Mr. Bojangles’ Duesenberg
Adapted from Hemmings
1935 Duesenberg JN long wheelbase Berline formerly owned by Bill Robinson, better known as “Mr. Bojangles.”
We briefly wrote of the Duesenberg history when we showcased the 1932 Duesenberg SJ bought by Dixon, CA car collector Mike Doyle shortly before his death. Duesenberg had been bought by E.L. Cord along with Auburn and Cord had begun the cars named after himself to form Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg. E.L. Cord’s instructions to Fred Duesenberg were “to build the best car in the world.” The cars the Duesenberg brothers had built before being folded into Cord’s empire were race cars. The production Duesenbergs were drawn from that racing heritage with a large dollop of coach built luxury thrown in. Thus Duesenberg engines were advanced, having overhead valve and camshaft configurations at a time when most engines were still of the “flathead” configuration. Under Cord’s ownership, Duesenberg cars became popular among Hollywood stars and others in show business. No doubt the popularity of Duesenbergs among the glitterati of Hollywood was a factor in “Mr. Bojangles'” choice of a Duesenberg. Here we quote the article in Hemmings about this beautiful Duesenberg:
The popular tap dancer known as Mr. Bojangles was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1878. His real name was Bill Robinson, and he became one of America’s most popular entertainers from the 1920s through the ’40s.
Robinson began his career at age six in local beer gardens. He subsequently joined a traveling vaudeville troupe and was soon earning as much as $3,500 per week doing solo performances in night clubs. During the 1920s, Robinson also starred in several Broadway shows and became an admired figure in New York’s Black community.
“Mr. Bojangles'” Duesenberg in front of his Harlem home.
In 1936, Robinson made his way to Los Angeles, took the name Bojangles, and starred in major Hollywood musicals. He regularly played opposite Shirley Temple and Will Rogers. Over the years, Robinson became increasingly famous for his legendary stair dance. But despite being popular and well paid, Robinson died penniless in November 1949, suffering from heart failure at the age of 71. His funeral was arranged by longtime friend Ed Sullivan and attracted tens of thousands of mourners.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
As for the Bojangles Duesenberg, its history begins in February 1935, when the New York coachbuilder Rollston shipped a five-passenger berline body to the Duesenberg factory in Auburn, Indiana. In spring 1935, Duesenberg prepared chassis #2587 with engine J-559, trimmed the Rollston body, and delivered the car to the New York factory store, where Bill Robinson promptly bought it for $17,500 (approximately $306,000 today). He soon had it shipped to Bohman & Schwartz, the Pasadena coachbuilder, where it received new bumpers, headlamps, and parking lights.
After Robinson passed away in 1949, his widow sold the car to Phil Regan, New York’s “singing cop,” who’d worked as a detective for the NYPD. Regan, too, modified the JN. He painted it blue, redid the padded top in white canvas, and added a rear-mounted spare and a Plexiglas sunroof.
In 1951, Regan sold the car to an Arizona Jaguar dealer, and it subsequently passed through a number of hands until, in 1952, a Duesenberg enthusiast named Lamont Cochran bought the JN. Mr. Cochran also owned a Duesenberg Model J Murphy roadster, and he began to swap parts between the two cars, including engines, radiator shells, and instrument panels.
The JN, by now looking rather tatty, was sold in 1955 for $3,200 to William (Bill) Deibel. Mr. Deibel began restoring the car in 1966, an ongoing effort that lasted through 1970. Deibel’s restoration saw the car transformed from a well-worn relic into an impressive, show-ready classic. Even after he’d finished the restoration, Mr. Deibel continued to refine the car’s presentation and went to great lengths to document its history.
In 1971, the Duesenberg was exhibited at the Classic Car Club of America’s Indianapolis Grand Classic and, between 1979 and 1984, it was on loan to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg museum in Auburn, Indiana. In April 1984, Mr. Deibel retrieved his Duesenberg and immediately drove it to Jim Kaufman’s shop in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After being equipped with new pistons and prepped for a long road trip, Mr. Deibel and two friends drove the car from Wisconsin to Seattle, often cruising at speeds of 85 mph.
By now the car had been finished in dark metallic brown with a complementing padded leather top and Bedford cord upholstery. It came with documentation that included restoration records, archival photos, ACD certification, ownership documents, and extensive correspondence from nearly every owner, mechanic, and historian associated with the car. It is safe to say that few classics have been as comprehensively documented as this Duesenberg.
The car’s current owner, dairyman Rob Hilarides of Visalia, California, acquired the Bojangles Duesenberg in 2013, and one of the first things he did was to put the correct engine back in the car. As mentioned, the original engine had been exchanged in the 1950s by Lamont Cochran with one from his Murphy roadster. After considerable negotiation, Hilarides had the two engines swapped back into their respective cars.
Widely regarded as one of the most attractive late-production Duesenbergs in existence, this unique Rollston Berline has been pictured in countless marque books, including J.L. Elbert’s Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car and Fred Roe’s Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection. Given its extraordinary qualities, the Bojangles JN Berline represents one of the world’s finest, most historic examples of the legendary Duesenberg marque.