Fred and August Duesenberg built what many still consider the finest American automobile of all time. Their great skills were evident early on. After the Duesenberg family emigrated from Germany to Iowa in 1885, a twenty something Fred built racing bicycles renowned for precision craftsmanship. After patenting an efficient gasoline engine in 1899, the brothers then moved on to Des Moines and automobiles, where they designed and built their first car, the 1904 Mason, named for their financial backer. By 1912 they were building impressive racing engines for Mason's competition cars. The following year they organized Duesenberg Motor Company to build both marine engines and racing engines bearing their name.
In 1917 the brothers set up a larger plant at Elizabeth, New Jersey, to turn out aircraft and tractor engines as well. But this business was soon overshadowed by new triumphs in automobile racing. In 1919, a special 16-cylinder Duesenberg engine pushed a Land Speed Record car to 158 mph on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida - an astounding record for the day. The following year the brothers built a Bugatti inspired 180 cubic inch straight eight with a single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder. In 1921 this engine powered a Duesenberg racer, which became the only American car ever to win the French Grand Prix. Duesenberg racers soon came to rival the great Miller racers at Indianapolis, winning the annual 500 miler no less than three times before 1930.
With their vast experience and growing reputation in racing, Fred and August Duesenberg decided to move to Indianapolis and build a road car. Designated the Model A, it appeared in late 1921 at the lofty price of $6,500. A genuine result of lessons learned on the track, it carried a potent 260 CID overhead valve straight eight that could deliver up to 85 mph. It also boasted a first among American cars: four wheel hydraulic brakes, a system Fred had developed for his racers as early as 1914.
Though brilliantly engineered and fastidiously crafted, the Model A was no trendsetter. Nor were the brothers very good businessmen. Thus, after selling fewer than 500 cars through 1926, they sold Duesenberg Motors to the brash Erret Lobban Cord, who also acquitted Auburn that year. Fred and Augie stayed on however, and in 1927 they built a dozen or so Model A derivatives named the Model X. But this was only a stopgap. E.L. Cord wanted something far more exotic.
He got it in the Model J, introduced to universal applause in December of 1928. With characteristic immodesty, Cord proclaimed it"The World's Finest Car". And by most any measurement it was, the product of Cord's money and Fred's genius.
Any discussion of Duesenbergs invariably leads to engines and horsepower. The Model J arrived with a 420 CID straight eight built by Lycoming to Fred's design. Horsepower was advertised as 265, mind-boggling at the time - easily over twice the power of the industry's previous best, Chrysler. Doubters have since argued that the actual figure was closer to 200, but there is evidence that the factory didn't exaggerate. Though the stock engine had only 5:2:1 compression, a modified unit with 8:1 ratio showed 390 HP. There was also a fabled Lycoming chart that listed a reject Model J engine with 208 HP, and the late John R. Bond, founder of Road & Track, projected 265-270 HP at the maximum 4250 rpm. So odds are, the Model J had at least 250 HP if not more.
Forget about horsepower and consider some of the other specifications. In a day when side valves were usual and overhead valves "modern", the Model J had overhead camshafts - and not one but two. What's more, they were driven by hefty chains to operate not two, but four valves per cylinder - 32 in all. The engine itself was enameled in bright green, and fittings were finished in nickel, chrome and stainless steel. Standard wheelbase was no less than 142.5 inches. Frame rails were a massive 8.5 inches deep and a quarter inch thick. Brakes were oversized and hydraulic, vacuum assisted after 1930. Use of aluminum alloy was extensive: in engine, dash, steering column, differential and flywheel housings, crankcase, timing chain cover, water pump, intake manifold, brake shoes, even the gas tank. So despite their massive size, Model J's didn't weigh much over 5200 pounds. They could thus do a staggering 89 mph in second gear and 112-115 in high.
Interiors were opulent but functional. Instruments were the most numerous yet seen in an automobile: the usual speedometer (calibrated to 150 mph), ammeter, brake pressure gauge, clock / split second stopwatch, and barometer / altimeter. Warning lights reminded you to add chassis oil, the chassis lubricated itself every 75 miles, change engine oil or replenish battery water. All this was only typical of Fred Duesenberg's dedication to excellence - a passion that his cars be superior in every way.
Model J prices have long generated much confusion. Of course, you bought not a finished car but a bare chassis, which listed for an astronomical $8500 in 1929, $9500 thereafter. E.L. Cord was aiming at those wealthy enough to afford such lofty prices - and the lofty extra expense of bodywork custom designed to presumably discriminating individual tastes. Bodies were ordered from a list of specialty coachbuilders through Duesenberg, this was a factory standard mainly to prevent the creation of an eyesore. Though "factory" styles were announced as low as $2500, the least costly coupe body, by Murphy of Pasadena seems to have run at least $3500. Most Model J's sold for under $17,000 complete. A few cost up to $20,000, a handful as much up to $25,000. In 1929 that was equal to 50 Ford Model A's, and in today's money is equal to about a million and a half dollars.
Bodies were as regal as the Model J's drive train. These were after all, grand luxe carriages, so only the finest woods, fabrics and leathers were used. Vanity cases, radios, bars, and rear instrument panels were common owner specified features. Less common was the Town Car upholstered in silk and given ebony, silver and ivory fittings. One notable Town Car was given solid gold hardware, upholstered in rare Persian silk with an ebony and mahogany wood panel mosaic in the vanity case and the passenger compartment was carpeted with an ancient hand woven silk oriental prayer rug worth more than the car itself!
