Lost Marques: Duesenberg

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Duesenberg Straight 8


 1906 - 1937
DUESENBERG - THE VERY NAME has an arrogant ring to it, totally befitting what is arguably the finest motor car to have been built in America. Yet, alongside the luxury cars for which they are now chiefly remembered, the Duesenberg brothers, Fred and August, produced some of the most successful racing cars of their day.

Although racing may have improved the breed, there is evidence that it did not much impress those rich enough to buy a Duesenberg. The Duesenberg family originated in Lippe, Germany, and emigrated to America in the mid 1880s.

As teenagers in Iowa in the 1890s, the two brothers started a bicycle business - they had received little formal education - and sometime around 1900 are reputed to have built a clip-on motor unit for one of their cycles.

Fred was a natural engineer, and left the cycle shop to join the Thomas B. Jeffery Company at Kenosha, Wisconsin, where they were just switching over from Rambler bicycles to Rambler cars. In 1906, the brothers were in business together again, at Des Moines, Iowa, building a 24 hp, flat-twin car with an epicyclic gearbox and chain final-drive.

Walking Beams

Finance was provided by a lawyer named Mason, from whom the car took its name. In 1910, Fred Duesenberg designed a racing-car engine whose horizontal valves were operated from the low-mounted camshaft by long rocker arms known as 'walking beams'. In that year, too, the company changed its name, being taken over by one Fred Maytag (later well known as a washing machine manufacturer), although the racing engines were known as Mason-Duesenbergs up to 1914, implying that Mr Mason (whose son George drove one of these cars at Indianapolis that year) was still backing the racing side of the business.

In 1914, though, the brothers cut loose from their sponsors, and set up in business at St Paul, Minneapolis, building racing cars which were largely similar to the Mason-Duesenbergs, except for a high exhaust pipe curling out of the top of the bonnet; breathing was improved on some 1916 engines by fitting four valves per cylinder instead of two.

Eddie Rickenbacker, Ralph Mulford, Willie Haupt and Tommy Milton

Many leading drivers raced Duesenbergs during this period - Eddie Rickenbacker, Ralph Mulford, Willie Haupt and Tommy Milton - and by 1916 the marque's reputation was such that the brothers were chosen to produce Bugatti sixteen-cylinder aero-engines for the US Government. They moved into a new factory at Elizabeth, New Jersey, but only 400 or so Bugatti engines were built in 1918-1919, before the project was abandoned due to the power unit's unreliability.

The Duesenbergs sold their factory to John North Willys, and went back to building cars. At first, they worked in the garage of Fred's home in Elizabeth, then they rented a local workshop, where a new power unit, obviously inspired by their work on the Bugatti U-16 engine (in effect, two straight-eights side by side), was developed. This was a straight-eight of 4.26 liters, which was fitted into a modified racing-car chassis; Tommy Milton drove this car in the 1919 Indianapolis 500, retiring after 49 laps with a broken con-rod.

The old four-cylinder, walking-beam design was sold to Rochester Motors, who produced these power units for such assembled quality cars as the Roamer (which had a fake-Rolls radiator), the ReVere and Biddle, until 1923 - 1924. Duesenberg built a series of straight-eight racing cars for the 1920 season, then began work on two new and exciting projects. The first was a sixteen-cylinder car with two 4.9-liter straight-eights mounted side-by- side; Tommy Milton set up an unofficial world land speed record of 156.05 mph with this car at Daytona in April 1920.

The First Duesenberg Passenger Car, and The First Production Straight Eight

More important, though, was the company's first passenger car, which had a 4.26-liter engine similar to the racing units (but with two valves per cylinder instead of three). This was completed in time to be displayed at the 1920 New York Salon. This was the first production straight-eight on the American market, and also the first to feature four-wheel hydraulic braking.

In the former respect, it was three years ahead of the rest of the market, while the brake layout was even more advanced. Valves were operated by a single overhead camshaft, and the engine design made extensive use of aluminum; it also pioneered alloy pistons in America, though cast-iron units were available for conservative buyers.

Duesenberg Model J convertible tourer
A Duesenberg Model J convertible tourer. Most Model J's came on the standard wheelbase lengths of 11ft 10½ in. (short) or 12ft 9½ in. (long), although one model was produced on an enormous 14ft 10in. wheelbase.

Duesenberg Advertising after the Cord takeover
Duesenberg Advertising after the Cord takeover.

1929 Duesenberg Dual-Cowl Phaeton
A Duesenberg Dual-Cowl Phaeton of 1929, which sold new for $14,000.

Straight-Eight 3 litre Duesenberg Racer
This photo is of a straight-eight 3 liter Duesenberg racer, taken at Monza in 1921. The car was driven by Jimmy Murphy, who scored a great victory at the French Grand Prix that year, beating the best cars and drivers that Europe had to offer.
Only a handful of prototypes were built before Duesenberg moved into an impressive new factory in Indianapolis, which could cope with all aspects of car production. Contrary to contemporary American practice, the Duesenberg brothers built their own engines and most other mechanical components; the three- bearing crankshaft was notably rigid, and carefully balanced to eliminate vibration.

