The pre-Depression car culture in America was something truly incredible to behold. Car companies were popping up left and right, and innovative minds were easily able to make their own dreams and ideas a reality by building consumer cars of their own. Worldwide empires sprung up seemingly overnight only to come crashing down in a heap of rubble mere decades later.
One of those manufacturers was Duesenberg. Considered some of the greatest cars America has ever made, brothers August and Frederick Duesenberg had a dream. In Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1913, the two began crafting the engines and race cars that would make them a worldwide phenomenon and spark the phrase “it’s a doozy”. All because they decided to see what might happen if they put some gasoline in the bicycles they were making.
The brothers were backyard tinkerers without the formal education that might confine them to what should be instead of what can be. These cars were hand-built. They were beautiful. They were unlike anything the automotive industry had seen before.
But they were still not quite dedicated to the car industry, not yet. The Duesenbergs set up their company office in Des Moines, Iowa with a second shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They were engineering engines in general, from cars to planes to boats. It seemed the most efficient way to kick up a business and make money. Cars were, after all, still a pretty niche interest compared to their prevalence today.
But in 1920, things changed. The appeal of building a luxury car for affluent buyers suddenly became an interesting prospect. They sold off their properties specializing in aviation and marine engines and used the money to buy a shop near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They didn’t set set out to build a race car, not yet, but destiny was calling.
See, Eddie Rickenbacker, a WWI fighter pilot and racer, drove a Duesenberg to a top ten finish at IMS. A Duesenberg set a land speed record of 156 mph at Daytona in 1920. Jimmy Murphy became the first American to win the French Grand Prix driving—you guessed it—a Duesenberg in 1921. Hell, Fred Duesenberg even drove the Model A Touring Car on the pace laps of the 500 that year. It’s easy to see how a Duesy might start catching the eye of the racing world.
The Model A was the first post-WWI car put into production by the Duesenbergs, what was intended to be a luxury passenger vehicle with features like dual overhead cams, four-valve cylinder heads, and the first hydraulic brakes. It was light, small, and incredibly fast.
But for as exciting as those features were to anyone interested in automotive technology, throwing them all together on one model was a bad business move. The thing was way too expensive to sell, and the Duesenberg brothers had no marketing skills to find an audience who would shell out the big bucks. There were some celebrities who bought it, some racers who competed in it, but that wasn’t enough.
Those race wins, though, proved to have a good impact. The Duesenbergs went bankrupt in 1922. Errett Lobban Cord, owner of Cord Automobile, saw the potential that the beautiful engineering offered, and he bought the company in 1925. And just like that, with a new cash flow and some marketing experience, the brothers were given a second chance.
Cord’s had a very simple plan in mind. He wanted the Duesenbergs to build the fastest, finest, most luxurious automobile that the world had ever seen.
Thus, the Model J was born. This is the car that would put Duesenberg firmly on the map and establish them as a brand that everyone aspired to buy. As they say in the world of car collectors now: “you can never pay too much for a Duesenberg, only too soon”.
The Model A and its halfheartedly-upgraded (and equally unsuccessful) antecessor, the Model X, were both scrapped. In its place came a car endowed with a massive 7-liter Straight-8 twin-cam engine, so beautifully decked out in aluminum that it was a task making sure everyone collected their jaws off the ground when they first laid eyes on it.
Its debut in December of 1928 proved that Duesenberg was firmly on the automaker map once again. There wasn’t a single part of this twenty-foot-long vehicle that didn’t look like it was sculpted by Michelangelo. The body was decked out in luxurious curves that make you follow each and every one of them hungry to see where they’ll end up. Under the hood was an engine not too unlike those we still use today. It was painted Duesenberg green, decked out in shiny aluminum detail that just begs you to touch it, and it was an instant success.
The Model J didn’t just look good. This thing was fast. By producing 250 hp, this 4000 lb beast could run at 116 mph. In the late ‘20s, that meant it could easily outperform any other luxury vehicle on the market. And after several Duesy wins at the Indy 500 in 1924, 1925, and 1927, it was almost a guarantee that this newer, faster car would be the hottest on the market.
For a little perspective, the Duesenberg company actually lasted through much of the Great Depression, despite how expensive they were. Fred Duesenberg was even able to introduce the Model SJ in 1932, a supercharged version of the J that could produce anywhere between 320 and 400 hp, depending on how you set it up.
The SJ was just as beautiful as the J, but it once again set the standard for performance. This new car was reportedly able to hit 140 mph easily in third gear. They were even able to accelerate from 0-100 mph in seventeen seconds. That doesn’t sound quick to us today, but back then, most cars couldn’t even accelerate to 100 mph, no matter how much time they were given.
Ab Jenkins, a notable endurance driver of the time, took a stock SJ with a lightweight body out to the Bonneville Salt Flats to really put this machinery to the test. Not only did it last for a 24 hour endurance test, but Jenkins was able to make it average out at a speed of 135.47 mph. On a one-hour sprint, he was able to clock over 160 mph in a short burst with an average speed of 152.1 mph.
The Duesenberg SJ was proved to be the fastest production car in existence. There was no contest.
But it wasn’t to last. Fred Duesenberg crashed one of his own brainchildren descending Ligonier Mountain and died from the complications of the wreck. His brother, Augie, was more interested in the racing side of the business than the production cars. And with the Depression finally digging its angry claws into auto manufacturers as the years trudged on, Duesenberg became one of the many marques to fall victim to a destroyed economy.
In a last ditch effort to salvage something, the Duesenberg operation created two SSJs, Short Supercharged Js, to sell to Hollywood stars Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. It used a short 125 inch chassis onto which was installed a lightweight roadster body.
But that was it.
Cord tried to save the Duesenberg empire. He tried producing a cheaper version of the Duesy and tried his hardest to keep the business afloat, but nothing could save them. In mid-1937, the Duesenberg company folded with failed attempts being made to revive the brand in the 60s and 70s. Nothing could compare to the originals.
Duesenberg isn’t a name that will resonate with many folks who don’t have a hardcore interest in automobiles. But the company’s effect on the world changed it so drastically that “it’s a doozy (Deusy)“ entered our lexicon of slang. It’s hard to imagine a company producing a car as jaw-droppingly beautiful and mind-bogglingly powerful as the Model J today. But even if its name is obscured by those of Ford and Chevrolet, Duesenberg can rest easily in history knowing no one will be quite as capable of creating that level of speed and luxury again.