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Model A Duesenberg – America’s First Straight Eight

Posted by on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 in 1920s, Articles, Car Collector Magazine, Duesenberg, Model A

Long before the mighty Model J there was another Duesenberg, the Model A, although it was never known by that name. The first passenger car designed and built by Fred and Augie Duesenberg in 1920, was known simply as the Duesenberg Straight 8. But we’re getting way ahead of the story.

It really began in the pre-World War I era, when the Duesenberg brothers established their own shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, to build engines for race cars. In 1914 fate sailed into St. Paul when Commodore James A. Pugh of Chicago commissioned them to design a pair of twelve-cylinder marine engines for his new hydroplane racing boat. The Commodore planned to compete in the 1915 British International Trophy Race (The Harmsworth Trophy). Fred and Augie built a pair of massive inline twelves based on their horizontal valve rocker-arm or “walking beam” racing engines. With a colossal swept volume of 3,219 cubic inches each, and measuring nearly 10 feet in length, they were fitted into the sleek mahogany-bodied hydroplane Disturber IV, which was shipped to England. The beginning of World War I in July 1914, caused the cancellation of the race, and the cargo ship carrying the Duesenberg-powered hydroplane was turned around.

1919 Duesenberg early chassis and entire crew

The Model A Duesenberg was engineered in New Jersey just after the end of World War I. Shown here in 1919 with an early chassis is the entire Duesenberg crew. Fred and Augie Duesenberg are at the far right of the picture.

Undaunted, the well-heeled Chicago yachtsman piloted Disturber IV to the unrivaled domination of the American powerboat championship in 1915, and with racer “Dynamite Jim” at the helm Disturber IV became the first craft to exceed 60mph on water with a world’s record speed of 60.4mph. This brought the Duesenberg brothers to the attention of J.R. Harbeck, president of the Loew-Victor Engine Company in Chicago, who contacted Fred shortly after hearing about the hydroplane’s achievements.

Specializing in the manufacture of marine engines, Harbeck wanted Fred and Augie to come and work for Loew-Victor. After some negotiations, a partnership was forged between the two companies, and the first products of their merger were six- and eight-cylinder marine engines, known as the Duesenberg Patrol Model, which were used in a variety of private craft from fishing boats to luxury cruisers, as well as naval vessels.

Bugatti U.S. sixteen-cylinder aircraft engines U-16

The Duesenberg Motors Corporation in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was responsible for the production of Bugatti U.S. sixteen-cylinder aircraft engines. Designed by Ettore Bugatti and modified by American Charles B. King, the engine was comprised of two inline eights joined with a common crankshaft, making it a U-16. Only 60 were completed before the Armistice, and the contract was cancelled.

Bugatti U-16 aircraft engine production line

Although the new business venture did not allow them to build automobiles, it did move Fred and Augie one step closer financially to fulfilling their dream. With America’s belated entry into World War I, the increased demand for engines to power patrol boats and aircraft greatly exceeded prewar manufacturing capabilities, and from 1916 to 1918, Loew-Victor was to become a major contractor for marine and aero engines sold to the United States and it’s allies.

To increase production, Loew-Victor built a manufacturing facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where a new and larger enterprise known as Duesenberg Motors Corporation was established in March 1917. There, aero engines, marine engines, and four-cylinder passenger car engines were produced. A most lucrative military contract from the Bolling Commission also arrived that year for the production of sixteen-cylinder aircraft engines designed by Ettore Bugatti, and modified for American use by Charles B. King. Production of the King-Bugatti aero engines, known officially as the Bugatti U.S. Model, began in January 1918. By February the New Jersey factory housed more than 1,200 employees, a far cry from Fred and Augie’s small shop back in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The new Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company was incorporated in Delaware in March 1920. Originally located in Newark, New Jersey, the company moved into a new facility in May 1921. The new headquarters were located at 1511 West Washington Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. The original structure had a one-story, 90 x 500 foot factory and a two-story complex for executive offices, administration, and engineering departments.

