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
Manufacturer Duesenberg
Also called
  • Duesenberg J
  • Duesenberg SJ (supercharged)
  • Duesenberg SSJ (short-wheelbase supercharged)
Production 1928–1937
Assembly Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
Body and chassis
Class Full-size luxury car
Body style Coachbuilt to owner's preference
Layout Front mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive
Engine 7 L (420 cu in) DOHC straight-8, optional supercharger
Transmission 3-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]
Predecessor Duesenberg 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 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 the brand name in order to produce luxury cars. Cord told Fred Duesenberg to design an automobile that would be the best in the world, the biggest, fastest, and most expensive car ever made. The car was intended to compete with the biggest, most powerful, and most luxurious European cars of the era, including Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Mercedes-Benz, 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 he developed for both the Auburn and Cord motorcars.[7]


Duesenberg J Murphy 1931.

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]


Duesenberg Model J engine[2]
Model J engine.JPG
Manufacturer Duesenberg
Production 1928-1937
Combustion chamber
Configuration Straight-eight engine
Displacement 420 cu in (6,900 cc)
Cylinder bore 3.74 in (95 mm)
Piston stroke 4.76 in (121 mm)
Cylinder block alloy cast iron
Cylinder head alloy cast iron
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Compression ratio 5.7:1
Supercharger Duesenberg centrifugal (optional from 1932)
Fuel system Single updraft Schleber carburetor
Fuel type gasoline
Cooling system water-cooled
Power output
  • 265 hp (198 kW) at 4250 rpm (normal)
  • 320 hp (240 kW) at 4200 rpm (supercharged)
Predecessor Duesenberg 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 119 mph (192 km/h), and 94 mph (151 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 by a third-party coachbuilder to the owner's specifications. 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]

Bodywork for these Duesenbergs came from both the US and Europe, and the finished cars were some of the largest, grandest, most beautiful, and most elegant cars ever created.[citation needed] About half the model Js built by Duesenberg had coachworks devised by the company's chief body designer, Gordon Buehrig,[13] the rest were designed and made by independent coachbuilders from the US such as Derham, Holbrook, Judkins,[14] Le Baron, Murphy, Rollston (later renamed Rollson), Walker, Weymann, and Willoughby, to name a few; and from Europe: Fernandez et Darrin, Franay, Gurney Nutting, Saoutchik, etc.[8] However, other coachworks were made by Duesenberg branches in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Florida and Denver, as well as by smaller dealers. For the in-house bodies Duesenberg used the name of La Grande.

The chassis cost $8,500 ($9,500 after 1932); the cost for most completed vehicles was between $13,000 and $19,000 (two of the American-bodied J's reached $25,000[7]), at a time when the average U.S. physician earned less than $3,000 a year. Figures are not available as to the prices charged by deluxe coachbuilders in Europe, but it is reasonable to assume that the final selling price of the products mounted on the costly imported chassis were considerably higher than their all-American-built counterparts.[7]

The J was generally available with one of two wheelbases; the short chassis had a 142.5 in (3.62 m) wheelbase while the long chassis had a 153.5 in (3.90 m)) wheelbase.[11] There were also other special sizes; including the two SSJs with a wheelbase shortened to 125 in (3.18 m) and a few cars with the wheelbase extended to 4 m (160 in) and over.

The dash included lights that reminded the driver when the oil needed changing and the battery should be inspected; each triggered by a mechanical timing mechanism.[15]

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 an unsynchronised three-speed gearbox, which was fitted to all subsequent 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 1937 the chassis and gearbox were ancient compared to the competition.[16]

Regarding this model, it is necessary to emphasize that most of them (engine and chassis) were made in 1929 and 1930, but due to the Depression, high price, etc., were sold throughout subsequent years. The year for a given Model J is usually in reference to the year the vehicle was first bodied, even though the chassis were made in 1929, 1930, etc.

Supercharged version (SJ)[edit]

1935 SJ LaGrande Dual-Cowl Phaeton.

The supercharged version, often referred to as "SJ", was 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 gear. 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 wheelbase was 142.5 in (362 cm).[17]

The supercharged Model J, with 320 hp (239 kW) was also created by Fred Duesenberg[7] and introduced in May 1932, only 36 units were built.[18] 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 other supercharged cars from Cord and Auburn.[citation needed] However, despite being a characteristic of the supercharged Model Js, these external exhaust pipes were offered as an option on normally aspirated Model Js,[19] and were also offered for retrofitting to earlier Model Js.[20] It was said,[who?] "The only car that could pass a Duesenberg was another Duesenberg—and that was with the first owner's consent."[citation needed]

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.[21] His brother, Augie, took over Fred's duties as chief engineer and Harold T. Ames became president of Duesenberg, Inc.

Duesenberg Special[edit]

Main article: Mormon Meteor
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.[18] 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.[22]


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.[23]

Only two were built; both had lightweight open-roadster bodies produced by Central Manufacturing Company, an Auburn subsidiary in Connersville, Indiana.[19] 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][16] The other "SSJ" was lent by the company to actor and established Duesenberg customer Clark Gable in 1936.[16] 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.[24] 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.[25]


1932 Duesenberg J Judkins coupe

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, 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 latter 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 and 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 a very 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 (300 kW), referred to as "SSJ". Of the 481 Model Js[26] (including all its versions) produced between 1928 and 1937, about 378 survive.


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.[27] The last one ever made was assembled from leftover parts between 1938 and 1940.[8]

Duesenberg became far less popular during World War II, by the end of which a few 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 1951, at prices as low as $500. By 1959 a decent example could not be bought for less than $4,000.

The Duesenberg Special, a.k.a. "Mormon Meteor", was sold at an auction by Gooding & Co in August 2004 for $4.5 million.[28] Another SJ sold for $4.4 million at RM Auctions in Monterey, California, in 2007.[29]

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.


  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. 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. ^ Vaughan 2007.
  16. ^ a b c Melissen 2004.
  17. ^ Cheetham, Craig, ed. Ultimate American Cars, 2006, p. 147
  18. ^ a b Cheetham, Craig (2004). Vintage Cars - The Finest Prewar Automobiles. Rochester, United Kingdom: Grange Books. p. 31. ISBN 1840136359. 
  19. ^ a b Auto Editors of Consumer Guide. "Duesenberg SSJ Speedster". Howstuffworks.com. Retrieved 2010-11-23. 
  20. ^ Kimes 1990, p. 239.
  21. ^ Wolff 1966, p. 368.
  22. ^ Kimes 1990, p. 264.
  23. ^ Liquid Diamond, info@liquiddiamond.it. "The American Dream. Duesenberg J-SJ". Cromoclassico.com. Retrieved 2010-11-23. 
  24. ^ Rodgers 2010.
  25. ^ 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. 
  26. ^ Georgano, G. N. (1985). Cars: Early and Vintage, 1886–1930. London, UK: Grange-Universal. 
  27. ^ Apen 2007.
  28. ^ "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. 
  29. ^ "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.