E.L. Cord built an automotive empire based on prestige and innovation as made manifest in this front wheel drive Cord. authors collection

“It’s a doozy.” A simple phrase. A superlative. A testimonial to an astounding automobile and the genius of two brothers named Duesenberg. A standard against which all automobiles are measured. The mighty, the stylish Duesenberg.

In 1885 the German-born brothers Frederick and August Duesenberg arrived in the United States. They were ambitious, they were talented, and they were visionaries. As did many automotive pioneers, they capitalized on the bicycle craze that swept the country in the 1890s by building bicycles and promoting them through racing. By 1900, the brothers began modifying gasoline engines, installing them in their bicycles and launching a line of motorcycles.

In 1901, Fred Duesenberg opened a garage and repair facility for automobiles in Des Moines, Iowa and then acquired a used Marion car. Through experimentation they redesigned the air-cooled engine making an array of improvements that enhanced performance. Then Fred entered the car in a race at the annual County Fair in Mason City, Iowa, and claimed first place. This was only the opening act. The brothers Duesenberg were about to change the world.

In 1906, Edward R. Mason, a Des Moines attorney, launched the Mason Motor Company with Frederick Duesenberg as the developmental engineer. The engine designed by Duesenberg was an overhead valve twin-cylinder engine with both the bore and stroke being equal at 5 inches that produced 24 horsepower from its 196 cubic inches. It enabled the Mason to quickly earn a reputation as a rugged and powerful automobile as well as a superb hill climbing competitor. As Alanson Brush had done to demonstrate the prowess of the introductory model of the Cadillac, Fred drove the vehicle up the steps leading to the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines. And then, at the top of the steps, he turned the vehicle around, descended the steps, and repeated the display in reverse.

In 1910 the Mason Motor Company was sold to Fred L. Maytag, but the Duesenberg brothers chose to continue work on the development of high-performance cars for use on the race circuit with financial backing from Edward Mason. In June 1913, Fred and Augie struck out on their own and established the Duesenberg Motor Company in Minnesota for the manufacture of engines for aircraft, automobile, and marine applications.

Undercapitalized, the company struggled until 1916 when a United States government contract was received for the manufacture of marine and aircraft engines. This allowed for relocation of manufacturing to a large, modern facility in New Jersey. The brother’s reputation for the engineering of high-performance engines was growing and shortly afterwards Ettore Bugatti contracted the Duesenberg Motor Company to build a 500-hp V-16 engine.

In 1919, the brothers sold their interests in the New Jersey manufacturing facility and relocated to Indianapolis to develop a performance luxury car that used the recently developed prototype single overhead cam Duesenberg Eight engine. In early spring 1920 production commenced at the new factory established for the manufacture of racing vehicles and components under the Duesenberg Brothers name, and passenger cars under the Duesenberg Automobiles & Motors name.

The first Duesenberg passenger car rolled from the factory near the Indianapolis Speedway in 1921. It featured the brother’s revolutionary straight eight engines as well as four-wheel hydraulic actuated brakes and carried a hefty sales price – $6500 to $8800. Reputation and advanced engineering were not enough to carry the company, and in a relatively short time bankruptcy was looming.

Errett Lobban Cord was still in his teens when he began buying used Fords, converting them with speedster bodies, and reselling them for a tidy profit. The trucking company he launched to provide services to remote western mining companies did not fare as well. But he rebounded quickly, relocated to Chicago, began selling Moon automobiles and in a few short months had risen to regional sales manager. Then through contacts in the banking industry and deft maneuverings, he gained control of the nearly moribund Auburn Automobile Company. In 1926 he purchased Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors, and within five years would acquire Stinson Aircraft, Lycoming Engines, gain controlling interest in Checker Cab Manufacturing Company and launch the revolutionary front wheel drive Cord as part of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg enterprise.

The Model X harnessed the power of the 100-horsepower, 322 cubic-inch displacement single overhead cam inline eight-cylinder engine that had been used in the Model A, but with modifications that included the generator and water pump being relocated to the rear, and manifolds moved to the right side. The Model X was the last model built by Duesenberg before its acquisition by Cord. The car continued in limited production, but E.L. Cord had shifted focus and resources toward development of the Model J.

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The new company was renamed Duesenberg, Inc. and Fred was appointed vice president of engineering and experimental work. August was tasked with producing Duesenberg racing cars. Resultant of his work a number of engineering achievements, including centrifugal superchargers, would find their way on to production models of the Auburn and Cord.

In 1928 at the New York City Auto Show, Cord introduced the Model J. It was the most powerful and most technologically advanced production car in America. It was also stylish with luxurious interior appointments. The twin overhead cam developed a reported 265-horsepower. The base sales price of a chassis without coachwork was an astounding $8500. In comparison a top of the line Ford sold new for just $585!

As Cord’s goal was to create the world’s most luxurious and most powerful automobile to compete with the likes of Rolls Royce or Hispano-Suiza, the Model J underwent a near continuous series of improvements. The 265-horsepower, 420 c.i.d. inline eight-cylinder engine produced 80-horsepower more than the competing Cadillac powered by a 452-c.i.d. V16. The launch of the companion SJ model was a game changer. Outfitted with a supercharger the SJ was rated at an astounding 320-horsepower.

Even thought the production models averaged 5,000 pounds in weight, their performance was extraordinary. An SJ convertible coup was tested at the Indianapolis Speedway and reached a sustained speed of 129-miles per hour, a new record for an American production automobile. In 1935, Ab Jenkins broke this record by reaching 152.1 miles per hour. A streamlined car dubbed the Mormon Meteor was then driven for twenty-four hours at Bonneville with an average speed of 135.5 miles per hour.

By October 1929, the company had manufactured two hundred cars, and only an additional one hundred by the end of 1930. Fittingly the limited production Duesenberg was marketed with bold slogans. “The only car that could pass a Duesenberg is another Duesenberg – and that was with the first owner’s consent”. The Model J and SJ quickly became the ultimate status symbol for the rich and famous throughout the world who commissioned custom bodies from companies such as Derham, Judkins, Murphy and LeBaron in the United States, and in Europe by Saoutchik and Gurney Nutting. Counted among the proud owners were Harpo Marx, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Greta Garbo, William Randolph Hearst and members of European royalty; the Duke of Windsor, Prince Nicholas of Romania, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

A Duesenberg on display at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Photo ©Jim Hinckley

Even in the best of times, a company that manufactured limited production cars that sold for astronomical prices would be challenged to survive. Even bolstered by Auburn sales, the bread and butter of the company, and Cord, the company struggled during the depths of the Great Depression. Compounding the company’s woes, Fred Duesenberg died on July 26, 1932 of pneumonia that resulted from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Pennsylvania while behind the wheel of a Murphy-bodied SJ convertible on his way from New York City to Auburn, Indiana.

In 1937 Cord’s intertwined financial empire collapsed. The final chapter for the once mighty Duesenberg was rather anticlimactic. Parts on hand were gathered and two more cars were assembled, one for German artist Rudolf Bauer in April 1940. Used Duesenberg’s appeared on car lots and even with prices equal to that of an old Ford, remained unsold. A few savvy buyers acquired the once prestigious automobiles and taking advantage of the powerful drive trains and heavy frames, converted them into trucks.

The Duesenberg name is enshrined as the car to which all others are compared, the doozy. Today the survivors are highly prized among collectors. When they change hands, the price is often in the millions of dollars, and the Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg Museum housed in the former factory and headquarters is a revered shine for automobile enthusiasts from throughout the world.

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