Duesenberg Motors Company was founded by German immigrants Fred and Augie Duesenberg in 1913, initially producing racing cars, they slowly eased into road car production at the end of WWI. All Duesenberg road cars, nicknamed “Dueseys”, were some of the best built, most sought-after, highest performance cars of their era. When the Great Depression hit, the market for expensive, high-end luxury cars like Duesenbergs slowly collapsed as everyone, including the wealthy, took huge hits in the stock market crash of October 1929. Billions of dollars in wealth evaporated overnight, leaving even the well-to-do with much less disposable income to spend on frivolities like pricey cars. By 1937 Duesenberg was finished, leaving a legacy of spectacular automobiles in its wake.
In 1913 the brothers set up shop in Saint Paul, Minnesota to build engines and race cars. They were self-taught engineers and built many experimental cars. Their cars were entirely hand-built, there was no moving assembly line ala Ford Motor Company. The cars were crafted with extreme care from the very beginning. Notable WWI fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker drove a Duesey to a 10th-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 in 1913, before his legendary fighter pilot fame. Back in the early days of the race, just finishing the 500 mile contest was an achievement. Duesenbergs went on to win the race in 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1927. In 1921 Duesenberg provided the pace car, driven by Fred Duesenberg. In the same year Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix on the famed LeMans racecourse driving a Duesenberg, the first American to win that race.
They moved their operations to Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1916 when government contracts became available to manufacture aviation and marine engines for the war effort in WWI. When those government contracts were canceled at the end of the war, in 1919 they sold their Minnesota and New Jersey plants, moved again to Indianapolis, incorporated and changed their name to Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company, Inc. to concentrate more on passenger cars.
The Model A was equipped with the Duesenberg Straight-Eight engine, the first straight eight-cylinder engine produced in the US in any quantity. This 88 HP engine was extremely advanced for its time, boasting an overhead camshaft, four-valve cylinder heads and the first four-wheel hydraulic braking system (designed in conjunction with Lockheed Aviation) on any passenger car. It was smaller and lighter than its competition and was among the most powerful and fastest cars of its day. Radio star Tom Mix and silent movie star Rudolph Valentino purchased Model As. They were priced at $6,500, about $100,000 in today’s dollars…far out of reach of the majority of the United States population at the time.
There were numerous delays going from the Model A prototype to the actual production car and deliveries to dealers didn’t start until December of 1921. Their lofty goal was to produce 100 Duesenbergs a month, but the Indianapolis factory struggled to put out one a day and sales lagged behind. 1922 saw only 150 Model As produced. Although the Duesenbergs were spectacular engineers, they were not very good businessmen. They never sold all the Model As that they built, only 650 were actually sold. They continued to win races with their racecars but that did not translate into increased sales, however it did attract investors to prop up the struggling company. They continued to produce engines for cars, boats and some planes, but only for other companies eager to capitalize on the Duesenberg name as they had acquired a fair amount of prestige. In 1919 Fred sold the rights to the name, patents and drawings to a pair of promoters, Newton E. Van Zandt and Luther M. Rankin, who became president and vice president of the again-renamed Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Corporation of Indianapolis. Fred and Augie stayed on as salaried engineers. Van Zandt quit after only one year and business went from bad to worse in 1923. In 1924 the company went into receivership but somehow survived. The following year the name was changed yet again to Duesenberg Motors Corporation and Fred became president. Fred and Augie struggled to keep the company afloat but were unable to raise capital.
The Model X is a rare bird, only 13 were built. It was a comprehensively re-engineered version of the Model A, heavier and with a longer wheelbase, 136 inches as opposed to the Model A‘s 134. It also had a new suspension with the leaf springs above the frame rails to lower the center of gravity. The redesigned 260 cu. in., overhead-cam 100HP straight-eight engine could propel the car to 100 MPH, exceedingly fast for a passenger car at the time. By comparison the 20HP 1926 Ford Model T topped out at 40-45MPH. Only four were known to have survived until noted TV talk-show host and auto preservationist Jay Leno found one in a neighborhood garage in 2005.
E.L.Cord bought the company in October 1925, primarily for the brothers’ engineering expertise and the Duesenberg name. He challenged the brothers to design the best car in the world. Cord wanted the biggest, fastest and most expensive car ever made, on a large chassis so as to compete with European luxury car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Rolls-Royce. The company was renamed again to Duesenberg, Inc., headed by Cord and with Fred as vice-president in charge of engineering and experimental work. Augie had been important in the development of the Model A and Model X, but he had nothing to do with the Model J or Duesenberg, Inc. until later because reportedly Cord did not want Augie around All Duesenberg. racing cars after 1925, however, were built by Augie as a separate enterprise in a separate facility.
