|Duesenberg J Murphy Convertible Coupe|
Launched at the 1928 New York Auto Show, the Duesenberg Model J was the result of a design process influenced by both Duesenberg's rich racing heritage and owner Errett Lobban Cord's demands. Cord envisioned the new Duesenberg to be the greatest American car ever. No expense was spared and a legend was created by the design team led by Fred Duesenberg. Today the name Duesenberg alone makes many automotive enthusiasts' hearts beat faster.
Duesenberg first stunned the world in 1921 by winning the French Grand Prix, the first and only American manufacturer to ever win the event. The three litre racer featured a state of the art eight cylinder engine and hydraulic drum brakes all-round. In the same year Duesenberg entered the passenger car market with the Model A. Many of the features that made the Grand Prix racer successful were found on the road car as well. The Model A was the first road car ever to be fitted with hydraulically operated drum brakes all-round.
Unlike the racing Duesenbergs, the road cars were not an immediate success. The Duesenberg brothers were great designers and engineeers, but their business and marketing talents were limited. Poor sales results pushed Duesenberg on the verge of bankruptcy. E.L. Cord stepped in and bought the company in 1926. Cord decided to abandon the nimble Model A and requested Fred Duesenberg to design a large, luxurious and powerful chassis to be bodied by various coach-builders.
Dubbed Model J, the new Duesenberg was equipped with a wide variety of technical novelties. In its design the chassis was very simple with a ladder frame and solid axles front and rear. Six cross-members made sure the chassis was twist-free and could accomodate all body-types regardless of the body's rigidity. An ingenious lubrication system was installed, which automatically started lubricating various parts of the chassis after sixty to eighty miles. Two lights on the dashboard indicated the lubrication progress and two others lit up at 750 and 1500 miles indicating the need for an oil change and battery check respectively.
It's the engine that really made the Model J stand out from its competition. With 32 valves, double overhead camshafts and a detachable head the eight cylinder engine was the most advanced engine ever designed in the United States. Displacing just under 6.9 litres, the engine produced an earthmoving 265 bhp, more than could be tested on any contemporary dynometer. Although the engine was designed by Fred Duesenberg, it was constructed by specialised engine-builder Lycoming, which was also recently acquired by E.L. Cord.
Officially Duesenberg constructed rolling-chassis for coach-builders to body. A rolling chassis usually included all mechanical parts, the dashboard, front fenders, radiator grille, running boards, bumpers and optional swiveling spotlights. The chassis were shipped to coach-builders to be fitted with a body or the other way around. To make sure a wide variety of bodies was available at the launch, a blue-print of the upcoming car was sent to all major coach-builders six months before the New York show. From 1930 Duesenberg ordered bodies in small batches and offered complete cars.
Despite the enthusiastic public response at the New York launch, sales were disappointing. The estimated production figure of 500 cars per year was never matched and eventually only 481 Model Js were constructed. Being extremely expensive, the Model J was popular with the rich and famous. Among the owners were many greats from the showbizz industry like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Cagney and Greta Garbo. Various kings and queens were Model J owners as well. Part of the Duesenberg legend is based on the many famous owners.
A series of minor modifications were carried out during the production life, but most of the design remained the same up until the factory closed in 1937. First to go was the four-speed gearbox, which proved unable to handle the engine's power. It was replaced by a unsynchronised 3-speed gearbox, which was fitted to all Duesenbergs to come. Unlike almost all American manufacturers Duesenberg did not switch to a fully synchronised gearbox in the mid-1930s, which made the Model J difficult to drive and outdated compared to its competitors.
Throughout the production run, the engine dimensions stayed the same. An increase of 55 bhp was achieved by adding a Supercharger. Only a handful of supercharged Model Js were constructed and they are today commonly known as the Model SJ, a name never used by Duesenberg themselves. A final evolution was the addition of ram-horn intakes on the last supercharged models. Fitted in two short wheelbase chassis, this engine reportedly produced up to 400 bhp, a stunning figure even today. Two of these 'super-Duesenbergs' were constructed and are reffered to as SSJs, again a designation never used by the factory.
Production ceased in 1937 because of the depression and for a number of specific reasons. The Model J's development grounded to a halt in 1932, when Fred Duesenberg died from the results of a car crash. By 1937 the chassis and gearbox were ancient compared to the competition and a thorough redesign was needed to bring Duesenberg back on top once more. The Cord company had lost interest in Duesenberg, which from a business perspective never lived up to the expectations. E.L. Cord had left the company and with him went the enthusiasm required to keep a brand like Duesenberg alive.
Today the Model J is considered to be one of the most legendary cars ever constructed. The combination of state-of-the-art racing inspired engineering, the era's finest coach-building and the cars' many famous owners have all contributed to that legend. One of the most told stories about the Model J underlined the engine's incredible power; the Model J could smoothly accelerate from 10 mph to 89 mph in second gear. The SSJ's top-speed is estimated to be close to 160 mph, faster than any other pre-War road car.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on January 23, 2012
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