A Literal “Doozy” of an Automobile: The Duesenberg
By Mary Giorgio
Automobile collectors covet ownership of a Duesenberg car from the 1920’s and 1930’s. A powerhouse automobile, known for its emphasis on design and craftsmanship, Duesenbergs were the gold standard of American automobiles. Duesenberg models also earned fame as racing legends on the tracks of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The company was started in 1913 by two brothers, Fred and August Duesenberg. Born in Germany, the brothers immigrated to America when they were children. They founded the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The Duesenberg brothers built their cars by hand. They had no formal education but taught themselves the principles of engineering.
In 1914, the first Duesenberg car raced at the Indianapolis 500. Legendary driver Eddie Rickenbacher steered the car to a top 10 finish. The showing cemented the Duesenberg name as a tough competitor in automotive racing. In 1921, Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix while driving a Duesenberg racer. It was the first time an American had won the title. Thereafter, Duesenbergs finished first at the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925, and 1927.
The brothers purchased a modern automobile factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1920. The location was likely chosen for its proximity to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The new facility, located at 1511 West Washington St., was a whopping 17 acres. It opened in July 1921.
Duesenberg models were designed for luxury, with price tags well above the standard cost of an automobile. Unfortunately, the expensive price tag severely limited buyers and sales remained flat.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 1922. It was purchased by Cord Automobile Company in 1925. Under new owner Ernett Cord’s leadership, the Duesenberg brand began selling a new Model J in 1929. The Model J was said to be the biggest, fastest, and most detailed car on the market. For a fully loaded Model J, the price tag ran as high as $18,000. That would be $258,000 in today’s dollars!
The cars were sold to Hollywood elite, like Clark Gable and Rudolph Valentino. Gary Cooper’s Model J was said to have cost around $5,000. Duesenberg even introduced a special edition of their Model J in 1933. It retailed for $20,000. The car was said to be the most expensive automobile on the market.
The demise of the Duesenberg car came a few years later in 1937, when Cord Automobile Company filed for bankruptcy. The company’s assets were dissolved, and production of new cars halted.
Duesenbergs can still be found today in museums and private automobile collections. Comedian Jay Leno is said to own a large collection of Duesenberg models. For those of you who have never had the chance to see a great Duesenberg, a visit to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum will be quite a treat. Located in Auburn, Ind., the museum includes over 120 cars and related special exhibits.