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Evolution & History of Duesenbergs | Guide to Duesenbergs

Posted on 2021-09-23

Volo Auto Museum strives to provide you and your family with an engaging, comprehensive experience of collector cars and the automobile industry. Since we are a family-owned business, we understand the importance of engaging a wide variety of visitors, from children to amateur enthusiasts to serious collectors. Because of the many different attractions and activities, we are confident that anyone can enjoy visiting the Volo Auto Museum. Given our specialization in collector cars and auto sales, museum visitors come away with a deeper understanding of and respect for American innovation and its contributions to the automobile industry for over 100 years.

Volo’s comprehensive knowledge extends far past the obvious collector's items, encompassing lesser-known — yet no less prestigious — nameplates such as Duesenberg. Whether you are interested in a Duesenberg buyer's guide or simply wish to learn more about these iconic American cars, Volo Auto Museum hopes to reignite interest in and appreciation for Duesenberg cars and their place in American history.

History of the Duesenbergs: The Men

While inventors designed various machine engines throughout the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, automobile production did not begin in earnest until the early 20th century. Today, companies like Ford and General Motors are synonymous with the early days of the automobile industry, due in part to their continued relevance today. Unlike these manufacturers, the Duesenberg name has been all but forgotten, aside from serious automobile historians and collectors. Understanding the history of the Duesenberg brothers and knowing what happened to Duesenberg cars will illuminate the unique nature of these vehicles today, as well as their lasting impact on the aesthetic and aspirational nature of car ownership in America.

Early Work

Two brothers, Frederick “Fred” Duesenberg (1876-1932) and August “Augie” Duesenberg (1879-1955), began their careers as semi-itinerant mechanics, repairmen and bicycle manufacturers in the Midwestern United States in the early years of the 20th century. Originally from Lippe, Germany, the Duesenberg family immigrated to the United States in 1885. The Duesenbergs were a part of a new wave of immigration that peaked in the 1880s and 1890s. During this era, millions of southern and eastern Europeans — mostly Jewish and Catholic, fleeing persecution and war — entered the United States. Being part of this immigration wave, the Duesenbergs joined a rich lineage of immigrant innovation and ingenuity, intrinsic to the fabric of the American economy and manufacturing prowess that continues to this day.

Unlike many German immigrants from this era, who were primarily working-class peasants, the Duesenbergs were a middle-class family. Consequently, upon arrival in the United States, both Fred and Augie both attended school rather than joining the workforce immediately. Historians believe that Fred completed a correspondence course in engineering. However, it’s unlikely that Augie completed any formal schooling past the eighth grade. As young men, both brothers left the family’s farm in Iowa to pursue careers as mechanics, primarily in the then-burgeoning bicycle industry.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the bicycle emerged as one of the most popular and influential inventions of the 19th century. Around 1900, the Duesenberg brothers opened their own bicycle repair shop in Rockford, Iowa. During this time, Fred began cycling competitively, both due to his genuine interest in racing and out of an entrepreneurial hope that his racing exploits would garner more customers for the brothers’ repair business. Fred was relatively successful during his short-lived cycling career — records indicate that he broke two world records for speed. Despite the brothers’ best efforts, their bicycle shop folded in 1903, and they decided to refocus their energy and talents toward engine design and automobile manufacturing.

For the next few years, Fred and Augie traveled extensively throughout the Midwest region, from their adopted home of Iowa to Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. In 1901, while working at the first-ever auto repair garage in Des Moines, Iowa, Fred continued to attempt new engine innovations. For example, he acquired a used Marion car and redesigned its engine by fitting each cylinder with its own exhaust pipe — a design element he would continue using in later Duesenberg models. Around 1905, Fred met Edward Mason, an Iowa attorney, who was impressed with the Duesenbergs’ ideas and became their first major financial backer.

