Duesenberg; Pinnacle of the Classic Era

The Art of Performance

By 1928, Fred and Augie Duesenberg had already established themselves as a force in racing. The only Americans to win the French Grand Prix in their own car, they had set a land speed record on the beach at Daytona, along with 66 other records set on the Sheepshead board track on Manhattan Island, and won the Indianapolis 500 three times.

The First Dueseys Weren’t

the Duesenberg brothers introduced their Model A at the New York Salon in 1920, the first American straight eight and the first car to be fitted with four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes, with a base price of $6,500 and a top speed of 85 miles per hour. While a solid performer, the car was handicapped by three factors.

1922 Model A Duesey

Ronald and Sandra Hansen’s 1922 Duesenberg Model A Fleetwood Dual Cowl Phaeton on the 18th Fairway at Pebble Beach in 2013.

The first was what some thought to be uninspired styling. At a distance of 95 years it is difficult to evaluate such a subjective factor, so we’ll leave that to the judgment of history. The second, though, is understandable.

So near to the Armistice, many could not look beyond the car’s  German name to find that the cars were solid Midwestern American, out of Auburn, Indiana.

Last, while there is always a passionate portion of prospective purchasers for whom performance is paramount, those who can afford luxury cars ($6,500 was a lot of money in 1920.) expected luxury. While the cars themselves gave nothing away to the competition in terms of comfort, finish and serenity, the mere association with racing held connotations of smoke, dust, noise and grease-stained clothing.

So it was that fewer than 500 cars were sold between 1920 and 1926 when Errett Lobban Cord took over the company. He was well-known for his sense of style, and the first factor was dealt with by assigning master designer Gordon Buehrig as chief stylist.

The third factor had to wait until 1928 to be dealt with.

The State of the Art, 1928

In 1928, the popular Ford Model A offered forty horsepower.

Among the many cars competing for the prestige market, Cadillac (90 hp), Chrysler (112 hp), Jordan (80 hp), Lincoln L-series (100 hp), Packard 526 (82 hp), Peerless (80 hp) and Pierce-Arrow (100 hp), employed engines with their valves in the block – flatheads. All but the Pierce-Arrow’s cross-flow T-head were L-heads.

1926 Lincoln V8

In the mid-twenties, many prestige manufacturers engines were strangled with the inefficient L-head design commonly referred to as a “flathead,” like on this 1926 Lincoln L-series V8. Note the exhaust pipe coming out of the back of the engine, rather than the more direct exit out the side as it would with a cross-flow T-head or OHV design.

DuPont (75 hp), Marmon (75 hp), the larger Packard 443 (109 hp), and the Rolls-Royce Phantom (famously listing its horsepower as “Sufficient”) had the more efficient overhead valves.

Alone among these cars was Stutz who, like the Duesenbergs, had a racing reputation. They used a single overhead cam, allowing better breathing, and making 110 hp at a higher 3,600 rpm from its 4.9 liter straight eight. One of these placed second to Bentley Boys Bernard Rubin and Woolf Bernato at LeMans that year.

While the Stutz’ SOHC gave it a superior specific output, the Chrysler Imperial 80 made up for it with a small advantage in displacement, nudging the Stutz for the highest advertised horsepower – 112 to 110.

One wonders if they had a clue what Duesenberg had in store.

Internal Combustion 101

As any gearhead knows, internal combustion engines make their power from explosions. The expanding gasses from the explosion push the piston down, driving the car. In an Otto cycle engine (nearly all of them), if the ratio of air to fuel is perfect (called stoichiometric), there are only two ways to get more power – bigger explosions or packing more of them into a given time interval.

Early in the automotive age, many designers got more power by simply making engines bigger. In 1911 Fiat built a 28 liter land speed record car, “The Beast of Turin,” with four cylinders each individually the size of an entire Corvette 427.

As metallurgy, ignition system, fuel formulation, and carburetion improved, the idea of having more explosions instead of bigger ones began to find favor.

One way to do this was with more, smaller cylinders. Six cylinders in line can be timed for perfect primary balance, allowing higher rpm, for more explosions per minute. But that means getting more fuel/air through a smaller valve opening.

Some wag once stated that the problems of engine design involved curing adenoids, indigestion and constipation; in other words, getting the fuel mixture in, burning it completely, and getting the products of combustion out with the least obstruction.

