"We heard there was an early Model A Duesenberg for sale in Jefferson City," Arnold Schmidt of Valencia, Calif., recalled. "So on a whim and a prayer, in 2007 Mike Hogan and I drove to Missouri to try and buy it."
When the door of Stuart Exon's garage swung open, they knew the trip had been worth it. Peering into what Dr. Exon, a retired surgeon, called his lion's den, they saw the Duesenberg company's second-ever privately sold passenger vehicle -- and its first dual-cowl phaeton, an open-top twin windshield design.
"It was a lot of bare aluminum and rust," Mr. Schmidt said of the car, which Dr. Exon had bought for $20,000 in 1972.
After buying the vehicle for $90,000 for Ron and Sandra Hansen of Fillmore, Calif., Mr. Schmidt embarked on one of the most difficult restorations of his 37-year career. Among the biggest challenges: replacing rotted lower sections of the wood frame and interior body structure and salvaging the car's original steel cowl, hood and fenders.
Despite the car's sophisticated chassis and running gear, some of the coachwork, by Fleetwood Metal Body in Pennsylvania, could only be called crude, Mr. Schmidt said. For example, rather than finishing steel fender edges by rolling a smooth bead, flat bars were spot-welded along the edges; the gaps were simply filled with lead.
As a result, repairs required peeling back the metal along each fender opening, replacing areas of rust, reforming the piece's shape, and -- without using fillers, a no-no in restoration -- meticulously hand-filing the edges back to their original contours.
"The process took our metal man, Bob Foresee, up to three months per fender," Mr. Schmidt said. "We could have made replicas in two weeks."
Throughout the six-year project, Mr. Schmidt consulted with Randy Ema, a Duesenberg authority in Orange, Calif. Mr. Ema's shrinelike restoration shop, unmarked by any exterior sign, contains 28,000 original linen-and-ink drawings from the Duesenberg factory, as well as thousands of parts and patterns. There are also photographic negatives, official company records and correspondence.
Mr. Ema's trove of factory plans proved invaluable when restoring the dual windshields -- it turned out they had been shortened by three inches. Similarly, Mr. Schmidt learned that the wood originally used in the steering wheel was black walnut, not Honduras mahogany as he'd thought.
He made two correct replacements, the second wheel going north to the shop in Scotts Valley, Calif., where the first privately sold Duesenberg, whose wheel had been upgraded to a Model J spec, was being restored.
Designated No. 603, the Hansen Duesenberg was delivered to its first owner in 1922. In 1947 it was bought by Fred Huttleson of Sacramento, Calif., for $212. On occasion, Mr. Huttleson's sons drove the car to high school.
Despite its rough appearance, the car "fired right up" in Dr. Exon's garage, Mr. Schmidt said. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 hours have gone into the restoration of the cream-color vehicle, at a cost of "well over $1 million," Mr. Schmidt said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.