesenberg--it is by far the most highly valued American-made car ever built. Stylistically and mechanically, no other car compared to it then--or, say many, has come close to it since. Only 481 of the top-of-the-line Model Js were built, each with impeccable craftsmanship.

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Some of the cars were destroyed over the years--melted down for scrap metal in World War II, raided for parts--but most were the prized possessions of their owners and survive.

In his shop, Ema has a file on each of the 378 Model Js known to exist. He’s seen 333--sometimes traveling halfway around the world to visit one. He has restored 30 of them.

Having bought the Duesenberg “factory” over the years--including thousands of drawings and blueprints, patterns, tooling, stock parts, purchasing records and correspondence with original owners--Ema knows what nearly every Model J looked like in its original condition--and he has the equipment and expertise to restore each car to that condition.

A new Model J was the most expensive car of its time--easily costing $20,000 or more. Howard Hughes, Clark Gable and Maharajah Holkar were among the elite who bought them.

Like the finest artwork, the car is worth what someone is willing to pay. And although those who own them are reluctant to put a dollar figure on their value, only multimillionaires need entertain the possibility.

“To those who possess the will to own one, money is no object,” said John Biel, editor in chief of Cicero, Ill.-based Collectible Automobile magazine.

“If someone wants an authentically restored Duesenberg, he goes to Randy Ema,” Biel said, adding that Ema is a highly regarded authority who has written much about the car and its history and has been the expert voice on it in television documentaries.

The elegant Model Js steal the show at automotive competitions. And while most classic cars chug down the highway, barely keeping up with modern traffic, the Duesenberg is capable of leaving even new cars in the dust.

As auto maker E.L. Cord fondly said, drivers of other automobile makes “were quick to discover that attempting to pass the new Duesie was as ludicrous as a dog barking at an express train.”

When Ema finishes restoring a Duesenberg, it’s ready to roar down the road again--though today’s owners tend to be more cautious about pushing the pedal to the metal.

Leno drives his to and from work.

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Like many teenage boys growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, Ema fell in love with cars. His passion grew in 1964 when, at 16, he traveled with his parents in tow to Tulsa, Okla., to visit the Auburn-Cord factory and inspect a front-wheel-drive prototype.

“When I was a kid, a neighbor had a couple of Auburns in his garage,” Ema, 48, recalled. “I thought they were the neatest things I’d ever seen. After school and on Saturdays, he’d let me come over and help him work on them.”

Ema first caught sight of a Duesenberg Model J on the pages of a magazine when he was 11 and remembers being awe-struck by its beauty and style. He was determined to learn as much about the car and its makers as possible.

As a student at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Ema spent his spare time buffing up and tinkering with old cars. In 1965, he bought his first Auburn and delved into automotive books to trace its history. He soon discovered the owner of the Auburn Automobile Co., Errett Lobban Cord, also owned the Duesenberg factory at one time.

German-born Fred and August Duesenberg grew up in Iowa in the 1880s. They built their first automobile in 1905. Within a year, both brothers had found employment in the automotive business.

By 1920, the brothers had developed the first Duesenberg production car: the Model A (not to be confused with Ford’s Model A). That same year, Duesenberg Automobile and Motors was formed. Rife with financial troubles from the beginning, the company underwent a brief reorganization in 1925. In 1926, Cord bought the company and formed Duesenberg Inc. Fred worked as chief engineer until his death in 1932, when Augie filled the position. In 1937, the company folded.

Throughout Ema’s studies as a history major at Cal State Fullerton--his graduate work consisted of a history of Cord--he never strayed from his passion for cars. His jobs ranged from sales positions at Cadillac and sports-car dealerships to a job as an assistant librarian for Road & Track magazine.

After college and a brief stint growing tomatoes at his family’s farm in Camarillo, Ema returned to Orange County, where, in 1976, he opened his shop and began restoring classic cars. His first ground-up restoration was an Auburn Phaeton sedan owned by Tom Kemp of Arcadia.

“When I first approached him about the car, Randy had lots of small jobs going and didn’t have time for my restoration,” Kemp recalled. “I took the car elsewhere, paid a lot of money and ended up with a mess.”

Knowing Ema’s penchant for perfection, Kemp wanted him to work on the car. He fronted Ema some money, which freed him up to work on the Auburn.

Ema served as historian for the Auburn, Ind.-based Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club and others became aware of his zeal for detail and accuracy. His business flourished as news of his work spread by word-of-mouth.

Ema’s workmanship and reputation for fairness (there’s no markup on purchased parts, and he charges $44 per hour for labor) have served him well: There is a waiting list for his restoration work.

As the years passed, Ema bought collections of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg drawings, literature, photos and correspondence. In 1984, he bought several thousand original drawings and blueprints from longtime friend Glenn Pray, who owned the Auburn-Cord factory in Tulsa.

