1960s and 1970s Duesenberg Concept Cars

Image Gallery: Concept Cars Clamshell fender shapes, hidden headlamps, and a large grille linked the 1966 Duesenberg Model D concept car with the classic 1930s Duseys. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Legends belong to the ages and are not easily regained, but that didn't stop two generations of entrepreuners from trying, as seen in the 1960s and 1970s Duesenberg concept cars.

The Duesenberg Model J was the mightiest of America's great 1930s Classics. Pioneer automotive journalist Ken Purdy once said it "will live as long as men worship beauty and power on wheels."

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Still, there are those who can't resist trying to improve on a legend, particularly when they bear the same name. That, in a nutshell, explains why the only two attempts at a modern Duesenberg -- at least so far -- have been made by descendants of brothers Fred and August Duesenberg, creators of the immortal J.

The first attempt began in 1964, when Augie's son Fred A. "Fritz" Duesenberg resigned as chief engine engineer for the Labeco test-equipment company to join forces with one Milo N. Record, a sales and promotion specialist at Goodyear.

The impetus for their partnership was none other than Virgil Exner, who had just been ousted as styling chief at Chrysler. As Virgil Exner, Jr. later recounted in Special Interest Autos magazine: "My dad was [then] in semi-retirement. He'd done a number of designs for Esquire [in late 1963, interpreting] how some of the classics ... might look in the modern era."

 

Like its real-life predecessors, the Duesenberg Model D concept car was beautifully finished inside and out. Just one Model D concept was built.
Like its real-life predecessors, the Duesenberg Model D concept car was beautifully finished inside and out. Just one Model D concept was built.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Of Exner's four "contemporary continuations," only an updated 1934 Packard went unbuilt. His modernized Mercer idea was translated into the one-off 1966 Mercer-Cobra, while his Stutz speculation led directly to the trio of Pontiac-based Stutz Blackhawk models that sold in tiny numbers from 1970 to the mid-1980s.

But, of course, it was Exner's latter-day Duesenberg that interested Fritz -- and Texas real-estate baron Fred J. McManis, Jr. With dreams of raising at least $5 million in start-up funds, Fritz formed a new Duesenberg Corporation in Indianapolis, where his father and uncle had built their towering machines 30 years before. Fritz installed himself as chairman and McManis as president.

Find information about the Duesenberg Model D concept car on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

Duesenberg Model D

In the Duesenberg tradition, the Model D concept car was big. It rode a 132-inch wheelbase and, at 245 inches, was longer overall than a Cadillac limousine.
In the Duesenberg tradition, the Model D concept car was big. It rode a 132-inch wheelbase and, at 245 inches, was longer overall than a Cadillac limousine.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The Duesenberg Model D concept car was the one and only car built by the 1960s Duesenberg Corporation. It had been started by Fritz Duesenberg, son of one of the original Duesenberg founders, with real-estate baron Fred J. McManis, Jr. as president.

Their initial vision was a $10,000 super-luxury sedan on a 120-inch wheelbase, but that soon grew into an even costlier car with a 132-inch chassis and, briefly, an aluminum V-8 with more than 500 cubic inches and 300 horsepower.

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Targeted yearly volume was variously quoted at between 200 and 1,000 units by sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to monthly "buff" magazines. Moreover, as Fritz told Car Life's Ed Janicki: "We plan no annual changes [though] we might consider a change or modification after 10 years. With this price, you couldn't sell [one] and then obsolete it in two years."

After selecting a final design from 15 working sketches submitted by the Exners, Fritz okayed a prototype of what came to be called the Duesenberg Model D. Construction was entrusted to the famed Ghia works in Italy -- logical, as Ghia had built most of the elder Exner's Chrysler show-car designs of the Fifties.

Also per Duesenberg tradition, the Model D's full instrumentation included a stopwatch and altimeter.
Also per Duesenberg tradition, the Model D's full instrumentation included a stopwatch and altimeter.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Engineering work became a joint effort between Dale Cosper, a veteran of the original Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg concern, and Paul Farago, fresh from birthing the Chrysler-powered Dual-Ghia. But there was never any rush to completion, because financing was slow and hard to come by. In fact, hopes of attracting new money prompted the prototype's first public showing, which didn't come until the spring of 1966.