In 1906, the Duesenbergs, along with Mason, began designing and manufacturing automobiles as the Mason Motor Company. In this venture, Fred acted as superintendent and designer, with Augie working as the head patternmaker. Unfortunately for the brothers, the Mason Motor Company was short-lived. In 1909, Senator Frederick Maytag acquired a majority share of the company. At that time, Maytag was known for farm equipment manufacturing and had little interest in automobiles. As the company grew, he focused his efforts on the emerging washing machine market.

Duesenberg Motors

After parting ways with Mason Motor, the Duesenbergs established their own company, Duesenberg Motors Company, in 1913. They initially ran the business from St. Paul, Minnesota. At that time, the brothers were interested in both automobiles and marine engines. They designed and built a powerful hydroplane engine for a Chicago racer due to compete in the 1914 British International Trophy Race. Due to the outbreak of the First World War, the race was canceled. Luckily, the Duesenbergs were paid nonetheless — about $50,000, an enormous sum for the time. It was around this time that Fred and Augie decided to focus their energy primarily on developing race cars and other independent projects.

In 1916, the brothers began some contract work for Loew-Victor Manufacturing Company in Chicago. This partnership eventually resulted in a 1917 merger between Loew-Victor and Duesenberg Motors, and the company was renamed the Duesenberg Motor Corporation. Throughout this venture, Fred held the title of chief engineer, with Augie assuming the role of assistant chief engineer. Shortly after the merger, with World War I ongoing, the brothers relocated to a new plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

From the New Jersey plant, the brothers designed and produced aircraft engines for the United States government and military. This venture proved to be especially fortuitous for the Duesenbergs, as it was during this government contract work that they met and worked with iconic Italian engineer Ettore Bugatti. Today, the Bugatti name is synonymous with luxury and fast cars. Many historians believe that Bugatti’s influence may have been a key factor in the direction the Duesenberg brothers chose to go moving forward.

Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company

In 1920, Fred and Augie, once again on their own, formed a new company: Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company. From their new headquarters and factory in Indianapolis, the brothers began designing and producing race cars in earnest. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Duesenbergs created their most iconic and innovative designs and achieved significant racing successes. In 1920, Tommy Milton, driving a Duesenberg, broke the land speed record with a drive of 156.046 miles per hour in Daytona Beach. Jimmy Murphy won the 1921 French Grand Prix while driving Duesenberg. At the Indianapolis 500, Duesenberg-designed cars went on to victory in 1924, 1925 and 1927. Throughout the decade, they also earned several top-three finishes in the race.

Fred and Augie Duesenberg were clearly brilliant engineers, mechanics and designers. As is often the case with visionaries, their brilliance did not translate to the day-to-day realities of running a profitable business. As a result, despite its racing successes and the excellent reputations of its designs, Duesenberg Company was not financially viable. A new Duesenberg cost about $8,500 in 1925 — adjusted for inflation, the cost would be equivalent to about $134,000 in 2021. Duesenberg cars were simply too cost-prohibitive for the average American consumer.

In 1926, to assist with their business and financial issues, Fred and Augie decided to partner once again — this time with auto tycoon Errett Lobban Cord of Cord Motor Company. Unlike Mason, Cord was not just a financial backer. He had new, visionary ideas about the direction for Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors moving forward. Cord had a sharp mind for how to blend marketing, image and aspiration — a business tactic that we call “branding” today. Rather than try to compete with the practicality and relative affordability of a Ford, Cord believed that a Duesenberg car's uniqueness lay in the superiority of its engine and that luxury was something to lean into, rather than shy away from.

Under his leadership, the Duesenberg marketing campaign completely shifted to emphasize luxury, glamour and a kind of aspirational European aesthetic popular among wealthy Americans in the late 1920s and 1930s. During Cord’s era, the Duesenberg became aligned with the rich and famous. Several movie stars, including Gary Cooper, bought Duesenbergs during this time, cementing an even deeper association between the automobile, exclusivity and prestige. This association between luxury and prestige with the Duesenberg brand persists to this day, and it's one of the greatest contributing factors in their valuation on today's collectors market.

