Cars

Eric Killorin

Sat Feb 23 2013 19:49:40 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

The Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company produced some of the most luxurious cars of the early 20th century but couldn't survive the Great Depression. Randy Ema owns 28,000 of the company's original drawings, so he can produce brand-new parts for cars that are more than 75 years old.

Stepping through Ema's door is like entering Santa's workshop—if Santa had a serious thing for high-end antique cars. In one room, a drafting table holds a blueprint for some extinct part that's about to be reconstituted by Ema's craftsmen. In an adjacent room, a Bugatti motor sits on the floor next to a display case filled with old toy cars. Once you get past the museum-quality distractions out front—hey, is that a set of Duesenberg headers just hanging on the wall?—you're into the real action: the garage. Ema takes a photo of each car he's restored, and a far corner of the garage is wallpapered with snapshots of projects past.

Duesenbergs belong to a rarified league of automobiles. Founded in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1913 by brothers Friedrich and August Duesenberg, the company that bore their name created hand-built luxury performance cars on and off for 24 years. If you're lucky enough to own a Duesenberg (fewer than 1200 were made), Ema is the last word.

"I'm a historian," Ema says as we make our way toward the back of the shop. "History is a passion for me and has been since I was a little kid. I like an original piece because it's only original once."

Ema's never felt an urge to put his own riff on what the factories wrought, but one corner of his garage houses a personal project that allows some leeway for creative interpretation. "This is my hot rod," Ema says. "It's a '22 Duesenberg, but prior to 1934 someone cut the chassis and put a '28 Chrysler body on it." Today, fusing a Duesenberg and a Chrysler would constitute aesthetic and financial madness, but the chronological distance of that strange decision gives the car its own interesting story. And for Ema, that connects it spiritually to other Duesenbergs—each car was a reflection of its owner. Each car has a story.

"Nothing has come up to the standards of a Duesenberg," Ema says. "No two cars are the same. You have this wonderful high-performance chassis and the body of your choice. Even today, they're fast." Supercharged Duesenberg Model Js could hit 129 mph, making them the Bugatti Veyrons of their era and a high-water mark for the American car industry.

There are 378 Model Js still in existence and Ema has laid eyes on all but three. There's one Model A he hasn't seen and it's in Australia. Ema maintains a stash of original drawings, patterns, and blueprints, which he uses to create more than 1000 different parts to keep the world's Duesenbergs on the road. For all practical purposes, Randy Ema is Duesenberg, circa 2012.

While Ema's workshop could keep me entertained all day, I've got an appointment with another enthusiast almost 7 hours distant in San Francisco. The object of Jim Kanomata's expertise is certainly less exotic than a Duesy, but his affection for a very specific machine—the 1973 to 1978 GMC recreational vehicle—makes him a kindred spirit. So I bid farewell, fire up the RX-8, and merge onto I-5 north accompanied by the hard-edged, 9000-rpm song of America's last rotary.

Read more: The Die-Hard Mechanics Who Save DeLoreans and Duesenbergs - Brotherhood of the Wrench - Popular Mechanics

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