The new Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company was incorporated in Delaware in March 1920. Originally located in Newark, New Jersey, the company moved into a new facility in May 1921. The new headquarters were located at 1511 West Washington Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. The original structure had a one-story, 90 x 500 foot factory and a two-story complex for executive offices, administration, and engineering departments.

With sufficient and steady income from the military contracts, and the sales of Duesenberg four-cylinder passenger car engines to ReVere, Biddle, and Romer, in 1917 the two brothers eased their way back into racing and opened another shop in Newark, New Jersey. It was here during 1918, that they would develop their first single overhead cam straight eight, the wellspring for both the Model A and Model J passenger car engines.

Following the Armistice in November 1918, the demand for Duesenberg marine and aero engines fell as silent as the guns that had defended the Marne front, and by 1919 the Duesenberg-Loew-Victor partnership had dissolved. The Elizabeth, New Jersey factory was sold to John North Willys, and Fred sold the designs for his four- and six-cylinder passenger car engines to the Rochester Motor Company.

The new Duesenberg assembly plant in Indianapolis utilized the latest machinery available in 1921. This is the machine shop at Washington and Harding Streets. Note the complex overhead pulley system used to power all of the machines in the shop.

The new Duesenberg assembly plant in Indianapolis utilized the latest machinery available in 1921. This is the machine shop at Washington and Harding Streets. Note the complex overhead pulley system used to power all of the machines in the shop.

The Duesenberg facilities in Indianapolis provided for everything. This is the drafting room used by Fred Duesenberg and the engineering staff at various times. It was here that Fred would layout the design for the Model J in 1928.

The Duesenberg facilities in Indianapolis provided for everything. This is the drafting room used by Fred Duesenberg and the engineering staff at various times. It was here that Fred would layout the design for the Model J in 1928.

With their profits, the brothers had the resources to pursue further development of their straight-eight racing engine, as well as complete the design for a Duesenberg passenger car. Building their own cars had been in the back of Fred’s mind since the early days at the Mason Motor Car Company in Des Moines, Iowa, where he and Augie had designed touring cars, runabouts, roadsters, and the successful Mason race cars.

Fred and Augie often thought about automotive pioneers like Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, David Buick, Harry Stutz, and brothers John and Horace Dodge, who all had cars bearing their names. Why not Duesenberg? Why not take years of experience learned on racetracks from coast to coast and use it to build a better engineered, better performing road car? After World War I, the achievement of dreams nearly a decade old, was close at hand. But first they needed a company to build the cars.

Publicity photos had become essential by 1923 when this shot was taken in front of the Duesenberg Company’s main entrance on Washington and Harding Streets. Among the Model A body styles shown was the record setting phaeton (far right) that had completed three-weeks and 18,000 miles of endurance tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and then served as the pace car for the 500-mile Memorial Day classic in May.

Publicity photos had become essential by 1923 when this shot was taken in front of the Duesenberg Company’s main entrance on Washington and Harding Streets. Among the Model A body styles shown was the record setting phaeton (far right) that had completed three-weeks and 18,000 miles of endurance tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and then served as the pace car for the 500-mile Memorial Day classic in May.

Fred and Augie licensed the rights to the Duesenberg name, patents and designs to a group of investors headed by ReVere Motor Company President Newton E. Van Zandt, and his associate Luther M. Rankin. In March 1920, the new Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company was incorporated in Delaware. Of course, just as it had been with the Loew-Victor partnership, neither Fred nor Augie were shareholders in the venture; it was their company in name only. It did, however, allow them to build the first passenger cars to display the glorious winged Duesenberg 8 emblem.

In August 1920, only three months before the debut of the Duesenberg Straight 8 at New York’s Hotel Commodore, Fred and Augie formed yet another company, Duesenberg Brothers, to produce racing cars and engines for their own team and, as in the past, for anyone with the money to buy an engine or a race car. This meant that the Duesenberg team was often competing against itself, but Fred and Augie just looked at the number of cars on the track equipped with Duesenberg engines, chassis, or both, and smiled at each other.

