Before the aftershocks of the Great Depression struck, Duesenberg was one of the world's most advanced car brands.
Duesenberg was one of the most prestigious names in cars at one point, and it was the Model J which was the pinnacle of company's short history. It is one of a small group of cars that could be called the ultimate expression of pre-war luxury, and of these, it is even possibly the best-looking. The Great Depression would ultimately kill off Duesenberg, but in their time, they were serious competition for companies like Rolls-Royce and even Bugatti.
The Duesenberg brothers set up their car company just prior to the First World War, and would soon have to convert their plant over to making marine engines, as well as a small number of aviation engines built under license from Bugatti. After the war, they once again delved into automobile design. Though their cars were engineering marvels, producing a long list of racing wins all through the Twenties, the brothers proved less than brilliant when it came to business, and it wasn't until the company's third owner, E.L. Cord of Auburn Automobile, that they would have a successful model.
Cord's vision was of the best automobile in the world, the biggest, fastest and most expensive ever made. The Deusenberg brothers were still involved in the company as employees, and the job of designing this new ultimate car went to the elder brother Fred. He had drawn up two different complete designs for the car, and even produced one prototype, all of which were rejected by Cord, before he hit on a design which Cord loved; the whole process had taken 27 months. The straight-eight engine was one that evolved from the Duesenberg racing engines. It had overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and produced 265hp, all of which were incredible in 1928.
A later supercharged version of the engine was even made. These can be identified by the exhaust pipes extending through the side panel of the hood, a look which would become a signature design piece on all supercharged Auburn and Cord models. This engine produced 320 horsepower, and allowed the Model J to reach a top speed of 135mph, despite an unsynchronized transmission and a weight of about three tons. Only 36 version of this "SJ" model were produced, but even rarer was the SSJ, a supercharged Model J producing 400 horsepower of which only two were ever built.
Even the "regular" Model J wasn't exactly cheap. Exact prices aren't really available, since the coachwork was handled by separate companies, and Duesenberg only built the chassis. But even these these started at $8,500 and would climb to $9,500 in 1932. Fully assembled cars could easily go for as much as $25,000, roughly $400,000 in today's money. So Cord has succeeded in his goal to build an ultimate luxury car, but he did so at the worst possible time in history. The Model J would debut on December 1st, 1928, less than a year before the stock market crash.
The first buyers of the Model J were wealthy (obviously) New Yorkers, as well as some Europeans who had recovered from the war, but when the depression hit, the focus moved west to Hollywood, and the Duesenberg became a favorite of movie stars. The glamour of being associated with these big stars was really the only thing that kept Duesenberg afloat during the depression. Cord had initially expected higher sales of the Model J, which probably would have been reasonable if the market hadn't crashed, and the vast majority of chassis were actually built just in 1929 and 1930.
Duesenberg would shut its doors in 1937, but most of the last several years were spent simply selling off chassis that had been built years ago. It's hardly surprising that a company like this one would go under at this period in history, but it would be interesting to see if the name could be revived in order to once again rival Bugatti, just imagine. Since the coachwork on each Model J is different from any other, it is important to note that the record-setting model was the Duesenberg Model J Long-Wheelbase Wittell Coupe. It is not one of the supercharged models, and was actually only one of six Duesenbergs owned by its original owner, Captain George Wittell Jr.
Wittell was heir to an enormous fortune, and had a reputation for being wild playboy. It is the coachwork of this coupe with makes the car special. The black, red and chrome body is fully 11 inches longer than the standard Model J, and was styled by Murphy Coach Builders. The designer responsible was Frank Hershey, who would later go on to pen the 1955 Thunderbird. Both inside and out, the Wittell Coupe is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful cars in the world. Wittell was perhaps a bit strange (he was known for taking his lion with him wherever he went) but it must be said that his taste in cars was excellent.