Converted from paper version of the Broad Ripple Gazette (v16n24)
More History of Cars in Broad Ripple
posted: Dec. 06, 2019
More History of Cars in Broad Ripple
W. Jim Roberts with his hand-built car.
image courtesy of Glen Hague
"I remember the day, it was around 1948, when W. Jim Roberts and I drove the car out to Sunset Lane with all of the pine trees to get the picture." (see above photo)
W. Jim Roberts bought this huge Duesenberg coupe on the south side of Indianapolis. It was 1936 or 1938, very expensive car in its day, very limited production. He brought it to the 63rd Street body shop at Hoster-Roberts Ford, where the Alley Cat is today. The front end of that building was the tractor dealership. They took off the body and put it on a trailer. It was wheeled over to the fenced-in used car lot, where Kroger is now. The land sloped down toward the Post Office at the back of the lot. They put the body on barrels and covered it with a tarp. It sat there for a long time. Eventually it was hauled off as salvage.
The chassis of the car was mammoth. The body shop hired Clarence Shaw - the best body shop and paint guy in existence. They also got a designer from Italy or France. These two hand-formed a body out of aluminum. "It looked like a Jag XKE on steroids. It was a monstrous thing."
The door entry pushbuttons were taken from a 1946 Lincoln Continental. The original drive train was rebuilt. An huge aluminum pan was fabricated for the underneath of the car to protect it from dirt and dust. It was suspended with aircraft fasteners, spring-loaded cam locks.
There were two or three machine shops making parts for the car. Every part of the dash was custom. Sometimes Roberts would have the same piece made at multiple shops so he could choose the best one. When a piece wasn't right, he would have it made over and over until it was proper. Most of the parts were made of brass. Even the windshield frame was brass. "I remember when the first frame came back from the shop," recalls Glen. "W. Jim spent the night trying to get it to fit. I watched him destroy it when he realized it was never going to work. He called the next morning to get another made."
In late 1949 they had the first test run of the new car on Road 100, now called 86th Street. W. Jim wanted to see how fast his creation would go. Glen drove a Miami-cream 1949 Ford convertible as the spotter. He followed W. Jim across Road 100. They were running about 110 MPH when the hood flew back on the Ford, destroying the windshield. Glen was not hurt, but the test drive was over. W. Jim was thrilled that his car hit 110 MPH. It was a success.
They took the car back to the shop to check it over and found oil in the aluminum pan under the car. This was a preview of troubles to come.
W. Jim was obsessed with the construction of the car. Sometimes he worked on it 24 hours a day. His plan was to leave the car at their Sunset Island home in Florida. He thought it would be a fun thing to have there waiting for him. They were never successful at building the top for the car. W. Jim decided that he didn't need a top in Florida. If he could plan the trip around the weather, he might be able to get it from Indiana to Florida topless.
Harold Bowly, a sheet metal and furnace man, built a gasoline heating system for the car. He ducted the system so that it was invisible to riders. "With that heating system you could ride with no top in 10 degree weather and you were warm as toast."
It was late one night when W. Jim called Glen and said "Let's go to Florida." "Why," asked Glen. "To take the Duesenberg," replied W. Jim. They checked all of the fluids. The car was running well. They took off for Florida. They almost caused several accidents on the road with gawkers trying to figure out what kind of car it was. No one had ever seem anything like it.
Somewhere in Kentucky, there were no interstate highways back then, they stopped in a small town to eat. They looked out from the restaurant and couldn't see the car because of all the people crowded around it. "It probably looked like something from outer space to them." Upon returning to the car they discovered oil all over underneath. "We aren't going to make it to Florida," Glen told W. Jim. W. Jim said they needed to get the car back to Indianapolis to fix it, and told Glen to drive it back by himself. "I am 16 years old and will not be responsible for this car!" Roberts agreed and both drove the car back to Broad Ripple.
The car just laid around for awhile, because by the time Roberts got the crippled car back to the shop he was bitter about the whole thing. He ended up hating the car. They threw a cover over it and eventually sold it for about $4000. Glen estimates that Roberts had about $50,000 invested in it. "We all grew to hate that car," recalled Glen.
Around 2017, Glen received a call from Jay Leno's office. Apparently the car had been found in a barn someplace in very bad shape. Creatures had been living in it and the chassis was the only salvageable piece. Glen said Leno bought it and is working to restore the car to its original Duesenberg design.
Rare images of the W. Jim Roberts Duesenberg project
image courtesy of John D. Hague