Except to stop for tires and driver changes, the April 1923 endurance tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were non-stop. During this 24-hour record run, the engine was never shut off and the car was refueled in motion from another Model A chassis equipped with a large storage tank. And you thought the Air Force thought this up!

Except to stop for tires and driver changes, the April 1923 endurance tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were non-stop. During this 24-hour record run, the engine was never shut off and the car was refueled in motion from another Model A chassis equipped with a large storage tank. And you thought the Air Force thought this up!

It took a 14-man team and three AAA observers to verify the Duesenberg Model A’s 24-hours record run at Indianapolis in April 1923. The car clocked 3,155 miles in 24 hours for an average speed of 131.45 mph. In total the car accumulated over 18,000 miles during three weeks of endurance tests, and then paced the Indy 500 in May. It was the only instance in the history of the race when the pace car had more accumulated track time than the race cars!

It took a 14-man team and three AAA observers to verify the Duesenberg Model A’s 24-hours record run at Indianapolis in April 1923. The car clocked 3,155 miles in 24 hours for an average speed of 131.45 mph. In total the car accumulated over 18,000 miles during three weeks of endurance tests, and then paced the Indy 500 in May. It was the only instance in the history of the race when the pace car had more accumulated track time than the race cars!

Equipped with the new Duesenberg Straight 8, three race cars were taken to the Sheepshead Bay Speedway in November 1920. There, drivers Tommy Milton, Eddie O’Donnell, Milton’s former riding mechanic Jimmy Murphy, and newcomer Dave Lewis, proceeded to break virtually every American closed-course record for engine displacements from 183 cubic inches through 450 cubic inches. The Duesenberg was immediately sanctified in the eyes of both the automotive press and the public, advancing Fred and Augie to the zenith of racing prominence by 1920, and at the same time into the automotive spotlight with the first American luxury cars powered by a straight eight engine.

The Indy race in 1920 was another close call for the Duesenberg team with four cars on the starting grid. At the end of the day Tommy Milton had finished 3rd, Jimmy Murphy 4th, one car had retired with mechanical problems, and the fourth, driven by Eddie Hearne had come in 6th. Three cars in the top 10 wasn’t bad, but it was a disappointment to Fred Duesenberg, who had been looking forward to a repeat of the team’s 1-2-3-4 sweep at the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Speedway earlier that year.

When you mention Beverly Hills, California, the one thing that doesn’t come to mind is a racetrack, but in the 1920s there was indeed a racetrack in Beverly Hills, and in 1920 Duesenberg Brothers Engineering entered four cars in the April race. Tommy Milton who started in 11th position and finished third drove car No.10. The first four cars in the picture are all Duesenbergs.

When you mention Beverly Hills, California, the one thing that doesn’t come to mind is a racetrack, but in the 1920s there was indeed a racetrack in Beverly Hills, and in 1920 Duesenberg Brothers Engineering entered four cars in the April race. Tommy Milton who started in 11th position and finished third drove car No.10. The first four cars in the picture are all Duesenbergs.

In 1921 Fred and Augie set their sights even higher and sent a team of cars to Le Mans to race in the French Grand Prix. In an epic race that saw Duesenberg and driver Jimmy Murphy triumph, the battle was between Murphy and Ballot, with the renowned French race car driven by none other than Ralph DePalma.

In 1921 Fred and Augie set their sights even higher and sent a team of cars to Le Mans to race in the French Grand Prix. In an epic race that saw Duesenberg and driver Jimmy Murphy triumph, the battle was between Murphy and Ballot, with the renowned French race car driven by none other than Ralph DePalma.

Duesenberg race cars continued to do well throughout 1920, increasing interest in the soon to be introduced passenger cars. Tommy Milton broke seven world speed records at Daytona Beach in a specially prepared “Twin Eight” sixteen-cylinder race car. At the final event of the season, in Beverly Hills, California, driver Eddie Miller finished 2nd in what would become a tragic race for the Duesenberg team. A collision on the 138th lap claimed the lives of Duesenberg driver Eddie O’Donnell, driving car No. 9; his riding mechanic Lyall Johls; and the illustrious Gaston Chevrolet, who was driving a Monroe-Frontenac. O’Donnell had been racing for the Duesenberg brothers since 1912. It was a terrible loss.

