Duesenberg Model J

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Duesenberg Model J[1]
1930 Duesenberg J Murphy Disappearing Top Torpedo Convertible Coupe - fvl (4609844035).jpg
1930 Duesenberg J Murphy Torpedo Convertible
Also called
  • Duesenberg J
  • Duesenberg SJ (supercharged)
  • Duesenberg SSJ (short-wheelbase supercharged)
Production1928–1937 481 Total (445 Model J, 36 Model SJ)
AssemblyIndianapolis, Indiana, United States
DesignerGordon Buehrig
Body and chassis
ClassFull-size luxury car
Body styleCoachbuilt to owner's preference
LayoutFront mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive
Engine7 L (420 cu in) DOHC Duesenberg Straight-8 engine, optional supercharger
Transmission3-speed manual[2]
  • 3,619.5 mm (142.5 in) (standard)[1]
  • 3,898.9 mm (153.5 in) (optional long)[1]
  • 3,175.0 mm (125 in) ("SSJ" short wheelbase)[3]
PredecessorDuesenberg Model A

The Duesenberg Model J is a luxury automobile made by Duesenberg. Intended to compete with the most luxurious and powerful cars in the world, it was introduced in 1928, the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. The Model J, available with a supercharger after 1932, was sold until Duesenberg Motors Company went bankrupt in 1937.


1930 J Walker La Grande Torpedo Phaeton

E. L. Cord, the owner of Auburn Automobile, and other transportation firms, bought the Duesenberg Motor Corporation on October 26, 1926 for the brothers' engineering skills, talent and brand name. He intended to produce a car to rival the size, power, and luxury of top European brands such as Hispano-Suiza and Rolls-Royce.[4]

After Cord's takeover, the new company was renamed "Duesenberg, Inc." Fred would continue in the new organization with the title of vice president in charge of engineering and experimental work.[5] Fred's brother August, who had played an important role in the development of the Model A and its variant, the rare X, had nothing to do with the initial design of the J and had no formal connection with Duesenberg, Inc. until later. According to the expert Marshall Merkes, "Cord did not want Augie around."[6] However, all Duesenberg racing cars produced after 1926 were built by Augie in an enterprise that functioned separately, and in a building apart from the main Duesenberg plant. He was also responsible for a number of engineering achievements like the superchargers developed for both the Auburn and Cord motorcars.[7]


Duesenberg SJ Brunn Riviera Convertible Sedan 1933

The newly revived Duesenberg company set about to produce the Model J, which debuted December 1 at the New York Car Show of 1928. In Europe, it was launched at the "Salon de l'automobile de Paris" of 1929. The first and — at the time of the New York presentation — only example made of the series, the J-101, was a LeBaron sweep panel dual cowl phaeton, finished in silver and black.[8] By the time the Great Depression hit in October 1929, the Duesenberg Company had only built some 200 cars. An additional 100 orders were filled in 1930. Thus, the Model J fell short of the original goal to sell 500 cars a year.[9] In fact, it took eight years and several iterations to dispatch a mere 480 of the cars, obsolete a couple years after their debut, retaining crash gearboxes (non-synchromesh transmissions) through the end. E.L.Cord advertised 265 hp to best the similarly inflated claim of 250 for a concurrent, limited-production Mercedes-Benz.


Duesenberg Model J engine[2]
Model J engine.JPG
ConfigurationStraight-eight engine
Displacement420 cu in (6,900 cc)
Cylinder bore3.74 in (95 mm)
Piston stroke4.76 in (121 mm)
Block materialcast iron
Head materialcast iron
ValvetrainDOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Compression ratio5.7:1
SuperchargerDuesenberg centrifugal (optional from 1932)
Fuel systemSingle updraft Schleber carburetor
Fuel typegasoline
Cooling systemwater-cooled
Power output
  • 265 hp (198 kW)advertised at 4250 rpm merely to best the inflated claims of a limited production Mercedes-Benz' "250" hp, (normal)
  • 320 hp (240 kW) at 4200 rpm (supercharged)
  • 400 hp (300 kW) supercharged model SSJ
PredecessorDuesenberg Model A engine

The straight eight model J motor was based on the company's successful racing engines of the 1920s and though designed by Duesenberg they were manufactured by Lycoming,[10] another company owned by Cord. In normally aspirated form, it produced 265 horsepower (198 kW)[11] from dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.[12] It was capable of a top speed of 91 mph (146 km/h), and 79 mph (127 km/h) in 2nd gear. Other cars featured a bigger engine but none of them surpassed its power. It was also both the fastest and most expensive American automobile on the market.

