Duesenberg Historical Highlights
Henry W. Duesenberg: birth 16 September 1863, death 27 September 1940 Friedrich (Fred) S. Duesenberg: birth 6 December 1876, death 26 July 1932 August (Augie) S. Duesenberg: birth 12 December 1879, death 18 January 1955
All three brothers were born in Kirchbeide, Lippe-Detmold, Germany. Lippe was a farming community. It was the dream of Henry to seek his fortune across the sea in America. Louise Konradina Duesenberg, widowed two years after August was born wasn’t about to let Henry go until he was at least 21. Older brother Henry left for America in 1884, and soon after brought his siblings and mother over to live with him in Iowa.
Fred and Augie were 8 and 5 when they arrived in the United States. They had to learn to speak English before attending school. Neither ever forgot how to speak German.
1893 At age 17, Fred takes his first job with an implement dealer in Rockford. There he quickly demonstrates his mechanical aptitudes and creative thinking in repairing implements and other service problems. (Our family historian, Esther Duesenberg Halm, a niece of Fred, said they bad no idea what was in his bead to achieve. But she said it was a sudden “blooming” when he took his first job.) Fred seems to take the lead and gains early publicity. Augie has an indispensable role as his right hand helpmate. The brothers are a great team, often good-naturedly bantering, both having a quick sense of humor, much patience and a strong commitment to excellence on every level. These traits, coupled with their bulldog tenacity, enable them to solve problems with uncanny success. [Some of the Duesenberg relatives have said that because of German custom that the elder sibling in the family should take the lead and because Fred was several years senior, Augie’s role was to follow Fred.]
1896 Fred opens a bicycle shop on Main Street in Rockford. Augie soon joins him and later opens his own shop in Garner. During this Fred designs a racing bicycle to his own specifications. He enters various races and sets a world record that stands for 14 years. (According to another historian in our family, Fred’s bicycle races were paced by a horse, but he had a better idea. Why not use a motorcycle as a pacer? No motorcycle then built could compete with his legs so he promptly built a motor and mounted it on a bicycle.) His first internal combustion engine was exhibited at the Chicago Auto Show in 1905.
1900 First garage opens in Des Moines and Fred gets a job there repairing cars and tuning engines. He is so successful he opens the second garage in Des Moines.
1901 In the second garage, Fred acquires a used Marion car and redesigns the air-cooled 4 cylinder F‑head engine. Fred fits individual exhaust pipes to each cylinder, a feature carried over to Duesenberg racing cars and other Duesenberg models.
1903 Fred enters the car in the Annual County Fair at Mason City, Iowa and wins the race. Fred takes a job with Thomas B. Jeffery Co. in Kenosha, WI as a test driver. Thomas B. Jeffery is one of the pioneers of the American motor industry. He begins as the maker of the Rambler bicycle and later the Rambler car, which at one time holds the number 3 spot among cars made. Fred remains with Jeffery for two years and gains first hand knowledge of auto design and manufacturing.
1906 Fred returns to Des Moines. With the financial backing of local attorney Edward R. Mason, the Mason Motor Co. is founded. The Duesenbergs, like Henry Ford believes automobile racing is the fastest and surest way to win publicity for a motor car. They decide to enter races with their Mason racing car. Fred breaks his collar bone while driving in a Milwaukee 24 hour endurance race. The Duesenberg‑Mason engine is considered a powerful unit and an excellent hill climber. To demonstrate its power, Fred drives it up the 47 steps leading to the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (According to Esther Duesenberg Hahn, Fred not only drove it up the steps, but turned around, descended to the bottom, and backed the car up to the top, just for good measure.)
1910 Mason sells the motor company to Fred L. Maytag, the washing machine manufacturer. The company moves to Waterloo, Iowa. Fred and Augie move with it and by the end of 1911, Maytag decides to how out of the car manufacturing business. Fred continues to work on his racing activities with the support of Mason. The race cars are known as Masons.