The first and last of those requirements are the job of valves. They have to open and close in milliseconds, and even at idle a typical engine’s valves open and close about 400 times a second – in a modern racing engine at speed, more than twenty times that often.

In order to make use of more rpm, the valves have to be light, so that they close completely after the cam opens them. More, smaller cylinders could be fed by smaller, lighter valves.

Or you could put more valves on each cylinder. Peugeot pioneered the use of four valves per cylinder in 1912, parlaying them into an Indy 500 win in 1913.

Enter the J

Fred and Augie had already tried three valves per cylinder in their land speed record car. For the New York Auto Show in December of 1928, they introduced the most sophisticated engine yet offered in a passenger car.

Duesenberg J Engine On Stand

The Duesenberg Model J engine. Eight cylinders, 419.8 cubic inches (6,878 cc); dual overhead cams, and four valves per cylinder. It made 265 advertised horsepower when the 6,308 cc Lincoln L-series V8 made 100.

The late Ken Purdy was considered the dean of automotive writers. Of the Duesenberg, he wrote, “It is, I think, the finest motorcar yet built in the United States . . . I mean that its margin of superiority over its contemporaries was greater than any other domestic automobile has known.”

When you consider that no domestic automobile achieved half the horsepower of the Duesenberg J when it was introduced, that statement still holds today, when the admittedly impressive 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat has less than a nine percent advantage over its next most powerful competitor, the 650 horsepower Corvette Z06.

By 1930, competitors from Cadillac, Lincoln, Marmon and Packard had begun upping the cylinder ante, with first V12s, and then Marmon and Cadillac producing V16s. The latter was introduced in 1930 with 175 hp, and topped out at 185 hp in 1936.

Cadillac 452 V16

Cadillac offered the series 452 V16 starting in 1930. With overhead valves and 7.4 liters, it was a marvel, but still lagged behind the J’s straight eight in power production.

Whether they were the impetus or not, in 1932 Duesenberg began offering a centrifugal supercharger on the J, maintaining its edge over the competition. A total of 36 cars were thus equipped at the factory.

Ad men make their living writing overblown prose about the products they praise, but there is a ring of truth in the claim that “A Duesenberg driver can only be passed by another Duesenberg, and then only if he allows it.”

Just J Engine Exhaust

Twenty Grand SJ Engine

The J’s eight individual exhausts left no room for the supercharger’s vertical quill shaft, so they doubled them up, feeding four chrome-plated flex pipes. The cosmetic effect proved popular, and some customers ordered their unsupercharged engines with the feature.

The J’s four valves per cylinder; five-bearing nickle/chromium, mercury-damped crankshaft; alloy pistons and connecting rods (firsts, both); and dual overhead cams allowed it to produce its 265 hp at an unheard-of 4,250 rpm. With the quill-shaft-driven centrifugal supercharger packing in five pounds per square inch of pressure at 21,250 rpm, the peak of 320 hp was reached at 4,000 rpm.

Ram's Horn Manifold

Toward the end of the J’s production run, four supercharged engines were equipped with dual carburetors, with each intake manifold split into a pair of “ram’s horn” branches. Two of these 400 horsepower engines were supplied to Ab Jenkins for his Mormon Meteor endurance record car. This is the Petersen Museum’s car, whose supercharger and manifolds, like as many as 20 Js’, were added later.

The engine wasn’t the J’s only trick. Duesenberg’s four-wheel hydraulic brakes introduced on the Model A were continued on the Model J. They were servo-assisted – what we’d call “power brakes” later.

Is It Real or Advertising Hype?

A few cynics have suggested that the figures quoted for the Duesenberg’s engines were exaggerated. There is certainly a natural production variation in any product, and running changes may have resulted in differences between specific engines. Exhaust configurations did change, with some exiting straight out the side (as in the illustration) and some turning down to allow them to be contained within the bonnet.

In answer to the question, the late editor of Road & Track, John R. Bond, obtained a dynamometer readout for a pre-production J engine that showed 208 horsepower at 3500 rpm. The peak horsepower rating was quoted at 4,250 rpm, so he extrapolated the curve and estimated that engine produced at least 250 horsepower.