So despite its astonishing performance, the Model J was primarily a super luxury conveyance able to run at any speed in eerie silence as customers demanded. And who were those demanding customers? Well, only 470 chassis and 480 engines were built between 1929 and 1937 so the clientele was exclusive. Ads emphasized the fact. These contained not a word of hype, nor specifications - not even a picture of the car itself. Instead, there might be a yachtsman at the helm battling what looked like a 40-knot gale, or a well dressed tycoon relaxing in a library worthy of a university. Regardless, there was but one line of type: "He drives a Duesenberg." Not that the ads were chauvinistic. One showed an elegantly attired woman talking to her hat in hand gardener in front of an estate that would shame Versailles. Naturally the headline declared "She drives a Duesenberg."
If the J was imposing, the supercharged SJ was awesome. Only 36 were built, all from 1932 to 1935, with chassis priced at a prodigious $11,750. Because the centrifugal blower delivered a ten horsepower boost at 4000 rpm, conrods were changed from aluminum alloy to sturdier tube steel types. Early SJ's developed less than 325 HP, but August Duesenberg wanted more, so he half-heartedly tried a set of "ram's horn" manifolds and was amazed to see 400 HP on the dynamometer.
SJ performance is well documented. A stock example could reach 105 mph in second and top 145 mph in high. In late 1934, the famed Ab Jenkins drove a lightweight roadster on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for 24 hours; despite no mechanical alterations the car averaged 135 mph. Jenkins also ran 152 mph for a full hour and clocked one lap at 160 mph! To put it mildly, the SJ was simply incredible.
Yet besides power and luxury, these Duesenbergs had surprising dynamic balance, without the heaviness of so many high priced contemporaries. Model J's were not "trucky", did not steer like tanks, and didn't require the leg muscles of a Purdue football player to operate the clutch or brake. They did understeer, but exquisitely accurate steering easily checked this.
The most famous and widely known of all Duesenbergs was built as a showcar for the 1933 World's Fair "Century of Progress" exhibit. This was the SJ Torpedo Sedan. Built on a SJ chassis with a custom built sleek sedan body and painted a shade of silver the factory dubbed "Metallic Platinum", the car was quickly given its famous nickname of "Twenty Grand" after its 1933 price. The car survived the Depression and resides today as a museum piece in the Merle Norman Beauty Collection in the San Sylmar Museum.
Only two Model J's could be truthfully called "sports cars," a pair of specials unofficially titled SSJ. The cars were built in 1935 by the Cord owned Union City Body Company, usually known by its more recognized alias of LaGrande, on a short 125 inch wheelbase. The first SSJ was bought directly off the showroom floor by movie star Gary Cooper, then not wanting to be outdone by his friend Clark Gable bough the other. Both cars retailed for about $17,500 complete. Both cars survive today, though as museum pieces, and there is still no definitive information on their performance as their owners are reluctant to test-drive them. But they must have been shattering, what with relatively lean bodies, double superchargers and chassis 17 inches shorter than standard.
Another Model J offshoot was scarcely more numerous. This was the 1935 JN, of which ten were built, all with Rollston coachwork. In contrast to the SSJ, the JN had a longer 153.5-inch wheelbase and smaller 17-inch rims versus the 19-inch standard rims. But the most obvious differences were skirted rear fenders, a longer hood that extended back past the firewall with hood scoops and bodies set below the frame rails for a lower look. Two of these cars received superchargers and the logical SJN designation. But again, confusion reigns. Blowers were later removed from some SJ's, while others were added to originally unblown models. Then there is the longtime misconception that any car with pipes snaking out from under the hood has to be supercharged. Like Auburn, Duesenberg built cars with beautiful plumbing outside, but not always connected to a supercharger inside.
Though you may think otherwise, Duesenberg was not greatly affected by the Depression. Under E.L. Cord, the company wasn't supposed to make a profit - just magnificent, cost no object cars as the flagship of Cord's industrial empire. Where the Depression failed to kill Duesenberg, poor management succeeded. E.L. Cord practiced the same fast sell tactics that would later bring the downfall of another great American make, the Tucker in 1948.
Cord's game was clear; he flooded the market with hundreds of millions of dollars of Auburn Cord Duesenberg stock in a relatively short period of time so he could buy controlling shares for a song. Cord fled to Europe in 1935 when the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation against him. When he returned in 1937 he faced a host of charges, all of which he would be later acquitted for but not before being forced to close production of three great American cars. Duesenberg enthusiasts have never really forgiven him for that.
Sadly, Fred Duesenberg would not live long enough to see the end of his beloved Duesie. He had been killed in 1932 when his car overturned - ironically behind the wheel of an SJ. Brother August continued working, but failed with his plans to revive the marquee in 1947. Several subsequent revival attempts proved equally fruitless. Among the more notable was a "modern" Duesenberg sedan floated by Fred's son "Fritz" in 1966 and an abortive 1980 Cadillac based sedan cooked up by two of the brothers' nephews. There have also been a number of post war replicas of original models, ranging from splendid to schlocky.
Model SJ Torpedo
Model JN and SJN