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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

December 6, 1996

There aren't many words in American English that can trace their origins back to a particular make of automobile. Someday, something that's a total flop may be referred to as an "Edsel" and "Hummer" may mean something that's as tough and indestructible as the military vehicle that bears that name. But for now, I can only think of one. The word "doozie" (or doozy or more correctly, Duesie) means something that's grand, elegant, spectacular or outstanding and its origin lies in the name Duesenberg.

The Duesenberg is familiar to even the most casual auto enthusiast and refers to the automobile company whose last product, the mighty Model SJ, rolled off the line one year short of 60 years ago. It was the biggest, grandest and probably the most prestigious automobile ever made in America and while Packard, Cadillac, Pierce Arrow and Marmon were all sumptuous examples of the "classic car era" of the '20s and '30s, the Duesenberg reigned supreme. And as was common in those days, the Duesenberg was named after the man who developed it.

And that's not really accurate either, since it was two Duesenberg brothers, Frederick and August, who worked together to make the name the legend that it is. They were, indeed, a pair of Duesies.

The brothers, along with several other siblings, had immigrated from Europe with their mother to an older brother's farm in Iowa. Their father had died a few years previously and Germany held few prospects for a large family with no breadwinner.

Fred, the elder of the two by a few years, was soon caught up in the mechanical revolution that swept America as the 19th century ended and developed his mechanical talents as an on-site mechanic who repaired the machinery that was rapidly replacing the horse. Since the industry was in its infancy, the machines were underdesigned and broke often. He showed an early talent for making the devices not only work as designed but rebuilt them to work better than when they were new.

But also like most young mechanically-minded men of the time, Fred and later August were enthralled by the idea of racing and since the bicycle was revolutionizing the way the world traveled, the brothers soon began racing on two-wheelers. Fred devoted all of his spare time to the sports, opened his own shop and was soon joined by August. This lead them into building race cars and the two of them soon began a life-long career in auto racing that was highlighted with the winning the 1921 24 hour race at Le Mans, France. Duesenberg cars nearly dominated the Indy 500 in the '20s, winning the event outright in '24, '25 and '27.

But it wasn't in racing that the Duesenberg name really rose to prominence. The brothers had been struggling for several year building high-class road cars starting in 1920 but the product, the eight cylinder Duesenberg Model A, was too undercapitalized to be a commercial success. In 1926 E.L. Cord, the financial genius behind the both the Auburn and the Cord automobiles of the '30s, bought Duesenberg Motors with the sole purpose of obtaining the design expertise of Fred Duesenberg. He wanted Duesenberg to design an American car that would rival the best that came from not only this country but Europe as well. That he succeeded can be seen in examples of the Model J and Model SJ Duesenbergs that are found in every major auto museum in the world.

Cord had a vision: his company was going to produce the best car in the world and in 1928, he presented the Model J to the American public. It was a typical Duesenberg design but on a gigantic scale. The engine was a straight-eight that displaced 420 cubic inches and sported twin overhead camshafts that operated four valves per cylinder. There were other American luxury cars of that time that carried larger engines (the V16 Cadillac of the same year displaced 452 inches, for instance) but none could approach the Model J for power. While the larger Cadillac produced 185 horse, the mighty Model J capped that by 80. When other manufacturers began to catch up in the early '30s, Fred redesigned his engine with a supercharger and his Model SJ took to the road with 320 horsepower. At the time, the Ford V8 developed 65 horsepower albeit from an engine less than half the size.

The rest of the Duesenberg Models J and SJ were of equal grandeur. The chassis was huge and the bodies were custom-built by the leading coach builders of the day. Prices began around $17,000 while an SJ chassis alone was $11,500 in 1932. At the time the most expensive Ford V8 listed for $650.

Movie stars vied for ownership of "Duesies." Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and numerous other Hollywood personalities of those Golden Years were listed on the Duesenberg rooster of owners.

The Duesenberg disappeared in 1937 when the empire of E.L. Cord went down in scandal and disgrace. Fred Duesenberg died at the wheel of a Model J in 1932 while August lived on until 1955. As late as 1966, Fred's son Fritz was trying to revive the name and the legend.

Mercedes, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and the rest are all grand autos and worthy of distinction. But only the name of the 60 year old "Duesie" is suitable to be attached to something that is outstanding.