Driven to Perfection

The Duesenberg Model J combined highly advanced engineering with magnificent coachwork to create what many maintain is still the finest automobile ever built
history, automotive, lifestyle, culture
Written By Patty Jensen

Seeing one on the street is akin to spotting a nearly extinct bird.

At almost 13 feet/4 meters, the automobile’s long, sleek, elegantly designed lines outclass any vehicle on the road. Add in wire-rimmed white-walled tires, a seemingly endless amount of gleaming chrome, enormously sculpted headlamps, running boards and fenders, a rumble seat, a disappearing convertible top, and the iconic “Duesenbird” hood ornament, and you realize you have just witnessed perfection on four wheels. And you haven’t even seen the engine yet.

Simply put, this automobile is incredible.

In fact, it’s a duesy.

The Duesenberg Model J, the car that coined the expression “duesy” more than 80 years ago, was designed to be “The World’s Finest Motor Car.” With an engine boasting the winning speed of a race car and elegant coachwork worthy of royalty, the American-built Model J brought together the engineering genius of Fred Duesenberg and the entrepreneurial determination of E. L. Cord to create an automobile in the late 1920s that, according to the owners manual, would exceed all others in “… Beauty, Power, Speed, Comfort and Safety.”

Perfection was the hallmark of the brand, beginning with the engine and extending to the body. The Duesenberg racing lineage was reflected in the motorcar’s exceptional speed. With its 265 horsepower, straight-eight engine, the Model J could achieve 89 mph in second gear and zoom to 116 mph in high gear. This was at a time when most other American-built cars plodded along at hardly more than half that speed. The outward appearance was equally impressive. Individual coachbuilders, known for exquisite artistry and craftsmanship, built every body, resulting in each Model J being unique in appearance and options, with no two alike.

The best, of course, does not come cheap, and the Duesenberg Model J cost 40 times more than the average vehicle of the time. But this car was never intended for the masses. According to a promotional piece produced for the motorcar’s introduction, “The Duesenberg price is set by the car’s inherent worth. Necessarily, its appeal is to only a very few.”

Based on production, which lasted less than a decade, from 1928 through 1937, the “few” would eventually turn out to be even fewer than its creators had hoped.

Start Your Engines

Fred and Augie Duesenberg were German-born brothers who came to the United States as young boys with their parents in 1885 and settled in Iowa. The two always had a love of mechanics and their skills complemented each other. Fred was the engineering genius and Augie could build anything that Fred designed. Together, their true passion was racing, beginning with building and mounting an engine of their own design onto a bicycle around 1900. Soon, their attention would shift to automobiles.

Speed was the goal. In 1919, the brothers built their first overhead cam straight-eight cylinder engine. The Duesenberg name gained national attention in April 1920, when Tommy Milton drove a twin eight-cylinder Duesenberg at Daytona Beach, Florida, at 156.04 mph, a world speed record that stood for six years. A Duesenberg, driven by Jimmy Murphy, was the first American car to win the famous Grand Prix at Le Mans, France, in 1921. Duesenberg race cars would be victorious at the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927. Clearly, the Duesenberg brothers understood how to build fast cars.

“Fred’s engineering brilliance was far ahead of his time,” says Randy Ema, recognized internationally as the foremost historian and restorer of Duesenbergs, who bases his business in Southern California. “His ability to build speed into his engines was unsurpassed. Much of Fred’s technology from the early 20th century such as overhead cams and four valve hemispheric heads wouldn’t appear in other cars for decades. And his attention to engineering design and detail was legendary.”

While the Duesenberg brothers were successful on the racetrack, their attempts at building and selling passenger cars through The Duesenberg Motors Company, the corporation they helped establish in March 1920, would not prove to be a winner.

The company’s Model A began production in 1921 in Indianapolis, Indiana, with great expectations for this technologically advanced passenger automobile.

“The car featured an inline eight-cylinder engine and four-wheel hydraulic brakes, both firsts on an American production car,” says Jon Bill, director of education and archives for the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Indiana. “A line in the sales catalog read, ‘Out of the crucible of racing has come commercial perfection.’ The racing connection was always there.”