Design and development[edit]

As was common practice among the luxury car brands, only the chassis and engine were displayed; the body and interior trim of the car would be custom-made to the owner's specifications by a third-party coachbuilder. The chassis on most model Js were the same, as was the styling of such elements as fenders, headlamps, radiator, hood and instrument panel.[13]

About half the model Js built by Duesenberg had coachworks devised by the company's chief body designer, Gordon Buehrig,[13] and executed under the name La Grande by company branches in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Florida and Denver, as well as by smaller dealers. The rest were designed and made by independent US coachbuilders such as Derham, Holbrook, Judkins,[14] Le Baron, Murphy, Rollston (later renamed Rollson), Walker, Weymann, and Willoughby, and Fernandez et Darrin, Franay, Gurney Nutting, Saoutchik, and others in Europe.[8]

1932 Duesenberg J Bohman & Schwartz Convertible Coupe

The chassis cost US$8,500 ($168,818 in 2021 dollars [15]) ($9,500 after 1932 ($188,679 in 2021 dollars [15])). At a time when the average U.S. physician earned less than $3,000 a year ($59,583 in 2021 dollars [15]), most completed vehicles fell between $13,000 and $19,000 ($377,359 in 2021 dollars [15]), with two American-bodied J's reaching $25,000 ($496,524 in 2021 dollars [15])[7]). Figures for prices charged by deluxe coachbuilders in Europe are not available, but it is possible they were even higher than the most expensive American built models.[7]

The J was generally available with either with a short 142.5 in (3.62 m) wheelbase chassis or long 153.5 in (3.90 m)).[11] Special orders included two SSJs shortened to 125 in (3.18 m) and a few extended to 160 in (4.06 m) and over.

The dash included mechanically timed lights that reminded the driver when to change the oil and inspect the battery.[16]

Most engine and chassis were made in 1929 and 1930, but due to the Depression, high price, etc., ended up sold and bodied throughout subsequent years. Thus the year for a given Model J usually refers to the latter.[citation needed]

A series of minor modifications were carried out during the model's production life. The first major change was to replace the four-speed gearbox, which proved unable to handle the engine's power, with an unsynchronised three-speed gearbox, subsequently fitted to all Duesenbergs. 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 by the latter years of its run.[17] The factory closed in 1937.

Supercharged version (SJ)[edit]

1932 SJ Dual-Cowl Phaeton
1935 SJ LaGrande Dual-Cowl Phaeton

A Duesenberg marketing slogan was, "The only car that could pass a Duesenberg was another Duesenberg—and that was with the first owner's consent."[18]

Reinforcing this claim was the powerful 320 hp (239 kW) supercharged "SJ" model Developed on the 142.5 in (362 cm) wheelbase[19] by Fred Duesenberg and introduced in May 1932.[7] It reputed to be capable of 104 miles per hour (167 km/h) in second gear and have a top speed of 135–140 mph (217–225 km/h) in third. Zero-to-60 mph (97 km/h) times of around eight seconds and 0–100 mph (0–161 km/h) in 17 seconds were reported for the SJ in spite of the unsynchronized transmissions, at a time when even the best cars of the era were not likely to reach 100 mph (160 km/h). Duesenbergs generally weighed around two and a half tons; up to three tons was not unusual, considering the wide array of custom coachwork available.

The SJ's supercharger was located beside the engine; the vertical driving shaft necessitated a redesigned exhaust manifold arrangement; originally this took the form of a one-piece eight into one Monel manifold that re-routed the exhaust away from the engine, outside the engine compartment and through a single hole in the right front fender. The eight port manifold was found to be prone to cracking and was quickly superseded by a second manifold arrangement that routed four branches through the right side panel of the hood and right front fender. At least one supercharged car retains its original eight port manifold while most can be recognized by the four exposed exhaust pipes encased within bright flexible metal conduit tubes, a design which Cord registered as a trademark and used in his supercharged Cords and Auburns.[citation needed] The flamboyant external exhaust pipes were offered both as an option on new normally aspirated Model Js[20] and retrofit to earlier Model Js.[21]

Fred Duesenberg died of pneumonia on July 26, 1932, resulting from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in which he was driving a Murphy SJ convertible.[22] His brother, Augie, took over Fred's duties as chief engineer and Harold T. Ames became president of Duesenberg, Inc. Only 36 SJs were ever built.[23]

Duesenberg Special[edit]

Duesenberg Special, a.k.a. Mormon Meteor

With financing from sponsors, Ab Jenkins commissioned the Duesenberg Special as a speed record car. It was built in 1935 on a supercharged Duesenberg Model J rolling chassis with a standard wheelbase, a modified front axle, and a non-standard high rear axle ratio. The engine was highly tuned by Augie Duesenberg. High performance parts developed for the Special, especially the "ram's horn" twin-carburetor inlet manifold, would be used on later supercharged Js. In October 1935, Jenkins drove the car to a one-hour record of 153.97 mph (247.79 km/h) and a twenty-four-hour record of 135.57 mph (218.18 km/h) at a circuit on the Bonneville Salt Flats.[23] The 24-hour record would be held until 1961. The car was renamed "Mormon Meteor" after a Curtiss Conqueror aircraft engine was installed in place of the Duesenberg engine.[24]

