I love Duesenbergs

I Love Duesenberg’s

By Greg Riley

Yep, I love Duesenberg’s as do most classic car lovers. Why you may ask? Well there are many, many reasons and I thought it would be to take a look at one of the greatest American cars of all time.
My love affair with Duesenberg’s began as a teenage boy. A local grandfatherly type would regale me with stories of a hometown oil-man of the 1930’s and his Duesenberg. As it turned out, his three Duesenberg’s.

Two restored Duesenberg's

M.F. “Frank” Yount headed one of the most successful independent oil companies in Texas during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Having previously scratched his personal automotive itches with both a custom bodied Locomobile and Pierce Arrow, by 1929 Yount was ready to move up to the King of Automobiles, a Duesenberg.

Two of the three Yount Duesenberg's

What is it about Duesenberg’s that commands such respect almost 80 years after the last was manufactured? When the Duesenberg Model J was introduced in 1929 it was truly a “super-car” by the standards of the day. Today the term super-car conjures visions of Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s, and certain Porsche’s but in 1929 it meant something very different.
In the 1920’s interstate highways were unheard of, although better roads such as the Lincoln Highway were becoming more prevalent. Few cars of the 1920’s was capable of sustained high-speed driving, and ride quality and braking were abysmal. The Model J was an effortless cruiser at speed and capable of gobbling up large expanses of road while swaddling the occupants in all the luxury 1929 could muster. The brakes are quite good by today’s standards, and with unheard of stopping in the time.

Restored Model J at Amelia Island Concours d'EleganceWhen the Model J was conceived and designed during the heady days of the late 1920’s it was thought that perhaps 100 per month was a reasonable production goal. The October 1929 stock market crash permanently derailed that goal, with only 481 manufactured between 1929 and 1937.
The Model J Duesenberg was the vision of the automotive legend E.L. Cord. Young Mr. Cord had already made a name for himself in the auto industry, and had only a few years before had take over the ailing Auburn Automobile Co. and turned it around in spectacular fashion. The Duesenberg brothers, Fred and August were well known names at Indy and other racing circles having won the Indy 500 in 1924, 1925, and 1927. During WWI they had also manufactured aero engine based on the complex Bugatti U-16 design. The marriage of Cord’s vision and the Duesenberg brothers engineer prowess allowed creation of one of the most sophisticated car of its day.

One didn’t jaunt down to the local dealer and pick out your favorite color. A Duesenberg Model-J was ordered as a “cowl & chassis” which the new owner purchased and sent to the custom body builder of their choice. Duesenberg’s from a particular body builder share some design characteristics, but no two were ever identical.

Duesenberg cowl and chassis

In 1929 the average car on the road had about 45hp and a top speed of perhaps 60mph if you could find a road long and straight enough with a modicum of good pavement. 0-60 times and top speeds were glacially slow, and braking dangerously inadequate. The Model J was introduced with 265hp from a 420ci engine of near racing specifications.

420ci, 265hp, double-overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder straight-8, and cutting-edge Lockheed hydraulic brakes on a chassis built like a battleship. All this made the J capable of 117mph even with some of the ponderous custom coachwork married to its chassis.
For those that needed a bit more “go,” Duesenberg also offered a supercharged engine option that boosted the big 8 to 320hp. Known as the “SJ” the supercharger elevated performance to a top speed of 135–140 miles per hour in high gear. Zero-to-60 mph times of around eight seconds and 0–100 mph in 17 seconds were reported for the SJ. To put this in perspective, the venerated 1957 Chevrolet Corvette with the 283ci 283hp fuel-injected V8 only managed 0-60 times of approximately 9 seconds almost 30 years later. This is in spite of the Duesenberg weighing upwards of 6,000 lbs vs the Corvette at 3,300 lbs.

