Fred and August Duesenberg

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Fred and August Duesenberg

Fred and August Duesenberg

The Dawn Of The Automobile

Duesenberg is a German name, even if the car was not. Fred Duesenberg was born in the German town of Lippe in 1876 and his brother August in 1879. One year after August's birth, their widowed mother took her three sons and three daughters to America, buying a farm near Rockford, Iowa.

The Duesenberg children grew up on the farm and Fred showed an early aptitude for things mechanical. By 1897 Fred and August were making a name for themselves designing and building racing bicycles and Fred actually set the two-mile bicycle speed record on one of his machines in 1898.

But Fred wasn't long content with bicycles. This was the dawn of the automobile age and soon he was gaining practical knowledge in the building of motor cars with the Jeffrey Company at Kenosha Wisconsin, builders of the first Rambler cars.

The Mason Motor Company

In 1903 Fred and August opened their own garage and with the help of a financial backer named Mason started the Mason Motor Company. The first Duesenberg designed motorcar appeared in 1906 and was called the Mason. It was a little two cylinder car which cost $1,250 and weighed 794kg and its 18kW engine showed its strength in hill climbing events; a popular past-time in those days.

F. L. Maytag took over the company in 1910 shifting its base to Waterloo, Iowa. Soon it moved again and the Maytag Mason Motor Co. settled in Detroit. Without the Duesenbergs. Fred had a penchant for speed and with Augie as his partner, set to work developing a racing car hoping to have it ready in time for Indianapolis Memorial Day. The four-cylinder Duesenberg was finished and entered for the qualifying trials but the car was the smallest in the field - and failed to qualify, braking an engine block during the pre-race tests. Downcast, the brothers returned to the drawing board.

Great War Manufacture

Although the 3.8-litre engine made a poor showing at Indy, in other events of 1912 it did. It won the Algonquin Hill climb. But the Duesenberg brothers' biggest ambition was to win the Indianapolis "500", an amibition unfulfilled until 1924, though their cars won many times on other race tracks. In 1914, the engine's displacement had been upped to 5.7 litres and a little-known driver, Eddie Rickenbacker drove into 10th place in the 500. When the U.S. joined World War One, Duesbenberg won a government contract to supply marine, aircraft and tractor engine. Working flat out, they supplied America and its allies with their own engines from a factory at Elizabeth, New Jersey. They also built a Bugatti 370kW aero-engine under licence.

The war gave the Duesenbergs opportunities to experiment with several engines. One was the massive V16 Model H, the biggest aero-engines ever built. Only four were made before the end of hostilities. They developed a then-colossal 670kW. The brothers also produced a few V12 aero engines based on a successful marine type. There is little doubt that the war years helped the Duesenbergs, not only financially, but also with engineering developments.

The Power Of The Hour

During the war years the Duesenbergs had run a series of advertisements designed to keep their name before the public. They rang with patriotic fervor: "Duesenberg. The Power of the Hour". It became a catchword and following the Armistice, Duesenberg capitalised thus: "Out of the wrack of war comes the ultimate car, the car you have dreamed of, and its motor is "THE POWER OF THE HOUR". The only trouble was, no car had yet been produced.

Fred and Augi gathered up the proceeds of their war contract and the sale of their plant to Willys, and headed south to Indianapolis. They wanted to be as close as possible to their beloved speedway, and a new factory there, saw the birth of the first Duesenberg overhead cam engine. In 1920 saw the Duesenberg Model A with a straight-eight OHC three-litre engine, hydraulic brakes on all four wheels - both first in an American production automobile - rolled into the sunlight. Public enthusiasm was considerable and was heightened when one of the brothers broke the land speed record with a racing car equipped with two five-litre engines mounted side by side. The average speed on the Daytona Flats was 256 km/h.

Duesenberg 4 Cylinder Engine, Exhaust side
Duesenberg 4 Cylinder Engine, Exhaust side.

Duesenberg 4 Cylinder Engine, Intake side
Duesenberg 4 Cylinder Engine, Intake side.