66 American Records On The Sheepshead Bay Board Speedway

At the time of the straight-eight's introduction, the racing models had already established 66 American records on the Sheepshead Bay Board Speedway, and the passenger version of the racer was naturally billed as 'The World's Champion Automobile - built to out- class, outrun and outlast any car on the road'.

It followed that much testing of the production models was carried out on the Indianapolis Speedway, including stunts such as a three-week non-stop run (apart from halts to change tyres and drivers and to refuel) covering 18,032 miles, and a simulated high-speed dash across the United States without stopping (the car was refuelled on the move but, in fact, had to stop twice to change tyres).

The 3155-mile run took just 50 hours 21 minutes, an average speed of 62.63 mph, and a remarkable achievement for a completely standard car with relatively weighty five-passenger touring coach-work on a normal chassis. Even more impressive was the marque's victory in the 1921 French Grand Prix, a feat which has not so far been repeated by any other American manufacturer.

Jimmy Murphy's car, aided by its four-wheel braking, beat the best cars and drivers that Europe had to offer on the Le Mans circuit: despite the poor road surface and flying stones, Murphy averaged 78.1 mph over the 322-mile race- 10 mph faster than the quickest pre-war average and, indeed, faster than many French GPs over the following decade (for instance, Caracciola's Mercedes won the 1935 French GP at 77.42 mph over a similar distance on the far smoother Montlhery circuit).

However, this victory, and other track achievements such as the Duesenberg first place at Indianapolis in 1924 (plus the marque's many other successes, which culminated in a second Indianapolis win and the AAA Championship in 1926), failed to have any great effect on passenger car sales.

For one thing, the marque's Teutonic-sounding name counted against it in the years immediately following the Armistice; more importantly, while to European motorists a racing pedigree was indicative of high engineering standards and a good road performance, to the Americans rich enough to afford a Duesenberg, racing cars meant noise, smell and smoke, and though the Duesenberg Straight Eight was guilty of none of these vices, it was credited with them by association.

Sales, therefore, were not as good as they should have been; although poor body styling was a criticism sometimes levelled against the 1921-1926 Duesenbergs, they were as good in this respect as most of their contemporaries, the plain fact of the matter being that American coachbuilders of the 1920s lacked the flair of their European counterparts, both in overall conception and in the treatment of details and accessories.

Also, Fred Duesenberg was an engineer first and a financier a long way after. He could, it was said, work out the dimensions of key components, like connecting rods, by eye, and arrive within one or two thousandths of an inch of the carefully stress-calculated computations of engineers with more formal training.

What is more, he fully expected every member of his staff to work the same long hours as himself. Small wonder, then, that the marque's succes d' estime was not reflected in its bank balance, and that Straight Eight production totalled no more than 500 - 650 units in the model's six-year life.

Enter Erret Lobban Cord

In 1926, the company was taken over by the up-and-coming entrepreneur Erret Lobban Cord, who immediately instituted a programme of styling changes. Wisely, however, he left Fred and August in charge of engineering, and all he insisted on was that the brothers should produce a new car which, in terms of style, engineering and sheer panache, should rival the best the world had to offer.

In December 1928, they revealed the result of their labours to the public - it was, they claimed, 'The World's Finest Car', the Model J Duesenberg. Its 6.9-liter power unit was built by another Cord subsidiary, Lycoming, well known as suppliers of proprietary engines; however this was no off-the-shelf side-valve six, but a race-bred straight-eight with twin overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder.

Claimed output was 265 bhp, twice that of any other American passenger car. The model J had a top speed in the region of 116 mph and its chassis price was $8,500. The engine was rubber-mounted in a chassis of exceptional rigidity; frame side-members were 8½ inches deep, and there were six cross-members plus diagonal bracing. Of course much use was made of aluminum, and the car had hydraulic brakes all round (with variable servo assistance from 1929 on). Hardly in line with the best European practice were the long, willowy central gear lever and handbrake, but the standard instrumentation was obviously designed to impress the most gadget-conscious of owners.

Across the somewhat spartan fascia were scattered 150 mph speedometer, altimeter, barometer, brake-pressure gauge, tachometer, ammeter, oil-pressure gauge, combination clock and stop-clock, and a complex set of lights operated by a train of timing wheels which drove a device known as the 'timing box' under the bonnet. Every 75 miles, the box automatically lubricated all the chassis greasing points; a red light glowed when it was working, a green one when its lubricant reservoir needed refilling. Every 700 miles, a third light exhorted the owner to have the engine oil changed while, at 1400 mile intervals, the fourth light acted as an aide-memoire to have the battery water level checked at the nearest service station.

