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No. 944:

Today, let's build a really excessive automobile. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Clark Gable's favorite possession was a 1935 Duesenberg SJ coupe. Quite a car! It weighed two tons with a 250 HP straight-8 engine. It could go 140 mph and was the finest thing on wheels.

What you did was buy the motor and chassis for $8500. Then the coach builder added a custom-built body. It cost a huge sum back then, and auto historian Brock Yates tells us collectors will pay three million dollars for an old Duesenberg today.

In 1900, Iowa bicycle makers August and Fred Duesenberg began playing with gasoline engines. When other bicycle makers did that, they went toward flight. But in 1906 Fred and August got money from Edward Mason, an Iowa lawyer, to manufacture cars. Frank Maytag (of washing-machine fame) bought Mason out. For a while, the Duesenbergs built the Maytag-Mason automobile.

But neither Maytag nor Mason had the hang of the car business. The company gradually folded while the Duesenbergs went off to St. Paul to work on engines. By WW-I their engines had made a good showing in the Indy 500. Eddie Rickenbacker drove cars powered by those motors before he flew in the war.

The Duesenbergs made airplane engines during that war. Afterward they made a car under their own name. It had the best engine, but they couldn't get the body right. Worse yet, they began competing with a California car maker named Miller.

Both companies wanted to make cars for the public that would also compete on race tracks. That may've been poor thinking, but Yates points out that it led to furious cross-fertilization. Auto design profited even if the business didn't. Speeds rose. We've yet to build highways for machines like that.

Then another maker of fine autos, Errett Cord, joined the Duesenbergs in 1926 to make the luxury J-model Duesenbergs. From 1928 to 1937 they made 481 of those glorious cars and sold them to the rich and famous -- the Maharaja of Idore and Gary Cooper.

No carriage trade can sustain itself at such a level. The company went bankrupt in 1937. The cars had been unwise business practice, but they were superb craftsmanship. In the end such love of invention couldn't fail entirely. Those cars set the pace. They drove the industry. And they touched America.

Of course, they did something else as well. They shaped our metaphors. Cartoons still use that long in-line 8-cylinder engine as the very symbol of automobile excess. And the Duesenbergs inadvertently added a slang term to the English language. The word was doozy, as in, "Isn't that car over there a real doozy!" Well, I doubt that passing car was anything close, but the point is that cars ever since have strived to be.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Yates, B., Duesenberg, America Heritage, July-August 1994, pp. 88-99.


"Nothing succeeds like excess!"
Oscar Wilde


Before the Duesenberg was the Cord (From the Galveston Classic Car Museum)
Photo by John Lienhard

Before the Duesenberg was the Cord (From the Galveston Classic Car Museum)