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Duesenberg: A Legend in Automotive Engineering and Elegance

Article by Chris Wilson

There are those who say a classic never dies. The planned introduction of the Duesenberg II Murphy Roadster in 2008 by Duesenberg Custom Coach LLC bears testament to that assertion in the world of vintage automotive design. Some critics will not be able to forgive the fact that the Roadster is a reproduction, albeit one lovingly crafted, while others will accept the vehicle as simply another chapter in the history of the Duesenberg name. Once the king of luxurious and fast cars, driven by the likes of Clark Gable and the Duke of Windsor, the allure of the elegant “Duesy” refuses to fade. And had the inventors of the original been better businessmen, the story might have a vastly different plot and there might be no need for copies.

Fred and August Duesenberg founded Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company in Garner, Iowa in 1913 to build sports cars. Their Indianapolis factory opened in 1919 and included the production of passenger vehicles with a reputation for unparalleled luxury. The brothers were self-taught engineers and every car to emerge from their plant was built completely by hand, resulting in what are still regarded as some of the finest and fastest automobiles of the day. It’s worth noting that a Duesenberg won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927. The racers set 66 world speed records at varying distances and a Duesie racer was the first car built in America to win the French Grand Prix.

Had Fred Duesenberg patented anyone of his engine innovations, like the first straight-eight or the first hydraulic all-wheel braking system, the company might not have gone bankrupt, but alas the brothers were more interested in their engines than their finances. In 1925 E.L Cord of the Cord Automobile Company bought out the Duesenbergs and kept the brothers on as engineers, a move that produced the Model J, introduced at the 1928 New York car show. With 265 horsepower, a straight eight, and dual overhead camshafts, the Model J could reach a maximum speed of 119 and hit an amazing 94 mph while still in second gear.

By the standards of the day the Duesenberg was an incredibly expensive vehicle running anywhere from $13,500 to $20,000 but you got what you were paying for. The 1932 Duesenberg SJ, a supercharged speed demon, produced 325 horsepower and topped out at 135 mph. By the time the company ceased production in 1937 the SSJ engines were up to 400 horsepower. There were several attempts at reviving the name, one after World War II and another in the Sixties with August’s son Fritz at the helm. All failed as did a 1970s era Duesenberg created on a Cadillac Fleetwood base.

In 2006 it was estimated that about half of the approximately 600 original Duesenberg passengers cars were still in operating condition. The Model J and SJ are the two most collectible classic cars in the world today with a model in good condition commanding $1 million or more. Duesenberg Custom Coach, LLC takes as its motto the phrase, “Honor the Legend.” They have big tire tracks to fill and a high standard to achieve if gauged by the language of the 1929 Duesenberg catalog, “Any masterpiece can only be appreciated by those who understand the principles on which greatness is based. Therefore the ownership of a Duesenberg reflects discernment far above the ordinary…”

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