A once great American automaker that was an engineering and luxury pioneer went under due to unfortunate circumstances.
Few marques have made more of a name for themselves with just a couple of models and a few hundred units of each. Now, even decades after the company went under, the name Duesenberg is still known as having been the standard of luxury and engineering excellence in America. Ultimately undone by a combination of the Great Depression and the poor decisions made by its parent company, Duesenberg was unfortunately unable to recover.
Duesenberg was founded in 1913 in Des Moines, Iowa, by brothers Frederick and August Duesenberg. Their original intent was to make sports and racing cars, and as early as 1914, a Duesenberg had finished as high as tenth place in the Indy 500, at the hands of the famous Eddie Rickenbacker. With the outbreak of WWI, Duesenberg, which had still never really had a proper production model car for the public, switched to building aircraft engines. The engine it built, under license, was the Bugatti U-16. This was an impressive engine, and following the war, the brothers developed their own unique and revolutionary engine.
This was the Duesenberg straight-8, which they would put into their first production model in 1921. The same years saw a Duesenberg win the French Grand Prix, the first time an American company had ever won the race, and the last time one would until 1969. Duesenberg would also rack up wins at the Indy 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927. Meanwhile, Duesenberg struggled to move its Model A production car, an impressive piece of engineering. It had four-wheel hydraulic brakes (basically unheard of at the time) and an engine with four-valve heads and a single overhead camshaft.
The Model A was smaller and lighter than its competitors, while still being more powerful. But, of course, this also meant it was quite expensive, and as brilliant as the Duesenberg brothers were when it came to engineering, they weren’t spectacular businessmen. A series of investors came and went during the early Twenties, and finally, in 1926, the company was bought by E.L. Cord and was brought in under the Auburn Automobile parent company. Cord had bought Duesenberg more to acquire the engineering prowess of the Duesenberg brothers than due to an interest in the brand itself.
But he wasn’t going to kill the company off either, and in 1926, Duesenberg brought out its first attempt at a replacement for the Model A, the Model X. Only 13 units of the Model X were built, as it was really more of an engineering exercise than a production model. But in 1928, there was the Model J. First built as a prototype designated the Model Y the previous year, the Model J would become the company’s most famous model. The Model J was conceived by Cord as both the fastest and most luxurious car that would be available for sale. The small but powerful-for-its-size Model A would no longer do, and the Model J was both very large and very powerful for a car of its day.
The Duesenberg straight-8 engine was enlarged considerably, and a supercharger was offered as well. It also made the Model A look cheap by comparison. Just the chassis cost $8,500 ($112,600 today) with the body often costing at least as much on top of that. Completed cars could be ordered from the factory, but as was the custom with luxury cars at the time, bodies were often built by third-party coachbuilders. The price for some of these reached $25,000 ($331,000), but most weren’t quite that much. Unfortunately, 1928 was not a great year to be rolling out a new hugely expensive car. However, those at the very top of the price spectrum often fared better than more mainstream cars.
Sales were never as good as had been hoped in 1928, but nothing was selling well after the 1929 market crash anyway. The Model J survived all the way until the company folded in 1937. In another era, Duesenberg probably would have survived, and today might even be a serious rival to Rolls-Royce and Bugatti. But it wasn’t to be, and even efforts to revive the name thus far failed to bear fruit. In the end, Duesenberg built just over 1,100 cars in total, over half of them Model A’s. But it still represents an important chapter in American automotive history, possibly more so than any other now-defunct American automaker.