ARNOLD Schwarzenegger likes to think he personifies the Americanimmigrant dream, but he was beaten to the punch by brothers Fred and August Duesenberg. The German-born Duesenberg boys would eventually put their name to the grandest of American automobiles.
In 1913, the brothers founded Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Co, with a focus on racing cars and engines. Exposure to Ettore Bugatti’s straight-eight aero engine of 1915 helped propel Duesenberg to the forefront of American innovation.
Despite precocious racing success in the 1920s, including the 1921 French GP and four Indy 500s, their advanced Straight Eight (aka Model A) road car failed to sell. The company folded in 1924.
Their saviour in 1926 was Errett Lobban Cord, a former racer and salesman who had managed a spectacular turnaround of the Auburn Automobile Co. Cord picked Duesenberg as a pinnacle brand and instructed the brothers to produce, simply, the best car in the world.
The Model J was unveiled at the New York Auto Salon in December 1928. Dauntingly large, and riding on a 3.9m wheelbase (a 3.6m was also offered), its 6.9-litre 32-valve dohc straight-eight claimed 198kW – more than twice the output of any rival, including V16s from Cadillac and Marmot that arrived two years later.
The bare chassis was priced at $8500, equivalent to nine Ford Model Ts at the time, and when fitted with coachwork designed by Gordon Buehrig (and built by Murphy, LeBaron and others), typically commanded $13-17,000.
The first Model J deliveries began in May 1929. Just five months later came the dramatic Black Tuesday stock market crash, which was the trigger point for the Great Depression. Within the next eight years, most of America’s super-luxury marques, including Duesenberg, would be wiped out.
For a while, many customers of America’s most expensive car were immune from such inconvenience. Of the 481 Model Js – which soon included supercharged ‘SJ’ and Speedster variants – eventually built, the bulk were produced through 1929-30.
The buyer of the 1930 Model J Sport on these pages is a case in point.
Capt George Whittell Jr inherited a $30m fortune in 1922, the 40-yearold having never previously worked in his life. Freakishly side-stepping the 1929 crash, he celebrated by buying two Model Js.
He would eventually buy five more, giving some (including this Murphy-bodied Sport) to mistresses. Meanwhile, he was often seen touring in his Duesys with Bill, his pet lion. As you do.
Duesenberg’s cars or engines won the famed Indianapolis 500 in 1922, 1924 (right), 1925 and 1927 also the 1921 French GP
Salt Lake mayor Ab Jenkins’ 1935 Model J Special set a 24-hour speed record of 217km/h at Bonneville that stood for 26 years
The phrase “She’s a real Duesy”, sometimes written as doozy, originated with the Model J, meaning the best of its kind
The final Duesenberg chassis, J-585, was built in 1935. At least one earlier chassis was still unsold and unbodied when Duesenberg tanked in 1937
Model J and its variants were the fave rides of Rudolf Valentino, Clark Gable (right), cowboy Tom Mix, the Duke of Windsor and the odd gangster
V8 engines were already successfully in production, but straight-eights, developed for slim aero fuselages, had more prestige. Model J’s 6878cc unit featured dohc and 32 valves, made 198kW at 4200rpm and 507Nm at 2000rpm. Supercharged SJs made 239kW. Green enamel and bright details are signatures. Duesy refused synchros for the threespeed manual. Top speed was about 185km/h. lready oduction, veloped s, valves
Duesenberg preached exclusivity, so bodies were designed in-house by Gordon Buehrig (Cord 810) and coachbuilders were prohibited from making copies for lesser brands.
Fearing no Rolls-Royce, Mercedes- Benz, Isotta-Fraschini or other, the interiors were no less exclusive. The one-off car (J-287) pictured – unusual in having an all-aluminium (rather than timber) body frame – had a turned metal dash and the finest leathers and timbers.
Du co ma Fe Be int on th tu lea
The Model J’s steel ladder-type chassis came in 3.6 or 3.9m wheelbases, carrying timber-framed aluminium coachwork.
Front suspension was by I-beam axle with semi-elliptic springs and friction dampers the rear, a live axle, also leaf-sprung, with Delco lever dampers. Vac-assisted hydraulic drums were an earlier Duesy innovation. Typical Model J weights were about 2.5 tonnes.
J’ fr sus elli Del hydrauli innovatio abo , y med nsion c ive rums ram spen iptic li co l c dr on. out 2