The Duesenberg brothers, Fred and Augie, had worked for several machine companies before the turn of the century, including the Rambler Motorcar company, and wanted to produce their own gasoline engines. Their chance came in 1913 when their engine design, a 4-cylinder, turned out to be so promising that they were able to form the Duesenberg Motor Company St. Paul, Minnesota.
By the beginning of World War I they had moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey where they started building aircraft engines. These engines, designed by Ettore Bugatti, were massive, 16-cylinder, 500 horsepower machines. The Duesenberg brothers realized that scaled-down, highly efficient powerplants like these could be used to propel automobiles and they eagerly waited until war's end to prove it.
Fred and Augie moved to Indianapolis after the war for the sole reason of taking advantage of the already-famous racetrack. They had one thought in mind and that was to produce high-quality, fast cars to be purchased by wealthy — preferably famous — people.
In 1921 the first Duesenberg automobile was introduced. It was not particularly striking in appearance for that era but its engineering was state-of-the-art. The car was powered by an in-line, 8-cylinder engine with, overhead valves, which produced 88 horsepower. This was an enormous amount of power in 1921. The car had 4-wheel hydraulic brakes, well in advance of other automakers. The car was a success, but it came at a price that few could afford, so the Duesenbergs started looking for a partner.
E.L. Cord, owner of the Auburn Automobile Company, was impressed with the Duesenbergs' creativity and purchased control of the operation. Augie left the firm for reasons unknown. Meanwhile, Fred was detailed to design something truly magnificent and cost was no object. Time passed, modified models of the 1921 car were offered, and Fred worked on the drivetrain designs while the newly-hired Gordon Buehrig worked on a body style. The results became legend.
The Duesenberg Model J was an instant success, followed by the supercharged version, the SJ in model year 1932. Advertised horsepower in the SJ was 320, coming out of an engine with overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, sophisticated vibration damper and four fuel pumps (and you thought overhead cams and multi-valves were new!). Still, the ultimate Duesenberg was yet to come.
Nineteen Thirty-five was a tough year. The Depression was in full force, unemployment was nearly 30% and the gap between wealth and poverty was huge in America. Fred Duesenberg had sadly passed away and Augie returned to finish the design of the [dreamed-of] ultimate car. What he came up with was just that: the ultimate car.
The 1935 Duesenberg SSJ was spectacular in every way. Its supercharged, 8-cylinder, 448 cubic-inch engine produced 400 horsepower, nearly three times that of its closest competitor. The car itself had a wheelbase of 125 inches, an overall length of 196 inches, a ground-clearance of 8.5 inches (about the same as a Jeep or Explorer!) and a weight of 5,080 pounds!
The car was also very fast. Duesenberg advertised 0-100mph in less than 20 seconds and a top speed of 130, in an era where 60 mph was very fast for the average car. The Duesey was priced commensurate with its performance too, at over $12,000 with a custom body, 2 1/2 times that of a Cadillac and 15 times that of a "typical" middle-class car. All this added up to an image of wealth, power, prestige and excitement. It's no wonder that the likes of Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst, Gary Cooper and many of the world's notables owned one of the SSJ's. It's also why so many people, upon seeing one cruising the boulevard, uttered "It's a Deusey!"
It's always easy to judge things in hindsight, especially in this era of incredible comfort and safety in our cars. After all, even when other automakers were doing so, the Duesenbergs didn't have synchromesh transmissions, independent front suspension, illuminated dash panels and heaters! They were hand-built and therefore hand-fitted, so replacement parts/panels didn't fit well. The oil-change interval was 700 miles, and so on, and so on...
Still, if you own a Duesenberg SSJ you are sitting on several million dollars worth of sheet metal and chrome. It may feel like an oversize lawn tractor to drive and by today's standards it's a beast to park, but it probably defines the Thirties era as well as anything else possibly could.