Unfortunately, with sales well below projections, little working capital and a small dealer network, the firm went into receivership in 1924. Prospects looked bleak for achieving the Duesenberg brothers’ dream of developing the perfect automobile. Then E. L. Cord came on the scene.

Cord Comes Calling

Cord understood the U.S. automotive industry, having worked in almost every capacity since a teenager, and perhaps more importantly, was able to delve into the minds of the buying public. A natural salesman with more than a bit of showmanship in his blood, the entrepreneur had made his mark in 1924 when he joined the ailing Auburn Automobile Company, located in northern Indiana. Cord amazed everyone by turning the company around in a year from 34th in sales to 14th, earning a net profit of $800,000. Bursting with confidence, Cord began casting about for his next big move.

“Cord was a maverick who wanted to put a capstone on his automotive empire by building a car that 99.9 percent of people could not afford,” according to Bill. “He was determined to bring high-performance technology and breathtaking style together in one package.”

The Duesenberg brothers, meanwhile, had made quite a name for themselves with their numerous racetrack wins, superior engineering feats and the luxurious Model A, despite the vehicle’s inability to make a profit. Cord decided The Duesenberg Motors Company, with its Model A’s speed and prestige, was the company he would acquire next.

The only hitch was that Cord did not want both Duesenberg brothers joining the new company, which he named Duesenberg, Inc. Fred was in and Augie was out. Augie would eventually continue to run the racing team across the street from the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis. Also eliminated was the Model X being developed when Cord purchased the Duesenberg company in 1926. Cord saw no future for the Model X and shut down production after 13 were built.

Cord determined it was time to concentrate on creating the world’s finest motorcar. The pursuit of perfection had begun.

Making a Masterpiece

Image By Matthew Stephan

The Duesenberg Model J would be unlike any automobile ever built, Cord promised. Fred Duesenberg was encouraged to start with a new design and deliver the ultimate luxury car, regardless of cost. The motorcar had to be larger, faster, more beautiful and more technologically advanced than any other in the world. And there was a deadline. The Model J was to be introduced at the New York Salon on December 1, 1928, one of the most prestigious car shows at the time, and before a crucial audience that would help determine the automobile’s success.

While Duesenberg was busy meeting Cord’s challenge to create the perfect engine and chassis, Cord was ensuring that publicity for the Model J would position the car for its rightful place as the “World’s Finest Motor Car.” Reading an early Model J marketing brochure leaves one almost breathless with the audacity of the text.

“The same motives which actuate the creation of any masterpiece prompt the building of this, the world’s finest motor car. Always there is devotion to an ideal with only one thought in mind: to produce the best, forgetful of cost or expediency or any other consideration. When this is finally accomplished the work is acclaimed a masterpiece by those who are in a position to know; it is recognized as a standard by which all other things of its kind are judged … This is true, whether the creation be a Taj Mahal, a Grecian vase, Cellini’s metal craft, a Rembrandt painting—or a Duesenberg car.”

The brochure goes on to state, “We say this without egotism. The superlatively fine has no need to be boastful. So confident is Duesenberg of the unquestioned supreme position its product occupies, that a nameplate is considered superfluous.”

Although there is no record that Cord or the Duesenberg company ever gained more modesty, the company did later relent and added the gold eagle with the “Duesenberg Straight Eight” logo, which the Duesenberg brothers had established years earlier, on the Model J radiator grille and firewall.

When Cord bought The Duesenberg Motors Company, what he actually purchased was the engine and engineering genius of Fred Duesenberg. Cord recognized he needed an engine and chassis that would be the heart of the new motorcar. Ema speaks to those specifications.

“The chassis were built on either a 142 and 1/2 inch [362.2 centimeter] or 153 and 1/2 inch [390.14 centimeter] wheelbase, which were extremely long but gave the coachbuilders a lot of options, with the additional benefit of adding to the prestige and glamour of the automobile,” Ema explains. “The engine was a 420-cubic-inch, 32-valve, dual overhead cam straight-eight engine that delivered 265 horsepower. Later, a total of 38 Model SJs with supercharged engines were developed with top speeds of 130 mph. That may not sound very advanced or like much power today, but in the 1930s it was revolutionary.”

