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In 1913 brothers Fred and August would establishthe Duesenberg Motor Co. to build a variety of engines...

Duesenberg "J"
The Duesenberg "J" may not have featured a supercharger, but the 6.9 litre engine still made the car good for a top speed of around 116mph. Pictured is the (at the time) more popular LWB version with rear seating arrangement...

Duesenberg J
The Deusenberg J featured flowing lines and wonderful bright work...

Duesenberg SJThe awesome but lethal supercharged SJ would claim founder Fred Duesenbergs life during testing...

Duesenberg SJ A rare alternative to the LWB version was the 11ft 10in roadster, complete with 'Dickie' seat...

Duesenberg SJ
This rear view image gives clearer detail of the fabulous speedster tail (with Dickie seat lowered), and the removal of the running board accentuates the exhaust system...

Duesenberg Meteor
Doing away with fender mounted lights and incorporating a single unit into the front bumper was way ahead of its time for the 1935 Duesenberg SJ "Mormon Meteor"...

Fred and August Duesenberg

The beautifully built and styled Duesenberg may have been owned by screen greats Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, but was never able to make serious inroads into car manufacture. The company was founded by Fred Duesenberg; born in Germany in 1876 Fred immigrated to North America and started his first business building bicycles.

As an aspiring car designer, he played a big part in the design of the “Mason” automobile in 1906, after which he set up his own racing engine business with brother August. Together, the pair built and supplied their race engines to Mason in 1912, and then established the Duesenberg Motor Co. the following year. As their business expanded, Duesenberg began manufacturing a wide variety of engines including racing, road car, airplane and marine varieties.

A special 16-cylinder unit powered a Land Speed Record contender up to 158mph (254.3 km/h) in 1919, and in 1921 a Duesenberg won the prestigious French Grand Prix. The first Duesenberg production car followed in late 1921; called the Model A, it had a straight eight-cylinder 260cu.in (4.25 litre) engine, and was the first-ever North American car to use hydraulic brakes.

The Takeover By Erret Lobban Cord

Less than 500 cars were sold up to 1926, at which point the company was taken over by the colorful entrepreneur Erret Lobban Cord – founder of the Cord Automobile Companyand another marque that will be featured in the Unique Cars and Parts “Lost Marques” feature.

Cord kept Fred Duesenberg on as an employee, and soon had him developing the wonderful “Model J”. The car was launched in 1928 and featured a massivestraight-eight 420cu.in (6.9 litre) engine built byLycoming - another company in the Cord group.

The engine had twin chain-driven overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a (claimed) power output of 265 bhp – almost twice that of any other American built car of the time. The open four-seater “J” was good for a top speed of around 116mph (186.7 km/h) – quite literally awesome for the time!

Cord did not allow the Depression to thwart his grandiose plans for the car, and continued development of a supercharged version.

The Release Of The SJ

In 1932 his dreams were realized when the “SJ” was released. The celebrations were short lived, Fred Duesenberg having a bad accident during testing of the car – he would later die from resultant complications. The SJ itself, of which only 36 were ever built, wassaid to develop 320bhp, could top 130mph (209 km/h)and was good for the 0-100mph dash in a mere 17 seconds.

August would take over his brothers responsibilitiesas chief engineer, and would see his brothers creationreach an astounding 135mph (217 km/h) for 24 consecutive hours setting a new record during 1935 trials at theBonneville Salt Flats (Ab Jenkins driving the aptly named "Mormon Meteor"). In fact, the car would set a staggering average of 152mph (244.6 km/h) duringone hour of the trials!

Even though the J and SJ Models made widespread use of aluminium parts, the regal and luxurious custom-built coach work made the cars rather overweight. And it was a requirement of any purchaser that their wallet also suffer a similar affliction. But there was no doubting the cars beauty, and boasting such (lethal) power the car found favor with movie stars, politicians and industrialists.

Nearly all specified formal body work on the 12ft 9.5in chassis, although there was a shorter 11ft 10in chassis available, the body work encompassing a lovely 2-seater roadster with a ‘Dickey’ or ‘Rumble’ seat housed in the speedster tail.

It was this latter version, when equipped with the supercharged SJ engine, which was seen at the time as the ultimate US built car. Dubbed the “SSJ”, examples were to find their way into the garages of arguably two of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the time, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

The Cord Bubble Burst

The company showed its 1937 models at New York and Chicago as though all was well, but then the Cord bubble burst, and the purchasers of the group's assets decided to curtail car production. The Duesenberg factory was bought by local truck builders Marmon-Herrington, one last chassis was assembled to the order of a rich German client by August Duesenberg and his devoted workmen in Chicago, and a new spares and service company was specially created in Auburn, Indiana, during 1938, for owners of Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg cars.

Designing The New Straight-Eight

The Duesenberg name lived on, though. In 1947, Marshall Merkes of Chicago bought the company's remaining assets and employed August Duesenberg to design a new straight-eight. It was to have had fuel-injection and custom coachwork, but the realisation that the basic price would be at least $25,000 caused the project to be abandoned. August Duesenberg, founder of this legendary concern, died of a heart attack in 1955, aged 76.

Reviving The Marque, Part 3

In mid 1965, came news of another attempt to revive the marque, this time as a completely modern luxury car with contemporary Detroit styling, fronted by an updated version of the Duesenberg radiator grille. Styled by Ghia and over 24 feet long, the Chrysler- powered 1966 Duesenberg was America's biggest four-door sedan, but the price tag of around $20,000 was more than the customers were prepared to pay, and only one car was built.

Then came the revival of the SSJ, by another firm, the Duesenberg Corporation of Gardena, California, that was still in production in early 1976. Based on a Dodge truck chassis, with commercial-vehicle suspension, but curiously with almost the same SSJ wheelbase, at 10 ft 8 in, it was powered by a supercharged Chrysler engine producing 500 bhp.

Price On Application

The latter-day SSJ was an attempt to recapture the mystical aura of its earlier namesake (the car still had the mass of instruments and gauges), but, with the company announcing that the price was 'on application', the car could probably only be afforded by modern Gary Coopers.

Despite these latter-day failures, the Duesenberg name still carries the old magic-quite an achievement when you realise that total output of Straight-Eights, JS and SJs amounts to little more than a thousand cars in eighteen years. Nowadays, the large car manufacturers feel themselves unsuccessful if they turn out so few examples of their products in a day, the demand being so great.

No doubt adding to the allure of the car was its scarcity on US roads – with only around 500 model J’s being built between 1929 and 1937. Even less of the SJ and SSJ were built. Financial difficulty at Cord would have dire consequences for Duesenberg, and neither company would survive past the late 1930’s.

We are not aware of any examples existing in Australia, and even for those in the US the chances are you will see a replica “SSJ” rather than the real thing. But then as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

Also see:
Duesenberg Model J
Duesenberg Model SJ Mormon Meteor
Fred and August Duesenberg
Lost Marques: Duesenberg - USA Edition
Latest Classic Car Classifieds

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