- Historic Sites
The Greatest American Car Ever Made? “It’s a Duesy”
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
The SJ ranks in the minds of many experts as the best automobile ever created. It was a machine of staggering dimension. Thanks to the artistry of Buehrig and his colleagues, SJs wore coachwork as lavish as any ever to sheathe an automobile chassis. And once more the SJ Duesenbergs surpassed all else in terms of raw performance: An off-the-rack SJ (if such a thing existed) was said to be capable of 104 mph in second gear and nearly 140 mph in third! Owners claimed 0-100 mph times of seventeen seconds in an era when only a handful of cars in the entire world could even reach that lofty velocity, no matter how much time they had to achieve it. Confirmation of such numbers came in 1935, when Ab Jenkins, the noted Salt Lake City endurance driver, took a basically stock SJ with a lightweight body to the Bonneville Salt Flats and averaged 135.47 mph for twenty-four consecutive hours. During a one-hour sprint he sped across the salt at 152.1 mph, and he was clocked at over 160 mph during a short burst. This proved conclusively that the Duesenberg SJ was the fastest production car then in existence.
Fred Duesenberg never lived to see his grandest effort rise to the pinnacle of the automotive world. Three months after the SJ was introduced, he crashed one of his creations while descending Ligonier Mountain near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He died, several weeks later, of complications suffered in the wreck, and the soul of the great machine died with him. By then Augie, whose interests lay with racing, as opposed to production cars, had decided to concentrate on competition machinery, and although he retained an interest in the company, Fred’s death essentially ended Augie’s daily involvement in it.
Slowly the Depression eroded demand for the great marques. Marmon, Stutz, Fierce-Arrow—and Duesenberg—were doomed by the slumping economy. Packard barely squeaked through the thirties and was fatally weakened by the ordeal and collapsed shortly after the end of World War II. Lincoln and Cadillac survived only by building cheaper models and relying on the vast financial resources of their parent companies.
The Duesenberg operation reached its high-water mark, symbolically at least, with the creation of two masterpieces in 1935. Gary Cooper, one of Hollywood’s hottest young stars, entered the Duesenberg showroom in Los Angeles on a quiet winter day in 1935 and spotted a short, 125-inch bare chassis SJ that had been built for display purposes. Cooper, who had just finished Lives of a Bengal Lancer , ordered the elemental unit, with the proviso that it would be shipped back to LaGrande in Indiana, where a lightweight roadster body would be installed.
This machine would be called an SSJ (for “Short Supercharged J”), and it prompted Cooper’s pal Clark Gable, also a loyal Duesenberg aficionado, to order a similar version. This was the only pair of so-called SSJs that would ever be fabricated, and they remain perhaps the most glamorous and valuable of the 481 big Duesies built. (Overall, the model run would include Js, SJs, the two SSJs, and a limited run of JNs, which were simply SJs with lower, wider bodies. Hundreds of them still exist in private collections and have been traded for more than three million dollars apiece.)
Cord tried desperately to preserve America’s greatest automobile. He assigned Buehrig to create a cheaper “Baby Duesenberg,” which ultimately came to market in 1936 as the Cord 810/812, the classic front-drive coffin-nosed sedans and roadsters that may be the most vividly styled cars ever produced on these shores.
But nothing could save the big cars. Despite Cord’s desperate financial acrobatics, by mid-1937 the Auburn-CordDuesenberg empire plunged into receivership. A number of attempts were made to revive the fabled Duesenberg label in the 1960s and 1970s, but none possessed the panache, performance, or engineering excellence of the original. Augie remained close to the sport he loved and was a fixture at the annual Indianapolis 500 until his death in 1955.
Six decades after the last of the cars that inspired the phrase was built, “It’s a doozy” remains in our language. Probably not one in a thousand who uses it has any idea he is paying a tribute to the magnificent creations of “those two Dutch farmers from Iowa” that will stir the hearts of enthusiasts as long as automobiles roam the earth.