Twenty Grand[edit]

The one-off custom 1933 Rollston Arlington Torpedo-bodied Duesenberg SJ ultra-luxury sedan was the 2nd most expensive Duesenberg ever constructed and it is widely considered to be the most beautiful Duesenberg ever built. The Twenty Grand had 320 horsepower Supercharged DOHC engine and was built specifically for the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago. It is owned by the Nethercutt Collection.[25] Jay Leno owns the most expensive Duesenberg ever made, the 1934 Duesenberg Walker Coupe.[26]


Duesenberg Model J cabriolet with a custom body by Graber

The short-wheelbase supercharged J, referred to by the public as the SSJ, had an extra-short wheelbase of 125 in (3,200 mm) and an engine delivering close to 400 hp (298 kW) through the use of the dual-carburetor "ram's horn" manifold developed for the Duesenberg Special.[3] The "ram's horn" manifold has two branches, each of which splits into two more branches.[27]

Only two were built; both had lightweight open-roadster bodies produced by Central Manufacturing Company, an Auburn subsidiary in Connersville, Indiana.[20] At the rear, each short-wheelbase roadster had an external spare tire and smaller “later-style” round taillights.[citation needed]

The first short-wheelbase roadster was sold to the actor Gary Cooper in 1935.[3][17] The other "SSJ" was lent by the company to actor and established Duesenberg customer Clark Gable in 1936.[17] Cooper and Gable would race each other in the Hollywood Hills in these cars.[3]


There is another version of the model J known as the Duesenberg JN (a name never used by the company either). All JNs were sold with Rollston coachwork and only 10 were produced in 1935.[28] In an attempt to give a more modern look to an ageing design, the JN was equipped with smaller 17-inch-diameter wheels (versus 19 inches), skirted fenders, bullet-shaped taillights, and bodies set on the frame rails for a lower look. The battery box and tool box were redesigned slightly so that the doors could close over the frame. Supercharged JNs gained the logical SJN designation.[29]


Duesenberg J hood ornament

The Model J quickly became one of the most popular luxury cars as well as a status symbol in the United States and Europe, driven by the nobility; the rich and famous, among them Al Capone, Evalyn Walsh McLean, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers,[30] Howard Hughes, Mae West, Marion Davies, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, William Randolph Hearst, the families Mars, Whitney, and Wrigley; members of European royalty such as the Duke of Windsor, Prince Nicholas of Romania, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, and the Kings Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Alfonso XIII of Spain. The last was very keen on motoring and chose his now missing Duesenberg J, among his cars, to go to exile after the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. Father Divine had the last Duesenberg chassis built with an extra-long 178-inch wheelbase. It weighed 7,800 lb (3,500 kg) and accommodated ten passengers. J. Herbert Newport was the designer. Built by Bohman & Schwartz and delivered in October 1937, it was 22 ft (6.7 m) long and 7 ft (2.1 m) wide. It was known as Father Divine's Throne Car because it had a removable rear top section that exposed two raised rear seats.

Originally, New York supported the Model J. New York was the financial capital of the United States in 1929, and many of its people could afford such an expensive car. As the Depression deepened, however, power shifted, and ultimately it was newly wealthy Hollywood that kept Duesenberg alive through much of the 1930s.[9] It was so reputed and imposing that many Hollywood stars, such as James Cagney, posed next to the car to promote their careers.

There was a gradual evolution (up to the 1937 model) to preserve the "stately lines" while moving into a more integrated mode of styling. The final evolution of the Duesenberg engine was ram-air intakes, which were added to some of the last supercharged models to produce 400 hp (298 kW), referred to as "SSJ". Of the 481 Model Js[31] (including all its versions) produced between 1928 and 1937, about 378 survive. Some are speculated to have been lost in the war, particularly those exported to Europe, while others may had been parted out or even altered beyond recognition during the late 1940s and early 1950s.


1929 Duesenberg J Murphy Convertible Coupe
1934 Duesenberg Model J at Stahls Automotive Collection

Duesenberg ceased production in 1937 after Cord's financial empire collapsed. However, two more Duesenbergs were completed between 1937 and 1940. The first one was delivered by the coachbuilder Rollson to the German artist Rudolf Bauer in April 1940; it is both the longest Duesenberg and the last one delivered.[32] The last one ever made was assembled from leftover parts between 1938 and 1940.[8]

Duesenberg became far less popular during World War II, and by 1941 to 1942, used specimens were abundant and cheap, with advertised prices averaging around $700 for the cars in excellent condition. Even still, a few used Model Js were advertised for around $300 to $400, with some ultimately selling for only $100 or $200.[citation needed]

Business rebounded in the 1950s, when classic and vintage cars became popular among collectors. Several Model Js were advertised in The New York Times in the fall of 1950, at prices as low as $500, though an exceptional restored example could exceed $2,000 which was still within the reach of the average working American.

