Scotts Valley, Calif. -- Nobody would have called the car a beauty. Impossibly high-waisted, cloaked entirely in black, with boxy hips and awkward lines, it stood primly erect on the shop floor, a lonely figure amid seductive shapes.
When first approached about restoring it, the shop's owner, Bruce Canepa, hesitated. The métier of his business here -- part restoration facility, part racecar works and part collector-car dealership -- runs to low-slung Cobras, Corvettes, Porsches and Mercedes Gullwings.
"We've got the expertise, but it's just not our thing," Mr. Canepa protested to the car's owner, a longtime client and fellow racing enthusiast, Jimmy Castle. "Nearly everything we do here is postwar."
Mr. Castle, who lives in Monterey, an hour's drive south, insisted. He wanted Canepa to do the work, and he wanted to keep the project close to home.
Three years and some 10,000 hours of intensive restoration work later, the car, a single-bench-seat Duesenberg Model A coupe -- the first privately purchased car from what many consider America's most historically significant automotive brand -- is to compete next Sunday at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance on the Monterey Peninsula of California.
The Duesenberg joined the household of the Castles, the missionary and landowning family with major interests in Hawaii, in 1921. Though a prestige model in its early days, it was later pressed into service as a work vehicle in Hawaii. Over the years, the car's upholstery had been gnawed by horses, its wood frame invaded by tropical termites and its aluminum skin etched by the elements. The steel fenders were battered and rusted; original parts were missing or had been haphazardly replaced.
"She was pretty homely," Mr. Canepa said.
Yet for all its issues, Mr. Canepa realized this was a car like no other. Not only is it the first Duesenberg purchased by a customer, it is the only one that is still in the family of the original owners, according to an authority on the marque, Randy Ema of Orange, Calif.
Before agreeing to take the job, Mr. Canepa polled his crew. "I wanted to make sure our guys, who are used to restoring Le Mans racers, really wanted to work on a 90-year-old Duesenberg."
Most, however, had already grasped that this was more than another elderly automobile. "The more we looked," Mr. Canepa said, "the more everybody just thought it was the coolest thing."
True to the company's racing heritage, the Model A Duesenberg was the first American passenger vehicle equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and an overhead-cam in-line 8-cylinder engine. In another sign of the maker's competition past, the Castle car was fitted with full-length steel belly pans.
Typical of the era, the Castle coupe, car No. 601 in the factory's record, was produced as a running chassis without a body. At a time when a Ford Model T roadster cost less than $400, a Model A Duesenerg's price tag, including a coachbuilt body, could easily exceed $7,000, Mr. Ema said.
The coupe's aluminum-skin body used an ash frame. "Everybody we talked to about restoring that frame said, 'We'll just scan it and make a new one,' " Mr. Canepa said. "We said, 'No thanks.' "
"Today, the whole restoration philosophy is about preserving as much original content as possible," he said. "From Day 1, that was our objective."
Mr. Canepa turned to a local master woodworker, Charles Pyle, a specialist in Craftsman furniture and fastener-free joinery. Mr. Pyle took apart the frame, removing hundreds of tacks and nails and replacing rotted sections with new wood. For strength, the structure was infused with epoxy. Period-correct hide glue, made from boiled hooves, horns and animal skin, was used for final assembly.
Though Mr. Pyle's work was done mostly with the same types of hand tools used almost a century earlier, there were exceptions, including a vacuum he designed to draw the epoxy into the wood. The frame restoration required almost a year and a half.
Rebuilding the engine was no simpler. The job went to Ed Pink Racing Engines in Van Nuys, Calif. "We've done quite a few World War I-era projects," said Frank Honsowetz, Pink's general manager. "But the Duesenberg was a quantum leap more advanced."
Unlike modern cars, whose camshafts are turned by belts or chains, Duesenberg's were driven by a geared vertical shaft at the front of the engine. With the existing gears badly worn and new parts unavailable, replacements were machined from solid stock, which took eight months.
Other work included replacing the brass carburetor, refurbishing the camshaft and connecting rods, fabricating finned-aluminum side covers and recoating the engine in its correct shade of gray enamel.
In 1928, when Duesenberg introduced the Model J, the Castle car was shipped back to Indianapolis for updating. Wheels and hubs, brakes, bumpers, steering, headlamps -- even the trunk's spare tire spindle -- were replaced with Model J parts.
"That just meant more work," Mr. Canepa said. "Our job was to deliver the car as new."
Entrusted with day-to-day oversight of the restoration was Dave Stoltz, a fabricator and machinist at the shop. Like Mr. Canepa, he is a former dirt-track racer who had never restored a car of this vintage but whose hands, his boss knew, could shape anything from metal.
The four known photographs of the car in its original condition were taped above his workbench. Mr. Stoltz devoted hours to research, and he reached out to experts like Mr. Ema, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind., and other specialists. "I'd love to claim I did everything myself," he said, "but I've had many helpers."
One who pitched in might easily have been a competitor. By coincidence, Arnold Schmidt was restoring the second purchased Duesenberg in Valencia, Calif., 300 miles south of the Canepa shop. Mr. Schmidt helped Mr. Stoltz complete the coupe's steering assembly; when Mr. Schmidt needed to find where a fuel filter belonged, Mr. Stoltz returned the favor with a photograph he had found in his research.
Stumped for the coupe's original spotlight, Mr. Stoltz found an identical piece on a Pierce-Arrow in a museum. Armed with a digital camera, tape measure, cardboard and scissors, he drew plans and fashioned a template. A British restoration company made a housing from his drawings, and Mr. Stoltz machined the light's hardware to produce a perfect match -- and followed up by creating new mounting stands for the headlights using old photos.
Mostly, however, original parts were painstakingly renewed. Rather than replace the car's fenders, for example, Mr. Stoltz repaired rusted areas with fresh steel, seamlessly welding old and new metal together. Original nuts, bolts, washers and other hardware were sorted into piles, labeled and soaked in penetrating oil.
Early this year, some in the cliquish world of classic autos suggested that Canepa's team might be in over its head.
Mr. Stoltz was unfazed. "I love thrashing on it," he said with a flinty grin. "Especially when somebody says you can't do it."
Mr. Canepa assigned Mr. Stoltz a crew of helpers and put the job on 12-hour shifts. By late June, the most elusive pieces, including an original brake light (found on the Internet) and the correct wool pinstripe upholstery, were in hand.
On July 3, the crew flipped on the ignition and, for the first time since the late 1960s, the coupe's engine sprang to life.
"Just think," Mr. Canepa said with a smile. "When we started this project a lot of us couldn't even spell Duesenberg."autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.