Tag Archives: Fred Duesenberg

Duesenberg the ultimate Indianapolis-built motorcar

Duesenberg the ultimate Indianapolis-built motorcars are in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum Indiana Automobiles: Precision over Production exhibit. Visit the Indiana Automobiles: Precision over Production exhibit today.

1933 Duesenberg Model J Berline
1933 Duesenberg Model J Berline

Before their move to Indianapolis in 1920, the Duesenberg brothers Fred and August built extremely high quality and advanced engines and automobiles, but were seldom financially successful. Part of their reason for moving to Indianapolis was to return to their racing roots and be near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where they had already enjoyed some success. The speedway also could be used for testing their passenger cars as well as the racers.

Their most famous racer appeared in 1920, a 183 c.i. eight-cylinder engine with single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder. It won the 1921 French Grand Prix. In the 1920’s Duesenberg racing cars were the great rivals of the Millers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and victory was assured in 1924 by the adoption of a cen¬trifugal supercharger. Duesenberg enjoyed repeat victories in 1925 and 1927. It is interesting that the Duesenberg racing operations were not officially supported by the auto production firm. The racing operations were located on the second floor of the Thompson Pattern Shop directly across Washington Street from the factory. The operations were a separate entity headed by August Duesenberg.

The first Duesenberg production car debuted at the end of 1920. This Model A was an extremely expen¬sive, very advanced, luxurious car, which pioneered the use of straight eight-cylinder engines and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. The Model A was produced until 1926. In 1926, Errett Lobban Cord of Auburn, acquired con¬trol of the company. He commissioned Fred Duesenberg, to develop the ultimate motorcar that would outclass all American makes.

The Model J, introduced at the New York Automobile Salon for the 1929 model year, was the most remarkable automobile in America: bigger, faster, more elaborate and more expensive than any other. Its 420 c.i., eight cylinder engine, had dual overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder; a layout of rac¬ing type said to develop 265 bhp at 4,250 rpm. Although the complete car weighed more than 4,980 pounds, it was claimed to be capable of 116 mph in top gear and 89 mph in second.

In 1929, the cost of the long, low-built chassis was $8,500. Duesen¬bergs were very popular with all leading coachbuilders and the com¬pany preferred to sell cars complete with bodies designed by them but made by approved builders (i.e. Murphy, Bohman & Schwartz, Judkins, Derham and LeBaron). In this form, catalogued models cost up to $18,000.

In 1932 a supercharged version of the Model J, the SJ, was added. A maximum speed of 129 mph was given the SJ, with an accelera¬tion figure of 0 100 mph in 17 seconds.

Celebrity buyers included New York Mayor, Jimmy Walker; William Randolph Hearst, Eliza¬beth Arden, Mae West, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. The make survived the Depres¬sion but died in the collapse of the Cord Corporation in 1937. The total Model J production was 480.

Duesenberg’s were the ultimate Indianapolis-built motorcar. Today, we can enjoy them at displays and collections across the country.

For more information on Indiana-built automobiles follow this link.

Duesenberg wins 1921 French Grand Prix

On July 25, 1921, Duesenberg was the first American car to win a European Grand Prix. Let’s take a look at how an Indianapolis-built car accomplished this feat.


British Pathe film with Jimmy Murphy in his Duesenberg winning the 1921 French Grand Prix.

After realizing some racing success in the United States, brothers Fred and Augie Duesenberg decided to enter four new straight-eight entries in the French Grand Prix in 1921, the first Grand Prix since 1914. They chose George Robertson as team manager. Robertson’s racing experience dated back to prior to winning the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island in the “Old Sixteen” Locomobile.

The team entered American drivers Jimmy Murphy and Joe Boyer and French drivers Albert Guyot and Andre Dubonnet. Then new 183 c.i. engines featured single overhead-camshafts with three valves per cylinder producing 120 horsepower at 4250 r.p.m. The racers also had hydraulic brakes which performed flawlessly.

The racers set off in pairs, with #6 Albert Guyot in fourth place, #12 Jimmy Murphy in fifth place, #16 Joe Boyer in tenth place, and #13 Andre Dubonnet in eleventh place. The first lap showed Boyer first and Murphy in third. In the second lap Murphy and Boyer moved into first and second places. In a short time the track broke up into loose gravel and flying stones. Guyot’s riding mechanic was knocked unconscious and had to be replaced.

By the tenth lap Duesenberg held first, third and fourth places. On the seventeenth lap Murphy regained the lead with Guyot in second. On the twenty fifth lap Dubonnet moved up to fourth. Jimmy Murphy in the #12 Duesenberg finished first with a 15 minute lead over Ralph De Palma’s #1 French-built Ballot.

Thompson Pattern Shop
Duesenberg racers at Thompson Pattern Shop

All of the Duesenberg race cars were built in the second floor of the Thompson Pattern shop across Washington Street from the Duesenberg plant complex in Indianapolis. Today, the #12 Duesenberg is displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.