Duesenberg: the best car in the world

Yes, that’s exactly the task the designers set for themselves: no more or less, but the best car. And you know what? They did it. Duesenbergs were cooler than Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. Here’s a look back at the most fancy American cars of the 1930s.

Despite the fact that the term “supercar” came much later and applied to a completely different car, already in the 30s there were masterpieces that were technically decades ahead of their time. Ladies looked at them with admiration, and men all dreamed of at least a ride on them as a passenger from crossroads to crossroads.

We will talk about the legendary brand Duesenberg, which, despite its short existence, has forever remained in the annals of history as a manufacturer of one of the greatest cars of America, and many auto experts agree that the American car industry has not created anything more beautiful since then. Hollywood stars adored “Dewey” for its luxurious design, Wall Street tycoons bought them as a status attribute, and Sicilian mafiosi knew perfectly well that these cars could get away from anyone.

How it all began

The Duesenberg family emigrated to the United States from Germany at the very end of the 19th century. Two young men, brothers Fred and August, began their journey to the pinnacle of automotive engineering by manufacturing bicycles, continued by designing engines for the Mason Company, and later, in 1913, founded the Duesenberg Motor Company, which in its early days produced boat engines and race cars bearing their own name.

During the Second World War, the production facilities of the plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, under license was established production of aircraft engines Bugatti U-16. At the end of the second decade of the 20th century, however, the brothers sold all of their plants and built new workshops in Indianapolis to focus exclusively on four-wheelers.

Duesenberg – the choice of record-breakers

The first sensational successes were not long in coming. In 1919, thanks to a sixteen-cylinder engine designed by Fred, a new land speed record of 255 km/h was set on the sands of Daytona Beach. During the following year, Duesenberg creates its first top-shaft inline eight-cylinder engine of 3 liters with three valves per cylinder, whose concept became the basis for the entire subsequent line of engines of the company.

And in 1921, for the first time in history, the Americans won the French Grand Prix. I think you understand what was under the hood of the winning car… Over the next 10 years, drivers who favored Dewey engines won first place three times at the annual 500 Miles of Indianapolis competition.

The first road car that almost ruined everyone

The reputation worked in the hands of the Duesenberg brothers, they had a lot of experience, so the idea of creating the first road car was born by itself. In 1921, Duesenberg introduced its firstborn to the world, the Model A, for which the price tag was fabulous at the time – $6,500. Thanks to technology honed on the racetracks, the 4.2-liter inline eight could achieve a top speed of 154 km/h, which for public roads of those years was simply unthinkable.

In addition, the Model A was the first production car equipped with the hydraulic braking system invented by Fred back in 1914. Today, hydraulic brakes, which have become something absolutely commonplace, could have made the brothers a fortune if they had obtained a patent for their invention in time.

The Model A was designed for connoisseurs of comfort and speed with fat wallets. But despite the hand-built, meticulous attention to detail, and advanced engineering, sales were bad. By 1926, only 500 cars had found their owners and the company was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The partnership with Erret Kord, which helped tremendously

Automotive history knows hundreds of examples when ingenious designers have failed simply because they did not understand the laws of the market, and, as a consequence, their works remained unclaimed. The Duesenberg Brothers had tremendous technical potential and created a product that was exclusive in every respect, but they needed someone who could sell it profitably.

And soon such a person was found, it was the enterprising businessman Erret Loban Kord, who owned Auburn Automobile by that time and later became world famous thanks to the breakthrough front-wheel drive Cord 812.


Under the patronage of Korda only 13 Model X were produced. The model was in fact a modified Model A, but it also did not win success among buyers, and then the brothers receive from the new chief a quite clear directive: “To build the best car in the world”. Kord wanted to rub the nose of such automotive engineering giants of those years, as Mercedes-Benz, Hispano-Suiza and Rolls-Royce, which had dictated their rules in the segment of the most luxurious cars for decades.

Once under Kord’s wing, the company was named Duesenberg, Inc. and Fred was appointed vice president in charge of road car design. August, who was actively involved in the development of the Model A and Model X, was not actually involved in the creation of the new Model J, but all racing prototypes were created by him in a separate shop of the main Duesenberg plant. In addition, he developed a number of innovative technical solutions for the Auburn and Cord.

The World’s Best Car

Duesenberg Model J

In late 1928, after a presentation at the New York Auto Show, production of the Model J began. The engines developed for the Model J were produced at the Lycoming plant, which was part of the Korda empire. It was a 6.9-liter inline eight with four valves per cylinder and two camshafts located in the cylinder head, which produced a crushing 265 horsepower in the naturally aspirated version.

Competitors also relied on increased displacement as the main way to get more output, but the Model J’s top speed of 192 km/h was simply unattainable for others. Another reason for its outstanding performance was the extensive use of aluminum parts. For example, the water pump, steering column, gas tank, flywheel, connecting rods, intake manifold, and brake pads were all made from this “winged” metal. Thanks to this, the dry weight of the car (without gasoline, oil and other liquids) did not exceed 2.5 tons.

