- Historic Sites
The Greatest American Car Ever Made? “It’s a Duesy”
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
Duesenbergs won the 500 in 1924 with Joe Boyer up (a sportsman heir to the Burroughs business-machine fortune) and his co-driver, L. L. Corum; then a year later with Ralph De Palma’s plucky nephew Pete DePaolo, who became the first man to average more than 100 mph for the five-hundred-mile distance. The final victory came two years later with young George Souders driving. During the crowded decade of the 1920s, when Miller and Duesenberg were at the height of their powers, Millers won at Indianapolis four times, Duesenbergs three. (We’ll call Murphy’s win a tie.) In countless other races on the board and dirt speedways the more numerous Millers also had a slight edge, perhaps because the Duesenberg brothers were distracted by the manufacture of their Model A, while Miller concentrated solely on racing cars. Had the roles been switched, the results might have been reversed as well.
By 1926 it was obvious that despite its superb design, the Duesenberg Eight/Model A was a failure. An updated so-called Model X was tried, as was experimental supercharging, but it was apparent that the firm needed outside investment to survive. This arrived in the form of one of America’s greatest automotive entrepreneurs, Errett Lobban Cord, a former car salesman who had made a success of the moribund mid-priced Auburn and was seeking new worlds to conquer. Cord had great respect for the brothers’ creative skills but understood their lack of business acumen and in 1926 brought them into his budding financial empire. The plan was simple. The Model A would be canceled (about 667 had been built), to be replaced by a supercar, a world-class machine bearing the powerful Duesenberg name and which would surpass the best of Europe in terms of power and luxury. Backed by Cord’s considerable resources, Fred and Augie set to work on the project while slowly easing out of the racing business. The new car, embodying a massive Straight-8 twin-cam engine and the lavish use of aluminum, was to be called the Model J. It would, from the moment it came off the drawing boards, exceed even the loftiest expectations of the Duesenbergs and their patron.
The grand machine made its debut on December 1, 1928, at the New York Automobile Salon. Unlike the dowdy Model A, the J was a visual sensation: a long, gaudy collection of sensuous lines, beginning with a bold, upright radiator and culminating—nearly twenty feet later—with a curvaceous tail. But again, the Duesenbergs had placed the soul of the machine under its enormous hood. The J’s engine was a giant, 7-liter (420-cubic-inch) Straight 8, featuring double-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. (Sixty-five years later this same layout remains state-of-the-art in automotive technology.) The engine was a glorious piece of sculpture, the immense block painted in the traditional Duesenberg green and adorned with flawlessly machined bits of polished aluminum: camshaft towers, intake manifolds, various external pump housings. Cord had carefully deployed his financial forces with the new model and subcontracted with the Lycoming Aircraft Works in Pennsylvania (which built all the Cord and Auburn engines) to make the giant Duesenberg unit. The brothers would be responsible for the running gear. It would cost initially $8,500 ($9,500 after 1932) without coachwork, and it included such revolutionary gadgets as an automatic chassis-lubricating system.
The new Duesenbergs were an instant success. They were beautiful, sporting as they did bodies designed by the factory’s marvelous young artist Gordon Buehrig—who would be remembered as perhaps America’s greatest automotive stylist—or by a raft of the best custom coachbuilders in the world, including Le Baron, Derham, Murphy, Brunn, and J. Gurney Nutting.
But it was the J’s speed and power that captured the imagination of the world. Although the company claimed 265 horsepower, experts now believe that production models probably produced more like 250. Still, the four-thousandpound brute could run 116 mph at the top end of its threespeed gearbox, which meant that it could effortlessly outperform any luxury automobile built anywhere in the world.
“He drives a Duesenberg” became the terse advertising slogan for the J, which was openly claimed to be “the world’s finest motor car.” The rich and famous, including many of Hollywood’s most glamorous, bought the cars in all manner of body styles, ranging from brash two-place roadsters to long, elegant limousines.
Thanks to the Olympian legends created around the Duesenbergs’ products and Cord’s business talents (he created a car company bearing his own name in 1929 and started a coachbuilding arm nicknamed LaGrande—at the Connersville, Indiana, headquarters of his Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg miniconglomerate), business stayed relatively strong despite the cars’ enormous price and the cancer of the Great Depression. In May 1932 Fred introduced his masterpiece, the Model SJ, a supercharged version of the J that was said to develop 320 horsepower in production form and over 400 horsepower in special competition applications.