Model J engine (top) of 265hp, and supercharged SJ engine of 320hp (bottom)

No Duesenberg discussion is complete without mentioning the spectacular instrument cluster, which must be one of the best of all time. An engine-turned panel contained an almost dizzying array of instruments including speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure gauge, brake-pressure gauge, engine thermometer, clock/stopwatch, altimeter, and four lights that glowed to remind the owner when it was time for service.

Aircraft-like instrument cluster of Model J
Boat owners have a saying, “the only thing better than owning a boat is having a friend with one.” That certainly applies to Duesenberg’s with many now commanding prices will into the seven or sometimes even eight figures. My Duesenberg owning friend James Bartlett occasionally allows me to drool on his dual-cowl Phaeton.

James Bartlett and 1932 Duesenberg dual-cowl phaeton 

James is lifetime member of the Antique Automobile Club of America who always aspired to own a Duesie of his own. A few years ago, a car formerly of the O’Quinn collection came available at reasonable (for a Duesenberg) price. Since that time James has commissioned a full mechanical restoration and many cosmetic enhancements which have resulted in a very highly detailed and spectacular performing Model J.

Details of Bartlett Duesenberg

I’ve heard some classic car owners say their automotive Rembrandt’s are to rare and valuable to drive. Not so my friend James, as he drives his Duesenberg regularly. In fact, I nicknamed him “James, drove it like he stole it Bartlett” after one particularly memorable late-night ride at breakneck speed. He also shows his J regularly and particularly enjoys interacting with young people and explaining the history of Duesenberg.
Auction Result

Today’s Duesenberg’s are considered among the world’s foremost collector cars. The roughest, most non-original example commands $350,000 plus, with the highest price ever paid $16,000,000.
MSRP (US $),
$8,500-$9,500 Chassis Only ($120,000-$133,000 in 2017 dollars)
MPG City N/A
MPG Highway N/A
Horsepower 265 @ 4,750 rpm
8 Cylinders Engine @ 420ci
Curb Weight (US lbs) 6,000+ (varies by body style)
Torque (lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm) 425 ft lbs @ 2400 rpm
Wheelbase (US Inches) 142.5-153.5”

Worthy Competitors

1930 Cadillac V16

The Cadillac V16 had very different performance goals than the Duesenberg J. It was envisioned to be utterly silent and capable of smooth acceleration from a near walking pace. In those pre-automatic transmission days not needing to constantly shift up and down was a huge luxury. The 165hp V16 was capable of powering the heavier models to speeds in excess of 80 mph and 100 mph for some of the lighter examples, a far cry from Duesenberg’s 265hp and claimed top speed of 117 mph in normall aspirated form, and 135-140 in the supercharged SJ configuration.

MSRP (US $),
$5,900-$9,200 ($82,800-$130,000 in 2017 dollars)
MPG City N/A
MPG Highway N/A
Horsepower 165 @ 3,200 rpm
16 Cylinders Engine @ 452ci
Curb Weight (US lbs) 6,000+ (varies by body style)
Torque (lb-ft @ 1,200 rpm) 320 pounds-feetWheelbase (US Inches) 148-154”

1932 Stutz DV32

Like the Duesenberg brothers, Stutz had a storied Indianapolis 500 history. Many racing innovations made it into Stutz’ production cars such overhead camshafts, worm drive, and features such as safety glass. The DV32 was produced in the dark depression days of Stutz last gasp. The Stutz DV32 is a smaller and lighter car than its Duesenberg and Cadillac competitors. Stutz advertised “the velvety smoothness of a 16 with 8 fewer cylinders.”

MSRP (US $) $6,895 ($96,700 in 2017 dollars)
MPG City N/A
MPG Highway N/A
Horsepower 156
8 cylinder inline DOHC, 322 cu.in.
Curb Weight (US lbs) 4,500-5,400
Torque N/A
Wheelbase (US Inches) 116-145”

2 thoughts on “I love Duesenbergs”

  1. Greg, Exellent site. I will follow it. Just the one friendly tip. You don’t make a noun plural by adding an apostrophe in front of the s (should be Duesenbergs) . Apostrophes denote ownership, among other things. Ferrell

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