Unless you’re a diehard classic car aficionado, you’ve probably never heard of Duesenberg Motors Company. The Auburn, Indiana-headquartered manufacturer of race cars and luxury vehicles went defunct in 1937, mainly because the Great Depression ruined the market for expensive luxury cars. Even still, the company’s impact on classic car culture is felt to this day.
In 1951, J. L. Elbert wrote the book, Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car, and in it, he particularly described the influence of the Duesenberg Model J. Here, we’ll touch on what made the Model J deserving of the moniker, “The Mightiest American Motor Car.”
Duesenberg Model J: Here’s What You Need to Know
In 1913, Duesenberg Motors Company was founded by brothers August and Fred Duesenberg in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The company would eventually move to Elizabeth, New Jersey and then to Indianapolis, Indiana, until E.L. Cord, owner of the Auburn Automobile Company, bought Duesenberg in 1925.
The company was renamed Duesenberg, Inc., and Fred stayed onboard, earning the title of vice president in charge of engineering and experimental work. Cord immediately instructed Duesenberg to design one of the fastest and most stylish luxury cars in the world. One that could compete with such European brands as Hispano-Suiza, Isotta Fraschini, Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce. And, Fred delivered.
The Model J debuted at the New York Car Show in New York City on December 1, 1928. As far as engine specs go, the DOHC (dual overhead camshaft) straight-8 was based on Duesenberg’s successful racing engines and was manufactured by Lycoming. It produced 265 horsepower and was capable of a top speed of 119 MPH. With some Model Js costing as much as $25,000, it was both the fastest and most expensive American car at the time.
Duesenberg’s chief body designer, Gordon Buehrig, designed the bodywork of half the Model Js, while the rest were designed by such independent coachbuilders known for their custom coachwork, such as Derham, LeBaron, Murphy, and Rollston.
Styling wise, the Model J was made to exhibit the peak of luxury, equipped with everything from bright chromium exhaust pipes to fine wood interiors and richly embroidered fabrics. But, even stripped down, the Model J’s chassis was an incredible work of art.
Given the Model J’s look and feel, it became a must-have for Hollywood’s finest. Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, and Mae West were among the many stars that owned a Model J.
In May 1932, Fred Duesenberg introduced a supercharged version of the Model J (SJ), which apparently had a top speed of 140 MPH and could do 0-60 in eight seconds. Other variants included the Duesenberg Special, a one-off speedster, and the SSJ roadster, of which only two were built.
While the Model J dipped in popularity during World War II, it had a resurgence in the 1950s, and today, Model Js go for big money at car auctions.
In 2004, the the Duesenberg Special was sold at auction for $4.5 million. In 2007, an SJ sold for $4.4 million at RM Auctions in Monterey, California. In 2018, a Duesenberg SSJ previously owned by actor Gary Cooper was sold at auction for $22 million, making it the most expensive American car ever sold.
Clearly, “The Mightiest American Motor Car” is still highly sought after by collectors all over the world. And, it’s easy to see why.