At the same time that Cord acquired The Duesenberg Motors Company he purchased Lycoming Motors in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which performed the construction of Model J engines following Duesenberg’s design and specifications precisely. When the engines were returned to Indianapolis where the chassis were constructed, every chassis was driven on the Indy 500 racetrack at more than 100 mph to test the engine.

“Fred made certain that every engine was perfect following that test,” states Ema. “If there was any imperfection, the engine was torn down, examined and fixed.”

"The Duesenberg was the first American automobile that really competed with the luxury automobiles of Europe," says Jay Leno.

Coachwork Counts

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November 1919 at Sheepshead Bay board track in Brooklyn, New York.

Cord understood that for his new motorcar to be considered the world’s finest, luxury, comfort and beauty would need to be as important as performance.

“The Duesenberg was the first American automobile that really competed with the luxury automobiles of Europe,” says Jay Leno, comedian, writer and well-respected automotive historian who has eight Duesenbergs in his personal collection. “American cars were expected to be sturdy and reliable, without being particularly fancy, whereas the European cars were meant for royalty and heads of state. When E. L. Cord bought the Duesenberg brothers’ company, he wanted a car that was the best looking, the fastest—every conceivable superlative.”

To ensure the type of luxury that would compete with Europe’s top brands, Cord announced that all Model J bodies would offer the ultimate in custom coach building, but that did not mean there would be no degree of standardization in basic design. The car’s characteristic identity would be achieved by including the radiator grille, headlamps, hood, fenders, running boards, and bumpers with the chassis.

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The engine compartment of the 1933 Duesenberg J-519 d’Ieteren Freres (Belgium) convertible Victoria.

Top-ranking coachbuilders in 1928 were invited to submit design sketches for different body types to complete the Model J chassis. According to author J. L. Elbert in his 1951 book, Duesenberg, the Mightiest American Motor Car, among those chosen were a town cabriolet and a two-window sedan by Holbrook, a phaeton and various sedans by Derham, a town car by Rollston, a convertible roadster and a convertible sedan by Murphy, and
a phaeton by LeBaron.

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Hollywood star Gary Cooper poses with one of his two Duesenbergs, a stylish 1931 Buehrig-designed tourster.

Each designer had his own style, according to Ema.

“The Walter M. Murphy Company of Pasadena, California, which accounted for nearly a third of all factory purchased bodies, was considered the ‘young-at-heart’ designer,” he says. “The old-line Willoughby Co. of Utica, New York, which provided approximately 50 bodies, could be counted on to produce conservative sedans or limousines. Whether sporty or highbrow, all were built to the finest quality possible.”

The Premiere of Perfection

On December 1, 1928, the Duesenberg Model J made its world premiere at the New York Salon car show, causing a sensation with the audience and the media. Finished in silver and black, the J-101 was a dual cowl phaeton, with stunning coachwork by LeBaron. Finally there was an American-built car to compete with international’s best—Germany’s Mercedes-Benz, Italy’s Isotta-Fraschini, Great Britain’s Rolls-Royce, France’s Hispano-Suiza, and Belgium’s Minerva.

Fred Duesenberg and E. L. Cord had delivered what they promised—“The World’s Finest Motor Car”—and as promised, they had spared no cost.

“The Duesenberg was an example of building up to a standard rather than down to a price,” Leno says. “When the Model J was built, cost was no object. They wanted to build the best car possible. Obviously, that’s why they were so expensive.”

And were they ever. However, Cord had warned his motorcar was not for everyone. With a chassis that cost US$8,500 alone, the total price could easily eclipse US$20,000 once the custom-built coach was added. That would equate to more than US$270,000 in today’s dollars. Yet at the end of the Roaring ‘20s, optimism in America had never been higher, money was flowing as easily as bootlegged gin, and orders came rolling in.

When deliveries to clients started in the spring of 1929, it seemed that financial success for the Duesenberg Model J was finally within sight—right up until October 29. Following the mightiest stock market crash in history, life savings were wiped out, companies closed, millions lost their jobs, and the Great Depression began. For a motorcar created specifically for those of immense wealth, who was left to buy it?

There were a fortunate few. Family money such as Wrigley, DuPont and Vanderbilt. Media money, notably William Randolph Hearst. Hollywood stars including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, William Durant, Marion Davies, Mae West and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And kings, queens, and heads of state such as King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the Maharaja of Indore and Prince Nicolas of Romania.

