- Historic Sites
The Greatest American Car Ever Made? “It’s a Duesy”
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
In 1912 Fred and Augie engineered their own four-cylinder racecars and entered them under the Mason name in the second annual Indianapolis 500. The automobiles were fast, but they’d been too hastily prepared to qualify for the big race. By the end of the year it was obvious that the Maytag family was much more adept at easing the woes of America’s washerwomen than producing profitable automobiles, and the Duesenbergs slipped away to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they rented a small machine shop and began to manufacture another original four-cylinder engine for automotive and marine applications. (The Maytags soon returned their car operation to Edward Mason, who closed it for good in 1916.)
The Duesenbergs’ new power plant, designed by Fred, featured a quite original walking-beam valve-actuation system. The valves, mounted on the side of the cylinder head, were connected to the camshaft via foot-long vertical forged rocker arms that acted like steam engine walking beams. The layout was simple, relatively light, and efficient. In large-displacement, 350-cubic-inch, four-cylinder form it made a potent racing engine, developing a then-impressive 100 horsepower. These “Dutch farmers from Iowa,” as the racing fraternity initially called them, were about to become players in the big leagues. A yeoman driver named Willie Haupt brought their car—still named Mason—home ninth in the 1913 Indianapolis 500 against such honored names as Peugeot, Mercer, Stutz, Sunbeam, Mercedes, and Isotta Fraschini. A second Mason, driven by Robert Evans, was thirteenth, while a third car, with Jack Tower, flipped at 125 miles, breaking the driver’s leg and fracturing the ribs of his riding mechanic. But the trio of Duesenberg engines, which were 100 cubic inches smaller than those of most of the entered cars, impressed the establishment. A year later the brothers had attracted a brace of top drivers: Eddie Rickenbacker (who was a consummate racer prior to taking to the air) and the Californian Eddie O’Donnell. The two men finished the 500 in tenth and twelfth places respectively against heavily funded, professionally organized European teams fielded by Belage, Peugeot, and Sunbeam.
This was the only period during the Duesenbergs’ long career in which they operated their own business. Unlike Henry Ford, David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Howard Marmon, Harry C. Stutz, and others who built cars that bore their names, neither Fred nor Augie was an adept businessman. Fred was an instinctive engineer possessed of an amazing analytical mind —the racing historian Griffith Borgeson claims that he could visually measure precision machining to within several thousandths of an inch—while Augie had developed into a master mechanic and welder. They were technicians, pure and simple, interested only in producing the fastest, most powerful engines possible and fitting them in a chassis of their own design.
The brothers bore a strong resemblance to each other. Short and stocky, with wide, firm faces and proud chins, the Duesenbergs were known for an easygoing manner that belied their iron-sided work ethic. Borgeson, in his history of early American motor sports, The Golden Age of the American Racing Car , quotes a long-time Duesenberg mechanic, Ernie Olson, about his bosses’ relentless schedule: “Fred was the sort of man that you wouldn’t work just thirty-six or forty-eight hours for without stopping. You’d work an eager seventy-two. You couldn’t do enough for him and he couldn’t do enough for you. … Anything he told you was precise and you never had to guess. We worked hours that you wouldn’t believe. Fred was always around until two in the morning but Augie, being the younger brother, had to stay a little longer. It was a standing joke around the place that Fred would say at some God-forsaken hour, ‘Well, what do you say we all knock off and get a good night’s sleep?’ [But] we all knew that we’d have to be back on the job and working like beavers at eight in the morning, that morning.”