That engine, however, was not a production unit, and was later destroyed. (One wonders – for its failure to meet spec?) Certainly a figure of 250 seems justified, and the advertised 265 is reasonable based on performance achieved by production cars, which could reach 100 miles per hour in 17 seconds.

The other quibble has to do with the sourcing of the engines from Lycoming. This is silly. The engines are a design of Augie Duesenberg, and Lycoming was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg. Such an objection has less traction than a complaint that the engines in BMW M, Mercedes AMG, and Cadillac V series cars are not their own.

Finally, the official timing of Ab Jenkins’ Mormon Meteor on the salt flats of Bonneville, including a trap speed of 160 miles per hour at the end of one lap, and a 24 hour record (including pit stops) of 135.57 mph that stood until 1961, seems to validate the power of the twin carburetor version.

Mormon Meteor PB 2007

Easily the most significant individual Duesenberg, Ab Jenkins’ special-bodied endurance record Mormon Meteor, shown here at Pebble Beach in 2007, is undoubtedly the ugliest car ever to win the coveted “Best in Show” at the event.

For Us It’s Personal

The Sophomore year of Architecture school at the University of Illinois in the sixties was the first year of design classes. Students went home for Spring Break not for beach revelries but to seek summer employment in an architect’s office. Living in the suburbs of Chicago, historical for greats like Louis Henry Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, there was a wealth of opportunities for an aspiring young student such as your correspondent.

As it turned out, firms were not really impressed by schoolwork. What got the attention of the interviewers (and the others they brought in to see it) was a color rendering in casein of a Duesenberg, whipped up between exams on a scrap of illustration board. It was copied from a black and white photo in Road & Track. What they were looking for was people with a little fire. They found it in a work done on his own time by someone with a passion for something.

Green Tourster Inset Illustration

This 1933 Duesenberg Dual-cowl Phaeton is one of eight “Toursters” bodied by Derham, the only coachbuilder still in business in the ’50s. Inset is an image from a scan of a Kodak Instamatic slide of the illustration that won your correspondent his first job in Architecture.

Green Tourster Rear Compartment

The signature feature of Derham’s Toursters was a crank-operated second windscreen.

When You See These, You Will Know

Bow Tie Stop & Flight

There were a few features that were common to most Duesenbergs, and while later JNs and a few mavericks strayed from the norm, if you see a double spring steel “bow tie” bumper with a shield escutcheon at the center, then look closer and see the “S-T-O-P” taillight (sometimes two), then you are pretty sure you’ll find the art deco “flight” radiator mascot above the brass winged “Duesenberg” on the radiator cowl.

A Sampler of Dueseys

Nethercutt 20 Grand

This is the Nethercutt Museum’s supercharged Arlington Torpedo Sedan, popularly called the “Twenty Grand” (note vanity plate) for it’s cost in 1933. A Duesenberg Chassis (There were no “stock” Duesenbergs.) cost $9,500 in 1930 when a Ford could be had for $385.

The Question of Style

33 Boat Tail Speedster PB 2007

Errett Lobban Cord took over Duesenberg in 1926. Two of his shrewd personnel decisions were to retain Augie as Chief Engineer, and to hire Gordon Buehrig as lead stylist. The latter choice resulted in George Whittell Jr.’s beautiful long-wheelbase Weymann “fishtail” Speedster shown at at Pebble Beach in 2007.

No Two Alike

The most popular body style by far was a two-seater with roll-up windows, folding top, and rumble seat, called a convertible coupe. Many of these were built by one of the two local coachworks popular with the Hollywood set, Murphy and Bohman & Scwartz, both of Pasadena.

1929 Murphy Conv Cp Prototype at Tour 2011

It’s rare to see a Duesenberg on the road – except in Monterey in mid-August. Here the first Murphy J Convertible Coupe built motors into Carmel at the finish of the annual Tour d’Elegance in 2011.

2012 PV Black Murphy Convertible Coupe

Another Murphy Convertible Coupe, heading for the Winners’ Circle to accept an award at the Palos Verdes Concours in 2012. The original owner of this one specified mirrors mounted on chrome rings on the hard covered dual side mounts, one of hundreds of choices available.

33 Murphy Conv Coupe at Pebble Beach 2013

A popular option on convertible coupes was a compartment for golf clubs, seen here just ahead of the rear fender on this ’33 Murphy-bodied J. Although this Duesenberg is not supercharged, like many, it features the external Monel flex pipes.

