The Duesenberg: A Remnant of A Gilded Age

A co-founder of the Duesenberg Motor Co. was a mechanic for a farm equipment dealer.

driver's cockpit

The driver's cockpit of a 1932 Duesenberg Model J.

Photo by Sam Moore

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One of my favorite museums is the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Every time I’m close, I make it a point to visit. There are many beautiful cars in the museum, including several totally stunning Duesenbergs.

While I doubt very much that any farmer could ever have afforded to buy the expensive and luxurious Duesenberg, one of the company’s founders did get his start as a farm equipment mechanic, so perhaps its inclusion in Farm Collector may be excused, Besides it’s darn good history.

Farm boys set out on their own

Two young Duesenberg brothers, Augie, 6, and Fred, 9, were brought to the U.S. along with the rest of the family in 1886 from Kirchheide, Germany. An older brother had already emigrated and settled in Iowa, so the Duesenberg family (except the father, who died in 1881) put down roots on a 200-acre farm outside of Rockford, Iowa, near Mason City. The boys went through eighth grade in the local school.

Fred’s first job, at age 17, was as a mechanic for a local farm equipment dealer, but he soon opened a bicycle shop in Rockford and took a correspondence course in engineering. To advertise his bikes, he took up racing and set two world speed records. At some point, brother Augie joined the bike shop and learned all there was to know about making and repairing bikes.

Soon, along with many other bicycle enthusiasts, the brothers were bitten by the internal combustion engine craze and began to repair the crude motorcars of the day and build motor bicycles. In 1903, after selling the bike shop, Fred moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to work on the Rambler car being built by Thomas B. Jeffery. He stayed there a year before returning to Des Moines where he worked in an auto repair shop for one year. Meanwhile, Augie started a bicycle shop in Garner, Iowa, where he met his future wife.

Launching the Mason automobile

In 1905, Fred and another man opened their own garage selling Rambler and Marion cars, and did pretty well, but Fred wanted to build his own racing cars. All he needed was money, and he found it when he met Edward R. Mason, a wealthy lawyer who was interested in cars. Fred designed a 2-cylinder car, Mason liked it, and in 1906 he, Fred and Augie formed Mason Motor Car Co. in Des Moines to build it.

The Mason’s slogan – “The fastest and strongest 2-cylinder car in America” – was demonstrated in many wins in hill climbs, reliability runs and races from 1906 to 1910, and a Duesenberg-designed Mason car nearly qualified for the 1912 Indy 500. In 1914, after a string of dirt track successes, the brothers left Des Moines and started Duesenberg Motor Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota, to build and sell high performance engines for autos, airplanes and boats, while racing their cars, now called Duesenbergs.

The epitome of luxury

The Duesenberg Model A was introduced in 1920. With an overhead camshaft, 8-cylinder engine and 4-wheel hydraulic brakes (the latter a first for an American car), the car was big and luxurious. However, Fred and Augie were no businessmen. Although some 600 Model A Duesenbergs were built over the next few years, there was no profit, only loss. In 1926 Errit Lobban Cord bought the business and charged Fred with designing the best and most magnificent car in the world. To tide Cord over until the new car was ready, the Model X, which was very similar to the Model A, was built during 1927 and ’28.

In 1929, Fred Duesenberg’s answer to Cord’s challenge was the famous Duesenberg Model J, a long (142-1/2-inch and 153-1/2-inch wheelbases), low and expensive luxury automobile. The Model J was powered by an 8-cylinder, 265 hp engine that had double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. A top speed record of 116 mph was set during tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, although that was probably with a semi-stripped car (production models were much heavier, at about 2-1/2 tons).

In 1926, the cheapest Duesenberg Model A (the 2-passenger roadster) sold for $6,850 (roughly $91,000 in today’s terms), while the 7-passenger sedan brought $8,300 (meanwhile, a 1926 Ford sold for about $300). In contrast, the Model J chassis itself cost $8,500 at first, and $9,500 later. Custom bodies, such as those designed in-house by Gordon Buehrig (or others designed by coachbuilders such as LeBaron, Murphy or Rollston) cost many additional thousands. Industry barons, foreign potentates and Hollywood stars were Duesenberg customers.

Model SJ built for speed

In about 1932, Fred added a supercharger to the engine that boosted the output to 320 hp, and Augie improved it to boost power to 400 hp. The supercharged Duesy was called the Model SJ, although two special cars were built in 1935 for Hollywood actors Gary Cooper and Clark Gable on a shorter, 125-inch wheelbase chassis that carried the designation Model SSJ.

In 1935, famous auto racer David Abbott “Ab” Jenkins had a special Model SJ built with a number of high performance parts added (Jenkins also raced Allis-Chalmers Model U tractors at about the same time).

The engine was highly tuned by Augie Duesenberg, who raised the compression ratio to 7.5:1 and used different engine bearings and a 3:1 rear axle. In October 1935, Jenkins – a devout Mormon who named the car the Mormon Meteor – drove it on the Bonneville Salt Flats to a one-hour record of 153.97 mph, as well as a 24-hour record of 135.57 mph that stood until 1961.

Icon of a gilded era

On July 2, 1932, Fred’s Duesenberg slid off a wet Lincoln Highway near Jennerstown, Pennsylvania, and overturned. Duesenberg was expected to recover but developed pneumonia and died on July 25.

The Duesenberg was built into 1937, when Mr. Cord quit building cars, undoubtedly due to the ravages of the Great Depression, sold all his holdings and retired to California.

I was surprised to learn that from 1920 until 1937, somewhat fewer than 1,000 Duesenberg cars were built, and that figure probably doesn’t include race cars. Today, a restored Duesenberg will easily sell at auction for a price that’s well into six figures. The Duesy is the epitome of a fine American automobile. FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.