Like its hallowed forebears, the new Model D had grand proportions: It was a four-door brougham sedan measuring 137.5 inches between wheel centers and 245 inches overall. The announced price was a lofty $19,500, but included automatic transmission (Chrysler TorqueFlite), automatic climate control, all-disc brakes (big Airheart units), torsion-bar front suspension, chrome wire wheels, and power everything.

Per Duesenberg tradition, back seaters could scrutinize their own speedometer and clock; they also enjoyed a separate radio, fold-out writing tables, even a TV and bar. Interior trim was top-grade leather with solid mahogany accents.

The exterior blended nostalgic elements -- razor-edge roof, center-opening doors, clamshell-shaped wheel openings -- with trendy stuff like hidden headlamps. With 350 horsepower from a stock 440 Chrysler V-8 (the 426 Hemi was considered but rejected, as was all-independent suspension), the Model D had good performance for a 5,700-pound biggie.

The fully functional 1963 Model D concept car was styled by former Chrysler chief designer Virgil Exner and built by Ghia of Italy.
The fully functional 1963 Model D concept car was styled by former Chrysler chief designer Virgil Exner and built by Ghia of Italy.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

But this first modern Duesenberg never went any further. Though plans were afoot for limousine and four-door convertible models, simple start-up of sedan production demanded $2.5 million, and the money was nowhere to be found.

So, after a few months in the limelight, Duesenberg Corporation faded away, which was a real shame. According to the few who've driven it, the Model D handled well for its size and had all the luxury anyone could want.

But the potential demand for such a costly "retro" car in 1966 was tiny if not non-existent, and the concept itself was probably flawed. As Car and Driver later opined, the Model D seemed the "perfect 1934 dream car. ... [Fred and Augie Duesenberg] would have kept up with the times."

One more Duesenberg concept was coming in the late 1970s, which you can learn about on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1980 Duesenberg

The second stab at a modern Duesenberg was this 1970s Duesenberg concept car. It was based on a Cadillac sedan and dated from 1976.
The second stab at a modern Duesenberg was this 1970s Duesenberg concept car. It was based on a Cadillac sedan and dated from 1976.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The second, and less ambitious, Duesenberg revival attempt started in 1976 and was led by Harlan and Kenneth Duesenberg, grand nephews of original company founders Fred and Augie Duesenberg. It culminated in the 1980 Duesenberg.

After forming a new Duesenberg Brothers Company, the pair hired Robert Peterson of Chicago's famed Lehmann-Peterson limousine works to engineer another "modern Duesenberg." The result appeared three years later as little more than a customized Cadillac.

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Power came from a stock 425-cubic-inch fuel-injected V-8 with 195 horsepower. The chassis was Cadillac's too, though with a unique 133-inch wheelbase halfway between that of the then-current DeVille sedan and Fleetwood limousine.

Production targeted for 1979 was derailed by the second energy crisis. Was the Duesenburg concept's interior lush enough for a $100,000 car?
Production targeted for 1979 was derailed by the second energy crisis. Was the Duesenburg concept's interior lush enough for a $100,000 car?
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Though its intent was laudable, this car was a very pale reminder of the renowned 1930s Model J. At least price kept with Duesenberg tradition: an astronomical $100,000.

But styling was boxy, slab-sided, heavy-handed yet bland. In front, for example, were stacked quad headlamps outboard of hidden driving lights astride a squat square grille that could have come off a late-1970s Lincoln. The capper was a garish "bow-tie" front bumper that looked like a bushy moustache.

The bow-tie bumper and overall blocky styling contrived to hide the Cadillac origins.
The bow-tie bumper and overall blocky styling contrived to hide the Cadillac origins.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Harlan and Kenneth planned to build their Duesenberg one order at a time, selling direct from a small plant in the Chicago suburb of Mundelein (the intended location was later changed to Evanston, Illinois). But, as happened with the first revival attempt in the 1960s, funds ran out after a single prototype was built. That car survives today, as does the Model D of the 1960s.

Ironically, the 1980 Duesenberg was partly motivated by the brothers' desire to make up for the stillborn 1966 revival that produced the Model D, thus restoring luster to the family name. Perhaps some future member of the clan will finally succeed in producing a modern Duesenberg with the spirit and excellence of the great Model J.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: