The Duesenberg’s Enduring American Legacy

The Duesenberg triumphed on the track, and over the test of time

by | Sep 25, 2019 | Journals

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

The Duesenberg’s Enduring American Legacy

The Duesenberg triumphed on the track, and over the test of time

by | Sep 25, 2019 | Journals

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

​Tony Holbeck, president of the Illinois-based Roamer Motor Car Company, wasn’t too proud to tip his hat to a competitor.

“Fred Duesenberg’s racing stars seem destined to finish the year as far ahead of their competitors as they started, judging from the last two races this month,” Holbeck said in 1920, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “These are just a few more victories to add to the long string already hung up by the Duesenberg team — the most talked-of racing combination in years.”

A year later, when Fred and his brother Augie visited Los Angeles, their racing exploits had brought them enough fame that the local newspaper stated simply: “Fred Duesenberg is in our midst.”

More success would come before Duesenberg collapsed in 1937. Eight decades later, the company and its cars still hold a special place in the American psyche, and possibly even in the language. It’s worth exploring just why Duesenberg gained such enduring iconic status, outshining Packard, Auburn, Cord, Crosley and other marques from America’s automotive past.

The answer: chrome-laden, elegant coachwork and an iconic Straight-8 engine worked hand in hand to set Duesenbergs apart from their counterparts.

1932 Duesenberg Torpedo Convertible Coupe

1932 Duesenberg Torpedo Convertible Coupe

Like many other luxury-car makers of its day, Duesenberg didn’t build all the bodies on its cars. But unlike many others, the company did closely oversee the custom coachbuilders that were permitted to build on its chassis. All designs not done by Duesenberg had to be approved by the company’s designers, ensuring Duesenbergs retained their signature appearance.

In 1920 the Duesenberg brothers invented the Straight-8 engine, a 100 horsepower engine with a displacement of 260 cubic inches and a single overhead camshaft. On the track, no other marque could keep up. The engine won a plethora of races and set land speed records.

Fred and Augie always intended to build touring cars, so that same year they announced the production of the Model A, equipped with the Straight-8 engine. The public, enamored with the success of Duesenberg, itched to get the car.

Then in 1921, the American Automobile association selected Duesenberg to race at Le Mans, the first year the race was reinstated after the end of World War I. The South China Morning Post called it “the greatest recognition of superiority that has ever been given an American automobile.” In a stunning upset, Duesenberg won.

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What the Duesenberg brothers had in engineering ability, they lacked in business acumen (and knowledge in mass production). They struggled to even produce their cars. And in 1922, when the company finally launched the Model A, there wasn’t a dealership in New York City, where they had first shown the car.

A Duesenberg went on to win at the Indy 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927, an achievement matched by no other company. Success in business, however, didn’t follow success on the track.

Attracted by the engineering knowledge of the brothers, E.L. Cord of Cord Automobile bought Duesenberg in 1926 and gave the company success off the track. The Model J was introduced in late 1928, equipped with a Straight-8 engine that produced an incredible (for its time) 265 horsepower and an optional supercharger brought its horsepower up to 320 in the Model SJ. It was one of the fastest and most expensive cars on the market when it debuted.

1932 Duesenberg Torpedo Convertible Coupe

1932 Duesenberg Torpedo Convertible Coupe

The chassis of the Model J sold for $8,500, and the completed car went for anywhere between $13,000 to $19,000; $13,000 was about 36 times what a Model T went for in 1927 (the last year of production). In today’s dollars, the more (but not the most) expensive Model J’s cost about $280,000.

The price was comparable to that of the 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom II. But in comparison to American luxury cars, the Duesenberg was in a world of its own. The Packard Deluxe Eight, a rival luxury car, started at $3,150 in 1930. And a 1928 Cadillac 341 started at $3,495.

The price of the car coupled with its performance and signature chrome body quickly made it an unparalleled status symbol. Duesenberg owners included Al Capone, Clark Gable, the Duke of Windsor, Gary Cooper, William Randolph Hearst, among others.

1931 Duesenberg J Phaeton Convertible by Derham

1931 Duesenberg J Phaeton Convertible by Derham

In the end, only 481 Model J’s were built before the company went bankrupt in 1937. After 24 years in operation, only just over 1,000 Duesenbergs in total were built. Nonetheless, 80 years later, even Americans that don’t remember the company reference it with a popular figure of speech: “It’s a doozy.”

The origins of the phrase are up for debate because it first appeared in literature before the start of the Duesenberg Motors Company. But a Duesenberg was often called a “Duesy.” It seems likely that Duesenbergs had some impact on the meaning of the term because the cars were memorable and extraordinary, just what “doozy” now means.

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