- Historic Sites
The Greatest American Car Ever Made? “It’s a Duesy”
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
By the end of the war the brothers had the plans for a revolutionary passenger car on their drawing boards. Harbeck’s interest had been bought out, and the new operation, called the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Corporation, moved briefly from Elizabeth to Newark, then west to a larger and more lavish factory in Indianapolis, where production of the new car—to be called the Duesenberg Eight—was to begin. It was to carry Fred’s new singleoverhead-camshaft straight engine that was in the final design stages.
The prototype, introduced to the press at the New York Auto Salon in November 1920, featured four-wheel hydraulic brakes developed by Lockheed for aircraft use and here utilized for the first time on a passenger car. This during an era when all cars stopped with cable-operated mechanical units, many of them acting only on the two rear wheels. (Bugatti, considered one of the greatest masters of automotive design, refused to employ hydraulic brakes until the end of his days, sniffing, “I build my cars to go, not to stop.”)
But the Model Eight (soon to be known to history simply as the Model A) exhibited in New York was cursed with two serious deficiencies. Its engine was an antiquated four cylinder, not the single-overheadcamshaft Straight 8 Fred was still developing. Worse yet, the big sedan was sheathed in tall, ungainly bodywork that concealed its otherwise superb engineering. Typical of the brothers’ haphazard approach to business, it would be more than a year before the first production Eight reached the public with the improved eight cylinder under the hood. They compounded their troubles by trying to combine passengercar production with their first love, automobile racing, which placed an enormous burden on the small Indianapolis operation.
This distraction with motor sports stemmed in part from their growing rivalry with the difficult, eccentric Harry A. Miller, whose Los Angelesbased company was producing major advances in pure racing cars and engines. The Duesenbergs did their best to keep even. The contest produced major advances in supercharging, front-wheel drive, cylinder-head design, suspensions, brakes, and myriad technical details. But for all their mutual successes, both organizations would be driven toward financial disaster by racing. Miller, who was even more inept at business than the Duesenbergs, went in and out of bankruptcy in the early 1930s, and while he remained active as a designer and builder until his death in 1943, he never regained the glory years of the twenties. So too with the Duesenbergs.
Still, this furious technical cross-pollination between the Duesenberg and Miller racing clans created a golden age for automobile engineering in America. Owing to the limited size of the fraternity, there was constant movement between the two camps, in terms of both technical intelligence and personnel.
Jimmy Murphy was a fresh-faced Californian who was brought to the Duesenberg team by Tommy Milton and went on to gain fame by becoming the only American ever to win a major European Grand Prix race in a purely American-built car. Murphy led a team of three longtailed Duesenberg racecars to Le Mans for the 1921 running of the most prestigious motor race in the world, the French Grand Prix. Using the same hydraulic-brake setup as the Model A (the first time such a system was seen on the Continent), Murphy and his riding mechanic, Ernie Olson, dominated the 321-mile race. Running over a dusty, rock-strewn network of public roads, the car averaged 78.1 mph for the distance and set a lap record of 83.2 mph that, despite radical improvements in the road surface, stood for more than ten years. Orders for the Model A passenger car arrived from Paris but were unfilled because of production delays.
Later that year a three-way feud erupted among Fred Duesenberg, Murphy, and Murphy’s patron, Tommy Milton. The Californian defected to the Miller stable—or, more correctly, partially defected: Murphy placed one of Miller’s new 183cubic-inch Straight 8s in his Le Mans winning chassis and won the 1922 Indianapolis 500 and the National Championship with the hybrid Miller-Duesenberg. Murphy’s career ended two years later with a fatal crash (in a Miller) at the Syracuse one-mile dirt track.
As the contest between the two organizations brought forth faster cars throughout the 1920s, the American Automobile Association reduced engine size in order to cut lap speeds. The drop was precipitous, from 300 cubic inches to 183 cubic inches (3 liters) to 122 cubic inches (2 liters) to 91 cubic inches (1.5 liters). The designers answered the challenges with a series of engineering masterpieces. By the end of the decade the jewellike Miller and Duesenberg Straight-8 91s, equipped with exotic, intercooled superchargers, were developing phenomenal horsepower. In 1927 the brilliant driver and engineer Frank Lockhart took a conventional Miller Indy type of single-seater to the Muroc Dry Lakes in California for a record attempt. His miniature 91-cubic-inch Miller—only slightly larger than the original Volkswagen engine—developed 285 horsepower at 8,100 rpm and propelled the car to a maximum clocked speed of 171 mph! This was light-years ahead of the best performance being recorded by Europe’s elite car builders of the day. Lockhart used a Miller, but contemporary Duesenbergs were equally capable of such heady velocities.