Out and About: Duesies and Automobile Heaven

By Frank Luke, City Employee, Club Member

Be honest now, if you were king for a day, what would it be: World peace or a breathtaking, classic car collection? Maybe better not answer this, especially if you were born and raised in Los Angeles, the undisputed car capital of the world. To be fair, when J.B. Nethercutt, the co-founder of LA’s Merle Norman Cosmetics, bought his first two vintage automobiles in 1956, world peace was probably not so much at stake as it is today. Nor was he offered to be king for a day.

That said, almost 70 years later, the 1936 Duesenberg Convertible Roadster and the 1930 DuPont Town Car that started his collection are still an integral part of the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. Here, more than 250 immaculately restored vehicles can be admired by visitors from all over the world. Of course, first, you have to find them, because many are thoroughly hidden from the public eye in a rather nondescript, windowless 60,000-square-foot building on Bledsoe Street in the San Fernando Valley. However, looks can be deceiving, and once you set foot into the Grand Showroom – lavishly modeled after 1920s-era automobile Art Deco showrooms with sky-high columns made of imported marble – it may just take your breath away. Stepping inside is nothing short of a wondrous “Open Sesame” moment.

Every single car in the Nethercutt Collection is in perfect running condition and 100 percent roadworthy, no matter how old or technically unique it may be. And most are still occasionally being driven up to this day. However, obviously not just anyone is allowed to get behind the wheel of a rare 1930s Bugatti race car or a multimillion-dollar 1920s Rolls Royce Phantom.

“Please come on in,” says Nethercutt Vice President Cameron Richards. He’s holding the door wide open while keeping a keen eye on Zeta, his three-year-old four-legged mutt, a shelter rescue, who is known to make a quick exit when no one’s looking. Richards is one of the very few who actually gets to drive the most valuable cars outside of the museum grounds. If you’d like to be added to the list of drivers, give him a call, though. Just kidding (I tried). After all, you’ll be hard-pressed to match his qualifications: Not only is he an admitted car nut but also – which helps a little – the great-grandson of the collection’s founder.

For people who love automobiles, Nethercutt offers a mind-blowing selection. Most shown marques are of American and European origin, among them Aston Martin, Porsche, Lincoln, Maybach, Bentley, Bugatti, Cadillac, Duesenberg, Ferrari, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, and many others. They all tell different tales of the past and a few even have a somewhat checkered history.

Take the glistening black 1932 Maybach for instance, once a Luftwaffe staff car in Nazi Germany. Hermann Göring was allegedly chauffeured around in it on at least one occasion, and the vehicle had quite an adventurous journey to the United States decades ago. “I can talk about it now,” he says. “Everybody involved is long gone.” After the dilapidated car was located in a barn in Poland in 1968, it was discreetly liberated from there in the middle of the night when no one was watching. Eventually, it made its way to Sylmar for a meticulous restoration (except for glass and chrome; all necessary work is done in-house by full-time expert craftsmen). Open the doors to the vehicle today and you’ll catch a delicious whiff of thick, new leather scent that gives this more-than-90-year-old behemoth a distinct “new car smell.”

And what about the 1933 “one-off” eight-cylinder Duesenberg Roadster that is considered to be one of the most beautiful and valuable cars in the world? “It’s a true pleasure to drive and it will easily do 120 mph on the 405,” Richards shares. Just don’t ask him how he knows. In his personal life, the 26-year-old drives a bright red 1965 Chevy Impala, by the way. He also owns a 2019 Ford F-150 pickup truck for day-to-day driving because, as he puts it, “There’s something to be said about having airbags.” (His personal dream car is a 2005 Ford GT, but that will have to wait for a while.)

In Richards’ view, what makes his family’s collection so fascinating is the amazing history of its automobiles and their previous owners. Although some of their fates may be a little murky.

Could this be the reason for some inexplicable occurrences over the years? For instance, on three different occasions groups of visitors reported seeing a little boy playing inside a 1937 Graham sedan. When staff checked, the child was nowhere to be found, nor was his image visible in any of the security camera footage. And what about the old man in suspenders, who keeps staring blankly into an old Ford Model-T that’s housed in the museum’s auxiliary wing across the street? Eyewitness reports keep coming in, but whenever employees try to find him, he’s gone. “We’ll never know,” Richards surmises, “and that may be a good thing.”

Remember when you were a kid, dreaming about hiding in a department store at night, thinking how amazing it would be to explore every nook and cranny with no one around? Richards was no different, and today the keys to an entire museum are jangling in his pocket. So, does he ever sneak in at night to playfully climb behind the wheel of some exotic automobile, making engine sounds? “I’m taking the fifth on that one,” he says with a boyish grin: “I’d rather not answer.”

Some of Nethercutt’s most famous cars can occasionally be seen in shows around the country and have been crowned “Best of” many times. “My great-grandfather would be so proud,” he says, although he is itching to leap into uncharted waters: “Being 26 years old, I am part of the Fast and Furious generation. I would love to get some of those Japanese racers into the collection.” The acquisition of new vehicles is always a family decision, though, and currently, there seems to be little excitement for that idea. (Thank God!) Plus, there are almost too many precious cars to look after as-is.

While exact numbers are not available, according to Richards, the collection’s insured value currently hovers around “a few Bs.” Yet, he’s not overly concerned about possible thefts of any of its treasures: “Most of these cars are so unique and old, I’d be tempted to offer you the keys and the title if you can even get them started.” The $40 million Bugatti Dubos for instance?

“Many tried but only Jay Leno came close to getting the engine going.” (I’d still volunteer to give that Maybach a go sometime. Come on, brother Cameron Richards: Throw me a bone!)

By the way, although Nethercutt doesn’t often add new vehicles these days, sometimes donations will be accepted. This is how cars that would otherwise not be considered for the collection may still join its illustrious ranks in the end. That yellow 1973 Ford Mustang in the corner over there? It’s one of those. Its shiny M-1 paint scheme is immaculate and the car is in mint condition, all original. “The owner offered us the car a while back,” he remembers. “He said he wanted it to be a part of the Nethercutt Collection so it could be in automobile heaven.” And that, no doubt, it certainly is. •

This rare Bugatti racecar is one of the stars at the Nethercutt. It is also not built for taller people: To drive it, Cameron Richards has to take off his shoes as the gas and clutch pedals are sitting way too closely together for modern standards.