1911 & 1912 Fred works for the Sears Automobile Company, a dealership in Des Moines which sells Reo and Mitchell automobiles. Augie continues to build and work on their racing cars.
1913 In June, they form “Duesenberg Motor Company,” and put the family name on their cars. All the equipment is moved to the Twin Cities, Minnesota. During this time they soon begin to win recognition for small high speed, high performance powerplants and marine engines.
1914 In January the Duesenberg brothers begin to work on two 12 cylinder engines of 200 horsepower each, coupled in tandem, as a 24 cylinder powerplant for Commodore Pugh. Pugh wants to win the 1914 International Harmsworth Trophy race in England. Because of World War I the race is canceled. Nonetheless, the speedboat sets a world record of nautical miles‑a‑minute, (69.12) mph. It’s the first time a boat is ever propelled faster than 60 mph. The powerplant produces a mind‑boggling rating of 600 horsepower.
1914 Indy 500 The first Duesenberg entry in the Indianapolis 500 finishes 10th and 12th. Eddie Rickenbacker is their “ace” driver who finishes 10th and goes on to score numerous victories for Duesenberg racing throughout the United States. Later Rickenbacker becomes America’s top flying ace in world war I, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and also President and CEO of Eastern Airlines.
1914 The rest of the racing season, Duesenberg Racing racks up a record of 34 firsts, 7 seconds and 14 thirds in 73 starts.
1915 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 8th.
1915 Fred begins designing marine engines for Lowe‑Victor Company in Chicago as their chief engineer. Throughout this period, Fred’s career alternates between race car development and factory design work. Fred’s contribution to the Loew Victor Company is a design portfolio including his “Patrol” six- and eight-cylinder marine engines, his four cylinder aircraft and passenger car engines, and his V12 aircraft motor.
1916 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 2nd. The United States enters World War I. Duesenberg Motors moves to New York City in 1917, to land government contract work. Bolstered by the big government contracts, Duesenberg Motors soon expanded into a new plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey 187,000 square feet on nine acres accommodating a 1,200-man work force. They build the big 8-cylinder-in-line marine engines and four V-16, 800 hp engines for the U.S. Army and Navy. They work on the Liberty V-12 aircraft engine. They have a contract to build the 500 hp V-16, Bugatti aviation engine. Also in this facility they built a 160 by 4-cylinder tractor engine. During this time Fred and Augie develop their prototype single overhead cam Duesenberg Eight In Line. While still at Elizabeth, NJ, Fred and Augie’s discussions jell into a dream with a new goal, probably summed up in the later Duesenberg slogan. The slogan: “Built to Outclass, Outrun, and Outlast any car on the road.”
1919 Fred and Augie complete their first drawing for a passenger car bearing the family name, powered by a waxing-beam, eight-in-a-row engine. They also plan a single overhead cam straight-eight race engine of 183 cubic inches. The reduction in displacement suggests an ulterior motive. In an attempt to promote safety and slower speeds for 1920, the Indianapolis 500 reduces the maximum displacement from 300 cid to 183 cid. The Duesenberg brothers design their new engine to comply. (Our family historian says if Fred had one over‑riding, burning ambition, it was to win the Indy 500.) Shortly after the war, one of Duesenbergs star drivers, Tommy Milton, takes one of the 16‑valve racing engines and sets 19 new speed records for distances up to 300 miles. For one 25-mile stretch averages116.2 mph. Not long after this they set another record with a new stock car speed record of 105.1 mph. The brothers sell their interest in the Elizabeth plant and make the final move to Indianapolis, Fred’s spiritual home. Their new plant opens in 1921, within several miles of his beloved Speedway. In 1919 Indianapolis is second only to Detroit as a home for U.S. car makers. Besides their obsession with racing and engines, they still hope to build and design their own passenger car under the Family name.
1920 In March Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors is formed. Five months later they started another company just for their racing activities. This one, was called Duesenberg Brothers, and achieves considerable glory in the following seven years. Their 183 cid straight-eight race car starts winning right off the mark in 1920, with top drivers like Jimmy Murphy and Tommy Milton.