Another loss, though not tragic, came in 1921 when Tommy Milton decided to drive for Frontenac, snatching yet another year’s Indianapolis victory from the Duesenberg team. Once again the bridesmaid at Indy, with driver Roscoe Sarles finishing second, Fred and Augie set their sights on an even greater prize, the prestigious French Grand Prix at Le Mans.

Duesenberg model A Town car model

Town Car and Town Brougham models from 1921 and 1923 exhibit the truly luxurious styling the Duesenberg offered. Bodied by Fleetwood, and Millspaugh & Irish, the top-of-the-line models sold for a breathtaking $7,800 and $8,800 respectively. Only a few of the distinctive Town Cars were produced. The mixture of opera lights above the doors, and swiveling windshield lights were a unique combination. The Town Brougham, with open driver’s compartment, was displayed on the Fleetwood stand at the 1921 New York salon.

Town Car and Town Brougham models from 1921 and 1923 exhibit the truly luxurious styling the Duesenberg offered. Bodied by Fleetwood, and Millspaugh & Irish, the top-of-the-line models sold for a breathtaking $7,800 and $8,800 respectively. Only a few of the distinctive Town Cars were produced. The mixture of opera lights above the doors, and swiveling windshield lights were a unique combination. The Town Brougham, with open driver’s compartment, was displayed on the Fleetwood stand at the 1921 New York salon.

Four cars were shipped to France early in the summer with their hopes pinned on lead driver Jimmy Murphy. Driving the latest model, equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes, Murphy was able to outrun, out corner and out brake his European competitors, beating Ralph DePalma’s Ballot by an astounding 14 minutes! Indy might have been the crown jewel of American auto racing, but to win the Le Mans was incomparable. As it had done for so many others, the victory in France immediately elevated Duesenberg to world-class celebrity.

With the debut of the Model A in November 1920, followed by the victory at Le Mans in 1921, the company should have been off to a triumphant start, but Fred made a decision before the car’s unveiling to change the engine from a horizontal valve straight eight to the newer single overhead camshaft straight eight used in his racing cars.

Duesenberg straight eight in chassis

Duesenberg Model A chassis

The Model A was a magnificent chassis. Built like a race car (and several would be converted for that purpose in the late 1920s) it was made as light as possible and the straight eight engine, also based on Fred Duesenberg’s race cars, made the Model A one of the highest performance cars of its day. They were the first American automobiles to be equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes. The wheelbase measured 134-inches and in 1924 a longer, 141-inches wheelbase chassis was added. Among slogans used to publicize the luxury marque was this rather bold statement: “Built to Outclass, Outrun, and Outlast Any Car on the Road.”

The original design for the Model A had been conceived in 1919 in the small Duesenberg Brothers workshop in Newark. There, a staff of designers and engineers had worked with Fred and Augie ironing out the details of the car, which would debut in 1920, equipped with the eight-cylinder, horizontal valve engine based on the earlier four-cylinder Duesenberg racing engines. Fred’s change to the newer design would delay production of the Model A by nearly six months, and in the end cost the Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company dearly.

It was a bad decision, but the company’s president and vice-president, Newton E. Van Zandt, and Luther M. Rankin, were unwilling to disagree with Fred. Van Zandt, who had known the Duesenberg brothers since 1917, had been appointed president by the board of directors. Rankin was appointed both company vice-president and general manager. Fred was named vice-president in charge of engineering, and in that capacity he was responsible for the quality and performance of the cars, and the decision to redesign the Model A before it went into production. Van Zandt and Rankin might have stepped in and told him to make the change after the first series of cars were introduced, to make the new engine an option, or even a second model. But their lack of experience in the automobile business and naiveté about manufacturing blinded them from the impending consequences of their inaction.