“Randy was an engaging and enthusiastic young man,” Pray said, remembering Ema as the teenager who visited him many years before. “As a businessman, he ran his shop with integrity. I couldn’t think of a better home for my collection of drawings.”

A busy auto manufacturer, Pray never took the time to look at all the drawings, which he kept in his attic. To his and Ema’s surprise, 75% of them were of Duesenbergs rather than Auburns.

Owning so much of the Duesenberg legacy, Ema was determined to meet the surviving members of the Duesenberg family.

He made his first trip to St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., in 1988, where Fred’s son, Denny, lived with his wife, Elaine. (Augie Duesenberg had no surviving heirs.) Ema visited the Duesenbergs several times over the next couple of years. Having no heirs, Denny and his wife eventually sold much of their personal estate to Ema, whose home is now graced with the Duesenbergs’ early 20th century Persian rugs, furniture, linens, china and knickknacks.

*

Flashy yet elegant, many Duesenbergs reflect the flair and personality of their owners.

Case in point: Leno.

He owns, among other classic cars, four Duesies. His just-restored coupe was designed and built for pharmaceutical giant Josiah K. Lilley. The Model J Walker, the aerodynamic statement of the period, was promoted as the avant-garde style of the future.

“People had been trying to locate and buy this car for years,” Leno said in a telephone interview. “It took Randy’s research skills to finally sniff it out.”

Hearing word of the fabled ’34 coupe’s whereabouts in 1990, Ema was determined to see the car. He tried on several occasions, but each time the owner backed down. Having restored some of Leno’s cars and knowing that he would appreciate the vehicle’s unique background, Ema told him about the car. Soon Leno too was calling the owner.

In 1994, Ema finally received approval from the owner to see the car. Dropping everything, he flew to Long Island, where the Duesie had been idle for many years.

The car, possibly the most expensive Duesenberg ever built, looked a shambles (at one time, it had been used to tow cars in and out of farm fields). But it was Lilley’s ’34 coupe.

After a year of negotiating, Leno bought the car and had it towed to Ema’s shop.

Normally a job such as the coupe restoration takes about 18 months. But because Leno wanted to show it at Pebble Beach’s ’96 Concours d’Elegance--about a year away--Ema and his crew of four worked frequent 14-hour days to get the job done.

With the Pebble Beach event only days away, Ema realized that, mechanically, the car would not be ready. But Leno insisted on taking it. “It was a piece of art, too beautiful to hide,” Leno said.

The comedian took the car by trailer to Pebble Beach--which is how most Duesenbergs get to shows. It won most elegant, as well as second place in its class. In October, Ema completed the restoration job. Except for the chrome plating and upholstery, all the work had been performed in his shop.

Now, chrome-plated gauges line the dash, while tan broadcloth upholstery finishes the interior. A deep midnight blue with a touch of purple, the leather top meticulously matches the rest of the body. Under the hood and beneath the car, every piece of metal is carefully detailed.

As soon as the coupe left Ema’s shop, another of Leno’s cars arrived.

“Randy does great work, and I like his attitude,” Leno said. “I just wish he would cut out the cheeseburgers until he’s done with my cars.”

*

Although authentic right down to the color of engine paint, fully restored cars often lack the few imperfections they had when they rolled out of the factory--no ripples or dimples mar the flawless metal work and paint jobs.

“The meaning of restoration has changed over the years,” Ema said. For cars like Leno’s, it now means turning every nut and bolt into a shining piece of jewelry, and the car into a work of art.

“Steroids for classics,” Ema calls it.

The larger-than-life versions are fabulous, but fewer and fewer people can afford to create them, Ema said.

He’s not going to spend time worrying about that, though.

“I’m just glad there are still a large number of car buffs who enjoy a classic that’s been restored to its original condition.”

Someday, Ema said, he even hopes to restore the 1923 Model A Duesenberg he owns.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Randy Ema

Background: Age 48. Grew up in Tustin, attended Foothill High School and Cal State Fullerton. Opened car restoration business in 1976. He and his wife, Diana, have been married since 1983. His daughter, Tami, 21, is a college student in Fullerton.

Interests: History, old cars. Collects automobile memorabilia, antique musical instruments and toy cars.

On what prompted him to buy the Duesenberg Model A he owns: It is the only Duesenberg purchased and retained in Orange County. Its first buyer was the owner of the Duesenberg dealership in Anaheim.

On spending his life restoring classic cars: “Working on old cars--a part of American history--is a dream come true.”

On his clients: “Working for some of the country’s wealthiest people is always interesting--traveling to different places and meeting new people--but also challenging. Their expectations are very high.”


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