1920 Indy 500 – Duesenberg Racing finishes 3rd, 4th and 6th. Duesenberg also wins three other top races in the country that year. All are grueling, long distance races.
1920 Duesenberg records speed record at Daytona Beach of 156.046 mph. A record that stands for 6 years.
1920 The first prototype Duesenberg passenger car is completed.
1921 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th.
1921 French Grand. Prize Race at Le Mans Duesenberg Racing wins 1st place by over 15 minutes. Duesenberg also finishes 4th and 6th. This victory is the only U.S. win of a Grand Prix until the sixties, and remains one of the proudest achievements in American racing.
1921 The first passenger car produced under the Duesenberg name isintroduced to the American market. It pioneers the straight 8 engine, which becomes the preferred engine configuration of the decade, preceding Packard’s by three years. It pioneers four-wheel brakes with hydraulic actuation, the most important chassis and safety improvement for years to come, four years ahead of Chrysler.
1922 Indy 500 Duesenberg cars finish 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th.
1923 Fred Duesenberg paces the Indianapolis 500 in a model “A” Phaeton Duesenberg.
1924 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 1st and 6th. Duesenberg runs the first supercharger on an Indy car.
1925 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 1st, 3rd and 8th. A new speed record is set with a average speed of 101.13 per hour. This is the first time the speed goes past the century mark a record that stands for seven years.
1925 Duesenberg Racing captures the AAA championship.
1926 E.L. Cord purchases Duesenberg Motors. Racing is abandoned as a factory-backed activity. Due to the sale and Fred’s failing health he concentrates on the Model J. Augie continues with Duesenberg racing. But the two brothers decide to carry on as a private venture. New engine limits complicates matters. This time the cubic inches is lowered to 91. Fred has ideas for a 2-cycle engine and experiments with one in the 1926 500. He doesn’t pursue this engine due to his commitment designing the “J”.
1926 Indy, 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 5th.
1927 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 1st and 5th.
1928 The Duesenberg Mighty Model J is christened. Two lofty goals are achieved: the production of the best car in the world, and the most advanced. The Model J, (straight 8) displaces 420 cubic inches and produces 265 hp at 4200 rpm, while the 1930 Cadillac V16 offers a 452 cid engine generating 185 hp at 3200 rpm. People are simply amazed that this fabulous new car goes 90 miles per hour in second gear, and 116 to 120 mph in high. A supercharger follows producing 320 horsepower.
1929 Indy 500 Duesenberg finishes 3rd and 5th..
1929-1930 Duesenberg breaks existing sales records for its class, according to the Automobile Manufacturers Association. The stock market crash proves to be devastating for Duesenberg, though not initially. The Great Depression takes it toll, opulence is not considered appropriate in hard times.
1930 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 5th and 6th.
1931 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 2nd, 6th and 7th.
1932 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 7th and 9th.
1932 The supercharged Duesenberg designated “SJ” is announced. Developing 320 horsepower and a top speed of 140 mph. The Duesenberg J runs from zero to 100 mph in seven seconds and hits 104 in second gear. The Duesenberg is ahead of the competition again, and enthusiasm in the press and public is higher than ever. Relief from the Depression, however, is nowhere in sight.
