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The Duesenberg: The Grandest Yet

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1930 Duesenberg J Rollston Convertible Victoria Photo: Michael Furman
By Randy Ema
One of the most powerful cars of its time was featured at this year's Pebble Beach Concours.
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1931 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Convertible Coupe Photo: Bob Pennington
1931 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Convertible Coupe Photo: Bob Pennington
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1933 Duesenberg J Fernandez & Darrin Cabriolet
1933 Duesenberg J Fernandez & Darrin Cabriolet
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1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster "Mormon Meteor" Photo: Bruce Whitaker
1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster "Mormon Meteor" Photo: Bruce Whitaker

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    The Duesenberg Model J as we know it today was the brainchild of the consummate salesman and entrepreneur, E. L. Cord, whose ideas and eye for design were unparalleled. But it was Fred Duesenberg, as the ultimate engineer, who transformed Cord’s dream into the actual machine.


    E. L. Cord was in his late teens when he started buying used Ford Model Ts and restyling them to custom speedsters, which he then sold for profit. His talent for design was manifest by the 1920s, and it was this talent that ruled the Cord Corporation, which eventually encompassed a multitude of marques and travel-related companies.


    From the beginning, certainly well before he owned the marque, E. L. Cord emulated Duesenberg. The new 1925 Auburn 8-88, introduced soon after Cord took over the management of Auburn, was a copy of a 1923 Duesenberg Model A, from the radiator shell to most of the body design and the horsepower-to-weight ratio. So it is no surprise that as his auto empire expanded Cord wanted to acquire Duesenberg Motors. And he did exactly that through stock manipulation in 1926.


    Cord’s involvement with Fred Duesenberg was minimal. It was definitely “Mr. Cord” to Fred, and the Model J was definitely Cord’s concept.


    It took 27 months for Fred to bring the Model J to fruition. Initially Fred used his already started Model X to work out the coachbuilding communications. The chassis was only slightly different from that of the five-year-old Duesenberg Model A with a straight eight engine. Cord stopped the Model X from going into full production and allowed it to go on only as a test bed.


    The first true Model J prototype, created in February 1927, was the Model Y. Two such cars were built with engines of 320 cubic inches. One of these engines had single overhead cam and the other had a double overhead cam. It was Fred’s thinking that lighter, smaller cars with higher rpm engines would be the ideal configuration for an auto. Cord did not agree, and as it was his dream, he nixed the prototype Model Ys after road-testing them. The next prototype was the Model H, which exists only on paper and varies only slightly from the later Model J. The Model H became a problem in logistics at Lycoming, as that company already had an H series engine in production.


    Thus, in February 1928 the Model J designation was born.


    Harold Ames, a former Moon Salesman from Chicago, was hired to manage the new car, with Fred as its chief engineer. It is Ames who began a communication with Phil Derham to establish design standards for bodies for the J chassis.


    The chassis drawing, completed on March 20, 1929, was printed and sent to Walter M. Murphy, Willoughby, Judkins, Derham, LeBaron, Holbrook, Locke, Rollston, and Weymann. These design houses were at their peak and were very eager to exhibit their creations on this new pedestal. The Model J design guidelines posed several interesting challenges for the coachbuilder, especially since the chassis came with its own very elegant Al Leamy-designed sheet metal. (Al Leamy was most likely the same person who had transformed the Auburn for Cord, by drawing from the 1922 Duesenberg). The coachbuilders put their best designers on it—Frank Hershey, Rudy Creteur, Herman Baunn, Ray Dietrich, Roland L. Stickney and many others. Ultimately, 38 coachbuilders around the world would create bodies for the Model J.


    With its unparalleled horsepower and its large size, the chassis set the benchmark for automobiles through much of the 1930s. The Model J single-handedly started the horsepower race that drove the number of cylinders from twelve to sixteen, but still no car came close to the Model J. The Duesenberg was putting out 265 horsepower when its closest competition was claiming 125 hp. And the Duesenberg was claiming 118 mph and 88 mph in second gear while the competition had a top speed of 78 mph—a big difference!


    To compare a Duesenberg of 1929 to a modern car, we would have to look at the F1 McLarens or the new Bugatti Veyron, with price tags of over one million dollars and speeds of over 200 mph. But individual F1s and Veyrons are distinguished only by a color difference. The Model J, however, had many bodies that we can visually differentiate because even in some runs, no two are alike.


    In December 1928, there was nothing even comparable to the Model J in either design or performance. It has often been said that Cord wanted the Model J to be compared to the Bugatti Royale; the Royale was longer than a Model J, but by 1927 it was rather antiquated mechanically.


