Designed and engineered to compete with the world’s most luxurious and powerful cars, the Duesenberg Model J was introduced to the world in December 1928. It was the epitome of luxury, at a price only the elite could afford. The car was lightyears ahead of its time – with a 265 hp engine, nothing came close to the power of this production car. In fact, 30 years later the E-Type Jaguar produced the same horsepower.
Though despite it being able to outrun anything of its day, it could not outrun the downturn in the economy. The stock market crash of 1929 played havoc with sales with only 481 cars produced from 1929 to 1937, much less than the anticipated 500 per year.
History of Duesenberg
Friedrich (Fred) Duesenberg was born on 6 December 1876, and his brother, August (Augie), was born three years later on 12 December 1879 in Kirchheid, Germany.
When the boys’ father, Konrad Duesenberg, died in 1881, Germany was going through an economic and political downturn. A large wave of German immigrants had left Germany and moved to the U.S, dissatisfied with their prospects at home. The brothers’ oldest brother, Henry, also decided to leave Germany and left the family home to immigrate to the U.S. He settled in Rockford, Iowa, where many other German immigrants had also moved.
In 1885, Luise decided to sell the family farm in Lippe and left Germany with Friedrich, August, and the rest of the children to reunite the family with Henry in Iowa. While in public school, Friedrich and August adopted the American nicknames of “Fred” and “Augie.”
Fred while growing up had developed a passion for racing, and decided to open his own bicycle shop. Together, with his 14-year-old brother, Augie, the two began to design, build, and sell bicycles and bicycle engines.
Fred believed that if they entered local bicycle races, it would generate interest in their new shop and generate sales. He built his own racing bike, and began to race it at local racetracks.
By 1898, Fred had begun racing cars and, in his first race, he won the main event at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Later, he set two-speed records for both the two and three-mile events. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Duesenberg name was well known to most Iowans and in other nearby states for the shop’s racing achievements and the brothers’ skills at providing excellent mechanical repair service.
In the early 1900s, Fred opened his own automobile garage with the owner of a local grocery company, W. J. Prouty, to sell Rambler and Marion cars. Augie continued operating his shop in Garner, which gave the brothers enough income to enter cars at various auto racing events in Iowa and other nearby states.
Two customers of the Prouty garage were sons of Edward R. Mason, a prosperous Des Moines attorney.
One day, Mason invited Fred to come and have dinner with his family. When Fred told Mason of his ideas concerning automobile design, Mason asked Fred if he could draw up some plans so he could discuss with them a few of his friends and potential investors. Fred then enrolled in an international correspondence course for mechanical drawing and, after completing the course, he showed his drawings to Mason. The attorney was so impressed that he decided to provide the necessary capital for Fred and Augie to produce their first car.
In 1905, the brothers completed their first car, appropriately called the “Mason.” It had an interesting overhead-valve 2-cylinder engine that produced 24 horsepower from 196 cubic inches. The car was exquisitely engineered and well-constructed and gained an exceptional name for power and ruggedness.
The new Mason car won several local dirt-track races and whetted the appetite of both young men to create better and faster cars. Some of their designs would later be made into racing cars, which was a common practice to advertise automobiles. Unfortunately, the car was not a big seller and Mason sold the company to Iowa State Senator Frederick L. Maytag, a second-generation German immigrant entrepreneur.
In 1912, the brothers entered their first car in the Indianapolis 500, which had only begun operation one year earlier. With 80,000 spectators in attendance for their first race, the Duesenbergs and their engines were noted for their performance and power although their first race was cut short by a mechanical failure.
In 1914 at the Indianapolis 500, Eddie Rickenbacker raced the Duesenberg entry to finish 10th which was an impressive effort as most cars didn’t complete the full distance. He would later become America’s top flying Ace in WWI and during 1927, he would lead a group of investors to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he would be elected president.
During the remaining racing season of 1914, with 73 starts, Duesenberg would accumulate a total of 34 first places, 7 runner-ups, and 14 third places. Racing was an excellent opportunity for the brothers to test their ideas. They pioneered overhead camshaft engines, superchargers, multiple valves, and other innovations to increase horsepower.
At the onset of WW1, Augie moved to New York to oversee the development of automobile and aircraft engines for the war effort. In the summer of 1918, they received a defense contract for 2,000 Bugatti U-16 airplane engines (designed by Ettore Bugatti but slightly revised as the King-Bugatti) but only 40 were completed before the war ended.