Closing the Company and Legacy

In 1932, Fred Duesenberg was involved in a car crash while driving through Pennsylvania. While healing from his injuries, he contracted pneumonia and did not recover. He was only 55 years old when he died on July 26, 1932. Following Fred’s tragic death, Augie and Cord continued production for a few years. However, due to declining sales, they decided to close the business in 1937. Augie spent the remainder of his life consulting and working on independent projects. He died in 1955 at age 75.

That the Duesenberg brothers — German immigrants for whom English was a second language — achieved their greatest professional successes between 1910 and 1930 is remarkable. Given the widespread xenophobia and anti-German sentiments that plagued American culture during this time, the Duesenbergs’ story is one of perseverance, innovation and style in the face of great obstacles and setbacks. They should be remembered for who they were — devoted brothers, brilliant engineers and highly influential individuals in the history of American manufacturing.

History of the Duesenbergs: The Cars

The Duesenberg brothers’ brilliance lay in the originality of their designs and their willingness to innovate new forms in automobile manufacturing. Thanks to their partnership with Cord, the Duesenberg car became synonymous with style and prestige, as well as speed and power. Between 1920 and 1937, the Duesenberg brothers designed and manufactured several different Duesenberg models, each one unique in its own way and each demonstrating how their designs and ideas evolved over the years. Looking closer at each Duesenberg model gives us a fuller understanding of these cars and their lasting impact on the automobile industry.

Duesenberg Model A

Originally called the Duesenberg Straight Eight in reference to the model’s engine design, Duesenberg Company first showed this car in late 1920 in New York City. After some design-related delays, it went into production at the Duesenberg factory in Indianapolis, Indiana. Production of the Model A ran from 1921 to 1927. As its original name suggests, the Model A’s most defining feature was its straight-eight engine. The name “straight-eight” refers to an internal combustion engine where all eight cylinders are mounted in a straight line. In the 1920s, this type of engine was well-regarded for its power and smooth running style.

That the Duesenberg brothers incorporated the straight-eight engine into their first series car shows how heavily racing car styles influenced their design aesthetic. The Duesenberg Straight Eight was one of the first American cars to incorporate both a sliding gear transmission and hydraulic brakes. After the advent of the Model J in 1928, Duesenberg Company began referring to the Straight Eight as the “Model A,” as it is more commonly known today.

Duesenberg Model X

The Duesenberg Model X was first completed in 1926, just before Cord acquired Duesenberg Company. The Model X reflected some improvements on the Model A. The Model X chassis was about 1 inch longer than that of the Model A. In addition, the Model X could reach a speed of about 100 miles per hour. In comparison, the Model A topped out around 88 mph. The Model X also featured more control and less vibration than its predecessor. However, Cord did not see a future for the Model X, preferring to invest time and energy in developing the Model J. Consequently, the Duesenberg brothers produced only 13 Model X cars. It’s believed that only five Duesenberg Model Xs still remain today, making it one of the rarest classic cars in existence.

Duesenberg Model Y

At Cord's urging, Fred designed the Duesenberg Model Y prototype in 1927, just after Cord acquired the company. The Model Y prototype served as the basis for the eventual Model J, which would become Duesenberg Company’s signature vehicle. It’s believed only one or two Model Y prototypes were ever made.

Duesenberg Model J

Today, the Duesenberg Model J has reached iconic status among casual car enthusiasts and serious collectors alike. Following his purchase of Duesenberg Company in 1926, Cord envisioned producing a high luxury American vehicle that could compete with the most prestigious of European brands, such as Rolls Royce. Duesenberg Company displayed the first Model J at the New York City Car Show in 1928. Production of the Model J continued for nearly 10 years, ending in 1937.