    It would be interesting to see if, in time, the Model J would have lived up to its 1928 ideals—as a car with incomparable performance and a unique individual design. But when the Depression hit in October 1929, only some 200 cars had been built. An additional 100 orders were filled in 1930. Thus, the Model J fell short of the original goal to sell 500 cars a year.


    Harold Ames understood the attraction of designing ones own car in total with a designer of their time, so he hired Gordon Buehrig as Duesenberg’s stylist with Phil Derham in late 1931. With his youthful flare, Buehrig designed some of the finest cars of the classic era. Many custom bodies were done directly for customers, but others went to Duesenberg branches in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Florida and Denver, and to smaller dealers. The Dueseberg Model J chassis exhibited some of the grandest designs of the classic era: the Judkins Coupe, the Derham Tourster, the Murphy Beverly, the Brunn Torpedo Phaeton, the Rollston Torpedo Victoria, the Weymann Tapertail and the Fishtail Speedsters.


    Duesenberg speedsters, many of which are being shown at Pebble Beach this year, were the epitome of the custom-built car. The six Murphy speedsters, five with short wheelbases and one long, were all ordered at Murphy and delivered to their customer directly. The two Weymann speedsters, the fishtail speedster with long wheel base, and the tapertail speedster were ordered by customers to be designed by Gordon Buerig and built by Weymann. The remaining speedsters—the Gurney Nutting, the Fernandez and Darrin, and the Figoni—were all built in Europe in accord with customer orders.


    By 1932 Duesenberg, like the Great Depression, had hit its bottom. Sales were at their lowest point, but would soon grow. Some of the Model J’s 1927 designs, such as non-synchromesh transmissions, were quite inadequate for the time, and Fred had designed and was testing a four-speed automatic to replace it. Fred’s tragic death took the wind out of the employees’ sails, for Fred was the grand gentleman of the house. Yes, it was Cord’s house, with capable Harold Ames at the wheel, but it was Fred who was everyone’s mentor. Gordon Buehrig left the Duesenberg in 1933 to go to Detroit, and thereafter the staff’s drive really diminished.


    Originally it was New York that supported the Model J. New York was the financial capital of the United States in 1929 and many of its people could afford a car that cost two to three times as much as a Lincoln—of the period or 40 1929 Cord standard roadsters. But as the Depression deepened power shifted, and ultimately it was newly wealthy Hollywood that kept Duesenberg alive through much of the 1930s.


    In 1935 Duesenberg decided to invest in a racing venture. I think the original push came from racing great Ab Jenkins and Auburn Vice President Roy Faulkner, and the final push from Ames at Duesenberg.


    The new car, called the Duesenberg Special, was to be built by a Connersville, Indiana, shop, with Augie Duesenberg as chief engineer and Herb Newport as designer. The was to be fitted specifically to Ab Jenkins and the original agreement called for the car to be returned to road use and sold to Ab at cost after its record-setting venture was completed.


    At the core of the special was a supercharged SJ engine that had been modified with special camshafts and a pair of huge duplex Bendix-Stromberg UU-3 carburetors. A dynamometer said it produced 400 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. This engine resided in a Model J chassis bearing a dramatically streamlined body with a single headlight up front, a steeply sloped radiator grille, a long tapered tail, and fenders with tapered fairings.


    The Special’s first two records attempts were inauspicious—first a bearing failed and then the crankcase split. But on August 31, 1935, at Bonneville, the Special averaged 135.47 mph for 24 hours, making it the fastest car in the world.


    Ab repowered the car in the late 1930s, renamed it the Mormon Meteor, and ran it again at Bonneville, setting numerous stock car records, many of which stood for decades.


    Duesenberg lived on until Auburn’s demise in September 1937, but in its too few years it lived up to boast of being the mightiest American motor car.


    Of the 481 Model Js built, 378 (including all but two of the custom-built speedsters) still exist today all over the world—and that’s an amazing survival ratio. Of the missing cars, there are only 40 that we, the historians, have not been able to identify even though we have their numbers and unidentified photos. By the way, we historians have not found an undiscovered Model J since 1962.


    Having had the opportunity to ride and drive just about everything over the last 40 years, I feel there is nothing like a Duesenberg Model J (even if I am prejudiced!). E. L. Cord’s statement that there was nothing like this new car should have included "nor will there ever be anything like it again."


    Randy Ema, a noted Duesenberg expert and restorer, owns the Duesenberg factory and family records.  He has numerous publications and awards to his credit, including seven First in Class wins at Pebble Beach.


    Copyright © 2007 Pebble Beach Company. Used by permission. All rights reserved.