Duesenberg Automobiles

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
October 1999


The name of Duesenberg brings to mind a long, impressive car with a hood full of engine and a look of competence. The cars built from 1928 to 1937, Models J and SJ, are the best-known Duesenberg cars.

But there were other Duesenberg designs, going back almost to the beginning of the century. Fred and August Duesenberg made bicycles and motor boat engines at several locations in the Middle West, and they got into the automobile business as designers for the Mason car in 1904. Other design projects followed and soon the Duesenberg-designed cars and racing car engines were establishing a good name for themselves in auto racing. During World War I the Duesenbergs designed and built airplane engines and power plants for military vehicles.

Duesenberg engineers developed a four cylinder engine with horizontal valves actuated by long vertical rocker arms, moved by a camshaft located low on the block. The rights to the horizontal-valve engine were sold to Rochester Motors, who supplied the engines to minor car builders, including ReVere, Biddle, Roamer, Argonne, Richelieu, Kenworthy, and other long-forgotten makes. The four cylinder engine, sometimes called the Rochester-Duesenberg, was built from 1919 to 1923.

The Duesenberg brothers had a bigger project in mind, and in 1920 they announced their new Model A, with a straight eight engine with an overhead camshaft, driven by a vertical shaft and spiral bevel gears. The vertical valve-gear shaft was made in two sections for easier removal of the cylinder head. The valve mechanism was lubricated by oil under pressure, supplied through the hollow camshaft. The engine was years ahead of its time.

It was one of the first cars to have four wheel hydraulic brakes. In the design of the car all of the Duesenberg racing experience was put to use, and the car set several new speed records. Unfortunately, delivery of the cars was delayed until 1922 and the extraordinary chassis was concealed under an ordinary-looking but well-built body. About five hundred were sold until 1926.

Then came E. L. Cord, who had put together a big automobile empire based on the successful Auburn car. When he took over the Duesenberg company he ordered the engineers and designers to create a car that would be faster, more powerful, and more impressive than any stock car on the road. He got the car he wanted, and when the Duesenberg Model J was introduced at the end of 1928 it caused a sensation.

The straight eight engine had two overhead camshafts that actuated four valves per cylinder. The engine was more powerful than any other passenger car engine. The chassis was conventional, with the usual leaf springs controlled by hydraulic shock absorbers,. Brakes were hydraulic with a vacuum power booster. Beginning in 1932 a supercharged version, called the Model SJ, was offered for those who wanted even more power and speed.

Custom body builders must have loved that long chassis; their creations always looked good on Duesenbergs. Wheelbase choices were 142 and 153 inches, plus a shorter chassis for roadsters.

The Duesenberg was very fast for its day. With the right driver on the right road it is possible that almost any well-maintained Duesenberg could reach 100 miles per hour, even with the handicaps of the 5,000 pound weight of the sedan, the gear ratio needed for such a heavy car, the length of the chassis, and the conventional chassis design. Of course the roadsters had more speed, handled better on curving roads, and regularly exceeded 100 miles per hour on race tracks and special speed courses.

Many Duesenbergs (and other spectacular cars) spent all of their days as sedate town carriages, carefully driven and maintained by chauffeurs.

When William Harrah had his huge automobile collection near Reno he had on display a row of about twenty Duesenbergs; we may never see a sight like that again. Fewer than five hundred Model J and Model SJ Duesenbergs were built from 1928 to 1937, when the Cord empire collapsed and production of Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg cars came to an end.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum

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