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Duesenberg J/SJ

Duesenberg J/SJ

By Jack Nerad

Duesenberg J/SJ Enzo Ferrari was adept at using the cachet gained by his racing machines to sell cars meant for the street. But long before Signore Ferrari began his racing career, two brothers from Lippe, Germany, were doing the same thing.

Frederic Duesenberg was born in Lippe in 1878, and his brother August arrived the following year. It wasn’t long before their family embarked on the adventure of their lives — emigrating to America. Soon they settled in the Midwest, and that’s where Fred and Augie got into racing. Not motor racing, though, bicycle racing. The two brothers weren’t just good at riding bicycles either; they also built them, and Duesenberg-built bicycles became sought-after on the popular American bike racing circuit.

Fred proved the quality of their machines in 1898 by establishing a world record for two miles. Soon their Des Moines, Iowa, bicycle works was a going concern. Unfortunately, the business side of bicycle manufacture was a little more difficult than riding, and in 1903 a business downturn threw their company into bankruptcy.

Just a year later, however, the Duesenberg boys were back in business, this time building automobiles, and it was obvious they were still afflicted by the "red mist" of racing. Their first effort, a rudimentary but sporting machine packing a two-cylinder powerplant, bore the name Mason. It wasn’t long before the Duesenberg brothers entered the car in local motor racing events.

As the years went by, Fred and August made continual improvements to their racing Masons, including the switch to a four-cylinder engine. But their efforts to qualify the Mason for Indianapolis met with failure.

By 1913 Mason was just a memory as the Duesenbergs went out on their own again, more heavily involved in auto racing than ever. After countless campaigns on the board tracks and ovals that made up American racing in the Teens, they tasted international success with a victory in the 1921 French Grand Prix. Their straight-eight-powered car, piloted in the race by Jimmy Murphy, had much in common with the Model A, their street-driven offering.

Unfortunately, the Model A’s looks were not nearly as exciting as its performance, and so it languished in the few showrooms in which it was sold. Fred and Augie spent most of their time concentrating on racing and with good results. Duesenbergs won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927.

But sweet as that last Indy 500 victory was, the year 1927 was not a good one for Duesenberg on the sales front. With financial difficulties hanging over their heads, the Duesenbergs found a savior in Erret Lobban Cord. The man who had saved a going-nowhere Auburn from oblivion, Cord was the mover and shaker tailor-made to breathe some life into the faltering Duesenberg organization. What Cord had in mind was translating Duesenberg's news-making racing exploits into an ultra-luxury line of vehicles for the street. His grandiose but ultimately accurate claim for Duesenberg was "The World's Finest Motor Car."

Cord's first order of business was designing a new Duesenberg model with styling as impressive as its engineering. To perform that feat, Cord and Harold Ames, Duesenberg's sales chief, chose a young designer who had already been through stints at General Motors, Packard and Stutz.

Gordon Buehrig was a Peoria boy who went to college in his hometown at Bradley before landing an apprenticeship at a Midwestern body works. Despite his experience he was not yet thirty when he came to work at the Cord-Duesenberg consortium, where he immediately dove into work on the new Duesenberg, which would eventually be designated the Model J.

Buehrig and Cord had the same goal for the design: it should present a unique and impressive "face" to the public. Since most buyers of cars in the Duesenberg class had their cars fitted with custom bodies, only a few portions of the vehicle were ripe for standardization, but the Cord design team did a masterful job with what they had to work with. The grille and radiator shell of the new Duesenberg had the classic grace of a Greek temple, while the over-size headlights gave the front end a wide-eyed look. The hood was impressive both in its length and in its simple form, and the fenders had a lilt to them that made the car seem much lighter than its massive weight.

As is the case with most car designs, Buehrig alone wasn't responsible for the elegant look of the Duesenberg. Al Leamy, who had already performed miracles on the dormant Auburn line, also had a hand in it, as did Ames and E.L. Cord itself. Buehrig, did, however, design the elegantly simple radiator ornament.

If the sweep of the Duesenberg's exterior design was awe-inspiring, so, too, was the engineering and machining that went into its engine bay. For his passenger-car powerplant, Fred Duesenberg used all the go-fast tricks that he had learned during his years in racing.

Built by Lycoming, another of Cord's holdings and an engine-builder for many independent car companies, the Duesenberg engine wasn't larger than many contemporary luxury-car engines, but it left most of them in the technical dust. While the predominant American design of the day was the flathead, and more sophisticated cars used "valve-in-head" (overhead valve) engines with their valves operated by pushrods and rocker arms, the Duesenberg used twin overhead cams operating four valves per cylinder. Displacement was only (?) 420 cubic inches (6.9 liters), but the engine produced 265 horsepower at 4200 rpm. (In comparison, the Pierce-Arrow V-12 of the day displaced 462 cubic inches (7.6 liters), but offered only 175 horsepower.)

If there was any doubt that the Model J was an ultra-luxury machine, that doubt was removed by its pricetag. A body-less chassis often sold for more than $8,000 and custom coachwork then added $4,000 to $7,000 to that figure.

Of course, to those who were living large in the Depression-ridden 1930's, like movie idol Clark Gable, for example, that price was never too high. And for those who were even more power-hungry, a supercharged SJ model was also available. With the right bodywork, an SJ was said to have a top-speed potential of more than 130 miles per hour, a frightening prospect given the tires and brakes of those days.
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