Like the Model A and the Model X, the Model J continued the Duesenberg brothers’ use of the straight-eight engine, producing 265 horsepower, more than 80 horsepower greater than the V-16 engine of its Cadillac competitor. During the 1930s, a new Duesenberg Model J cost between $13,000 to $19,000 — adjusted for inflation, that’s about $200,000 to $300,000 in 2021 money. The Model J’s reputation for speed and luxury has been apparent since the car’s earliest days. As the marketing slogan for the original Model J stated, “The only car that could pass a Duesenberg is another Duesenberg — and that was with the first owner’s consent.”

Duesenberg Model SJ

The Model SJ was in production from 1932 to 1937. Essentially a “supercharged” version of the Model J, the Model SJ featured flashy, flamboyant external exhaust pipes, a style choice that other luxury car brands would come to adopt throughout the 1930s. The Model SJ could reportedly reach speeds of about 140 mph, making it one of the fastest pre-WWII luxury cars on the market. The Duesenberg SJ was the car of choice for many of the rich and famous — and infamous — figures in American history during the interwar years. Al Capone, Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst, Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers, just to name a few, all reportedly owned the Model SJ.

Duesenberg FAQs

Today, Duesenberg cars and the men behind them are no longer well known by most Americans. Understandably, the most common questions people have about Duesenberg cars often relate to their value as rare collector's items. We’ve compiled some FAQs that will shed additional light on the status that Duesenbergs hold both in the collecting community and in wider society today.

How Many Duesenbergs Still Exist?

 

It’s challenging to give a definitive answer to this question. Due to the variety of Models that Duesenberg Company produced during its 17-year existence, it’s nearly impossible to account for what models, where, how many and in what condition they still exist today. Given their cult status, there is also an air of secrecy and exclusivity around the name “Duesenberg” — collectors can be cagey about the high-ticket items they have collected! Records indicate that Duesenberg Company ultimately produced about 650 Model As, 13 Model Xs, one or two Model Ys, 481 Model Js, and 36 Model SJs. Adding those figures together, we can estimate that there were, at one time, about 1,182 Duesenberg cars in existence. It’s now been over 80 years since the last Duesenberg was made, so it's difficult to know exactly how many still exist today.

What Is the Most Expensive Duesenberg Car?

During their peak, the most expensive Duesenbergs — typically, the Model SJ — cost about $25,000. When adjusted for inflation, these top-of-the-line, brand new Duesenbergs would run you about $400,000. Essentially, you can think of the Duesenberg Model SJ as the 1930s equivalent to someone buying a brand-new Rolls Royce today. As the years have passed, the legend and mystique surrounding Duesenberg cars have only increased collector interest in these rare vehicles. As a result, the prices for Duesenbergs sold at auction over the past few years have been mind-boggling.

In 2018, Gooding & Company auctioned off a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ originally owned by Gary Cooper. In the 1930s, Cord believed that if movie stars were known to own and drive Duesenbergs, the overall profile and prestige of the brand would increase, so he only charged Cooper the factory price of $5,000 when he purchased this Duesenberg SSJ in 1935. At the 2018 auction, it sold to an unknown collector for $22 million. To put that figure in perspective, a rare Van Gogh painting sold in early 2021 for only $15.4 million.

What Makes Duesenberg Cars So Valuable?

How much a Duesenberg car is worth depends on several different factors, including the age of the car, the model, its condition, previous owner history and any rare or custom features. For example, the 1935 Duesenberg SSJ was a rare model, custom-fitted for a beloved celebrity, had only a few previous owners and is still in excellent condition today. All of these factors contribute to the overall valuation of $22 million.

Are Duesenbergs Available for Purchase?

Duesenberg cars are rarely available for sale. Duesenberg Company stopped producing cars in 1937, so there is no way to purchase a new Duesenberg today. However, a Duesenberg car does occasionally come up for auction. For example, in June 2021, a 1935 Duesenberg convertible sold for $1.34 million at an online auction. So, for collectors with deep pockets, it’s not impossible to purchase a Duesenberg. It just might require some patience until one becomes available. Historians haven’t rediscovered any “new” original Duesenberg Model Js since 1962.

