|Duesenberg 183 Grand Prix|
After the First World War, two novelties were introduced to motor racing that would change the outlook of the sport for many years to come. First off was the engine displacement limit, which was briefly enforced in 1914, but for the 1920 season the first global limit was set.Since that day displacement limits have been used to regulate the sport and they have directly resulted in the introduction of forced induction engines. The other long lasting novelty was the straight eight engine, many of which were based on Ettore Bugatti's pioneering airplane engine design.
One of the great advantages of the three-litre limit set in 1920 was that cars from both sides of the Atlantic could compete in all races held. Being so shortly after the War, not many competitive race cars were running and the French and British ban on racing did not help much either. In 1919 and 1920 only two major races were on the agenda; the Targa Florio road race and the 500 Mile Sweepstake at Indianapolis. The ban was lifted at the end of the 1920 season. The most prominent race added on the calender for 1921 was the French Grand Prix at Le Mans.
Only three or four European manufacturers took part in these races, of which the French Ballot was the most advanced with a double overhead camshaft, four valve per cylinder 'eight'. A Sunbeam with a double overhead camshaft 'six' made a brief appearance, but it was withdrawn before it ever raced. Peugeot started racing again with the four cylinder Grand Prix cars of 1914, before they set out to design an 'eight' of their own. It arrived in 1920 and was the most complex of them all, featuring three camshafts and five valves per cylinder. Poor reliability let it down at its debut on the 1920 Indy 500 Mile race, after which Peugeot withdrew from motor racing.
In the United States, the Duesenberg brothers designed and constructed a straight-eight racer of their own. They had already experience with building successful race car engines, with a second place finish in the 1916 Indy 500 as the best result. In the War years the brothers constructed various marine and aero engines, including various straight-eights and a V16. Much like the Bugatti engine, the Duesenberg 'eight' was made up of two blocks of four cylinders. Each cylinder featured two exhaust and one inlet valves, operated by a single overhead camshaft. The camshaft was driven by a shaft connected to the crank.
The 114 bhp engine was installed in a ladder frame. Mated to the engine was a three speed gearbox, which was one gear down on the competition, but the engine offered plenty of low end torque to compensate for that. The chassis was fitted with live axles front and rear. Each corner was equipped with a semi-elliptic leaf spring and a Monroe friction damper. The first cars, introduced in 1920, were fitted with rear brakes only, which let the Duesenbergs down on road races in the 1920 season.
With the French and British racing ban still in place in 1920, almost all motor races that season took place in the United States. Most of these races were held on oval tracks, with the Indy 500 being the most important. In practice the Ballots were the fastest of the lot, but bad luck saw the race victory go to a four-cylinder engined Monroe. The Duesenbergs were on the pace, but were also struck by bad luck, finishing third, fourth and sixth. In one of the rare road races of the season at Elgin Illinois, the Ballot of Ralph de Palma dominated the race.He was helped a great deal by driving the only Ballot in the field with front brakes, fitted especially for the race.
In the 1921 running of the Indy 500, both Ballot and Duesenberg were again surprised by an outsider. Second was the best Duesenberg could manage. The ban was now lifted and the teams moved to France for the Grand Prix at Le Mans. This would be the first Grand Prix since the outbreak of the War. Everyone in France expected the Ballot to take the home victory, being under the false impression that the American teams had experience with oval racing only. To compete with the quad-brake Ballots, Duesenberg modified their racers by fitting drums all around. These were not the traditional cable operated drums, but for the first time in racing history, four hydraulically operated drums were fitted on a racer.
Duesenberg was the first American manufacturer to enter a Grand Prix. The Americans quickly silenced the home-crowd by lapping as quick as the Ballots in qualifying. In the race, it looked like a battle between the Ballot and Duesenberg teams, but the poor road surface made the race very unpredictable. The stress of cars racing on it at high speeds shredded the surface to pieces, sharp pieces. With only two laps to go, most of the Ballots were out due to the degrading track conditions. Jimmy Murphy's Duesenberg was leading until he was also struck by track debris, shredding one tire and piercing the radiator. The race seemed over for the leading Duesenberg.
Murphy nurtured the heavily smoking racer into the pits, to get more water to cool the overheating engine. To the surprise of many of the spectators, Murphy, reluctant to give up, set out again. He carefully piloted the car on the final 10.6 mile laps, to take the victory with an average speed of 78.1 mph. It was the first Grand Prix win for an American team, which didn't repeat until the 1960s. After this epic victory, Duesenberg focussed more on racing in the States and the construction of some of the finest road cars of the era. Murphy's victory was one of the automaker's finest moments, together with the 1922 and 1924 wins at the Indy 500.
The Grand Prix and double Indy winning machine is today part of the Indianapolis Hall of Fame Museum. It is pictured above during a rare outing at the 2007 Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on July 09, 2007
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