Dusenberg in the Depression
By 1931, with the nation locked in the grip of the worst Depression in history, the market for automobiles of the Duesenberg's calibre -- and price -- had just about dried up. Even those few people who could still afford such an automobile were, more often than not, reluctant to flaunt their prosperity in the face of such widespread poverty.
Still, there was a small but loyal clientele, many of whose members came from the celebrity world. Over the years Gary Cooper owned two of them. So did Mae "Come Up and See Me Sometime" West, while chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley owned five! Harlem evangelist Father Divine had a huge Duesenberg "Throne Car," built on a special wheel-base of 178 inches. Cardinal Mundelein, who must somehow have overlooked his vow of poverty, owned a Duesenberg. So did Howard Hughes, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, playboy Tommy Manville, pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, publisher William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst's great-and-good-friend Marion Davies.
Duesenberg's response to its shrinking market was twofold. First, the price of the chassis was raised from $8,500 to $9,500, presumably on the premise that the extra $1,000 wouldn't mean a great deal to anyone who could afford such an expensive piece of equipage in the first place. And second, a supercharged version was under development.
Introduced in May 1932, the supercharged SJ series developed a neck-snapping 320 horsepower. Priced at $11,750 in bare chassis form, it was fitted with flashy, chrome-plated external exhaust pipes (which were soon adopted by owners of non-blown Duesys, of course). The factory claimed that an SJ phaeton with the top down would do 104 miles an hour in second gear, 129 in top.
Tragically, however, just a month after the SJ's debut, Fred Duesenberg died of pneumonia, resulting from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in which he was driving an SJ. His brother, Augie, took over Fred's duties as chief engineer. Soon afterward, Gordon Buehrig left to join Harley Earl's staff at General Motors, though he would return later to design the fabulous Auburn speedster of 1935-1936 and the Series 810/812 Cords of 1936-1937.
But by that time E.L. Cord's automotive empire was crumbling. Auburn packed it in following the 1936 season, and a year later both Cord and Duesenberg were gone. Well, almost gone -- between 1938 and 1940 one final Duesenberg was assembled from leftover parts.
A number of years ago, the late Ken Purdy wrote: "The fact that a whole new generation still recognizes his cars as 'the finest thing on four wheels' would please [Fred Duesenberg], which is perhaps the best monument that he could have."
Keep reading for specifications on 1928-1934 Duesenberg J-Series automobiles.