Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival
Saturday June 2, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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