Duesenberg Tourer
Duesenberg Tourer.



The Duesenberg Interior
The Duesenberg Interior - Irresistible.

More racing and record successes were to come Duesenberg's way and it seemed the brothers were more interested in the race track than promoting the production Model A. From the time of its inception to its demise in 1926, less than 100 were manufactured annually. It was a very advanced car for its time, boasting not only a straight-eight and hydraulic brakes, but also a treated molybdenum chassis, ground gears and tubular axles - all radical innovations. No matter how good the Model A's were ... and they were good ... you cannot sell only mechanical excellence. You must have styling to match. And Duesenbergs, like many other marques, had the drab, rather boxy coachwork prevalent in the twenties. That is until Erret Lobban Cord came along.

Erret Lobban Cord

Erret Lobban Cord suited the twenties admirably. Such was his character that he could have stepped out of the pages of a Fitzgerald novel. Born in 1894, he boasted he made and lost fortunes worth $50,000 before he was 21 and $50,000 was plenty in those days. In 1924, with $100,000 from a successful business deal, Cord entered the motor car business by acquiring the Auburn Automobile Company. Within a year, under his ingenius guidance, Auburn was well into the black, and by 1926, with all-new cars on the showroom floor, Auburn was making annual profits of close to a million dollars.

Duesenberg was added to Cord's burgeoning empire on October 6, 1926, and in 1927, it was announced that the Auburn Automobile Co. had "purchased" Duesenberg along with Lycoming Motors and Limousine Body Co. Cord stressed that all the companies would work independently of one another and no staff changes were envisaged. Cord recognised the Duesenbergs' engineering talent. Relieving him of administration worries, Cord made Fred vice-president in charge of engineering and experimentation and gave him free rein to develop his ideas.

"Leave the financial side to me", Cord said, "and produce the biggest, fastest and most powerful stock automobile the world has ever seen." No expense was to be spared. For Fred Duesenberg it was a dream task. The Duesenbergs engineering genius and E. L's financial wizardry worked well together as a perfect match. Cord knew he couldn't fail with Duesenberg. He sought that clientele to whom money grew on trees; the set who liked to be seen in the exotic cars produced in Europe. He wanted to blow all those smug Rolls Royces, Isottas and Hispanos back from whence they came.

It's a Duzy

"It's a Duzy!" became a parlance of the late twenties, used to denote something great. Announced late in 1928, the new Duesenberg J met with spontaneous enthusiasm from the rich people. Here was an automobile to end them all; better than even Cord - the optimistic imagined. The J delivered its race-bred twin OHC straight-eight delivered 197kW and 507Nm of torque at just 2000rpm. Redline was 4,200rpm.

Four valves were used per cylinder and the connecting rods, pistons and intake manifold were aluminium alloy while the five bearing crankshaft was forged out of heat-treated chrome nickel steel. Valves were of silchrome steel and the cylinder block was cast from "selected" cast iron. The three-speed gears were heat treated alloy steel while the case was aluminium.

The Duesenberg's top speed was in the reign of 187 km/h (116mph) and 10 mph to 80 mph took 22 seconds. For the size of the car (wheelbase 3899mm, unladen weight 3050kg) its performance was impressive. Few, if any other stock auto could pass it - except perhaps the lighter, smaller Duesie model weighing only 2381.3. No cost was spared on luxury appointments in the Duesenbergs. Only the finest leathers were used for the upholstery and the driver faced one of the most complete instrument panels ever put in a car. The instruments were set in a panel of engine-turned oxidized nickel, and consisted of brake pressure gauge, oil pressure, ammeter, tachometer, split second stop clock, speedo, petrol gauge, temperature, altimeter and barometer gauges.

Warning lights (there were warning lights in 1929, leastwise on a Duesenberg) told you when the car needed an oil change, chassis lubrication or a battery change. The frame, tank-like, was made of heavy alloy steel. Bracing was provided by six tubular cross members riveted and welded to the frame. The engine was rubber mounted to the chassis - a chassis of strength and rigidity unheard of in a production car. Naturally the Duesenberg came with four-wheel hydraulic brakes.

