How Duesenberg Cars Work


The Duesenbergs put their racing expertise to use in building their acclaimed Model J, seen here in the 1930 edition.

Fred and August Duesenberg built what many still consider the finest American automobiles of all time. Their great skills were evident early on. After the Duesenberg family emigrated from Germany to Iowa in the late 1800s, a twenty-something Fred built racing bicycles renowned for precision craftsmanship. The brothers then moved on to Des Moines and automobiles, where they designed the 1904 Mason, named for their backer. By 1912, they were putting together impressive engines for Mason's competition cars. The following year, they formed Duesenberg Motor Company to build both marine engines and racing cars bearing their name.

In 1917, the brothers set up in a larger plant at Elizabeth, New Jersey, to turn out aircraft and tractor engines as well. But this business was soon overshadowed by new triumphs in auto­mobile racing. In 1919, a special 16-cylinder Duesenberg engine pushed a Land Speed Record car to 158 mph on the sands at Daytona Beach, Florida -- astounding for the day. The following year, the brothers built a Bugatti-inspired 180-cubic-inch straight-eight with single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder. In 1921, this engine powered the only American car ever to win the French Grand Prix. Duesenberg-powered racers soon came to rival the great racing Millers at Indianapolis, winning the annual 500-miler no less than three times before 1930.

With their vast experience and growing reputation in racing, the Duesenbergs decided to move to Indianapolis and build a road car. Designated Model A, it appeared in late 1921 at the princely price of $6,500. A genuine result of lessons learned on the track, it carried a potent 259.6-cid overhead-valve straight-eight that could deliver up to 85 mph. It also boasted a first among American cars: four-wheel hydraulic brakes, a system Fred had devised for racing as early as 1914.

Though brilliantly engineered and fastidiously crafted, the Model A was no style-setter. Nor were the brothers very good businessmen. Thus, after selling fewer than 500 cars through 1926, they sold Duesenberg Motors to the brash Errett Lobban Cord, who also gained control of Auburn that year. Fred and Augie stayed on, however, and in 1927 they built a dozen or so Model A derivatives called Model X. But this was only a stopgap. E.L. Cord wanted something far more exotic.

He got it in the Duesenberg Model J, introduced to universal applause in December 1928. With characteristic immodesty, Cord proclaimed it "the world's finest motor car." And by most any measurement it was, the product of Cord's money and Fred's genius.

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Duesenberg Model J

Duesenbergs, like this 1934 Model J dual-cowl phaeton, were designed to accentuate the most regal lines and features.

Any discussion of Duesenbergs invariably leads to engines and horsepower. The Model J arrived with a 420-cid straight-eight built by Lycoming to Fred's design. Horsepower was advertised as 265, mind-boggling for the time -- easily over twice the power of the industry's previous best, Chrysler. Doubters have since argued that the actual figure was closer to 200, but there's evidence the factory didn't exaggerate. Though the stock engine had only 5.2:1 compression, a modified unit with 8:1 ratio allegedly showed 390 horsepower. There was also a fabled Lycoming chart listing a reject Model J engine with 208 horsepower at 3,500 rpm, and the late John R. Bond, founder of Road & Track, projected 245-250 at the maximum 4,250 rpm. So the odds are that production Model Js had at least 250, if not more.

But forget horsepower and consider some of the other specifications. In a day when side valves were usual and overhead valves "modern," the J had overhead camshafts -- and not one but two. What's more, they were driven by hefty chains to operate not two but four valves per cylinder -- 32 in all. The engine itself was enameled in bright green, and fittings were finished in nickel, chrome, or stainless steel. Standard wheelbase was no less than 142.5 inches. Frame rails were a massive 8.5 inches deep and a quarter-inch thick. Brakes were oversized and hydraulic (vacuum-assisted after 1930).

Use of aluminum alloy was extensive: in engine, dash, steering column, differential and flywheel housings, crankcase, timing-chain cover, water pump, intake manifold, brake shoes, even the gas tank. So despite their massive size, Model Js didn't weigh much over 5,200 pounds. They could thus do a staggering 89 mph in second gear and 112-116 in High.

Interiors were opulent but functional. Instruments were the most numerous yet seen in an automobile: the usual speedometer (calibrated to 150 mph), ammeter, and water-temp and oil-pressure gauges, plus tachometer, brake-pressure gauge, split-second stopwatch, and altimeter/barometer. Warning lights reminded you to add chassis oil (the chassis lubricated itself every 75 miles), change engine oil, or replenish battery water. But all this was only typical of Fred Duesenberg's dedication to excellence -- a passion that his cars be superior in every way.

Model J prices have long generated much confusion. Of course, you bought not a finished car but a bare chassis, which listed for a stupendous $8,500 in 1929-30, $9,500 thereafter. E.L. Cord was aiming only at those wealthy enough to afford such prices -- and the lofty extra expense of bodywork custom-designed to presumably discriminating individual tastes. Though standard "factory" styles were announced as low as $2,500, total cost with the least costly convertible coupe body, by Murphy of Pasadena, seems to have run at least $13,000. Most Model Js originally sold for under $17,000 complete. A few cost up to $20,000, a handful as much as $25,000. In 1929, that was equal to 50 Ford Model As.