A truly unusual body style was created by Binder for the very first Duesenberg Straight Eight built and sold in 1921. The car is pictured in front of the Indianapolis, Indiana, showroom. On the showroom floor is Tommy Milton’s “Twin 8” record car, which hurtled to seven world speed records at Daytona Beach in 1920.

A truly unusual body style was created by Binder for the very first Duesenberg Straight Eight built and sold in 1921. The car is pictured in front of the Indianapolis, Indiana, showroom. On the showroom floor is Tommy Milton’s “Twin 8” record car, which hurtled to seven world speed records at Daytona Beach in 1920.

At the same time Fred was redesigning the engine, Van Zandt, Rankin and their investors were making plans to move Duesenberg from Newark, New Jersey, to Indianapolis, Indiana. In May 1921, the newly developed headquarters and manufacturing facilities for Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company of Indianapolis, Indiana were ready, but Fred’s redesign of the engine and changes to the chassis were not. It would take another three months before the Model A would go into production. From the time of the Duesenberg’s debut in November 1920, until the first cars were rolling off the Indianapolis assembly line, nearly 10 months had elapsed! Fred Duesenberg justified this by explaining that the Model A was now better engineered than the original design and that the engine was both more efficient and cost $150 less per unit to produce.

For the 1923 Indianapolis 500, Fred Duesenberg drove the pace car, the very same Model A phaeton that had amassed 18,000 test miles the previous month on the Indy oval.

For the 1923 Indianapolis 500, Fred Duesenberg drove the pace car, the very same Model A phaeton that had amassed 18,000 test miles the previous month on the Indy oval.

The Model A was engineered like a race car, lighter by some 400 pounds than other cars of similar size, and powered by a race-proven, overhead camshaft, straight eight with two valves per cylinder. The 88-90 horsepower cars were capable of reaching a top speed of 95 mph; yet efficient enough to return an average economy of 18 to 22 mpg.

Production in 1921-22 was frustratingly slow as Fred continued to refine the engine, chassis and suspension while the cars were being built. It would take until the end of 1922 before he was finally satisfied with the quality and the performance of the Model A, and by then all hell was breaking lose in Indianapolis.

If there were any doubts that Duesenberg was building the Model A in 1921, this photo taken in front of the factory hopefully assuaged any of the stockholder’s fears. Of course, it was only a front; production was well below expectations by 1922 and Fred Duesenberg was continually improving upon the cars. More than 1,000 cars should have been built by the end of 1922, but production totals were around 150.

If there were any doubts that Duesenberg was building the Model A in 1921, this photo taken in front of the factory hopefully assuaged any of the stockholder’s fears. Of course, it was only a front; production was well below expectations by 1922 and Fred Duesenberg was continually improving upon the cars. More than 1,000 cars should have been built by the end of 1922, but production totals were around 150.

The king of the silent screen cowboys, Tom Mix’s movie career spanned 26 years from 1909 through 1935 and included 336 feature films. In 1922 he starred in “Sky High” and “Just Tony.” As one of America’s highest paid film stars he could afford the $6,500 price of this 1922 Duesenberg roadster, which was custom bodied at Don Lee coachbuilders in Los Angeles and designed by a young stylist named Harley Earl. The picture was taken at Mix’s Hollywood home.

The king of the silent screen cowboys, Tom Mix’s movie career spanned 26 years from 1909 through 1935 and included 336 feature films. In 1922 he starred in “Sky High” and “Just Tony.” As one of America’s highest paid film stars he could afford the $6,500 price of this 1922 Duesenberg roadster, which was custom bodied at Don Lee coachbuilders in Los Angeles and designed by a young stylist named Harley Earl. The picture was taken at Mix’s Hollywood home.

No sooner had the Duesenberg Straight 8 gone into production at Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company in Indianapolis, than things began to fall apart. It started in June 1921, following Newton E. Van Zandt’s involvement in fraudulent stock dealings at the ReVere Motor Company, which led to his resignation as president of Duesenberg. His replacement was Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company board member B.A. Worthington, whose prior experience, unfortunately, was in running railroads, not automobile companies.

