Historic Car Brands
Friedrich (Fred) and August (Augie) Duesenberg came to the USA when they were small children. Both were self-taught engineers, who began making engine and racing cars in Minnesota, in 1913. Their cars were hand made and considered class-leading.
Augie and Fred Duesenberg in 1925
The early, successful race engines were five-litre, four-cylinder engines with 16 horizontal valves. The valve train used vertical ‘walking beams’ that were driven by two block-mounted camshafts – one side inlet and the other, exhaust. This design was employed in some of Duesenberg’s aero engines, as well.
In 1914, Eddie Rickenbacker drove a ‘Duesey’ into 10th place in the Indianapolis 500.
1917 Duesenberg aero engine – note the ‘walking beam’ horizontal-valve rockers.
The Duesenberg business moved to New Jersey in 1916, to produce aero engines for Word War I. Interestingly, they’d already developed a ‘twin-12’, 24-cylinder boat engine that held the world water speed record. The engine’s aluminium crankcase was a three-metre-long casting!
Their World War II aero engine was interesting, being a Bugatti-designed, 400hp, 24-litre ‘U-16’ that was licensed for production in the USA. It consisted of two straight-eights, mounted on a common crankcase, with geared crankshafts that drove a propellor shaft.
The shaft was hollow and aligned with a tunnel through the crankcase that could accept 37mm gun. To keep engine length as short as possible the built-up crankshafts were ‘undercut’, by having the main bearings larger than the distance between the flared-out webs: beautiful, compact and expensive to produce.
Despite cooling system improvements, made by a US Army engineer, the King-Bugatti was never a success and only around 40 were made before War’s end. In hindsight, the US Army should have just asked the Duesenberg boys to come up with their own design.
1923 Duesenberg Model A Touring – Alf van Beem
After the War the Duesenberg brothers moved their business to Indianapolis and established the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company, to build passenger cars. The first product was the Duesenberg Model A.
This car was the most advanced US auto of its time, featuring a straight-eight engine with an overhead camshaft, four-valve cylinder heads and four-wheel hydraulic brakes – a global ‘first’. The brakes were designed by Fred, in conjunction with Lockheed.
The 4.3-litre engine developed 90hp – big power for the period – and made the Duesenberg one of the fastest cars on the market.
Naturally, all this technology didn’t come cheaply, so the Model A was very expensive. Two prominent buyers were movie starts Tom Mix and Rudolph Valentino.
Production proved complicated and the brothers produced only 650 cars before 1927.
1922 Duesenberg Indianapolis 500 winner – Sicnag
However, racing success was spectacular, with four wins at the Indy 500 that started with a dominant first, second, forth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th in the 1922 race. The OHC, straight-eight race engine complied with the Indy 500 displacement limit, at 183 cubic inches (3.0-litres).
However, although the Duesenberg boys were brilliant engineers they were not good managers and had already signed over their intellectual property rights to investors by 1920. In 1925 the company was on the brink, but, following acquisition of the company by E L Cord, the Model X was launched in 1926.
1927 Duesenberg Model X dual-cowl Phaeton
Only 13 of his sportier version of the Model A were built, on a longer wheelbase and with 100hp on tap. At the same time, the race engine size limit is reduced by half and the brothers contemplated a two-stroke solution.
However, Fred’s time was taken up with the forthcoming ‘J’ concept that was the result of Cord’s challenge to design the best car in the world. Augie, meanwhile, was focussed on Duesenberg’s racing models.
1930 Duesenberg Model J
The Duesenberg Model J made its debut in the USA at the 1928 New York Car Show and at the Salon de l’automobile de Paris in 1929. The J-101 show car was a silver and black, LeBaron-bodied, dual-cowl phaeton.
Power came from a Duesenberg-designed, Lycoming-built – Cord owned Lycoming – straight-eight that displaced 6.9 litres and produced 265hp. It had twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. It was the fastest American chassis on the market and the most expensive, with pricing a for a cowl/chassis starting at US$8500.
Model J engine – Larry Stevens
Standard equipment included the first automotive ‘computer’: a timing box containing 24 sets of planetary gears that actuated dashboard warning lights. One light came on every 700 miles, advising the driver to change the engine oil and another lit up every 1400 miles, advising that it was time to check the battery level.
The timing box also operated a Bijur pump every 75 miles, sending grease to all the chassis lube points.
Bodywork for the Model J was provided by the best the US and Europe had to offer and the monied customer list matched the undoubted quality, including: Al Capone, Greta Garbo, James Cagney, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Tyrone Power, ‘Bojangles’, William Randolph Hearst, the Mars, Wrigley and Whitney families, the Duke of Windsor, Prince Nicholas of Romania ( bought three), Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Alfonso XIII of Spain.
1935 Duesenberg Convertible SJ Grand dual-cowl Phaeton – Stahlkocher
When the Great Depression affected Wall Street type buyers, royalty and movie stars kept buying Duesenbergs.
For 1932, Augie’s supercharger was added, lifting horsepower to 320hp, with a claimed top speed around 130mph (201km/h) for this new ‘SJ’ model.
Despite its having a non-synchomesh, three-speed transmission, the car’s acceleration was way ahead of the competition, but a Duesenberg was more difficult to drive than the synchromesh-transmission competition. There was no synchro box of the time that could handle the Duesenberg’s power.
Hollywood heart-throb Clark Gable and Gary Cooper – famous for starring the movie High Noon – both acquired specially-made, 400hp, short-chassis SJs – the only two ever built.
However, Fred Duesenberg’s own High Noon arrived in July 1932, when his Model J skidded off the road in Pennsylvania. He seemed OK after the accident, but pneumonia set in – the seventh time he’d had it – and he succumbed.
E L Cord’s High Noon came in 1937, when the entire Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg business collapsed.
Several efforts have been made to revive the ‘Duesenberg’ brand, but none have been successful.
A Model J in front of the Duesenberg Brothers’ birth house in Germany – Ulrich Schumacher