Bodies were as regal as the Model J's drivetrain. These were, after all, grand luxe carriages, so only the finest woods, fabrics, and leathers were used. Vanity cases, radios, bars, and rear instrument panels were common owner-specified features. Less common was the town car upholstered in silk and given ebony, silver, and ivory fittings. Another car reportedly got solid-gold hardware and mosaic-wood inlays for the rear compartment. So despite its astonishing performance, the Model J was primarily a super-luxury conveyance able to run in eerie silence, as customers demanded.

And who were those demanding customers? Well, only 470 chassis and 480 engines were built between 1929 and 1936, so the clientele was, at least, exclusive. Some ads emphasized the fact. These contained not a word of hype, nor specifications -- not even a picture of the car. Instead, there might be a yachtsman at the helm battling what looked like a 40-knot gale, or a well-dressed tycoon relaxing in a library worthy of a university. Regardless, there was but one line of type: "He Drives a Duesenberg." Not that the ads were chauvinistic. One showed an elegantly attired woman talking to her hat-in-hand gardener in front of an estate that would shame Versailles. Naturally, the headline declared, "She Drives a Duesenberg."

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Duesenberg Model SJ, Model JN, Model SJN

The supercharged Model SJ, seen here in the 1935 roadster edition, combined tremendous power with the classic Duesenberg styling.

If the J was imposing, the supercharged SJ was awesome. Approximately 36 were built, with chassis priced at a prodigious $11,750. Because the centrifugal blower delivered a six-psi boost at 4,000 rpm, conrods were switched from aluminum alloy to sturdier tube-steel types. SJs developed no less than 320 horsepower, but Augie Duesenberg wanted more, so he half-heartedly tried a set of "ram's horn" manifolds with dual carburetors and was amazed to see 400 horsepower on the dynamometer. Only three cars were fitted with the 400-horse­power engine.

SJ performance is well-documented. A stock example could reach 104 mph in second and top 125. In 1935, the famed Ab Jenkins drove a aerodynamic speedster (later know as the Mormon Meteor) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for 24 hours at an average speed of 135 mph. Jenkins also ran 152 mph for one full hour and clocked one lap at 160! Naturally, the Mormon Meteor had the "ram's horn" engine. In spite of its speed, the car was still usable on the street. To put it mildly, the SJ was simply incredible.

Yet besides power and luxury, these Duesenbergs had surprising dynamic balance, without the heaviness of so many high-priced contemporaries. Model Js weren't "trucky," did not steer like tanks, and didn't demand huge leg muscles to operate their clutches or brakes. They did understeer, but this was easily checked by exquisitely accurate steering. A wide-open SJ with exhaust cut-out throbbed more than extroverts could endure, but with a closed exhaust cut-out it was little louder than a healthy Cadillac Sixteen.

Only two Model Js came close to being "sports cars," a pair of specials unofficially referred to as SSJ. Both were built by the Cord-owned Central Manufacturing Company, using the La Grande name, on "short" 125-inch wheelbases. Both were first driven by movie stars. The first was owned by Gary Cooper. The second was loaned to Clark Gable as a demonstrator, but was not purchased by Gable. Both cars survive today, though as museum pieces, and there's still no definitive information on their performance. But they must have been shattering, what with relatively lean bodies, 400-horse "ram's horn" engines, and chassis 17 inches shorter than standard.

Another Model J offshoot was the JN -- introduced in 1935. An attempt to give a more-modern look to an aging design, the JN was equipped with smaller 17-inch-diameter wheels (versus 19 inches), skirted fenders, bullet-shaped taillights, and bodies set on the frame rails for a lower look. Supercharged JNs gained the logical SJN designation. But again, confusion reigns. Blowers were later removed from some SJs, while others were added to originally unblown models. At least 45 cars had a supercharger at one time during their lives. Then there's the longtime misconception that any car with pipes snaking out from under its hood has to be supercharged. Duesenberg built cars with beautiful plumbing outside, but it wasn't always connected to a supercharger inside.

Under E.L. Cord, the company wasn't necessarily supposed to make a profit -- just magnificent, cost-no-object cars as the flagships of Cord's industrial empire. The plan was for Duesenberg to sell a lot of 500 cars and come out with a new design. The Depression stretched out the time to sell that 500 cars. Cord's empire collapsed in 1937 before a new design was needed.

Sadly, Fred Duesenberg didn't live that long; he had been killed five years earlier in an auto accident -- ironically, behind the wheel of an SJ. Brother August continued working, but failed with his plan to revive the marque in 1947. Several subsequent revival attempts proved equally fruitless. Among the more notable was a "modern" Duesenberg sedan floated by Fred's son "Fritz" in 1966 and an abortive 1980 Cadillac-based sedan cooked up by two of the brothers' nephews. There have also been numerous postwar replicas of original models ranging from splendid to schlocky.

But none of these efforts had the heart and soul of Fred himself. As the late Ken Purdy, pioneer automotive journalist, once wrote: "[Fred Duesenberg] died content … [He] had done what is given few men to do … chosen a good course and held unswervingly to it … With his mind and his two good hands he created something new and good and, in its way, immortal. And the creator is, when all is said and done, the most fortunate of men."

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