Ethel V. Mars stood at the entrance of the main stable of her horse farm. She and her late husband Franklin Clarence Mars had purchased the 2800 acre property in Giles County Tennessee in 1930 and had built Milky Way Farm to raise Hereford cattle and race horses. By 1934 they had begun competing at major East Coast racetracks but it was after her husband died that year that Ethel assumed control of the horse operation and began to invest heavily into it. In 1935 alone, her top tier racehorses had won $107,565 and in 1936 she spent the winnings on more for 29 yearlings at the annual Saratoga sales. ( Below left: Ethel Mars.)
Though her winnings had proved her skills at horse breeding and her shopping spree at Saratoga made it clear she was a woman of means, Ethel believed America’s upper classes and the European aristocrats who still dominated the world of horse racing still did not take her seriously but saw here as a rather “nouveau riche” imposter who would hopefully soon crawl back to whence she came. As she stood there in the already humid heat of late spring surveying her domain, she decided that it was time to make waves and shock the old tuffs into recognition.
A car. She needed a new car that would stand out. But not just anything. Not just another expensive but boring conveyance that would blend in with the Rolls Royces and V16 Cadillacs she had seen at recent horse races and the auctions. Nor did she want something as overtly finicky and flashy as a Mercedes, such as those she had seen up-and-coming Hollywood starlets drive. That looked too desperate. She wanted something American, though. Finally Duesenberg came to mind - the American superlative of the day and the most powerful cars around.
The trip to Auburn ID was a trek from Milky Way Farm near Pulaski TN. It took two days. She spent the night in Louisville with her friends the Marmons. Howard Carpenter Marmon had been an acquaintance of her late husband and she still owned a Marmon 16, having been one of the very few who had taken delivery of the first production sixteen cylinder car in 1931. She asked Howard what he thought. He had recently exited the automobile production business and had concentrated the company instead on components under the Marmon-Herrington name. Nevertheless, Duesenberg had been among his greatest competitors and he assured Ethel that it would certainly make the right impression.
After a night in Louisville she headed on to Auburn. She had a late lunch appointment with J. Herbert Newport the new designer who had recently added some pizzazz to the imposing but staid Duesenberg design department after taking over from Gordon Buehrig. As they sat down for lunch consisting of sausages and sauerkraut in the company dining room, Ethel began to explain what she was looking for. Before she had finished her first bratwurst, Newport’s eyes suddenly lit up.
“I have exactly what you’re looking for”. He exclaimed. “We designed it with Bohman & Schwartz in Pasadena CA with Mae West in mind back in 1934. She saw the design but wasn’t convinced and ended up buying something off the showroom floor instead. I’d love to show it to you.”
After lunch they headed to Newport’s office. Pulling a cardboard tube from a shelf he removed a roll of paper and spread it out over his drawing board. With swooping lines and covered spare tires on either side of the long hood, the design certainly was avant – garde. Ethel was smitten. The town car design was perfect, just what she needed to show the “big hats” on Derby day that she had arrived.
“Let’s build it.” she said.
J. Herbert Newport was ecstatic. As soon as Ethel Mars had left his office, he called Chris Bohman of coachbuilders Bohman and Schwartz in his office in Pasadena. Newport was so excited he was so out of breath he could hardly speak. He’d send the design drawings by airmail that afternoon. It seemed like his avant-garde design philosophy was catching on and as soon as Ethel Mars was seen in their creation the world’s gilded elite would be running down his door in Auburn and maybe he could save Duesenberg after all.
When the exquisite automobile was finally delivered a few months later, it had exactly the effect the candy dowager had hoped for. It was not so much the design that shocked her peers but the price which Ethel took care to make public. At $20,000 (or $360,091.97 in today’s dollars.) it made headlines in the November 16, 1936 issue of Time Magazine in their coverage of the New York Auto Show as “The Costliest Car in the United States”. Mrs. Ethel V. Mars truly had arrived.
The car remained with Mrs. Mars until she died in 1945, at which point it was sold to Chicago Duesenberg dealer John Troka. With America at the beginnings of a postwar boom, Mrs. Mars’s Duesenberg was just another ten year old second hand car luxury car and sold to Walter and Wladzia Podbielniak for $2500 ($33,882.28 present USD). The couple had made their fortune in laboratory equipment and lived the kind of ostentatious life quite common among those of recent wealth. Mrs. Podbielniak was usually chauffeured between her State Street offices and the couple’s Lake Shore Drive castle in the Duesenberg and when she made the trip alone it was in a Delahaye upholstered in leopard skin.
Unfortunately the party came to a screeching halt when the couple divorced and the Chicago gossip pages reveled in the details. In 1961 a liquidation sale was held of the castle on Lake Shore drive including Wladzia’s cars but all three failed to make their reserves. She would end up keeping them until 1966 when casino magnate Bill Harrah acquired them for his Automobile Collection in Sparks Nevada.
For the next twenty years very little was heard of Ethel V. Mars’s Duesenberg and in 1986 it was sold to retired railroad executive Richard Dicker. But just before leaving the Harrah Collection it was repainted in bright red.
Mr. Dicker’s purchase of the famous “West-Mars” Duesenberg coincided with the beginning of the boom market in collector automobiles that is only peaking now. Accordingly, Mr. Dicker invested in a total restoration of the famous car. The result was resplendent in the original Chinchilla Grey exterior color and the correct interior. Mechanically the car was also overhauled with the addition of a correct reproduction supercharger. Like with most pre-war Duesenbergs the original had been removed in the 1940’s.
For the next ten years the car was shown at various classic car events all over the US until after Mr. Dicker’s death, in 1995 it was passed on once again this time to the Blackhawk Collection first and then two other collectors before ending up in the Andrews Collection soon afterwards.(Below: The famous car being shown at the Auburn, Duesenberg, Cord Museum in Auburn MI.)
By 2015, Paul Andrews, founder of electronic component wholesaler TTI Inc, recently acquired by Warren Buffett, decided that his immense automobilia collection needed to be culled and 78 cars would be sold at auction on May 2nd 2015 at RM Sotheby’s. The West - Mars Duesenberg was one of them and sold to Lee and Penny Anderson of Naples, Florida for $3,630,000. They immediately commissioned a complete rotisserie restoration taking the car back to its original condition and appearance such as it looked when leaving the Bohman and Schwartz shop in Pasadena, CA all those years ago. Even Ethel Mars’s chinchilla throw was replaced by a new one made of rabbit fur. (Below: Lee and Penny Anderson infront of the car at 2017's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and others with the supercharged inline 8 exposed.)
It was in this immaculate condition that the car made an appearance at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance. According to Lee Anderson, it is the best car he owns, even compared to his four other Duesenbergs and he plans to drive it regularly as soon as he gets it back to Florida.