Like Studebaker, the Duesenberg brothers Fred and August were of German ancestry and arrived in the US in the early part of the 20th century. Fred built cars and racing bicycles for other companies and then moved into engine building. They started the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company in 1913 to build sports cars and had immediate success when one of the cars finished 10th in the following year’s Indy 500.
Although the company was original started in Iowa, they moved firstly to New Jersey (to build aircraft, tractor and marine engines as well as sports cars) and then to Indianapolis – close to the raceway. They started to build advanced passenger cars (the Model A) using motors with 4 valves per cylinder and double overhead cams and the cars were one of the first to use hydraulic brakes. However, this change from building sports models wasn’t a success and only 667 were built before the receivers were called in. Fred Duesenberg bought the remains and renamed it Duesenberg Motor Company and saw his cars win the Indy 500 in 1924, 25 and 27.
EL Cord came on the scene in 1926 and not only bought the company to produce luxury cars but retained Fred to design them. Both men had a common interest in motor sport. The first model after the acquisition was the Model J that had a 265hp straight 8 capable of 119mph! The chassis and engine were debuted at the New York car show in 1928 and owners purchased bodies either from US or European coach-builders.
In 1932 a supercharger was added increasing the power to 320hp and these were known as the “SJ” and were one of the fastest cars on the road. The final evolution in 1937, called the “SSJ” included a ram air induction system that produced 400hp from the blown engine. Only 481 “J”, “SJ” & “SSJ” were built.
1937 saw the Cord Corporation sold off and the car manufacturing ceased, although after WW2 August Duesenberg tried to revive the name and his son Fritz had a go in the 1960s with a rebodied Chrysler Imperial designed and built by Ghia in Turin. 50 were sold but none were ever built because Fritz couldn’t pay the sales commission and the prototype was confiscated! The car cost $19,500 with a $1,000 deposit and $4,000 to be paid at start of the production of the buyer’s car. The prototype can be seen at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. The designer of this new car was Virgil Exner, a storied auto man who designed for Studebaker and later in the 1950s for Chrysler (notably the 300C). One of the designs he produced initially for the revamped Duesenberg company ended up as the Stutz Blackhawk.
In 1996, the trademark was bought by Duesenberg Custom Coach and in 2006 they announced the Duesenberg Torpedo Coupe to be launched in mid 2008. This model was to be built alongside the Duesenberg II, a replica of the Model J manufactured since 1978. The company also planned to build the Duesenberg Torpedo motorcycle in honour of one of Fred Duesenberg’s earlier creations. In 2011 the company was renamed Duesenberg Motors Inc and subsequently failed due to cash flow problems. Timing is the key to a good joke and also a good business, and with the after effects of the GFC, it is clear that their timing was not quite right.
Duesenberg logo source: acdclub.org