The Duesenberg Motor Company

The story of how the Model J Duesenberg became the car of high-profile gangsters begins with the Duesenberg Motor Company and its founder, Fredrick Duesenberg.

Duesenberg Family, 1886<br />

Duesenberg Family: Back (left to right): Lena, Minie and Amalia. Middle (left to right): Frederick and August. Front (left to right): Conrad Jr., Conradine, and Henry, circa 1886. From Wikimedia Commons.

Fredrick Duesenberg (December 6, 1876 - July 26, 1932) emigrated with his family from Lippe, Germany to the United States when he was eight years old. He was soon considered an engineering prodigy. He never received any formal education in mechanics and had only a few years of public elementary school education in Des Moines, Iowa before dropping out of school to support his family. Yet despite this, Fredrick would go on to design and manufacture the prime luxury vehicles of his day. A passion for racing drove Fredrick to learn all he could about mechanics and design from firsthand experience.

Frederick and August Duesenberg, 1925<br />

Frederick (right) and August (left) Duesenberg, 1925. From Wikimedia Commons.

Fredrick began his career designing, building, and selling bicycles and bicycle engines with his younger brother, August. His first races were with his own bicycles, setting two speed records for the two and three-mile events in 1898. Despite this success, Fredrick Duesenberg quit working at the bicycle shop in 1904 to become an auto mechanic for Thomas B. Jeffery & Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After less than a year with the company, Fredrick and August Duesenberg were hired to head the newly formed Mason Motor Company, which would be the catalyst for Frederick’s lifelong dream of building the most powerful engine in the world.

Rochester Duesenberg advertisement, 1919<br />

Rochester Duesenberg advertisement, 1919. From Wikimedia Commons.

This allowed for the Duesenberg brothers to continue to develop newer engines and design faster cars. Some of these designs would be made into racing cars, a common practice for advertising automobiles. The Duesenberg brothers would soon enter their first car in the 1912 Indianapolis 500.

In 1916, Fredrick and August Duesenberg decided to go into business for themselves with the creation of the Duesenberg Motor Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Initially, the company designed and built engines. During World War I, the Duesenberg Motor Company hit a financial high point designing engines for airplanes and patrol boats. But for the Duesenberg brothers, the passion was always in auto racing. The brothers continued to design and develop racecars and in their spare time, achieved a high level of success in auto racing by racing the cars they designed.

Duesenberg Roadster advertisement, 1921<br />

Duesenberg Roadster advertisement, 1921. From Wikimedia Commons.

The Duesenberg name became well known in auto racing when in 1924, Lora L. Corum became the first American to win the Indianapolis 500. He finished first with an average speed of 98.234 miles per hour in the Duesenberg Special. The Duesenberg name would continue to grow in fame in subsequent races at the Indianapolis 500. In 1925, Peter DePaolo piloted a Duesenberg to first place with an average speed of 101.127 miles per hour, setting an average speed record that would not be broken until 1932. Two years later, in 1927, George Souders won with a Duesenberg engine and chassis but with W.S. White’s racing team. This winning streak cemented the Duesenberg name in racing history.

Duesenberg Motors Corporation Plant, 1917-1918<br />

Duesenberg Motors Corporation Plant, machine shop occupies the entire ground floor of the first factory unit operating on Bugatti parts, 1917-1918. From Wikimedia Commons.

With the success of their engine designs and the brand recognition from their race victories, the Duesenberg brothers planned to expand from designers to automobile producers. In 1920, the Duesenberg Model A was launched as the first passenger car created by the company. The performance of the Model A reflected the high-speed reputation associated with the name Duesenberg from their work with high-powered engines.

Duesenberg Model A Racer, 1936<br />

Duesenberg Model A Racer, 1936.

The Model A was the first American production car to feature hydraulic brakes, while other manufacturers were still using mechanical brakes. The hydraulic brakes were cheaper and could stop a car more efficiently than traditional mechanical brakes. The innovative straight-eight engine of the Model A produced 90 to 100 horsepower, which was more like that of a racecar than a typical passenger car at the time.

Duesenberg Straight Eight, "Built to outclass, Outrun and Outlast any car on the road", 1920<br />

Duesenberg Straight Eight, "Built to outclass, Outrun and Outlast any car on the road", 1920. From Wikimedia Commons.

Despite its advanced design and features, the development of the Model A would be plagued with long delays and poor management leading to mediocre sales. Many of the delays were a result of Fredrick Duesenberg’s constant drive to improve and redesign the car. After five years of production and numerous redesigns, the Model A left the Duesenberg Motor Company without the necessary finances to design a newer model car. As time passed and the Duesenberg Motor Company did not create newer models, many of the features that made the Model A unique, such as the hydraulic brakes and the straight-eight valve engine, became industry standards.

The notoriety from its racing victories and its reputation for luxury, put the Duesenberg Motor Company on the radar of business magnet Errett Lobban “E.L.” Cord.

Industrialist Errett Lobban Cord on the cover of Time Magazine, January 18, 1932<br />

Industrialist Errett Lobban Cord on the cover of Time Magazine, January 18, 1932. From Wikimedia Commons.

E.L. Cord owned hundreds of automotive and transportation companies. His vision was to expand his automobile empire into the luxury car market. With its brand-recognition and financial troubles, Cord was eager to buy the Duesenberg Motor Company. Cord would buy a controlling share of the company in 1926 and would act as the proprietor of the company. Once in charge, Cord changed the name of the company to Duesenberg Incorporated and officially removed August Duesenberg from the company, although he would remain closely involved in development until its closing.

Under Cord, Fredrick Duesenberg had one directive: to make the best car on the market at any expense. The car was to have the body of a luxury vehicle and the muscle of the racing cars Cord knew the Duesenberg Motor Company could produce. For Cord, this was to be the crowning jewel of his automotive empire. For the Duesenberg brothers, it was an opportunity to build a car free from restrictions and limitations. In 1928, after just two years of development, the Model J was born.

Michigan Region Grand Classic, 1977

Duesenberg at the Michigan Region Grand Classic, 1977.

The Model J Duesenberg possessed a commanding presence and high-end performance that set it apart from the rest of the cars in its class, such as the Hispano-Suiza, Isotta Fraschini, Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce. The Model J featured a 420 cubic-inch V8 engine that could produce an unprecedented 265 horsepower. The Rolls-Royce Phantom II that was introduced the following year did not exceed 50 horsepower. The Model J had another selling point for potential buyers: each and every Model J was a uniquely designed machine with a custom body made to the customer's specifications.

Third Annual National Autorama, 1953<br />

Third Annual National Autorama display, Duesenberg Model J, 1953.

When a customer purchased a Duesenberg, they purchased only the chassis and the engine. The body of the car and its finishings, like paint color, seat style, and coach design had to be purchased through a coach building department within the Duesenberg Motor Company or from another coachbuilder altogether. The Model J from the Miles Collier Collections had its body designed by the noted coachbuilder, LeBaron J Phaeton.

In 1928, the Model J’s chassis and engine sold for $8,500, which when adjusted for inflation exceeds $124,000. Comparatively, the most common car at the time, the Ford Model A, sold for $500, and the average yearly salary was about $1,490.