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IMAGINE a car that combines the luxury, style elegance, and mechanical precision of a Rolls-Royce with the amazing acceleration and blinding speed of a Bugatti. Don't think too hard, just remember the phrase, "It's a Doozy!" The American built Duesenberg was so fine a machine that it contributed its name as a superlative to American slang. The phrase drops easily from the tongues of millions of people who apply it to the best of anything, but how many remember that it was an automobile that started it?
Since the time of the Duesenberg there has never been another American car that could come close to matching it. This polished piece of craftsmanship was the prestige car of the late twenties and early thirties. The limousine version carried all sorts of important personages in luxurious comfort through city streets, but once on the highway the big car could accelerate at a pace that many contemporary competition machines would fail to equal.
During the days of the notorious gangland wars, the long black cars, equipped by their owners with armored bodies and bullet-proof glass, took part in many running gun battles. In more peaceful form, political figures used the Duesenberg as official transportation, but the "Doozy" made its greatest social splash in the glittering world of Hollywood.
Outside the huge sound stages of the film industry, the chauffeurdriven Duesenbergs slipped quietly next to the stage doors and disgorged the leading actors of the time -hat brims down and dark glasses over the eyes to avoid the idolizing fans. But when a film was premiered at Grauman's Chinese or the Pantages Theatre, spotlights flashed through the night sky, police lines held the crowds back, and the shining Duesenbergs pulled into the curb in a magnificent procession. The stars emerged in evening dress with smiles and waves to the public, for this was the time to be noticed and a leading star always knew that he should be seen and photographed stepping down from a Duesenberg.
The two men who designed this wonderful car were far from this world of glittering notables. Fred and August Duesenberg were selftaught engineers who came to America from Germany in 1885 when they were both young boys. Fred built a racing car in 1903, but his main interest was engines and in 1913 the brothers formed the Duesenberg Motor Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. They built an ingeniously designed four-cylinder engine with horizontal valves that performed magnificently. Eddie Rickenbacker drove a Duesenberg powered car to tenth place at the 1914 Indianapolis race, and succeeding years found Duesenberg-engined machines placing among the front runners.
With the coming of World War I the Duesenberg brothers had cause to change many of their engineering ideas. The catalyst was a Bugatti engine. The master of Molsheim had designed a power plant consisting of two straight-eight engines. They were mounted parallel to each other on a common crankcase with two crankshafts which were both geared to a single shaft. The Duesenbergs were granted an American contract to produce the engine for the French government, and it was their experience with the Bugatti masterpiece that led to the design of the famous Duesenberg straight-eight engine.
This new engine gave the Duesenberg its fame: In 1920, a Duesenberg set a Land Speed Record at Daytona, with Tommy Milton urging it to a speed of 156 mph. In 1921 Jimmy Murphy astounded the Euro pean continent by leaving its best cars and drivers in a cloud of dust at the Grand Prix of France. As late as 1960 the Duesenberg was still the only American car to win a European Grand Prix race: The passenger version of this racing Duesenberg was the Model A, for its time the car of the future. No other production machine in the 1920's had a straight-eight engine. It also scooped the market with the first set of four-wheel hydraulic brakes and followed that by introducing the balloon tire.
In 1926 Erret Lobban Cord bought out the company to add to his Auburn-Cord merger, but he was not as interested in the car as he was in the engineering ability of Fred and August Duesenberg. He needed them for his other cars, but he wisely continued the Duesenberg line as well. That year the Model J Duesenberg appeared and some years later a supercharged model called the SJ. These were the most famous Duesenbergs. Their racing history is unparalleled and they still hold three world records. Since 1935 no other car has been able to break the Duesenberg Class B marks for the one hour, twelve hour, and twenty-four hour runs. That is a long time for a record to stand especially when one considers the engineering progress in recent years.
But the stock models were not much slower. It was possible to purchase an SJ, drive it from the showroom to the open road and reach 60 mph from a standing start in about 9 seconds! One hundred mph showed up at 17 seconds. The top speed was around 130 mph. Try that on any stock car today. As a matter of fact, try it on many competition models.
The important thing to remember is that the Duesenberg was not designed to be a racing machine. It was basically a high speed touring car very much in the tradition of the European Gran Tourismo models; an automobile that could be driven hour after hour, mile after mile, over the endless American highways, with no strain on the mechanical components or the driver. To achieve this performance required precision manufacture and the resulting price tag was high.
Like Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg mainly sold an operating chassis and various coach builders supplied bodies to order. Some of these were as fancifully appointed as a sultan's palace, but a bewildering array of instruments was always standard equipment. While the Duesenberg passengers relaxed in luxury, the driver faced a panel splendidly sprinkled with dials and gauges. Some even informed him of hydraulic pressure in the brake-lines!
When the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg empire faded in 1937 only 650 Duesenbergs had been built, but each one was a masterpiece. Shortly after the war August Duesenberg tried to revive the old make but the project failed rapidly. Postwar customers may have been interested in the quality of the cars, but nearly comparable quality was to be had for far less money, even including Rolls-Royce. Ford's postwar Lincoln Continentals made a stab at this type of machine, but they were nothing like the Duesenberg.
Left with us today are the mighty cars of the 1930's, and an unforgettable phrase, "It's a Doozy!"