Motoring Memories: Duesenberg Model A motoring memories
1923 Duesenberg Model A. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Among the world’s greatest cars of the “classic era” of 1925 to 1948, there is one American name that stands above the others: Duesenberg, maker of the mighty model J, and the even mightier supercharged SJ.

Designed by race car builders August and Fred Duesenberg, the J and SJ reflected the brothers’ racing background, with such features as straight-eight engines, double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The J bowed in 1929, and the supercharged SJ in 1932.

The Duesenberg J was the brainchild of Errett Lobban (E. L.) Cord, who had gained control of the Duesenberg Motor Co. of Indianapolis in 1926, and made it part of his Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg empire. He wanted an American luxury supercar that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best.

But before the advent of Cord’s ultra-prestige car, there had been an earlier production Duesenberg, the Model A. It was a very good car but would, unfortunately, be overshadowed by the more glamorous J and SJ. Like the “forgotten” 1932-1934 four-cylinder Fords that were eclipsed by the spirited new V8, and virtually ignored by history, the Model A Duesenberg was destined to be forever outshone by the Js and SJs.

The Model A Duesenberg was introduced at the 1920 New York auto show, but didn’t go into production until December of 1921. It was derived directly from the Duesenberg that had won the French Grand Prix in July of that year, a race in which the Duesenberg’s hydraulic brakes were a decisive factor. The A would prove such a durable design that modified versions would appear in the Indianapolis 500 mile race as late as 1934.

When the Model A Duesenberg was introduced it included several engineering firsts, the most significant being the four-wheel hydraulic brakes it had used so effectively in the French Grand Prix. Using a mixture of water and alcohol as brake fluid, these proved superior to the then-standard mechanical brakes, and would eventually become universal. The first 1924 Chrysler was fitted with hydraulics, and the Chrysler Corporation would lead the big three automakers in adopting them.

Another Model A Duesenberg achievement was the first production inline eight-cylinder engine. Its superior smoothness and power over the then- popular sixes and fours would soon attract others such as Auburn, Packard and Stutz. The straight-eight would go on to become a widely used powerplant, particularly popularized by Packard and Buick, until the introduction of the short-stroke, overhead valve V8 by Cadillac and Oldsmobile in 1949 initiated its demise.

Duesenberg also made extensive use of aluminum in the Model A’s engine, including its pistons and intake manifold. The Model A weighed approximately 1,678 kg (3,700 lb), and was capable of a 137 km/h (85 mph) top speed.

The Model A Duesenberg’s eight had a bore of 73 mm (2.875 in.) and a long stroke of 127 mm (5.0 in.), giving a displacement of 4.3 litres (260 cu in.). It developed 87 horsepower. Its two valves per cylinder were actuated by a single overhead camshaft driven by bevel gears and a vertical shaft at the front of the engine.

The Duesenberg Motor Co. of Indianapolis made Model As almost through the 1920s, during which time some 650 were built. The Duesenberg had an outstanding competition record; it won the French Grand Prix, had three Indy 500 wins in the 1920s, and set a land speed record. Along with Harry Miller’s racers, it was a dominant name in American racing during the 1920s. But in spite of this, it didn’t generate high sales. Apparently, buyers were unimpressed with Duesenberg’s “non-stop,” (except for tire changes) 5,080 km (3,155 mile) run on the Indianapolis Speedway at an average speed of over 100 km/h (62 mph).

There are probably several reasons for the Model A’s mediocre sales. One was no doubt the Duesenberg name itself, in an era when World War One was still a fresh memory. Although the brothers had been born in Germany, they moved to the U.S. as boys and were thoroughly American. Another deterrent was cost. The Model A was priced in the $7,000 to $8,000 range, which was a considerable sum in the 1920s.

When E.L. Cord purchased Duesenberg in 1926, Model A production was down to one or two cars per week. The Duesenberg brothers had always been better engineers than they were businessmen, so the infusion of Cord’s capital and entrepreneurial spirit were needed. Never a shrinking violet, Cord immediately initiated the design of the Model J supercar.

A few revised Model As, called the Model X, were produced while the J was under development. The X’s purpose seemed to be to use up the remaining Model A parts, and to keep the Duesenberg name before the public. The Model A, its role in life always that of bridesmaid to the Models J and SJ, was soon largely forgotten when the J appeared.