There used to be a saying, “It’s a deusey!" The phrase referred to something truly special, something way above the norm.
Duesey began as slang for Duesenberg, a car that enjoys a special place in automotive history.
Duesenberg stood for luxury. Clark Gable drove a Duesenberg. So did The Great Gatsby. Frederick and August Duesenberg delivered raw chassis, engine, frame, suspension, but everything from the dashboard back was custom, created by some of the finest coachbuilders of the era. Every Duesenberg was an original.
Every Duesenberg was fast. The Model A Duesenberg was high-strung, high-revving machine directly descended from the 183 cubic inch torpedoes that ruled the super speedways. Then came the model J. Think about the hot car you have today: dual overhead camshafts, hemi heads, four valves per cylinder, supercharging. The Duesenberg SJ had all of that in 1932. I saw one when I was a boy. It was huge, and cream colored, looking so much like a grand old luxury tourer rich people used to take Grandma to church. Nothing much gave it away until you got on the right side and saw the big intercoolers sticking out of the hood.
I remember seeing one for the first time when I was a boy. “You see that,” said my Dad, pointing at a car that seemed only slightly smaller than Moby Dick. “That’ll do 135.”
Car guys hear claims like that and they’re automatically skeptical. Lots of people boast about how they’ve gone 140 in their buddy’s car but people in the know realize how hard air gets at that kind of speed, how the wind wants to send you airborne. I wondered how anything that old and big could go so fast. Then the owner started it.
There is a certain sound a ‘right’ engine has. The sound is hard to describe, a stumble off the idle, a snap in the idle tones, a sound that promises gobs of power. This car had it. The Duesenberg engine said 'Don’t FUCK with me!” No other antique or classic car ever rumbled like that one.
Duesenberg meant innovation. The cam geometry that has since become standard today first appeared on a Duesenberg. So did the first thin wall bearing. Hydraulic brakes first appeared on Duesies. Duesenberg was a pioneer in automotive supercharcharging.
Dueenberg meant racing. Deusies diced it out with the best of them, Peugeot, Sunbeam, Ballot, Miller, Stutz, and Louis Chevrolet's Frontenacs.
And Duesenbergs won. Three wins in the Indianapolis 500, with a Miller- engined Duesie getting a fourth win. Pete DePaolo’s 1925 win made Duesenberg the first race car to average over 100 MPH for the 500. Duesenberg with Jimmy Murphy and Tommy Milton set the Land Speed Record. Duesenberg entered one Grand Prix Formula 1 and won it outright with Jimmy Murphy at the wheel.
The Duesenberg name was made by two brothers, Frederick Samuel and August (Augie) Duesenberg. Fred was the engineer, the kind of guy who could look at a part and rattle off dimensions. Augie was a fabricator, a practical guy who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty and made Fred’s designs work. They were German immigrants who made it to America at the turn of the century, started out building bicycles but were immediately drawn to the automobile. A DeMoines, Iowa lawyer named Fred Mason backed them. The early two cylinder Masons were hits at the marketplace and the race track as Mason was an early believer in "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" marketing. Appliance magnate Frank Maytag bought a controlling share in 1909. The Mason-Maytags were advanced cars for their day renowned for their build quality and hill-climbing ability. The Duesenberg brothers began racing modified Masons, and they often won. Starting in 1912 the brothers continued racing under their own name, and in 1914 driver Eddie Rickenbacker won a number of major races, despite a 90 cubic inch handicap.
World War one proved a godsend. Duesenberg’s racing successes brought them to the attention of famed boat racer J.A. Pugh, who commissioned them to build a pair of 12 cylinder engines for the later cancelled 1914 Farnsworth race. The war perked up demand for powerful marine engines, so the Duesenberg brothers began getting development contracts and began manufacturing 16 cylinder Bugatti aircraft engines under license despite a tiny facility and staff. Soon almost every engine of interest made its way into their Elizabeth, New Jersey shop, teaching lessons the brothers would later surpass. That work got them hands-on experience with Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza engines, and a 16 cylinder aero engine of their own design showed great promise until it was cancelled as part of the peace dividend.
In 1921 they began to manufacture the Model A. The first cars were fitted with Duesenberg's older ‘walking beam” engines, but later changed to SOHC designs. The model A was a lot like the Honda S2000 of today, quite small for the time at only 260 cubic inches (4.8 liters). The motor was high revving with a lot of snap, and you had to rev it to get the power. Like a real racing engine. In fact, Motor Age magazine wrote: “it can be said without contradiction that the race car chassis is about 75 per cent stock.” When Duesenberg won the French Grand Prix in 1921 orders poured in that the tiny factory could not fill. The A’s ‘peaky’ engine was responsive, smooth, and the car was both fast, nimble and fuel efficient, a car that met and outdid Rolls-Royce in every possible way. Still, the Duesenbergs were far more interested in their cars than business. Duesenberg was always short of money, and E.L Cord bought the firm in 1927, and set the brothers to work developing a new model.
In 1929 Duesenberg brought the Model J, which is the car that really made the Dueseberg name as one of the automobile world's nobility. Lycoming assembled the 420 cubic inch, twin cam straight eights that produced 265 horsepower, a prodigious figure for the day. They were big, beautiful and the new motor had the bottom end torque the Model A lacked. In 1932 Duesenberg added a centrifugal supercharger creating the Model SJ, and pushing the horsepower over 300.
Fred Duesenberg died of complications related to a car crash on July 26, 1932. His death took the spark out Duesenberg becaues he was the innovator, while Augie the practical engineer. The last J rolled off the line in 1937. Augie continued on, and the Auburn Speedster owed a lot to him as did Mormon Meteor race cars. He passed away on January 18, 1955. Both brothers are buried in Indianapolis.
Today Duesenberg cars regularly sell for over a million dollars, and hold pride of place in almost every collection or museum. But then there weren’t too many cars built in 1930 capable of keeping up with modern highway traffic. A Duesenberg driver today might find himself far more worried about speeding tickets than keeping out of the way. The term "It"s a Duesey” was far more than hyperbole, for a Duesenberg really was something out of the ordinary.
Griffith Borgeson, The Golden Age of the American Racing Car
Auburn-Cord Duesenberg Museuam http://www.acdmuseaum.org
Auburn-Cord Duesenberg Club http://www.acdclub.org
What was a "Walking beam engine"? Early Duesenberg/Mason engines used a cam in block with the valve stem perpendicular to the cylinder. A very long rocker arm (with the shaft in the block) would actuate the valve. The 'walking beam' engine got it's name because the rockers were "so big you could walk on them" Up until 1920 that was a fairly advanced even though overhead cam
designs had appeared earlier.