Aside from the executive-level exigencies, down on the assembly line floor, there was even more trouble. The original plan, as proposed to the investors by Van Zandt and Rankin, had been to produce 100 cars per month, but by December 1922, the company had built no more than 150 cars! Further compounding the problem was the realization that none of the senior managers, including Luther Rankin, who was essentially running the company by 1922, had the necessary experience to effectively supervise the assembly lines, sales or marketing departments. So much time had been spent courting investors and building the Duesenberg factory that no one had seen to the establishment of a dealer organization. In 1922, in New York City, where the Model A had made its debut, there wasn’t even a Duesenberg dealer! When Luther Rankin became the third company president in 1923, following Worthington’s resignation, Duesenberg was on the brink of disaster.

The Model A Duesenberg was never called the Model A. It was known simply as the “Duesenberg Straight 8” and was not referred to as the Model A until after the Model J appeared. The only known use of the “A” prefix was on the design drawings.

The Model A Duesenberg was never called the Model A. It was known simply as the “Duesenberg Straight 8” and was not referred to as the Model A until after the Model J appeared. The only known use of the “A” prefix was on the design drawings.

Duesenberg Straight Eight logo

Of course, this was all behind closed doors. To the public, the Model A was an exemplary motorcar, offered with superb body styles from the leading American coachbuilders—Leon Rubay & Co., Bender, Springfield, Locke, Brunn, Fleetwood and Millspaugh & Irish. The range of models included sporty roadsters and phaetons, coupes, sedans, and luxurious town cars, broughams, and limousines. The Model A Duesenberg was an elegant and expensive car with an average price of $5,700 in 1923 for a Fleetwood designed roadster, and as much as $7,500 for a Duesenberg Sedan Limousine. Cadillac, America’s most established luxury marque, offered its Imperial Limousine starting at $4,600, and a sporty two-passenger roadster for $3,150. Even the stunning Packard Twin-Six with its clockwork quality twelve-cylinder engine averaged no more than $5,200 in 1923.

Even in the 1920s the Duesenberg was the car of stars. Pictured with a 1924 limousine are Leatrice Joy, Malcolm MacGregor and Lois Wilson, who had just taken delivery of her new Duesenberg straight eight. Wilson co-stared with Alan Hale in one of Hollywood’s first epic westerns, “The Covered Wagon,” directed by James Cruze and produced by Paramount Pictures in 1923. Latrice Joy co-starred in C.B. DeMille’s original 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments.”

Even in the 1920s the Duesenberg was the car of stars. Pictured with a 1924 limousine are Leatrice Joy, Malcolm MacGregor and Lois Wilson, who had just taken delivery of her new Duesenberg straight eight. Wilson co-stared with Alan Hale in one of Hollywood’s first epic westerns, “The Covered Wagon,” directed by James Cruze and produced by Paramount Pictures in 1923. Latrice Joy co-starred in C.B. DeMille’s original 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments.”

The Model A Duesenberg was offering a kind of cachet that appealed only to the wealthiest clients, and as a result, sales for the entire model year were dismal, with only 241 engines and chassis built, including one bodied as a phaeton and driven by Fred Duesenberg as the pace car for the 1923 Indianapolis 500. It was purchased immediately after the race by a man from Chicago.

Augie Duesenberg spent most of his time managing the Duesenberg Brothers racing department. He often hung around with his drivers and is pictured behind the wheel of a new Model A sedan with 1925 Indy 500 winner Peter DePaolo leaning on the left front fender. Also pictured are Babe Doyle (on front bumper), Phil “Red” Shafer and Wade Morton.

Augie Duesenberg spent most of his time managing the Duesenberg Brothers racing department. He often hung around with his drivers and is pictured behind the wheel of a new Model A sedan with 1925 Indy 500 winner Peter DePaolo leaning on the left front fender. Also pictured are Babe Doyle (on front bumper), Phil “Red” Shafer and Wade Morton.

