How Duesenberg Cars Work

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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