Fred Duesenberg sought to create a superior car in everything, so the interior of the Model J was truly luxurious and extremely functional. The number of gauges on the dashboard was, frankly speaking, beyond the limit, even by modern standards. Everything was there, starting with a stopwatch and ending with an indicator, reminding about the necessity to change oil in the suspension. The interior was finished at the highest level, right down to the mosaic panels made of the most expensive wood and details made of solid gold. “Any whim for your money.”

Duesenberg offered customers mostly just the chassis and engine, which cost as much as $9,500. The buyer chose the body and interior himself, based on his own priorities and abilities, which was absolutely normal practice in the 1930s. Most of the bodies for the Model J were designed by Gordon Byrig, the chief designer, while others came off the lot with such notable private body shops as LeBaron, Murphy, Derham, Holbrook, etc. The price of a complete car was on the average $17,000, but sometimes the customer had to pay all of $25,000, which in 1929 was the equivalent of the price of fifty (!) mass-produced Ford Model A.

The Duesenberg Model J was available as standard with a long (3,900 mm) and short (3,600 mm) wheelbase. At the customer’s request, the size of the wheelbase could be varied for an additional fee. For example, two roadsters with shorter wheelbases were built for famous actors Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.

Even faster, even cooler!

Later came the SJ with a supercharged engine, dual carburetors and Ram’s Horn intake manifold, which could reach a hundred in 8 seconds, unheard of for a road car of the time, and had a top speed of well over 200 km/h. Despite the fact that the Model SJ developed an incredible 320 horsepower, it is worth remembering that we are talking about two and a half tons of iron with aerodynamics brick, to which bolted bicycle wheels.

In 1934, August Duesenberg and Duesenberg staff designer Herbert Newport decided on another record and created the mind-blowing Duesenberg Special on the SJ chassis. After installing Bendix-Stromberg carburetors, an upgraded exhaust system, and replacement camshafts, the engine managed to get 400 “horses.” This engine was installed in an exclusive SSJ roadster built in duplicate for Cooper and Gable.

The following year on the Bonneville Salt Lakes, Ab Jenkins set several records at once, winding 5,235 km on the odometer in 24 hours at an average speed of 218 km/h and accelerating to 245 km/h. The record didn’t last long. August and Ab realized that all the juice had been squeezed out of the standard motor of the Dewey and that they needed to look for a new power plant in order to continue the fight for records. And they found it… It was a 26-liter aircraft V12 Curtiss Conqueror, thanks to which the new car, called Mormon Meteor, under the control of Jenkins showed an average speed of 248 km/h during the race lasting 24 hours.

From 1929 to 1936, 470 chassis and 480 engines were sold. To whom? Among the owners of Duesenberg were such Hollywood stars as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Mae West, business tycoons Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst, members of European royal families and the famous Italian Mafia boss Al Capone.

The advertising posters were extremely laconic and clearly focused on the target audience, there was not even a picture of the car, not to mention the technical specifications. A stately, un-aged gentleman on board his own yacht or a woman talking to a servant, and a modest caption “He/She drives a Duesenberg”. Too pathetic? “Duesies weren’t built for housewives and guys from the working-class suburbs of New York.

Dramatic finale

Duesenberg was never seen by Kord as a source of profit; it was a symbol of greatness and the unattainable pinnacle of his industrial empire. His plans were to produce 500 Model Js before creating a new model, but the Great Depression made its adjustments, and Duesenberg, Inc. following other companies owned by Kord, was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Fred Duesenberg did not live to see this moment, crashing at the wheel of a Model J at a race five years earlier. He gave himself wholeheartedly to his brainchild and the idea of his life, creating the most perfect car for its time. In spite of everything, his brother continued what they started, but the attempt to revive the brand in 1947 was not successful.

What’s the result?

Two self-taught mechanics from Germany, Fred and August Duesenberg, made a powerful technological breakthrough in their short career, setting the bar so high for their approach to automotive engineering that it remained beyond the reach of most auto giants for decades after Duesenberg became part of history. Their cars are still admired to this day, they go from auctions for fabulous money in museums and private collections, remaining monuments to the diligence and engineering genius of the Duesenberg brothers.

After the ball

The attentive film-obsessed reader has probably already said to himself, “I’ve seen that Duesenberg Model J somewhere!” And you can see it, in yellow, in the 2013 film “The Great Gatsby” – Leonardo DiCaprio’s character drives one just like it. The arrow-shaped Duesenberg mascot played a fatal role for one of the overly amorous heroines. The car itself, which took part in the shooting, is a quality replica made in 1975. A batch of five cars using Ford units was timed to coincide with the first Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Old-Timer Festival, and each sold for $225,000. Brand connoisseurs note that in appearance these replicas are virtually indistinguishable from the real Model J. As for the festival of retro tech fans, it is still going on, and the next one will be from August 30 to September 7, 2015 in Auburn, Indiana. There’s time to make visas and have time to see the Duesenberg for yourself 😉


1 thought on “Duesenberg: the best car in the world”

  1. Duesenberg is fantastic, it’s my dream, but any car, even one that needs to be restored, is very expensive. Restoring a Duesenberg is also one of the most expensive in the class, any car from these years is five times cheaper to restore than a Duesenberg. I have a 1944 Buick and it’s not bad, but it’s different levels


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