The beautifully restored Duesenberg.
One of the stunners at Warbirds and Wheels, a real wow of sheen and class. According to Duesenberg records this car was sold new to Hollywood star Carole Lombard in 1934. It carries the La Baron ‘sweep panel’ dual-cowl sports phaeton body. One of nine made. The La Baron has been described as the “quintessential Duesenberg” design.
The Duesenberg story is a story of two immigrant brothers and a dream to build the finest automobile in the world. Frederick and August Duesenberg were born in Lippe, Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1884 with their widowed mother and four older brothers and sisters.
The brothers were raised on a farm in Rockford, Iowa. A few years after leaving school the pair teamed up to open a bicycle shop but it wasn’t long before they moved into the automotive business. In 1906, the brothers received financial backing from lawyer Edward R. Mason and they began building a lightweight two-cylinder Mason automobile.
In 1909 the company was bought by Senator Frederick Louis Maytag but the relationship was shortlived and in 1911 Maytag decided his future lay in washing machines not cars. By 1913 Fred and Augie had moved to St Paul, Minnesota and established the Duesenberg Motor Company specialising in racing car and powered boat engines.
America’s first supercharged racing car wins the 1924 Indy 500.
The Duesenberg name started to be noticed when Eddie Rickenbacker the famed World War One fighter ace, drove a Duesenberg to place finish in the 1914 Indianapolis 500. Duesenbergs would go on to win the ‘Indy 500’ in 1924,1925 and 1927. The brand gained international recognition when American Jimmy Murphy drove a Duesenberg to win the French Grand Prix.
Following World War One the brothers moved to Indianapolis and work on their own production cars. The result was the Duesenberg Model A debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1920. The Model A did not sell as well as had been hoped and the Duesenberg Company began to struggle.
It was then bought by Errett Lobban Cord in 1926. Cord was producing motor cars under the Auburn brand. Fred stayed on while Augie left to run a separate Duesenberg car producing company. E.L. Cord gave free reign to produce “the greatest automobile ever built in the United States”. In less than two years Fred came up with the Duesenberg Model J. The car was based around a powerful eight cylinder motor producing two hundred and sixty five horsepower. In the mid 1930’s Duesenberg brought out a super charged version giving three hundred and twenty five horsepower and top speeds reaching one hundred and forty miles per hour. Its nearest rivals at the time, the V16 Cadillac and V12 Packards put out one hundred and seventy five horsepower.
Only the rich and powerful owned a Duesenberg. Over the years owners have included Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Al Capone, Mae West, Howard Hughes, The Duke of Windsor, William Randolph Hearst and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.
The Duesenberg Model J has been described as the greatest car ever made in the United States. In the 1930’s it was regarded as the fastest, most flamboyant and technically advanced motor vehicle in the world. There was nothing quite like it and the Duesenberg J was the first American car to head to head with the best European cars when it came to luxury and engineering.
Advertising for the Duesenberg pulled no punches.
Advertisements described the Model J as “The World’s Finest Motor Car”. They talked about a “new concept of motoring that could not be obtained from any other car”. One series of advertisements did not feature the car or anything about the vehicles, rather they depicted men and women partaking in pursuits such as sailing, shooting or going to the theatre.
Over nine years a total of four hundred and eighty one Duesenberg Model J motor vehicles were produced. It is testament to the value and quality of these cars that there are still some three hundred and seventy eight remaining in the world today.
The Duesenberg J was released as a running chassis only. The cost at the time for the chassis and motor was eight thousand US dollars rising to nine thousand five hundred. by the end of 1936. Customers then chose from a catalogue of coach built body designs. There were forty different designs to choose from. The bodies cost anywhere between thirteen and nineteen thousand US dollars, two of the bodies reached twenty five thousand. To put this in perspective, at the time, the Duesenberg J compared to three Packards or sixty Fords. The average physician in America at the time was earning less than three thousand a year.
Some owners purchased two bodies, one for the summer – roadster or phaeton, and one for the winter – normally a four door hard top sedan. The factory could change the body over in a matter of hours. Some customers were drawn to the exquisite design and luxurious features of the car, others were drawn to the sheer power of the car.
Unfortunately Fred did not live to see all the Duesenbergs made. He was killed in 1932 while out road driving on a wet Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania. Shortly after Fred’s death Augie returned to the company and continued to work there for the next five years. But by 1937 it was all over. The Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg company was closed and with it one of the greatest chapters in the history of the American automotive industry.