The following year, Duesenberg production increased, as did the number of dealers offering the Model A in lucrative markets like New York, Southern California, and Chicago. A great deal of publicity was also generated when a Duesenberg race car won the 1924 Indianapolis 500 with America’s first supercharged straight eight engine. But it was all too little too late. The flood of red ink that had been carried over from 1923 was irreversible, and in January 1924 the company had been forced into receivership by one of its creditors, Acme Works, Inc.

Out West in sunny Southern California, Duesenberg sales were going strong, making Los Angeles one of the largest markets. Duesenberg chassis were also being fitted with custom bodies built in California or equipped with “California tops” such as the center model in this photo at the Shafer, Harrigan, & Cleveland, Inc. dealership in Los Angeles.

Out West in sunny Southern California, Duesenberg sales were going strong, making Los Angeles one of the largest markets. Duesenberg chassis were also being fitted with custom bodies built in California or equipped with “California tops” such as the center model in this photo at the Shafer, Harrigan, & Cleveland, Inc. dealership in Los Angeles.

In 1924 Duesenberg added a longer 141-inch wheelbase chassis for formal coachwork, which accommodated such luxurious styling as this Deluxe Limousine by Rubay. Priced at $7,800 in 1924 it was $3,200 more than Cadillac’s Type V-63 Limousine and better than double the price of Cadillac’s Seven-Passenger Formal Sedan.

In 1924 Duesenberg added a longer 141-inch wheelbase chassis for formal coachwork, which accommodated such luxurious styling as this Deluxe Limousine by Rubay. Priced at $7,800 in 1924 it was $3,200 more than Cadillac’s Type V-63 Limousine and better than double the price of Cadillac’s Seven-Passenger Formal Sedan.

Duesenberg was placed in the control of William T. Rasmussen, representing the Delaware Corporation, and plant general manager Chester S. Ricker, who assumed the position in July 1922 from Duesenberg vice-president and general manager Luther M. Rankin, who had finally realized he was unqualified for the job. Rasmussen and Ricker managed to convince the creditors that continuing to operate the company in 1924 would be preferable to its liquidation. There was still strong belief in Fred Duesenberg, and in the cars themselves. What the company needed was better management and more money to operate. Fred took up the cause, finding new investors and, in February 1925, he purchased the remaining assets of the Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company and reorganized it as the Duesenberg Motors Company, an old and familiar name. Fred became both president and general manager, with James H. Dunn as vice-president, and Augie as a member of the company board of directors.

One of the more unusual body designs for the Duesenberg chassis was this limousine built by the firm of Charles Schutte in 1922. The interior featured upholstered furniture with wooden armrests. It truly was a living room on wheels.

One of the more unusual body designs for the Duesenberg chassis was this limousine built by the firm of Charles Schutte in 1922. The interior featured upholstered furniture with wooden armrests. It truly was a living room on wheels.

Among the leading coachbuilders for the Duesenberg Model A was Locke & Co. of New York. Although formal vehicles were Locke’s forte, this sporty dual-cowl phaeton was built on the 134-inch chassis in 1927, very near the end of the model’s production.

Among the leading coachbuilders for the Duesenberg Model A was Locke & Co. of New York. Although formal vehicles were Locke’s forte, this sporty dual-cowl phaeton was built on the 134-inch chassis in 1927, very near the end of the model’s production.

To Fred’s good fortune a Duesenberg race car won again at Indianapolis in 1925, and the back-to-back victories helped to briefly invigorate sales. Owning a car built by the same company that had twice won the coveted Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was a matchless incentive. But even that wasn’t enough to keep the Indiana automaker in the black. With production running at little better than two cars per week, total sales for 1925 would not exceed 129 cars, and soon the new Duesenberg Motors Company also began to fill ledger pages with red ink.

One of the problems Fred recognized was that the advanced technology he had introduced with the Model A back in 1920: an overhead cam straight eight engine, four-wheel hydraulic brakes, and superior handling and riding characteristics, were no longer features exclusive to the Duesenberg. Just as Harry Miller’s front-wheel-drive race cars were closing the distance on Fred and Augie’s Duesenberg straight 8, so too was the competition catching up with the Model A.