In 1920, Fred and Augie moved to Indianapolis which, at the time, was considered the “heartland” of the American automobile industry. With a large pool of automobile works, they were able to set up shop in the city and resume automobile production and testing.
With the Indianapolis Speedway so close by, the brothers were able to test their engines and cars at the speedway before delivery. They built on their experience building airplane engines during the war and the “straight-eight” they produced to create an engine that produced significantly more power and speed than side-by-side engines.
Using the straight-eight engines they produced the Model A which was the first car produced in the United States to have four-wheel hydraulic brakes. At the time it was the fastest car on the road and it attracted film stars like Rudolph Valentino due to the fast high performance of the car.
Using the profits from the sales of the Model A gave the brothers the ability to further pursue racing. In particular, 1921 saw them take a driving team to the French Grand Prix, where Jimmy Murphy drove his Duesenberg to victory, becoming the first American to win a European Grand Prix.
In 1924, the first American to win the Indianapolis 500, Lora L Corum, won the race driving a new Duesenberg Special at an average speed of 98.234 miles per hour. L.L. Corum began the 12th Indianapolis 500 race and was relieved during the race by Joe Boyer. Both drivers were attributed as “co-winners” of the race. The cars continued to win subsequent races at the racetrack and the name continued to grow in fame.
In the 1925 Indy 500, Peter DePaolo drove his Duesenberg to first place averaging 101.127 miles per hour, and set an average speed record that wouldn’t be broken until 1932. In 1927, George Sounders, driving one of W.S. White’s cars but with a Duesenberg engine, won the classic race to cement the Duesenberg name into auto racing history.
Unfortunately, even though the company was successful in racing cars, it was not successful in selling cars to the public. The new Duesenberg engine was too expensive, and many thought the cars were stodgy and boxy looking. By later in 1924, the company was forced into receivership. A year later, they were able to resume manufacturing but were still not doing well as only the very rich could afford one of their cars.
E.L. Cord Purchases Duesenberg
American business exec Errett Lobban “E. L.” Cord came to Fred and Auggie’s aid by purchasing Duesenberg.
E.L. Cord was considered a leader in the transportation industry, and he had created a holding company that bought over a hundred smaller firms, most of which were in the transportation industry.
Cord wanted to expand his company to include the Duesenberg brand and capture the high-end automobile market. He understood that the exceptional design, engineering, and construction of the Duesenberg engine and chassis could become the basis for an exceptional automobile. He offered to buy a controlling interest in the company and, in 1926, he became the company proprietor and changed the name to Duesenberg Incorporated.
When most of the cars in the U.S. were being mass-produced for the working and middle class, Cord and Fred were producing the latest state-of-the-art luxury vehicles that were tailored especially to their wealthy customers’ specifications.
In 1926, E.L. Cord requested that Fred build him the biggest, most powerful, and extravagant motorcar possible. For Fred, it was an opportunity to build a new car that was free from all restrictions and limitations. Within a few short years, the car went from a single overhead cam model engine to a 265 horsepower dual overhead cam, 420 cubic inch monster- the Duesenberg Model J.
Model J Duesenberg Launch
When the New York Automobile Salon opened on 1 December 1928, there was only one car that stood out among all the others on display: The new J-Series..
With its straight 8 engine producing 265 hp at 4200 rpm, it caused a stir. People were thrilled at the cars ability to go 90 mph in second gear and 116-120 mph in high.
The J-101 was the first of the new J-Series cars from the company and the car at the auto show was the only example, having only been completed shortly before the opening day. It was finished in an elegant silver and black paintwork and was a dual-cowl phaeton with coachwork by LeBaron.
Some exceptional characteristics located on the Model J incorporated a fully automatic chassis-lubricating system that performed every 30 to 60 miles, great two-shoe hydraulic drum brakes, and extensive instrumentation, which had a 150-mph speedometer.
Although the price wasn’t specified, the bare chassis was priced at $8,500. When you bought a Model J, you purchased the chassis, engine, suspension, and everything you needed except the body. The body would be constructed by your own custom coachbuilder. A coach-built body would add a minimum of at least $2,500 to the cost, so a buyer would be looking at a price tag that was the equivalent of 22 Ford Model A vehicles.
The Model J quickly became one of the world’s most luxurious cars. It became a status symbol in both the U.S. and Europe, driven by the rich and famous including Al Capone, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, William Randolph Hearst, and European royalty such as the Duke of Windsor, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII.