By 1959 a decent example could not be bought for less than $4,000, and an exceptionally fine specimen could approach $10,000. A record price of $12,000 had been paid for a Duesenberg J in a private sale that year. In 10 years' time, by 1969, a Model J could fetch anywhere between $20,000 and $75,000. A record price of $205,000 was set at an auction in 1974 for a model J, surpassing Adolf Hitler’s personal 770K Mercedes, which sold for $153,000 the year prior.

The Duesenberg Special, a.k.a. "Mormon Meteor", was sold at an auction by Gooding & Co. in August 2004 for $4.5 million.[33] Another SJ sold for $4.4 million at RM Auctions in Monterey, California, in 2007.[34]

Liberace used a replica Dusenberg SJ encrusted with Austrian rhinestone crystals during his stage performances. The vehicle later went on to be exhibited at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, and at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and its current location is at the "Liberace Garage" located in Las Vegas as well.

In 2018 a Duesenberg SSJ that was formerly owned by Gary Cooper was sold at auction for $22 million.[35] This made it the most expensive American car ever sold.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Kimes 1990, p. 232.
  2. ^ a b Cheetham 2006, pp. 75, 79.
  3. ^ a b c d Kimes 1990, p. 265.
  4. ^ Borgeson 2005, p. 40.
  5. ^ Borgeson 2005, p. 42.
  6. ^ Borgeson 2005, p. 43.
  7. ^ a b c d Wolff 1966, p. 367.
  8. ^ a b c "Introduction to the 1928-1934 Duesenberg J series". Howstuffworks.com. 6 December 2007. Retrieved 2010-11-23.
  9. ^ a b Ema 2007.
  10. ^ Cheetham 2006, p. 73.
  11. ^ a b Kimes 1996, p. 498.
  12. ^ Cheetham 2006, p. 72.
  13. ^ a b Buehrig 1966, p. 372.
  14. ^ Melissen 2005.
  15. ^ a b c d e 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  16. ^ Vaughan 2007.
  17. ^ a b c Melissen 2004.
  18. ^ Spicer, Chrystopher J. (14 October 2011). Clark Gable, in Pictures: Candid Images of the Actor's Life. McFarland. ISBN 9780786487141. Retrieved 28 August 2018 – via Google Books.
  19. ^ Cheetham, Craig, ed. Ultimate American Cars, 2006, p. 147
  20. ^ a b Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (30 October 2007). "Duesenberg SSJ Speedster". Howstuffworks.com. Retrieved 2010-11-23. {{cite web}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  21. ^ Kimes 1990, p. 239.
  22. ^ Wolff 1966, p. 368.
  23. ^ a b Cheetham, Craig (2004). Vintage Cars - The Finest Prewar Automobiles. Rochester, United Kingdom: Grange Books. p. 31. ISBN 1840136359.
  24. ^ Kimes 1990, p. 264.
  25. ^ "1980 Best of Show Winner". Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. 2021-03-04. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  26. ^ "The Most Expensive Duesenberg Ever Made - Jay Leno's Garage". YouTube.
  27. ^ Liquid Diamond, info@liquiddiamond.it. "The American Dream. Duesenberg J-SJ". Cromoclassico.com. Archived from the original on 2012-08-25. Retrieved 2010-11-23.
  28. ^ Rodgers 2010.
  29. ^ Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2007-06-13). "How Duesenberg Cars work: Duesenberg Model SJ, Model JN, Model SJN". Howstuffworks.com. Retrieved 2010-11-23. {{cite web}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  30. ^ "Ginger Rogers' 1929 Duesenberg stars at 2012 Amelia Island".
  31. ^ Georgano, G. N. (1985). Cars: Early and Vintage, 1886–1930. London, UK: Grange-Universal.
  32. ^ Apen 2007.
  33. ^ "The world's 50 most expensive cars - MSN Cars UK". MSN Cars. 2009-08-05. p. 28. Archived from the original on 2012-02-24. Retrieved 2009-11-11.
  34. ^ "The world's 50 most expensive cars - MSN Cars UK". MSN Cars. 2009-08-05. p. 19. Archived from the original on 2012-02-24. Retrieved 2009-11-11.
  35. ^ "Gary Cooper's Duesenberg SSJ - Gooding & Company's Pebble Beach Auctions". 11 July 2018. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  36. ^ "Gary Cooper's 1935 Duesenberg SSJ fetches record price at Pebble Beach". Auto log. Retrieved 28 August 2018.