- Historic Sites
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
As in “It’s a Duesy .” As in Duesenberg . As in power and speed and audacious size and spellbinding beauty. As in engineering, breeding, and bloodline that place it at the very pinnacle of automotive achievement, beside such icons as Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, and Bugatti and qualify it, hands down, as the greatest car ever produced in America. Duesenberg. As in the only automobile ever to enter the language as a superlative noun in the lexicon of slang.
The name has come to be equated with European nobility and patrician tastes, but in fact the Duesenberg’s origins were decidedly plebeian. It rose from, of all places, the cornfields of Iowa, the creation of two brash brothers, Fred and August Duesenberg. Like other noted American mechanical creators of the late nineteenth century—the Wrights, Ford, Edison, Curtiss, Eastman —they were back-yard tinkerers, for the most part bereft of formal education (and therefore the constraining dicta of academia). Born in Lippe, Germany, in the 1870s (Frederic, the senior, in 1874: August, five years later), they followed their older brother, Henry, to America after’ the death of their father when they were still little boys. The family settled in Rockford, Iowa, a tiny farming community a few miles south of Mason City. Henry toured the surrounding territory as a salesman for a nursery and seed company.
PEOPLE BORN DECADES AFTER THE EAST ONE CAME OFF THE LINE ACKNOWLEDGE A SIMPLE TRUTH: THIS WAS THE GREATEST AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE EVER
From this windswept dot on the Iowa plain came the men who, in 1932, would create the ne plus ultra of motorcars, the two-ton, supercharged, 320-horsepower master of the highways, the Duesenberg SJ. This machine, laden with engineering brilliance and flawless craftsmanship, remains one of the most valuable automobiles in the world. Examples regularly sell for over a million dollars. The improbable discovery of a wreck, cloistered in someone’s barn, would be treated as an archeological event akin to opening a Macedonian tomb. There is a saying in the collector trade: “You can never pay too much for Duesenberg, only too soon.”
But the titanic SJ was a capstone to their careers, not a foundation. That was laid when the teenaged Duesenberg brothers became caught up in the bicycle craze that swept the nation in the final decades of the last century. Both were gifted craftsmen, although Fred seemed more inclined toward creative design while Augie evidenced more skill as a hands-on mechanic. By the time he reached twenty, Fred was a successful area bicycle racer and had established a sufficient reputation to begin his own small firm manufacturing state-of-the-art two-wheelers.
TODAY THE CARS TRADE FOR OVER A MILLION, AND COLLECTORS SAY, “YOU CAN NEVER PAY TOO MUCH FOR A DUESENBERG, ONLY TOO SOON.”
In 1900 he added a little gasoline engine of his own design to one of his bikes, thus triggering a lifelong fascination with internal-combustion engines. After a brief stint with the Rambler Car Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he worked as a mechanic and test driver, Fred moved to Des Moines and teamed up with Augie to form the Iowa Automobile & Supply Company. This primitive hot-rod shop had a fitful start, enduring a bankruptcy in 1903 (assets, $1,070.50; liabilities, $2,115.95) before gaining success in modifying production cars for the country-fair dirt track races that were gaining popularity in the Midwest. It was inevitable that sooner or later the brothers would build their own car from the ground up. (They would not be alone; automotive historians estimate that nearly five thousand individual makes were created in America, most of which involved no more than a single prototype model and a majority of which died prior to World War I.)
The Duesenbergs’ little two-cylinder machine, which they called the Marvel, attracted the attention of a wealthy Des Moines attorney named Edward R. Mason, who offered to finance a manufacturing operation, provided the new automobile bore his name. The brothers, never known for the towering egos that infested the car business, quickly agreed, and production of the twenty-four-horsepower Mason began in 1906. The tough, torque-laden machine proved to be so potent a hill climber and short-track racer that the company adopted the motto “The Fastest and Strongest Two-Cylinder Car in America.”
The Mason was sufficiently successful to gain the admiration of Frank Maytag, the Newton, Iowa, washing machine mogul, who, with his son, Elmer, bought a controlling interest from Mason and moved the factory to Waterloo. The Maytags changed the name to the MaytagMason Motorcar Company, and although the Duesenbergs remained on the payroll, the Maytags slowly eased the brothers out of the business. A divergence in interest was separating the two groups; the Maytags wanted to produce passenger cars while the dynamic world of auto racing was acting as a magnet for the Duesenbergs.