The stately five-passenger, six window sedan was introduced in 1926 at a price of $7,700. Coachwork was produced by Millspaugh & Irish.

The stately five-passenger, six window sedan was introduced in 1926 at a price of $7,700. Coachwork was produced by Millspaugh & Irish.

Model A Duesenberg Interiot and Steering Wheel

By updating the chassis, to further improve ride quality, and slightly increasing performance from the engine, Fred made a modest attempt to create a new Duesenberg, the Model X, which was briefly produced in 1927. But it was all for naught.

In October 1926, Errett Lobban Cord, a longtime admirer of Fred Duesenberg, spearheaded the purchase of the Duesenberg Motor Company, which he reorganized as Duesenberg, Inc. Cord became president, and Fred, who had a sizable financial stake in the new company, was the vice-president in charge of engineering and the experimental laboratory. Unchained from the tasks of management, Fred began the design of the finest, fastest, and most powerful automobile America or the world had ever seen.

This was obviously someone’s very expensive gift, as evidenced by the ribbon tied around the hood. This unusual 1922 Duesenberg roadster is parked in front of a monument to The National Road (later part of U.S. Route 40) that ran from Cumberland, Maryland, to Terra Haute, Indiana, where this photograph was taken. The coachbuilder is unknown but the long rear deck, cycle fenders and absence of running boards certainly make this an interesting design.

This was obviously someone’s very expensive gift, as evidenced by the ribbon tied around the hood. This unusual 1922 Duesenberg roadster is parked in front of a monument to The National Road (later part of U.S. Route 40) that ran from Cumberland, Maryland, to Terra Haute, Indiana, where this photograph was taken. The coachbuilder is unknown but the long rear deck, cycle fenders and absence of running boards certainly make this an interesting design.

A roadster looked great no matter what was under the hood, but when it was a Duesenberg straight eight on that long stretch of 134-inches, it was just a little better than any other in 1922. The rear-mounted spare added to the rugged good looks of this car, which by 1923 was a standard cataloged body style.

A roadster looked great no matter what was under the hood, but when it was a Duesenberg straight eight on that long stretch of 134-inches, it was just a little better than any other in 1922. The rear-mounted spare added to the rugged good looks of this car, which by 1923 was a standard cataloged body style.

In the interim, E.L. Cord was doing what he was famous for, making the best of a bad situation and cleaning up the mess that had been the Duesenberg Motor Co. After six years, only about 650 Model A Duesenbergs had been built, and in 1927 Cord finally rang down the curtain on the Model A, along with the short-lived Model X, of which roughly a dozen were built. In 1928 there would be no automobile production at the Indianapolis factory while everyone prepared for the debut of Fred Duesenberg and E.L. Cord’s masterpiece.

1926 Duesenberg Model A Sedan

Handsome, stylish, luxurious, any or all aptly described the Duesenberg Straight Eight. Pictured is the popular sedan model, which sold for $7,700 in 1926.

Handsome, stylish, luxurious, any or all aptly described the Duesenberg Straight Eight. Pictured is the popular sedan model, which sold for $7,700 in 1926.

In December 1928 the Model A’s successor was unveiled at the New York automobile salon, and with the arrival of the Model J Duesenberg a new chapter in the history of the American automobile was about to unfold.

Another superb example of Duesenberg Model A styling, a sporty 1923 roadster with coachwork by Rubay. Once again note the small, swiveling sidelights attached to the windshield frame. The car is also equipped with a golf bag door on the driver’s side.

Another superb example of Duesenberg Model A styling, a sporty 1923 roadster with coachwork by Rubay. Once again note the small, swiveling sidelights attached to the windshield frame. The car is also equipped with a golf bag door on the driver’s side.

Read More Car Collector Magazine Articles

by Dennis Adler
© Car Collector Magazine, LLC.
(Click for more Car Collector Magazine articles)
Originally appeared in the June and July 2004 Issues

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