1930 Murphy Conv Cpe at 2005 Pebble Beach

This 1930 J Murphy Convertible Coupe was brought to the 2005 Pebble Beach Concours from the LeMay Museum in Tacoma Washington. Note the “knot” in the bow tie bumper on this one is body color.

Petersen Duesy At PV 2013

The Petersen Museum’s 1933 Murphy Convertible Coupe is one of an estimated 20 Js that were retrofitted with the highly accurate reproduction supercharger that became available in the ’50s. It also has the dual carburetors for a 400 horsepower rating. Note the dual carburetor’s “ram’s horn” manifolds.

Just Add Doors

31 Murph yCS Pa;os Verdes 2013

Take a Convertible Coupe, put it on the longer wheelbase, add two more doors and you get a convertible sedan. Just staged in the morning fog of the 2013 Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance, this 1931 Murphy example benefits from the convenience of roll-up windows and four doors, plus the sportiness of open touring typical of the type.

Cars of the Stars

A Duesenberg became a symbol of success and style among cinema personalities, such that a few cars became identified with their Hollywood owners, like the “Gary Cooper Duesenberg.”

E. L. Cord lived next to prominent Hollywood agent Phil Berg,who owned the only single cowl LeBaron Phaeton. Zeppo and Chico Marx saw it parked at Al Jolson’s house on Wilshire Boulevard and challenged Berg to a race against their 1928 Mercedes S Boattail speedster. The side bet eventually escalated to $25,000, about $2.5 Million today.

Phil Berg Lebaron Phaeton

A considerable crowd of Hollywood notables turned out to watch Phil Berg’s 1931 Duesenberg LeBaron Phaeton (Photo courtesy RM Auctions) race Chico and Zeppo Marx’ 1928 Mercedes Speedster (each stripped down for racing at the time). Although the lower, lighter supercharged Mercedes was favored the Duesenberg eventually won. In October of 2012 the Berg car sold for $1,175,000.

Both Gary Cooper and Clark Gable drove JN Duesenbergs. When Gable was courting Carol Lombard, he pulled up to the Bevery Wilshire where he was staying and asked her if she’d like to “come on up.” Her famous reply: “Who do you think you are, Gary Cooper?”

Gable Duesy

Clark Gable courted Carol Lombard in this 1935 Duesenberg JN. It leaked on her in a rainstorm so he had it rebodied by Bohman and Shwartz. At the Gooding & Co. Auction in 2012 it failed to sell at $6.4 Million, perhaps because he never actually owned the car.

Mae West Duesey 01

Larger than life personalities gravitate toward larger than life accessories. Mae West certainly qualifies for the former title, so a Duesenberg was a near-necessity. This is her 1932 J Convertible coupe, bodied by the other popular Pasadena coachbuilder, Bohman and Shwartz.

Only in Hollywood?

Bojangles Duesey

There is little positive for minorities in the sociology of the depression years, but one African American tap dancer managed to achieve such success that he bought a $17,500 Duesenberg. This is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s 1935 J Rollston Berline (sedan).

Cars and Characters

Father Devine Duesey

Another larger-than-life character whose Duesenberg was instantly recognizable was evangelist M. J. “Father” Devine. (No, that’s not him in the picture.) As if the long wheelbase Duesenberg’s nearly thirteen foot wheelbase (two feet longer than a modern Chevy Suburban’s) were not long enough, the chassis of his 7,000 pound “Throne Car” was stretched another two feet. It is so ponderous that it regularly broke wheels.

George Whittell Jr. was a millionaire playboy with eccentric tastes, who owned no less than six Duesenbergs. One was the “fishtail speedster” that sat in the Harrah’s Collection in Reno with an initial odometer reading of 1,342. Another set a record for an American car at Pebble Beach in 2011.

Whittell Coupe

The record-setting 1931 Murphy-bodied special “Whittell Coupe,” whose alloy roof mimics a convertible top right down to the wooden bows, sold for $9.4 Million, plus fees. Its details are stunning, but its proportions come off a bit chunky.

Von Krieger Special 540K Roadster

While the Mercedes-Benz 540K’s supercharged straight eight produced less than half a supercharged J’s horsepower, their proportions and lines make them the more admired cars. This 1936 Von Krieger Special Roadster had its own hard back catalog, and sold at the Gooding & Co. Auction at Pebble Beach for $10,700,000 (plus fees) in 2012.