1932 Fred Duesenberg is driving to Indiana from New York City when his Model J skids off the road in Pennsylvania. The injuries don’t seem to be life threatening. Fred writes home and describes the accident, assuring everyone that there is nothing to worry about, that he will be home in a few days. The doctors want him to stay longer. In the meantime, double pneumonia sets in. This is the seventh time Fred lights pneumonia. Fred’s lungs improve but his heart can’t take the strain. Friedrich S. Duesenberg dies on July 26, 1932, at the age of 56. This sudden and tragic death sends a shock wave through the motor car world. A friend says, “It was like a violin string breaking in the middle of a beautiful note.” Says a tribute published in Motor, “Pew men were better known or better liked in the automotive industry. He never saw obstacles. He always seemed to find a way out.” When they carry Fred Duesenberg to his grave in Indianapolis there are few dry eyes among the crowd of people who come to bid him farewell. The race drivers, engineers, mechanics and factory workers, shamelessly shed tears. Perhaps most fitting of all the tributes is the great floral arrangement in the form of a checkered flag they lay upon his grave as a flight of airplanes dip in salute over the gravesite. Reverend Mr. Kistler: “Fred Duesenberg had the soul of a seer. And the heart of a boy.” Fred’s death brings the dissolution of Duesenberg Brothers. Augie continues to working with racing cars until Cord asks him to work on supercharging the Lycoming straight eight and the Lycoming V8. With Fred gone, it’s difficult for Augie to carry on with the overall marketing and management of the racing and production lines. The Duesenberg line is eventually incorporated into Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg.
1933 Enzo Ferrari purchases a Duesenberg race car, and adds the car to his Ferrari Scuderia of Alfa‑Romeos and enters it in the Italian Grand Prix. This car later sets the 3-5 liter class record on Brooklands Speedway at 138.15 mph in 1934 and the record still stands when the track is abandoned in 1940.
1934 Indy 500 Duesenberg Racing finishes 5th.
1935 Indy 500 The Duesenberg Racing era comes to an end. The last Duesenberg to make the field drops out, ending a long colorful Duesenberg racing career at the Brickyard.
1936 Beginning in 1935, Augie builds the “Mormon Meteor” for Ab Jenkins. The mayor, adventurer, and speed record holder from Salt Lake City enlists Augie to make his “Duesenberg Special” a world record holder. With the mighty Duesenberg running flawlessly, and topping 160 mph at times, Jenkins manages to bring that 24‑hour endurance record back to America at 135.47 mph. He crosses the finish line at more than 160 mph. This in 120 degree heat, covering 3,253 miles in 24 hours, with stops for tires and fuel every 400 miles. For one entire hour during the run the mighty car averages an official record of 152.145 mph. This record stands for years and years. If anybody needs to know which is the fastest motor car in the world, all they have to do is point west …to Utah …and Duesenberg.
1937 The last Duesenberg J made is for artist Rudolf Bauer, of Berlin, Germany. It is finally completed in 1940.
Fred and Augie Duesenberg compile a list of achievements unsurpassed in the history of the American motor car: The men who designed and built one of the most powerful of the early, pioneering motor cars, the Mason. The men who developed a unique concept in engine design, the walking beam valve engine, which powered some of the fastest race cars in America in the period 1912-1920. The men who developed the :first straight eight racing engine and the first straight eight passenger car. The men who built the first American race car to win the European Grand Prix. The men who built a machine that set a world speed record on the sands of Daytona Beach. The men who built a marine engine that set a world speed record. The men who designed and built the first successful supercharger for racing cars. The men who did pioneering work on hydraulic brakes. The men who built racing cars that four times won the Indy 500. Finally, the men who designed and built the mighty Duesenberg Model J, so widely acclaimed as the greatest passenger car ever made. A machine that would be proclaimed king of them all. A motor car upon which more superlatives would be showered than any other motor car in American history. Then and now.
Histories, Narratives and General Interest:
Auburn Cord Duesenberg (Motorbooks International Crestline Series)
Don Butler / Hardcover / Published 1992
Illustrated Duesenberg Buyer’s Guide (Motorbooks International Illustrated Buyer’s Guide)
Josh B. Malks / Paperback / Published 1993
Louis William and Newport, J. Herbert Steinwedel / Published 1983
Duesenberg : The Mightiest American Motor Car
J.E. Elbert / Published 1975
Duesenberg : The Pursuit of Perfection
Fred Roe / Published 1982
Duesenberg Model J Owners Companion
Dan R. Post / Published 1974
The Duesenberg; the story of America’s premier car
Louis William Steinwedel
Errett Lobban Cord : his empire, his motorcars : Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg
Road & track on Auburn Cord & Duesenberg, 1952-1984