Meet the PhD of ACD

Every day is a new adventure for Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg historian and restorer Randy Ema.

Randy Ema has been steeped in everything Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg since he was a teenage boy. In fact, in the restored English Tudor home he shares with his wife Diana, you’ll find Fred Duesenberg’s Oriental rugs, family china and, in Ema’s office, thousands of engineering drawings from which Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg parts were built.

Reminders of his ACD interest abound, but Ema’s knowledge of many marques is virtually encyclopedic. He has restored scores of other cars, including several Bugattis and a Crane-Simplex.

Known for his meticulous restorations, Ema has garnered eight class wins at Pebble Beach. However, he really thinks of himself as a historian, an interest fostered by having met many of the men responsible for the cars he loves, including designers Gordon Buehrig, Herb Newport, Phil Wright, Dutch Darrin and Frank Hershey.

No such thing as a typical day

The only predictable part of Ema’s day comes just after he arrives at his shop in the city of Orange, California, when he checks messages and e-mail and meets with his crew or a client. He also regularly peruses online auctions where, he says, “I recently found a Duesenberg tachometer for $20 because nobody else knew what it was for.” He was less fortunate with a pair of Duesenberg Model A water pumps: “I paid $800 each and was glad to get them at any price.”

Ema is always on the go. “You never know what the day will find and that’s what makes it so exciting,” he says. Like, for instance, the time “a guy knocked on the door and said ‘Do you want to buy a pair of Duesenberg headlamps?’ Sometimes, the connections we get are unreal.”

On any given day, you can find Ema dropping off a Ferrari drive shaft to be balanced or making a trip to check on a Duesenberg body being crafted by an 80-year-old panel beater named Marcel. He’s asked to help identify stolen parts on a Model J Duesenberg at the Riverside County Sheriff’s impound lot or to take a call from an ACD club officer attempting to certify a car, casually commenting afterward, “Nobody but me has files on this stuff.”

An unmatched collection

Back in his office packed with automotive books, photos and files, Ema dives into the cabinets that hold folders containing information on every one of the 481 Duesenberg Model Js built. Of the surviving 378, Ema admits, “There are four I’ve not seen.” After 40 years, he’s accumulated virtually everything that’s left of Duesenberg, including family photos, records, letters and furniture. His archive includes 28,000 Duesenberg factory drawings and all Duesenberg purchasing records, vendor files and factory correspondence from 1934, as well as 1,800 Auburn Cord Duesenberg factory negatives. Many of these items couldn’t be bought at any price: Ema received most of the Duesenberg drawings in trade for a factory Cord 812 supercharger, which was itself the result of a series of careful trades.

A few minutes later he pulls out some worn leather books with the imprint “Property of Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Co. Inc, Indianapolis, Indiana,” to look up some parts. “I got a pair of lights today, but they don’t have these pins,” he says, pointing to the headlamps in a factory photo of the first Model A Duesenberg. “That’s OK,” he continues, “We can fabricate the parts and modify them.” Although he’s not restoring the car, he’s consulting on authenticity and sourcing elusive parts, such as the cam gears he’s just ordered from a Nashville company.

Always on the lookout

When the urge strikes, Ema might spend more time in the shop, assembling a Duesenberg engine or working on one of his cars, such as the Auburn 12 Salon Speedster slowly taking shape. Or he might travel to look at a car for a client, though, he laments, “We haven’t found a Duesenberg that was new to us since 1962.”

Whether on the phone, searching through files or working in the shop, Ema rarely sits; his office doesn’t even have a desk chair, although he occasionally perches on a stool. After 45 years of chasing all kinds of cars and parts, Ema is still as energetic and as enthusiastic as ever – especially when there’s the slightest clue about anything Auburn, Cord or Duesenberg – because, as he says, “There’s nothing like the hunt.”
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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