Duesenberg Model J Dual Cowl Phaeton

Many superlative automobiles have been built during the century-plus history of self-propelled travel, but few have spawned new words for our lexicon. It is a testament to the Duesenberg Model J that anything great or grand is called a “doozie” (by whatever spelling).

While its creators, Frederick and August Duesenberg, are best remembered for the immortal Model J, they earned their reputations building race cars. As a result, competition technology found its way into all the high-performance automobiles they built for the road.

Like many in the automobile business, the Duesenberg brothers started with bicycles. Fred, a bicycle racer, worked for Thomas Jeffery, maker of Rambler bikes in Wisconsin. Returning home to Iowa, he opened a garage with Augie and designed a two-cylinder automobile. A local attorney named Mason was impressed and put up money so they could manufacture it. The Mason Motor Car Company of Des Moines and later Waterloo built cars until 1914, but the Duesenbergs sold control of the firm to washing machine manufacturer F.L. Maytag in 1909, the better to concentrate on racing cars.

The brothers became masters of super¬charging and reliability. Because engines were Fred's specialty, their powerplants were beautiful and performed with the best of Miller, Peugeot and Ballot. In 1921 Jimmy Murphy's Duesenberg won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans, the first car with hydraulic brakes to start in a Grand Prix race. Duesenberg reprised this performance at Indianapolis in 1922, where eight of the top 10 cars were Duesenberg-powered.

Late in World War I, Duesenberg Motors tooled up to build the Bugatti U-16 aero engine. Then the company turned its attention to the Duesenberg Model A, a 183-cubic inch single overhead cam inline-eight. It would be built by a new corporation, Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors, which soon moved from Elizabeth, New Jersey to Indianapolis. After the Model A’s design was complete, Fred and Augie began development of a 122-cubic inch supercharged straight-eight for the cham¬pionship series and Indianapolis.

Fred Duesenberg was an intuitive and creative designer, to whom new ideas came easily. In a quarter-century he and Augie conceived and built more different, distinctive automobiles and engines – even a racing two-stroke for Indianapolis – than any other designers of the era.

Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors was plucked from the post-World War I recession by Errett Lobban Cord. Cord, the savior of Auburn, had lifted that foundering Auburn, Indiana automaker out of the doldrums by sprucing up unsold cars with bright paint jobs and selling them with creative marketing. In 1926, looking for the means to build a more prestigious car, he bought the struggling but very inventive Duesenberg company. Added to Cord’s growing industrial empire, which also included Lycoming engines and the Limousine Body Company, Duesenberg provided a luxury nameplate with advanced engineering. The Model A became, in a sense, the wealthy sportsman’s Pierce-Arrow. For the price of a Pierce Model 36 with T-head six and mechanical brakes, one could get a sophisticated overhead cam eight and four-wheel hydraulics in a Duesenberg – and appear trendier besides.

Cord, however, wanted more than a bought-in luxury car. He had also been attracted by the brothers’ engineering prowess. To realize Cord’s dream, Fred was given an assignment to build the best car in the world. More than a competitor for Cadillac or Packard, it was intended from the outset to be better than Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta Fraschini and Bugatti. The Duesenberg Model J lived up to Cord's expectations.

It was superlative in all respects. Its short-wheelbase chassis was 142½ inches, the long one nearly 13 feet. The 420-cubic inch dual overhead camshaft straight-eight had four valves per cylinder and made 265 horsepower. The finest materials were used throughout, and fit and finish were to precision standards. Each chassis was driven 100 miles at high speed at Indianapolis without a body. The chassis were then clothed by the finest coachbuilders in the world.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in March of 2011 at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Florida.

265 bhp, 420 cu. in. OHC inline eight-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 142.5"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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