But the monied minority of Duesenberg buyers proved to be too small. By the time the company ceased production and closed its doors in 1937, a mere 481 Model J automobiles had been completed. Yet in the minds and hearts of Fred Duesenberg, E. L. Cord and many others, they had achieved their goal. They had created “The World’s Finest Motor Car.”

Fred Duesenberg and E.L. Cord had delivered what they promised—"The World's Finest Motor Car"—and as promised, they had spared no cost.

The Model J Today

Of the original 481 Duesenberg Model J automobiles, 378 still exist, quite an astounding number considering nearly eight decades have passed since the last one was built. Some were donated as scrap metal to aid the war effort during World War II, says Bill, and by the late 1940s and early ‘50s, a Model J could fairly easily be obtained for $500 or less. Eventually collectors started to take a renewed interest in the classic car.

Time does have a way of coming full circle, and the Model J is again only for the very few. In today’s market a fully restored Duesenberg, if you could even find one for sale, would be priced in the millions of dollars.

But you can still spot one at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Indiana. A National Historic Landmark, the museum houses more than 120 cars and has the most extensive collection of Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobiles in the world. Among the Duesenbergs on display in the historically rich and beautiful three-story museum, located in Cord’s original 1930 art deco showroom, are a Duesenberg race car that first appeared at the Indy 500 in 1927, a Model A phaeton, a Model X four-door sedan, and several Model Js including a 1931 Murphy convertible coupe with black fenders and a burgundy body on a 153 and 1/2 inch wheelbase, and a 1932 Murphy green torpedo convertible coupe with polished aluminum top on a 142 and 1/2 inch wheelbase.

“The Duesenberg is important for a number of reasons,” according to Aaron Warkentin, curator for the museum. “Technologically, much of Fred Duesenberg’s engineering brilliance is still used in automobiles today. Additionally, the pursuit of perfection by both Fred and E.L. Cord set a standard that is still being followed.

“Perhaps most importantly,” Warkentin continues, “is that these cars are not just moving boxes—they are statements about people and society. They speak to the aspirations of one generation to the next.”

Gordon Buehrig, who in 1929 became the chief body designer for the Model J at age 25, referred to the motorcars as “rolling sculptures.” He understood the craftsmanship, dedication and passion behind those who were responsible for the making of every Duesenberg Model J, according to Warkentin.

“A bit of the creators’ and builders’ souls live on today in every vehicle,” says Warkentin.

A Classic Collector’s Favorite

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Jay Leno proudly stands next to his 1930 Duesenberg Model J LeBaron dual cowl phaeton.

The comedian, writer and entertainer owns more than a hundred automobiles spanning generations, with models from Bugatti and Buick to Packard and Porsche. Yet there is one motorcar manufacturer of which he is particularly fond.

“The Duesenberg is probably my favorite,” Leno admits. “You have to put things in different genre—they all have their strengths—still, the Duesenberg is certainly my favorite.”

Leno’s strength as a collector comes from his extensive knowledge of automotive history, which he shares with his friend Randy Ema, the world’s foremost Duesenberg historian and restorer. The two met 25 years ago at a car show, and not long after Ema received his first phone call from Leno.

“Jay had purchased a 1930 Duesenberg Model J, a two-tone blue LeBaron cowl phaeton that he wanted restored,” remembers Ema. “That was the beginning. We are now working on restoring his eighth Duesenberg. Jay is a great guy and a pleasure to do business with. He makes my job easier because preserving history is his passion.”

So what is Leno’s favorite of his favorites?

“It’s the 1932 Duesenberg SJ, a super-charged, two-seater roadster with a rumble seat,” Leno responds immediately.

The exquisite Murphy body, green convertible coupe fits Leno best, says Ema, who restored the car 15 years ago. “Jay drives his cars. The roadster is easy for him to get in and out of and has good function to it so he can drive it everywhere.”

Leno is asked if Duesenberg truly is the “finest motorcar” ever made.

“The idea was to build the best car in the world,” Leno says. “There are Rolls-Royce people who would debate you, but I think if you were to say that, it would not be an unfair statement. There are very few cars that could be as comfortable, as fast and as technically advanced. If you add up all the points, I think you have to give it to Duesenberg.”

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