Is the Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company Still in Business Today?

No. Fred's tragic death in 1932 was the beginning of the end of Duesenberg Company. While Augie and Cord continued running the company until 1937, they both seem to have lost the passion for the project following Fred’s death. The two men shuttered Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company in 1937. About 25 years later, Augie’s son, also named Fred, attempted to revive the brand, but his efforts failed and did not get past the planning stage.

What Is a Duesenberg II?

Since Duesenberg Company closed in 1937, there has been a continued interest in reviving the Duesenberg nameplate from those both within the automobile industry and outside of it. The first serious attempt, made by Augie’s son Fred in the 1960s, was unsuccessful. As the years passed, the Duesenberg name acquired an almost mythical reputation in the car collecting community. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that a kind of successor finally emerged — Richard Braund and his company, Elite Heritage Motors.

Richard Braund, a native of Elroy, Wisconsin, had a long-running and successful career as a mechanic and car restorer. For many years, he worked in Reno, Nevada, specializing in classic cars from the 1920s and 1930s. Of course, the most prestigious American car manufacturer of that time was Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors Company, and their most coveted vehicle design was the Model J. As a historian and aficionado of pre-WWII automobile history, Braund had a deep understanding of Duesenberg cars and the Duesenberg brothers themselves and the innovations of their original designs.

In 1978, Braund founded and opened Elite Heritage Motors in his hometown of Elroy. He envisioned this venture as a way to revive the Duesenberg legacy and aesthetic while embracing and incorporating modern technological comforts into Duesenberg-like designs. Elite Heritage Motors’ entire focus was producing top-of-the-line, hand-built reproductions of the Duesenberg models of the 1920s and 1930s. These reproductions bear the label “Duesenberg II” to distinguish them from the original models that the Duesenberg brothers made throughout the interwar years.

However, the word “reproduction” may not be the best way to describe Duesenberg II automobiles, as they do vary slightly from the Duesenberg brothers’ original designs. For this reason, “revival” might be a more accurate description of the Duesenberg II concept. Braund’s entire vision for the Duesenberg II hinged on combining the classic 1920s and ‘30s style, aesthetics and exteriors with modern conveniences like air conditioning, heating, power steering, power brakes and cruise control. Therefore, designs for the Duesenberg IIs needed some internal and external design changes from those of the original Duesenberg Company.

Thanks to Braund's exacting standards, Duesenberg IIs transcend the often disparaging “replicar” label. For each Duesenberg II produced, Elite Heritage Motors created bespoke exterior parts, each meticulously crafted using original Duesenberg designs as templates. Elite Heritage Motors did not cut corners in any way. This attention to detail and respect for the original Duesenbergs permeated every aspect of the design and production of the Duesenberg IIs. In addition to the painstaking accuracy of exterior and interior design parts, each Duesenberg II featured a bespoke chassis with a new modern drivetrain and suspension from Ford.

This marriage between the classic interwar style of the original 1920s and ‘30s Duesenbergs with the technological advances of the 1980s resulted in the Duesenberg II — model replicas of the highest quality that have achieved cult collector status in their own right. Elite Heritage Motors produced Duesenberg IIs for nearly 25 years. As with the original Duesenberg Company, the high standard of production and manufacturing of these replicas proved cost-prohibitive for most consumers, and Elite Heritage Motors closed in 2001.

During its 23 year run, Elite Heritage Motors ultimately created six different models of Duesenberg IIs. Because each Duesenberg II was hand-crafted, the process was time-consuming — only 71 Duesenberg IIs were ever created, which further contributes to their value as collectors’ items. The Duesenberg II models are:

  • Duesenberg II SJ Speedster
  • Duesenberg II SJ Dual Cowl Phaeton
  • Duesenberg II SJ Torpedo Roadster
  • Duesenberg II SJ Torpedo Sedan
  • Duesenberg II SJ Torpedo Phaeton
  • Duesenberg II SJ Murphy Roadster

Duesenberg II FAQs

Here are some of the most common questions about Duesenberg II vehicles.