The famous ‘Duesenbird’ radiator ornament was designed by Gordon Miller Buehrig who was an integral part of the Duesenberg story. A young man going places fast. Gordon was appointed chief body designer for Duesenberg at the age of twenty five. He became good friends with both Fred and Augie and spent three years living at Fred’s home.
The art deco inspired ‘Duesenbird’ is regarded as one of the all-time great designs of its kind.
After the collapse of Duesenberg Gordon continued working as a designer for a number of companies including Ford. In the late 1960’s he took a job as a tutor at the Art Centre College of Design. Gordon was named one of the thirty most important men in the history of the automotive industry by the Society of Automotive Historians. He was responsible for some of the most enduring classic body designs to come out of the United States.
American actress Carole Lombard had many claims to fame. Carole has been recognised by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest stars of all time and was the highest-paid Hollywood star in the late 1930’s. Carole made her film debut in 1921, at the age of twelve when she was cast as a tomboy in A Perfect Crime. Her career really took off in 1934 when she starred in the film Twentieth Century. In 1936 she achieved an Academy Award nomination for her role in My Man Godfrey. By the late 1930’s Carole was earning around half a million dollars a year which at the time was five times the salary as the President of the United States. It was this level of income which allowed her to indulge in one of her passions – the purchase of beautiful motor vehicles like the one at the top. After a failed marriage to actor William Powell and her relationships with the likes of Gary Cooper, Carole fell for Clark Gable, who was still married to oil heiress Ria Langham. At the time MGM was trying to sign a reluctant Gable to play the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. The story goes that to sweeten the deal MGM boss Louis B.Mayer agreed to pay the money required to settle a divorce agreement with Langham.
Carole Lombard married Clark Gable on the 29th of March 1939 during a break in production of Gone With The Wind. Both of them were huge fans of the Duesenberg. Not long after the US entered WWII, Carole travelled to her home state of Indiana for a war bond rally with her mother and Clark Gable’s press agent Otto Winkler. Carole was able to raise more than two million dollars in defence bonds in a single night. Tragically, on the 16th of January 1942, all three died when their plane crashed on the return trip to Los Angeles.
The cars are very valuable. In 2011 a 1931 Duesenberg Model J long-wheel base coupe sold at auction in the United States for ten point three four million dollars putting it in the top five highest prices ever paid for a motor vehicle. In 2012 a 1935 Duesenberg Model JN coupe owned by Clark Gable was put up for auction but was passed in at six point four million dollars. The connection between the entertainment industry and Duesenberg brand continues in the USA today with talk show host Jay Leno owning sixteen of the cars.
Restoration of the Duesenberg: This car arrived in Wanaka in 2011. It had been partly restored in the United States by its former owner who had the car since the early 1950’s. The vehicle has undergone a “body off” restoration in Wanaka which was carried out in two parts. The body was removed and underwent panel, paint and upholstery work while the chassis and motor was restored separately. The two parts then finally came back together allowing the finishing work to take place.
While the vehicle was in extremely good condition when it arrived there were still some parts missing which had to be fabricated locally. This included most of the windscreen frame, the wing mirrors, the hood bows and irons along with the seat base and frames. The paint finish is an original Duesenberg colour scheme of red and black.
Once the body was removed work could begin on the running chassis. This picture was taken about half way through the chassis restoration.
The motor was in good working order but did need some adjustments. Here the cam settings are being checked. The body was stripped down to the bare metal by Lee and the team at Rodz and Restos in Wanaka. Some features on the original bodywork had been filled with lead to produce a smooth finish. The lead had to be melted before being removed to restore the original look.
New seats had to be made from scratch. The restorers were insistent on using springs in the seats as per the original. The new upholstery was finished in high-grade red Italian leather.The work was completed by Bevan Garland from Upholstery Alley. Fabricated parts made by Barry Morgan of Performance Engineering.
The stunning paint job was completed and work started on setting the hood bows and irons. All the woodwork was done by John Martin of Designs N Wood.
It’s a Dusey. Ever wondered where the saying came from? The phrase was first coined in the late 1920’s and reflected the awe with which the American public regarded the Duesenberg motor car. A ‘Dusey’ is seen as something excellent or extraordinary just like the Duesenberg.
ALL IN ALL LOVELY CURVES AND VERY AL CAPONESQUE
VERY IMPRESSIVE AND BEAUTIFULLY RESTORED