Duesenberg Coachwork

Duesenberg coachwork was a story of its own. On the J and later SJ there was no such thing as a "factory installed body". Coach work was commissioned from no less than 14 coach builders. It is estimated that the Duesenberg factory ordered 380 bodies, while about 90 were specially ordered by customers. The most popular was the Murphy body styles; around 125 Duesies were Murphy bodied while Willoughby built fifty bodies, Rollston provided forty-four and Le Baron (well known for their Chrysler Imperial coachwork) styled thirty-three. Others included Walker, Brunn, Judkins, Locke, Hibbard & Darrin and La Granda. La Granda was part of Cord's empire and supplied nineteen phaeton bodies and five others.

One of the most attractive body styles was the special one-off by Britain's Gurney Nutting. Reputed to be the last Duesenberg, it was a special commission for the Maharajah of Indore, and must rank as one of the most beautiful Duesenbergs. A true Rembrandt on wheels, the fabulous red and black coachwork was the design of A. F. McNeill, Nutting's great stylist. The car is no longer in India, being moved to the Ellenville Motor Museum in America sometime, we believe, in the late 1970s.

Other European body designs found their way into Duesie chassis. Barker did a couple of rather formal - though elegant - limousines, and French coach builder Franay styled two, one of which we believe is in America while the other (built for Queen Marie Of Yugoslavia) disappeared. There was a suggestion that Queen Marie's Duesenberg found its way behind the Iron Curtain. It is unlikely the Germans destroyed the car when they occupied Yugoslavia; they tended to take luxury items and works of art back to Germany. It is possible the Yugoslav Royal Family took the car with them when they evacuated their country. Either way the car was probably in line with the later Russian advance through Europe. If anyone does know what became of this, please let us know so we can update this article - we are sure it would make a great story!

The World's Finest Motorcars

The Duesenberg J and SJ were, as their advertising said, "The World's Finest Motorcars". It is true that many of the fine European cars of the time had similar features, but the Duesenberg incorporated them all in one car. The SJ was the supercharged, J that appeared in 1932. August Duesenberg designed the supercharger, which upped the Duesie's power to 240kW giving the car a top speed of 210km/h. In convertible form, the Duesenberg ran from 0-160km/h in a staggering 17 seconds and could do 167km/h in second gear. Not only probably world's finest motorcar, but the world's most powerful as well.

Fred Duesenberg died as the result of injuries sustained when a Duesenberg SJ he was driving spun out of control on a slippery bend. He was 55. The year 1931 was E. L. Cord's best by far, America was in the depths of the Depression but this hardly phased the Auburn Motor Company, The Auburn car had climbed to thirteenth place in the overall sales charts, while Duesenbergs were selling as fast as they could be produced. Only Cord cars, new in 1929, weren't faring well. But by the end of 1932, the whole Cord empire had taken an unhealthy turn and from then on, it was downhill until the end came in 1937. There are plenty of reasons put forward for Cord's collapse .When Fred Duesenberg died, as if to preserve his memory, the Duesenberg was left unchanged and by 1937 the cars - once advanced - became old hat.

Cord 810was enthusiastically received, but potential buyers had to wait too long for their cars and bought opposition models, It was said that Erret Lobban Cord, only 32 when he took over Auburn, bought one company after another and rarely gave them time to establish solid foundations. Like many young men, the critics say he wanted success in a hurry. Whatever else, E. L. Cord lifted the motor car above the commonplace, helping to make it part of the art of the Twentieth Century. He had the ability to pick the men to put revolutionary ideas into effect. Todayt his creations have become recognised as art. In 1955 August Samuel Duesenberg died in Indianapolis of a heart attack and was interred at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Also see: Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry | Lost Marques - Duesenberg | Duesenberg Car Reviews
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