What Is the Difference Between a Duesenberg and a Duesenberg II?

A “Duesenberg” refers to any car designed by Fred and Augie Duesenberg and produced by their company, Duesenberg Automobiles and Motors, which was in business from 1920 to 1937. The Duesenberg Models A, Y, X, J, SJ and SSJ are all original Duesenberg models. Because original Duesenbergs are incredibly rare, they tend to be incredibly valuable as well. A 1935 Duesenberg SSJ sold at auction in 2018 for $22 million.

The label “Duesenberg II” refers to top-of-the-line replicas of the original Duesenberg models. Elite Heritage Motors made Duesenberg IIs in Elway, Wisconsin, between 1978 and 2001. The exacting standards and meticulous detail these replicas were made with established their reputation as desirable collector's pieces. Volo Museum Auto Sales specializes in the sale of unique, classic cars like these.

How Expensive Is a Duesenberg II?

A Duesenberg II's value varies based on several factors, including the car's model, age and condition, as well as previous history and whether it has any rare or custom features. In 1981, the price of a brand-new Duesenberg II SJ Dual Cowl Phaeton was $125,000.

What Makes a Duesenberg II So Valuable?

Duesenberg II cars are valuable for many reasons. Duesenberg II are quite rare — only 71 were ever produced — which is a primary contributing factor to their value. Duesenberg IIs also have a great deal of nostalgic and aesthetical value, particularly for collectors who admire the original Duesenbergs designs. The differences between the six Duesenberg II models also contribute to variations in value among the Duesenberg IIs. Customizations and the overall condition of each vehicle are, of course, also important factors when assessing the value of each Duesenberg II vehicle.

Are Duesenberg II Cars Available for Purchase?

Yes. Volo Museum Auto Sales has several Duesenberg IIs available for purchase. The professionals at Volo Museum Auto Sales are highly knowledgeable about the history and valuation of all Duesenberg II models. We often have several different Duesenberg II models available, all of which have been lovingly maintained and are in excellent running condition. Volo Museum Auto Sales specializes in selling classic automobiles like Duesenberg IIs. If you are interested, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.

We are pleased to assist anyone who wishes to learn more about these unique and stunning American cars. Visitors to the Volo Auto Museum can take in the beauty and power of these stunning cars in our Duesenberg Room.

Find Your Next Classic Car at Volo Museum Auto Sales

Volo Museum Auto Sales is pleased to share our expertise with anyone who is interested in the history of the Duesenberg brothers, their company and their original models. As specialists in the acquisition and sales of Duesenberg II replica models, Volo Auto Museum offers a fun, engaging and educational experience for families, amateur car enthusiasts and serious collectors alike.

For collectors, Volo Museum Auto Sales offers a comprehensive array of services. Unlike buying at auction, potential buyers at Volo can view, inspect and test drive our vehicles. We are pleased to accommodate sight-unseen buyers with videos and photos, as well as third-party inspections. We also offer various purchasing options, accepting cash payments and providing financing and shipping worldwide. Volo Museum Auto Sales is a family-owned business of four generations, and we pride ourselves on offering a comfortable, transparent and low-pressure experience for collectors and potential buyers.

In addition to our sales branch, the Volo Auto Museum makes a visit to our facility an engaging experience for people of all ages, interests and backgrounds. The Museum contains over 30 exhibits, both about cars and non-car related, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Whether you are a Duesenberg connoisseur and collector or are just beginning to learn about this fascinating piece of American automobile history, Volo Museum Auto Sales is happy to assist and accommodate you. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any specific questions. We look forward to welcoming you to our state-of-the-art facility in Volo, Illinois.