- Historic Sites
The Greatest American Car Ever Made? “It’s a Duesy”
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
As Europe headed toward World War I, America’s increasingly fevered love affair with the automobile was manifesting itself in the new sport of motor racing. In 1910 a small group of visionaries, led by the engineer Fred E. Moscovics (later to head Stutz), designed and built a revolutionary superspeedway a few miles south of Los Angeles in Playa Del Rey. It was a one-mile, radically high-banked track made of hardwood. Using engineering developed for bicycle velodromes, Moscovics and Company created its saucer-shaped raceway out of millions of board feet of two-by-fours laid endwise. It was an immediate success; the searing speeds and wheel-to-wheel action it allowed energized the sport of racing. Before board tracks gave way to dry rot, fire, flying splinters, and the Great Depression, no less than twenty-four of them had been built coast to coast, including immense two-milers at Tacoma, Washington; Maywood, outside Chicago; and Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn. Speeds on the giant bowls, some banked a staggering forty-five degrees, approached 150 miles per hour, on average, by the late twenties and were not only spectacularly fast but gruesomely dangerous. When the prototypical Playa Del Rey track burned in 1913, it was lost, Damon Runyon cracked, “with a great saving of life.” No matter, the great board ovals triggered a national craze for automobile racing. Men like the great Ralph De Palma and his archrival, the flamboyant, cigar-chewing barnstormer Barney Oldfield, became household words, thanks to their exploits at the wheels of such woolly machines as the “Gray Ghost” Mercedes, the “Blitzen Benz,” and the Miller “Golden Submarine.” It was into this high-revving world that the Duesenbergs came with what Eddie Rickenbacker later called their “wonderful engines.”
Ironically, it was an offering of high-powered marine power plants that brought them success from their new St. Paul base. Fred’s design of six-and eight-cylinder inline racing boat engines impressed Chicago businessman J. R. Harbeck, who licensed the brothers to produce the “Duesenberg Patrol-Model Marine Engine” for military and coast-guard use around the world. The venture was sufficiently successful to entice the brothers to move from St. Paul to Chicago, then east to a new factory Harbeck built for them in Elizabeth, New Jersey. (The operation was near an American Can Company factory, thanks to Harbeck’s membership on that firm’s board of directors.)
By early 1916 Fred and Augie had surrounded themselves with an extraordinary squad of assistants, including the multitalented craftsman and riding mechanic Ernie Olson (mechanics were carried in American racing cars until 1922, then again from 1930 to 1937, when they were finally banned for long-overdue considerations of safety) and the brilliant young engineer Cornelius van Ranst. This pair teamed up with Tommy Milton, a crusty, opinionated, but gifted engineer-race driver, to complement Fred and Augie’s daring approach to design and competition.
At the same time, another major font of creativity was rising up in the world of cars. Again, its source was the open plains of the Midwest. Harry Armenius Miller, a year younger than Fred Duesenberg, was born in Wisconsin to a German immigrant father. Like the Duesenbergs, Miller was an instinctive mechanical genius and, like Fred, initially learned his trade building racing bicycles. Legend has it that Miller created a small four-cylinder engine and attached it to the transom of a rowboat. A cohort in his shop, one Olie Evinrude, adopted the scheme and ended up being credited as the inventor of the outboard motor. The story may be apocryphal, but the fact remains that Harry A. Miller may well be the single greatest automotive genius ever born in the United States.
THE FURIOUS TECHNICAL CROSS-POLLINATION BETWEEN MILLER AND DUESENBERG CREATED A GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE ENGINEERING.
As the Duesenberg brothers established themselves in Elizabeth, their company began to shift engineering emphasis from automobiles and marine power plants to the war effort and the rapidly expanding field of aircraft engines. One of their first projects was to test and develop a V-16 aero engine designed by the eccentric French genius Ettore Bugatti for the fledgling U.S. Army Air Service. Bugatti, whose creations often resembled metallic sculpture more than functioning machinery, sent the Duesenbergs a prototype power plant that exploded like an artillery shell on their dynamometer moments after being fired up. Even with the aid of Harry Miller, who briefly came east to help the brothers with his patented highperformance carburetors, and the noted engine designer Charles B. King, the so-called King-Bugatti was an abject failure. Forty of them were built, and none ran more than four hours before breaking. The Duesenbergs later constructed their own V-16, which caused some experts to claim they had copied the Bugatti. However, it has since been proved that the two designs bore only the most cursory resemblance. (Actually it was Bugatti who, a decade later, was to “steal” a Miller double-overhead-camshaft cylinder head for his Type 50 grand touring cars.)