Model history: Speed played a major part in the lives the brother Fred and August Duesenberg from a very young age. They first made a mark as bicycle racers at the end of the nineteenth century, but quickly turned to mechanical assistance to go faster still. The Duesenberg's first design was for a single cylinder bike engine. By the mid teens, they were developing racing car engines and eventually complete racing cars. With advanced four valve per cylinder, straight four engines, the Duesenberg racing cars were very successful. During the War years, the brothers also built eight, twelve and sixteen cylinder engines for a variety of military purposes.
Starting with a clean slate, the brothers developed their first straight eight automobile engine for the 1919 racing season. Unlike the previous pushrod Duesenberg engines, it featured an overhead camshaft. There were some teething problems with the design, but gradually the new engine became competitive. In 1921 a three litre Duesenberg had the honour of becoming the first American car to win the French Grand Prix. Later in the decade, dual overhead camshaft engined Duesenbergs would also win the illustrious Indy 500 three times and many other races in the United States.
The brothers had bigger plans for the eight cylinder engine and in November 1920, they took the wraps off the first Duesenberg passenger car at the Automobile Salon in New York's Hotel Commodore. After Duesenberg's recent racing success, the sudden opportunity of buying one of these racing cars really got the crowd talking. What also helped was the prominent location of the prototype in the hotel's foyer where the car's unpainted and very shiny aluminium coachwork grabbed everybody's attention. It was not all show as under the glitter the Duesenberg 'Model A' also sported some production car firsts.
The Model A shared its SOHC straight eight with the successful racers and as such became the first production car with an eight cylinder engine. That eight cylinder unit displaced just over 4.2 litre and produced a decent 88 bhp. Mated to a three-speed gearbox, it was installed in a ladder frame, which was suspended by live axles front and rear. Another novelty was the use of hydraulically assisted drum brakes at every corner. The Model A's racing heritage was not forgotten as the brother ensured that the car was as light as possible by using aluminium for a variety of parts.
After a completely new factory was constructed, production of the Model A commenced halfway through 1921. Even though the initial plan was to produce around 2400 cars per year, production never exceeded one car per day. Duesenberg offered standardised bodies through the factory but, as was the norm in the day, the Model A was also available as a rolling chassis for specialist coach-builders to body. While the racing cars continued to be very successful, Duesenberg struggled to get the road car business profitable and the company gradually headed towards bankruptcy. The company was saved in the fall of 1926 when the Errett Lobban Cord owned Auburn bought the road car business.
Cord immediately cancelled the evolution of the Model A, the Model X, Fred Duesenberg had in the pipeline for 1927. He had much bigger plans for the company and had Duesenberg develop a much larger and luxurious road car; the legendary Model J. Before the program was cut short, Duesenberg had produced parts for around thirteen Model Xs. These were completed in anticipation of the J's introduction but only served demonstration purposes to keep public interest while the Model J was readied. Very similar to the A, the X featured revised suspension and a slightly more powerful engine with a reverse-flow head. One of the bodies fitted on a Model X chassis would form the inspiration for the later Auburn Speedsters.
Even though the Model A caused a sensation when it was first introduced, it has since been completely overshadowed by the Duesenberg J; universally accepted as one of the finest cars ever produced. Sadly, few people realise today that Duesenberg built anything else than the J. Only a handful of these first eight cylinders have survived; around a dozen of the Model A and only four of the Model X are accounted for.
Chassis: D 96 E
Built on one of the very few Model X chassis, this is one of the most influential Duesenbergs ever constructed. The reason was the 'Boat Roadster' body designed and built by the McFarlan company from Connersville, Indiana. Although it remained a one-off, as McFarlan was very much distracted by building cars under their own name, the 'Boat Roadster' inspired the Auburn designers to develop the spectacular Speedsters built from 1928 onwards. The design's most striking feature, apart from the colourful finish, is the long boat-shaped tail that gave it its name.
Despite the lack of a top and wipers, the car was eventually sold to Chicago businessman and Duesenberg Race Team sponsor Arnold Kirkeby. As a consequence of the 'Great Depression' he did not get to enjoy the unique Model X for very long. After changing hands many times, the car was bought in derelict condition by Duesenberg Club historian Allen Sandburg. He put the car in storage and eventually sold it to William Dreist. Although Dreist, had the intention to fully restore the one-off Duesenberg but never got around to start the work in the three decades he owned it. In the late 1990s, he found a new custodian for the car; University Professor and noted collector Peter Heydon.
Heydon immediately submitted the car to a complete restoration by period expert Brian Joseph. Much effort was put into finding the correct colours and fortunately a sample was found at the cowl vents. All the bright-work was nickel-plated and the interior re-upholstered. The 'Boat Roadster' restoration took a staggering 2 1/2 and that showed in the end-result. Since 2000, Heydon has shown the car at prestigious events around the world, winning numerous awards. Among them was 'Best of Show' at the 2000 Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Reunion. It is seen here at the 2010 Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este where it duly won its class.