The Model J debuted at the New York Car Show in December of 1928, a dual-cowl phaeton with coachwork by LeBaron. As with most luxury brands of the time, customers bought the running gear and chassis; bodywork and interior was bespoke to the customer’s wishes and manufactured by others, although some were produced in-house. The initial straight-eight engine was based on the company’s successful racing engines and manufactured by Lycoming, another Cord-owned company. The engine produced 265 HP and featured advanced design elements such as dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, commonplace today but nearly unheard of 93 years ago. The Model J could hit a top speed of 119 MPH, also unheard of then. Initially fitted with a 4-speed manual gearbox that ultimately proved unable to handle the engine’s power, it was replaced by an unsynchronized 3-speed that remained the sole transmission until the company’s demise in 1937. Duesenberg did not switch to the fully synchronized gearboxes that became available in the 1930s, making the car difficult to drive and completely outdated compared to the competition by 1937. A distinctive feature of the Model J was the “bowtie” front bumper, using two pieces of steel with the top piece bent to resemble a bowtie.
Duesenberg advertised the Model J as the best car in the world, and their world-beating performance and extreme opulence tended to back that up. Ads with beautiful, obviously wealthy people and taglines like “She drives a Duesenberg” reinforced the luxury of the cars and the sophistication of their customers. Initially Duesenberg had hoped to produce 500 Model J‘s a year, but as with the Model A their estimates far exceeded actual production numbers. By the time of the stock market crash in October of 1929 they had only built 200 cars with another 100 orders filled in 1930. Most of the Model J engines and chassis’ were actually built in 1928 and 1929 but not sold until later due to the Depression and the high cost of the cars. Consequently, the date that the body was made is used to date Model Js, not the chassis or engine manufacture date. These were some of the largest, grandest, most expensive and most powerful cars of the time. The chassis alone cost the princely sum of $8,500 ($9,500 after 1932),over four times the yearly earnings of the average worker, with completed models costing $4,500 to $10,500 more. A top-of-the-line Model J could set one back $25,000. A few customers bought a chassis and two bodies, a roadster for summer and an enclosed body for winter, and had them changed over yearly. These were cars meant for only the very, very wealthy. By contrast, a 1929 Ford Model T could be had for $260…which meant that you could buy 96 Model Ts for the cost of the most expensive Model J. Adjusted for inflation a Model J would cost approximately $425,000 today.
The supercharged version, now known as the SJ and introduced in 1932, boasted 320 HP and a top speed of 135-140 MPH despite its only mildly aerodynamic styling and considerable bulk; Duesenberg J models averaged 5000 pounds and 6000 pound cars were not uncommon. The supercharger sat beside the engine, to make room for it the exhaust pipes were creased so they could be easily bent to clear it and the creased silver pipes extended through the side panel of the hood. The 36 SJs that were built can be identified by these creased pipes, which Cord trademarked and used on his other supercharged Cord and Auburn cars.
Special cars such as the Mormon Meteor chassis SJ achieved an average speed of 135 MPH and a one-hour average of 152 MPH at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Fred Duesenberg died of pneumonia in July of 1932 after an accident driving a Murphy-bodied SJ convertible. Augie took over as chief engineer and Harold T. Ames became president of Duesenberg, Inc..
The SSJ was similar to the SJ, but with a 400 HP engine. Only two were built and had lightweight, open-roadster bodies produced by Auburn subsidiary Central Manufacturing Company in Indiana. This one belonged to actor Gary Cooper and the other was lent to actor Clark Gable, who already owned a Model J. The terms SJ and SSJ were never actually used by the company but were attributed to the supercharged models later on by fans. The second “S” stands for “Short Wheelbase” as these two cars did have a shortened wheelbase of 125 inches as opposed to the 142.5 in. wheelbase of the SJ.
The JN (also a designator never used by the company) was produced with modernized Rollston coachwork and smaller 17-inch wheels, skirted fenders, bullet-shaped headlights and bodies set on the frame rails for a lower look. Supercharged versions were later called SJN.
The Model J and its derivatives quickly became one of the most popular luxury cars and a status symbol both in the US and Europe, driven by the rich and famous including Al Capone, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Tyrone Power, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, William Randolph Hearst and the Mars, Whitney and Wrigley families. European royalty like the Duke of Windsor, Prince Nicholas of Romania, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia and Kings Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Alfonso XIII of Spain could be seen driving Duesenberg J and SJ models. Father Divine had the last Duesenberg chassis ever built, with an extra-long 178-inch wheelbase that could accommodate ten passengers. It weighed in at 7,800 lbs. and was known as Father Divine’s Throne Car because it has a removable rear top section that exposed two raised rear seats.
Cord’s financial empire collapsed in 1937, and with it Duesenberg. But, between 1937 and 1940 two final Model Js were built, one delivered by coachbuilder Rollston to German artist Rudolf Bauer in April of 1940. It is both the longest Duesenberg and the last one delivered. The very last Duesenberg ever made was assembled from leftover parts between 1938 and 1940. During WWII Duesenbergs had become far less popular and were seen as relics of a bygone era; they could be had for a few hundred dollars, far below the asking prices of their heyday. Prices went up again as classic and vintage car collecting became popular in the 1950s, with Duesenbergs fetching $4,000-$10,000 depending upon condition. By 1969 those figures had risen to between $16,000 and $50,000. 1985 saw the first Duesenberg sold for 1 million dollars, and they command anywhere from the high six figures to well into seven figures today. ✪