July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
The Greatest American Car Ever Made? “It’s a Duesy”
As in “It’s a Duesy.” As in Duesenberg. As in power and speed and audacious size and spellbinding beauty. As in engineering, breeding, and bloodline that place it at the very pinnacle of automotive achievement, beside such icons as Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, and Bugatti and qualify it, hands down, as the greatest car ever produced in America. Duesenberg. As in the only automobile ever to enter the language as a superlative noun in the lexicon of slang.
The name has come to be equated with European nobility and patrician tastes, but in fact the Duesenberg’s origins were decidedly plebeian. It rose from, of all places, the cornfields of Iowa, the creation of two brash brothers, Fred and August Duesenberg. Like other noted American mechanical creators of the late nineteenth century—the Wrights, Ford, Edison, Curtiss, Eastman —they were back-yard tinkerers, for the most part bereft of formal education (and therefore the constraining dicta of academia). Born in Lippe, Germany, in the 1870s (Frederic, the senior, in 1874: August, five years later), they followed their older brother, Henry, to America after’ the death of their father when they were still little boys. The family settled in Rockford, Iowa, a tiny farming community a few miles south of Mason City. Henry toured the surrounding territory as a salesman for a nursery and seed company.
From this windswept dot on the Iowa plain came the men who, in 1932, would create the ne plus ultra of motorcars, the two-ton, supercharged, 320-horsepower master of the highways, the Duesenberg SJ. This machine, laden with engineering brilliance and flawless craftsmanship, remains one of the most valuable automobiles in the world. Examples regularly sell for over a million dollars. The improbable discovery of a wreck, cloistered in someone’s barn, would be treated as an archeological event akin to opening a Macedonian tomb. There is a saying in the collector trade: “You can never pay too much for Duesenberg, only too soon.”
But the titanic SJ was a capstone to their careers, not a foundation. That was laid when the teenaged Duesenberg brothers became caught up in the bicycle craze that swept the nation in the final decades of the last century. Both were gifted craftsmen, although Fred seemed more inclined toward creative design while Augie evidenced more skill as a hands-on mechanic. By the time he reached twenty, Fred was a successful area bicycle racer and had established a sufficient reputation to begin his own small firm manufacturing state-of-the-art two-wheelers.
In 1900 he added a little gasoline engine of his own design to one of his bikes, thus triggering a lifelong fascination with internal-combustion engines. After a brief stint with the Rambler Car Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he worked as a mechanic and test driver, Fred moved to Des Moines and teamed up with Augie to form the Iowa Automobile & Supply Company. This primitive hot-rod shop had a fitful start, enduring a bankruptcy in 1903 (assets, $1,070.50; liabilities, $2,115.95) before gaining success in modifying production cars for the country-fair dirt track races that were gaining popularity in the Midwest. It was inevitable that sooner or later the brothers would build their own car from the ground up. (They would not be alone; automotive historians estimate that nearly five thousand individual makes were created in America, most of which involved no more than a single prototype model and a majority of which died prior to World War I.)
The Duesenbergs’ little two-cylinder machine, which they called the Marvel, attracted the attention of a wealthy Des Moines attorney named Edward R. Mason, who offered to finance a manufacturing operation, provided the new automobile bore his name. The brothers, never known for the towering egos that infested the car business, quickly agreed, and production of the twenty-four-horsepower Mason began in 1906. The tough, torque-laden machine proved to be so potent a hill climber and short-track racer that the company adopted the motto “The Fastest and Strongest Two-Cylinder Car in America.”
The Mason was sufficiently successful to gain the admiration of Frank Maytag, the Newton, Iowa, washing machine mogul, who, with his son, Elmer, bought a controlling interest from Mason and moved the factory to Waterloo. The Maytags changed the name to the MaytagMason Motorcar Company, and although the Duesenbergs remained on the payroll, the Maytags slowly eased the brothers out of the business. A divergence in interest was separating the two groups; the Maytags wanted to produce passenger cars while the dynamic world of auto racing was acting as a magnet for the Duesenbergs.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.