What Royalty Drives

Bugatti called its magnificent Type 41 the “Royale” but in the end no royalty ever bought one. On the other hand, the Duke of Windsor, King Alphonso XIII of Spain, King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia and Prince Nicholas of Romania all owned Duesenbergs.

Maharajah Hokor Of Indore Roadster

 Our research indicates this is the last Duesenberg chassis (another car was later assembled from parts). Commissioned by Majarajah Yeshwant Rao Holkor of Indore, it sports a “roadster speedster” body by J. Gurney Nutting of England (their only Duesenberg), on the longer 153.5 inch wheelbase. Some sources indicate it was the second of two cars (other than the Mormon Meteor) to receive the 400 horsepower engine from the factory.

Certified Open Elegance

Graber Convertible

Winner of the “Most Elegant Open Car” award in 2010 at Pebble Beach, the 1934 Graber Convertible may owe it’s grace to dispensing with many of the usual Duesenberg styling cues, like the upright radiator.

Size Matters

Red 29 LeBaron DC Phaeton PB 2013

1929 Dual Cowl Phaeton by LeBaron, Duesenberg’s in-house coachworks, at Pebble Beach in 2013. Only 13 LeBaron Duesenbergs are thought to survive out of 25 built. This is the sixth. The longer 153.5 inch wheelbase helped give the relatively tall cars decent proportions.

29 Murphy DC Phaeton PB2013 3 Views

The other ’29 LeBaron Dual Cowl Phaeton at Pebble Beach in 2013. While the red example only had five owners, this one had at least 36, and like many veteran classics, was once just an old used car, selling for $500 after WWII. The whitewall tires really dress the car up compared to the red car.

29 LeBaron Sport Phaeton

Another handsome LeBaron Dual Cowl Phaeton – this one called a “Sport Phaeton” in the literature. Perhaps the exposed exhaust is the difference.

Freedom to Fail

Lest we be accused of overstating our case, there’s evidence that when given a clean sheet of paper and no budget restrictions, the results are not always pretty.

34 Murphy Custom Beverly Sedan at Tour 2014

Awkward windshield pillars and squared-off side windows seem to clash with the sweeping fenders on this 1934 J Murphy Custom Beverly Sedan as it leads the 1937 Tom Mix Cord 812 in the Tour d’Elegance. Contrast it’s lines with the more pleasing lines of the Rollston Torpedo Sedan from the Nethercutt above.

If Duesenberg Made an SUV

34 Rollston J Limousine Pebble Beach 2014

They call it the 1934 SJ Rollston Limousine, since the term “closed touring car” is an oxymoron, but if there were such a thing, this would be it. Shown on the 18th Fairway at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours, Chief Curator of the Petersen Museum confirmed that this is one of the three supercharged cars that received the dual carburetors from the factory. Traveling in style!

Myths Rebutted

The Duesenberg legacy includes some misinformation, like the idea that the four flex exhausts is a reliable indication that the J is supercharged.

It is common to call the supercharged Js “SJs” and the 400 horsepower cars “SSJs,” but this is a journalistic invention. These designations were never applied to the cars by the manufacturer.

Then there is the statement I read in one report that they were the most expensive cars of their day. That distinction belongs to the Bugatti Type 41 “Royale,” whose chassis alone cost $30,000 (about $3,000,000 today).

Bugatti Type 41 PB 2009

Not a Duesenberg. Apparently there finally was a limit to how much even the superwealthy were willing to devote to a mere car. Bugatti’s Type 41 “Royale” had a wheelbase sixteen inches longer than a long-wheelbase Duesenberg, and the chassis alone cost $30,000. Only six were made, of which only three were bought. This is the 1932 Coupe d’Ville (Town Car) that now wears a body by Henry Binder, its second.

Lastly, we are sad to report that whatever you may have heard, the term “doozie” (or doozy, Duesy, or Duesie. Spelling varies.), as in “Wow, that’s a real doozie!” was in use before the brothers built their first car. It was not coined in response to the impressive presence, performance and specifications of the Duesenberg. We have to be content that those attributes served to cement the expression in the popular lexicon.


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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