The company advertised the Model J as “The World’s Finest Motor Car” in print ads with an elegant man or woman seen together with the concise sentence; “He/She drives a Duesenberg”. The advertising campaign was quite a success.
The Company intended to sell 500 of the Model J the first year of production but, when the Great Depression hit in October 1929, the company could only produce a total of 200. In 1930, another 100 cars were produced, even though the Depression had taken a firm hold on the country.
Most of the Model J production could not be sold until after 1930 when the country began to recover from the Depression.
By 1931, when the nation was locked in the grip of the worst financial depression in history, their market had almost completely dried up. Even the few people who could still afford such a car were reluctant to flaunt their prosperity during such widespread poverty.
In May 1935, the company’s management announced to their employees that construction of the Model J would cease.
The Duesenberg Model J was available in two chassis versions, a long wheelbase of 153.54 inches (3.90 m) and a short version, about 141.73 in (3.60 m). Other special sizes were also available including the only two SSJs, with a shortened wheelbase of 125 inches (3.18 m), and two cars with an extended wheelbase of 160 inches (4 meters).
Body of the Duesenberg Model J
As mentioned previously the Model J came with the chassis, engine, suspension, and everything excluding the body. The body was constructed by a custom coachbuilder of the purchasers choosing.
About half of the Model J bodies arrived at the factory from both the U.S. and Europe. The others were devised by Gordon Buehrig, the company’s chief body designer. At that point, the cars were finished at the factory to create some of the largest, grandest, beautiful, and most elegant cars that had ever been created.
Although figures are not available regarding prices that were charged by the deluxe coachbuilders in Europe, it’s reasonable to assume the final selling price of each car built with a costly imported body would have been considerably higher than most of the all-American-built counterparts.
The Model J’s straight-eight engine was based on the company’s racing engines that had been successful on tracks in the 1920s. The engine was designed by Duesenberg but manufactured by the Lycoming Company of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Lycoming had been Auburn’s principal supplier for several years and was purchased by Cord in 1927.
The new model J engine was not supercharged but still produced an impressive 265 horsepower (for the period) that was aided by the use of dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The car had a listed top speed of 119 mph (192 km/h) and could reach 94 mph (151 km/h) in second gear. Other cars of the era featured somewhat larger-displacement engines but none had the power and performance of the Model J. The car was the fastest (and most expensive) American automobile on the market.
In 1932 the supercharged Duesenberg ‘SJ’ was announced. It could accelerate from 0 – 100mph in 17 seconds and had a top speed of 140mph. The engine had the significant additional horsepower to the J with a 320hp engine.
The SJ model was designed on the short-wheelbase chassis (142.5 inches) and weighed approximately around two and a half tons, depending on the custom coachwork ordered. The bare chassis of the car was fitted with flashy, chrome-plated external exhaust pipes.
The SSJ was introduced in 1935 as a means to generate publicity in an effort to sell the remaining unsold Model Js. E.L. Cord hoped that constructing two special Duesenbergs and placing them in the hands of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable – famous Hollywood celebrities of their time – would create enough buzz to offload the remaining stock. The car was very similar to the SJ version, but with the engine rated at close to 400 horsepower.
The inscription SSJ was never officially used by the company, but over the years, it became used commonly by many car lovers.
Central Manufacturing Company of Indiana built the SSJ’s sporting, lightweight coachwork. Even though Central constructed these two bodies for Duesenberg, they have been attributed to “LaGrande”, a fictitious entity.
The two SSJ represent the only Duesenberg cars to have a chassis with the wheelbase shortened to 125 inches. The 420 cubic-inch straight-eight engine of both cars are equipped with two specially-shaped carburetors in a “ram’s horn” configuration composed of two separate horns that also was used in other SJ models.
The cars were finished in late 1935 and apart from their colors and taillights, they were virtually indistinguishable.
In 2018, the 1935 SSJ that had been formerly owned by Hollywood movie star Gary Cooper sold for $22 million and became the most expensive American car ever sold.
In total 481 Model Js were produced between 1928 and 1937. Of these numbers, with the exact numbers being contested, 36 were SJ’s, and 2 were SSJ. The company ceased production in 1937 after E. L. Cord’s financial empire collapsed. These days the Model J’s have a prized place amongst collectors worldwide.