specialist-teeming world of sports cars few persons have carried specialization
to such rarefied heights as a burly, tow-headed mechanical wizard and racing
driver of 45 named Arthur James Hoe. The Hoe Sports-car garage, tucked away on
a leafy back road in Weston, Conn., where Hoe lives with his wife and three
children, ministers exclusively to the near-extinct line of Duesenbergs—in the
judgment of its idolatrous fans, the greatest wheeled vehicles ever conceived.
It restores basket cases to racing pitch, runs a Mail-order business in
Duesenberg spare parts, machining them on its own lathes, and occasionally
unearths a model for a long waiting list of desperate Duesenberg lovers.
Of the fabled
make, launched in 1920 in Indianapolis by the Duesenberg brothers, Fred and
Augie, and discontinued in 1937, only 70 Model As, 470 Js and 33 SJs were sold,
at prices ranging from $13,500 to $25,000. Some had built-in stoves and
toilets, dressing tables, writing desks and bars, and one, owned by an Indian
nabob, had solid gold fittings, a floor of inlaid rare woods and apparently no
price ceiling. Of all these, only about 350 are known to be still mobile. A
paltry number to support a full-time enterprise, but Jim Hoe and three helpers,
toiling eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week, cannot begin to keep up with
the demands for their services. Hoe estimates he has worked on or provided
parts for about 75% of all extant Duesenbergs.
Duesenberg, "The Racer," an SJ competition two-seater, is now in its
fourth decade. It had lain in a Long Island estate for 10 years before it was
sent to a junkyard where Hoe spotted it and bought it for $100. It had no
wheels, only a rust-eroded body and the ghost of a motor. He cut down the frame
from 152 to 125 inches and drilled holes to lighten it, reduced the weight of
the 90-pound springs by a third and built a new motor. In man-hours and
materials the restoration stood him $8,000 (no record sum, however, one Hoe
customer having paid a bill totaling $20,000), but he never regretted a penny
of it. The Racer, with its restorer at the wheel, led its class three years in
a row in the hill-climbing tests on Giant's Despair, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; tied
for first place in the quarter-mile time race at Cherry Park, Conn.; and in
1951, on the dirt track at Dover, N.H., ran a beautiful second to a Maserati in
the standing and flying half-mile.
Jim Hoe's mania
for cars burgeoned early in life. He was 5 when his father, the head of a
prosperous New York printing concern, sat Hoe on his lap and allowed him to
hold the wheel of his vintage 1910 Mercedes. Hoe's mechanical aptitude was
formally developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Later came Sperry
Gyroscope Co., where Hoe was chief inspector of its experimental machine shop,
the Army and another tour of duty with Sperry.
Sperry, Hoe bought, for $295, the remains of a 1930 Model J Duesenberg and
doctored it back to a degree of health which enabled him to come in third in a
standing start acceleration test. Prize patient of the Hoe clinic, its mileage
gauge well over the 300,000 mark, the car may be seen today tooling smartly
around New York under the command of an ex-professor of psychology at the
University of Pennsylvania named Bayard Badenhausen.
Hoe's father was
so impressed that he procured the corpse of another Model J and challenged him
to resuscitate it. Hoe achieved this in a series of delicate operations lasting
several months. In 1945 he opened a repair shop in Old Westbury on Long Island,
and he has scarcely had an idle moment since. Hoe moved to his present
eight-acre property (there is garage space for six cars) in 1948.
No site could be
more peculiarly congenial to a person of Hoe's predilection than Weston. Within
commuting distance of New York, it lies in the heart of Fairfield County, which
also embraces the headquarters of the Sports Car Club of America, the
Connecticut Sports Car Club, numerous sports car dealers and the home of Briggs
Cunningham, the millionaire sports car enthusiast and builder.
It was for
Cunningham that Hoe bought Gary Cooper's SJ speedster. This was the classic
Duesenberg with the damn-all, bird-in-flight radiator emblem and the long
sweeping fenders that made the car look a city block long. The body was a
lovely two-tone gray and the car sported a bob tail in lieu of the separate
trunk. Hoe renovated the speedster and raced it during the summer of 1949. He
won every event he entered.
Duesenberg, this one bought in Chicago, was cause for the most humiliating
experience of Hoe's life. The Duesenberg, which was dressed in a horrible,
muddy shade of tan, needed some $2,000 worth of repairs and Hoe had to snail
his way east to Connecticut at slower than 50 mph. Everywhere he was treated to
jeers from motorists passing him in vehicles of (to Hoe) deplorably low
pedigrees. Hoe vows he'll rebuild the car on the spot before he allows himself
to get caught that way again.