Enzo Ferrari was expert at using the cachet gained by his racing machines to sell cars meant for the street. But long before Signore Ferrari started his racing career, two brothers from Lippe, Germany, were doing the same thing.
It all began with bicycles
Frederic Duesenberg was born in Lippe in 1878, and his brother August arrived the year after. It wasn’t long before their family embarked on the journey of their lives — emigrating to America. Soon they settled in the Midwest, and that’s where Augie and Fred got into racing. Though, not motor racing, bicycle racing. The two brothers weren’t just good at riding bicycles either; they also assembled them, and Duesenberg-built bicycles became sought-after on the famous American bike racing circuit.
Fred confirmed the quality of their machines in 1898 by establishing a world record for two miles. Soon their Des Moines, Iowa, bicycle designs was a going concern. Unluckily, the business side of bicycle manufacture was a little more difficult than riding, and in 1903, a business downturn, put their company into bankruptcy.
However, just a year later, the Duesenberg boys were back in business, this time producing automobiles, and it was obvious they were still afflicted by the “red mist” of racing. Their first effort, a basic but sporting machine packing a two-cylinder powerplant, bore the name Mason. It wasn’t long before the Duesenberg brothers enlisted the car in local motor racing events.
As the years went by, August and Fred made continual enhancements to their racing Masons, including the switch to a four-cylinder engine. But their attempts to qualify the Mason for Indianapolis met with failure.
E.L. Cord’s deal
By 1913, Mason was just a memory as the Duesenbergs went out on their own again, more heavily engaged in auto racing than ever. After countless campaigns on the ovals and board tracks that made up American racing in the Teens, they tasted international success with a victory in the 1921 French Grand Prix. Their straight-eight-powered car, navigated in the race by Jimmy Murphy, had much in common with the Model A, their street-driven offering.
Unfortunately, the Model A’s looks were not nearly as thrilling as its performance, and so it languished in the few showrooms in which it was sold. Augie and Fred spent most of their time concentrating on racing and with good results. Duesenbergs prevailed in the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927.
But sweet as that last Indy 500 success was, the year 1927 was not a good one for Duesenberg on the sales front. With financial difficulties hanging over their heads, the Duesenbergs found a redeemer in Erret Lobban Cord. The man who had saved a going-nowhere Auburn from oblivion, Cord was the mover and shaker tailor-made to breathe some life into the faltering Duesenberg company. What Cord had in mind was translating Duesenberg’s news-making racing exploits into an ultra-lavish line of vehicles for the street. His grandiose but ultimately precise claim for Duesenberg was “The World’s Finest Motor Car.”
Cord’s initial order of business was designing a new Duesenberg model with styling as impressive as its engineering. To perform that feat, Cord and Harold Ames, Duesenberg’s sales chief, chose a fresh designer who had already been through stints at General Motors, Packard and Stutz.
Awe-inspiring beauty-performance ratio
Gordon Buehrig was a Peoria boy who went to college in his place of birth at Bradley before landing an apprenticeship at a Midwestern body works. Despite his experience, he was not yet thirty when he came to work at the Cord-Duesenberg consortium, where he quickly dove into work on the new Duesenberg, which would eventually be designated the Model J.
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Cord and Buehrig had the same goal for the design: it should present an impressive and unique “face” to the public. Since the majority of buyers of cars in the Duesenberg class had their cars fitted with custom bodies, only a few portions of the vehicle were ripe for standardization, but the Cord design team did a masterful job with what they had to work with. The radiator shell and grille of the new Duesenberg had the classic grace of a Greek temple, while the over-size headlights gave the front end a wide-eyed appearance. The hood was impressive both in its length and in its simple form, and the fenders had a lilt to them that made the car seem much lighter than its enormous weight.
As is the case with most car designs, Buehrig alone wasn’t responsible for the stylish look of the Duesenberg. Al Leamy, who had already performed wonders on the dormant Auburn line, also had a hand in it, as did Ames and E.L. Cord itself. However, Buehrig did design the elegantly basic radiator ornament.
If the sweep of the Duesenberg’s exterior design was awe-inspiring, so, too, was the machining and engineering that went into its engine bay. For his passenger-car powerplant, Fred Duesenberg applied all the go-fast tricks that he had learned during his years in racing.
Built by Lycoming, another of Cord’s holdings and an engine-builder for many independent car companies, the Duesenberg engine wasn’t bigger than other contemporary luxury-car engines, but it left most of them in the technical dust. While the predominant American design of the day was the flathead, and more sophisticated cars used “valve-in-head” (overhead valve) engines with their valves operated by rocker arms and pushrods, the Duesenberg used twin overhead cams operating four valves per cylinder. Displacement was only (?) 420 cubic inches (6.9 liters), but the engine supplied 265 horsepower at 4200 rpm. (In contraast, the Pierce-Arrow V-12 of the day displaced 462 cubic inches (7.6 liters), but offered only 175 horsepower.)
If there was any question that the Model J was an ultra-luxury machine, that doubt was removed by its pricetag. A body-less chassis often sold for more than $8,000 and custom coachwork then added $4,000 to $7,000 to that number.
Of course, to those who were living big in the Depression-ridden 1930’s, like movie idol Clark Gable, for instance, that price was never too high. And for those who were even more power-hungry, a supercharged SJ version was also available. With the right bodywork, an SJ was said to have a top-speed potential of more than 130 miles per hour, a frightening prospect given the brakes and tires of those days.
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