The Twenty Grand Duesy

On this chassis, the finest coachbuilders of America and Europe=-Murphy, Derham, Bohmann & Schwartz, Hibbard & Darrin, Barker, Letourneur & Marchand, Graber, D'Ieteren Freres, Gurney Nutting and Weymann-constructed their finest bodies, bringing the total cost of the car, as the model name of one convertible phaeton version reminded the world, to 'Twenty Grand', give or take a few thousand dollars.

Father Divine and The Throne Car

Most Model Js came on the standard wheelbase lengths of 11ft 10½ in (short) or 12 ft 9½ in (long), though Father Divine, an evangelist, ordered his Duesenberg with a whopping 14 ft 10 in wheelbase, and graced it with the name Throne Car. The old Straight Eight engine wasn't entirely abandoned after the Model J appeared: the introduction of the 'Junk Formula' for stock engines, at Indianapolis in 1930, saw the emergence of many Duesenberg-engined racers, although few, if any, raced under their marque name, preferring such patronymics as Wonder Bread Special.

The rise of the Model J Duesenberg was all the more remarkable when you consider that, at the time the model was on the market, there was a world depression, but the Duesenberg clientele was made up of those who were above mere details like the collapse of the stock market; so it is perhaps not so curious that the company introduced an even more flamboyant model in 1932, when the American car market was virtually on its knees.

This was the SJ, which added a centrifugal super-charger spinning at five times crankshaft speed to boost the power output to a claimed 320 bhp and the top speed to almost 130 mph. The bulk of the blower installation made it impossible to accommodate the standard exhaust system under the bonnet, so Duesenberg brought the exhausts out through the bonnet sides in four chromed flexible downpipes.

Famous Duesenberg Customers Include Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, Mae West, Joe E. Brown and William Randolph Hearst

Outside exhausts were a relatively common styling trick in Europe (where the Duesenberg cost more than either Rolls-Royce or Hispano-Suiza), but came as a novelty on the American market. There were even owners of the 'unblown' J who had the external plumbing fitted to make their cars look more exotic. Rarest of all the Duesenbergs was the SSJ, built on the 'ultra-short' (10 ft 5 in) wheelbase; only two were made, one for Clark Gable and one for Gary Cooper, both famous actors. Greta Garbo owned a Duesenberg, too; so did Marion Davies, Mae West, Joe E. Brown and William Randolph Hearst.

Royal customers included King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia and Prince Nicholas of Romania, who raced one of his three Model Js at Le Mans, in 1933, I934 and I935, with an outstanding lack of success.

However, even all the top customers in the world could not save Duesenberg. Fate had already claimed Fred Duesenberg, killed in 1932 at the wheel of an early SJ, and now the break-up of the Cord empire would destroy the company he had headed. The first indication that the end was near had come in 1935 when the final shipment of 25 Duesenberg engines had been received from Lycoming; lack of a future sales programme precluded further production of power units in the Lycoming factory

The company showed its 1937 models at New York and Chicago as though all was well, but then the Cord bubble burst, and the purchasers of the group's assets decided to curtail car production. The Duesenberg factory was bought by local truck builders Marmon- Herrington, one last chassis was assembled to the order of a rich German client by August Duesenberg and his devoted workmen in Chicago, and a new spares and service company was specially created in Auburn, Indiana, during 1938, for owners of Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg cars.

The Duesenberg name lived on, though. In 1947, Marshall Merkes of Chicago bought the company's remaining assets and employed August Duesenberg to design a new straight-eight. It was to have had fuel-injection and custom coachwork, but the realisation that the basic price would be at least $25,000 caused the project to be abandoned.

August Duesenberg, founder of this legendary concern, died of a heart attack in 1955, aged 76. In mid 1965, came news of another attempt to revive the marque, this time as a completely modern luxury car with contemporary Detroit styling, fronted by an updated version of the Duesenberg radiator grille. Styled by Ghia and over 24 feet long, the Chrysler-powered 1966 Duesenberg was America's biggest four-door sedan, but the price tag of around $20,000 was more than the customers were prepared to pay, and only one car was built.

Then came the revival of the SSJ, by another firm, the Duesenberg Corporation of Gardena, California, that was still in production in early 1976. Based on a Dodge truck chassis, with commercial-vehicle suspension, but curiously with almost the same SSJ wheelbase, at 10 ft 8 in, it was powered by a supercharged Chrysler engine producing 500 bhp.

The latter-day SSJ was an attempt to recapture the mystical aura of its earlier namesake (the car still had the mass of instruments and gauges), but, with the company announcing that the price was 'on application', the car could probably only be afforded by modern Gary Coopers. Despite these latter-day failures, the Duesenberg name still carries the old magic-quite an achievement when you realise that total output of Straight-Eights, JS and SJs amounts to little more than a thousand cars in eighteen years.

Also see: Duesenberg Model J | Duesenberg Model SJ Mormon Meteor | Lost Marques: Diesenberg (AUS Edition)
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