Jay Leno’s Duesenberg Model J Town Car.

FREDERIC and August Duesenberg are race car engineers and when they decided to open a shop building road cars, it was inevitable that whatever they made was fast and packed with the latest technology.

At the pinnacle of their engineering prowess was the Duesenberg Model J, a car so powerful and elegant that it was a match for any luxury car of the time and in terms of a modern equivalent, it was on par with a Bentley Mulsanne or a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

First released in 1928, the Model J was powered by a seven-litre eight-cylinder in-line engine. The engine came with different levels of power output, ranging from 250hp and up to 1,600 hooves for the Mormon Meteor land speed record car.

No, the land speed record car did not produce 1,600hp. Hint: How many legs does a horse have?

The 1920s and 1930s were not the best times to build super-luxury automobiles but it isn’t surprising that many car companies got caught by the depression.


A 1931 Duesenberg Model J Coupe.

As it is normal with the economy, there are cycles and usually crashes coming on the back of a really hot economy, when speculation is at its peak and money flows like water.

The stock market euphoria of the swinging early 1920s encouraged the Duesenberg brothers to come up with the ultimate expression of the automobile and they came up with a car packed with top-notch engineering.

The eight-cylinder on-line configuration was de rigueur for the times. It had a very long engine and required a long crankshaft, which twisted and flexed under power and caused a lot of vibration.

It was as if all the engine designers took it as a challenge on who could make this torquey engine work without shaking the clients’ teeth loose.

A bit of fun fact: Do you know that if an in-line-eight engine ran smoothly, it’s likely that the crankshaft may have cracked?

With the engine producing generous power and torque, most of these cars can top 200kph, if you specify the right transmission.

When you order cars at that time, the manufacturer was likely to offer you a basic chassis and mechanical, which was then customised to your requirements.

For example, if you wanted a two-seater open top car, the engine tune and transmission ratio plus final drive would be different than a four-seater luxury cabriolet and different again if the chassis is meant to carry a boxy town-car body.

We know the Mormon Meteor ran at 500km, at an average of 264kph, but I cannot find what the actual top speed of the car was. More amazingly, they ran the speed record attempt with a three-speed transmission.

For the road car, the Duesenberg fitted a few interesting technological features such as automatic louvres for the radiator grille.

Some modern luxury brands today use automatic louvres to control aerodynamics and they are kept close whenever the engine doesn’t need a lot of air for cooling.

Duesenberg used a set of bellows and thermometer to keep the louvres closed as much as possible.

The car came with adjustable brakes with dials, notched for dry, rain, snow and ice settings. This was made possible because the Model J was the first production car to use hydraulic brakes and the clever system regulates the pressure within the system.

Apparently if it is set on ice, you cannot make the wheels lock up even when there is frozen water on the road. A unique interpretation of the idea of anti-lock braking. In fact, this could be the first real application of the idea.


A Duesenberg Model J Town Car.

Duesenberg J was sent to various coachbuilders and thanks to its long chassis, many were endowed with really elegant shapes but the Americans did refine the shape of the open top cars, many of them were considered the best looking open top cars in the era.

The good looks of Duesenbergs was expected because more than half of them were designed by the company’s chief designer, the legendary Gordon Buehrig.

Cars designed by Buehrig and put together by the company’s branches are known by the name La Grande.

Gordon Buehrig designed many iconic cars for General Motors and his most famous car was the Cord 810/812, which also featured a long list of firsts.

The rest were sent to American coachbuilders such as Derham, Holbrook, Judkins, Le Baron, Murhy, Rollston, Walker, Weymann and Willoughby.

European coachbuilders Fernandez et Darrin, Franay, Gurney Nutting and Saoutchik and a few others also built bodies for them.

My favourite was the 1931 Coupe by Murphy. This car was a two seater with an impossibly long boat tail.

Thanks to the very long boat tail, the car looked good even with the soft top in place but it took on a different persona when the soft top was removed and all you got was a shape that looked like it’s on the way to somewhere special.

The Murphy Coupe was originally ordered by George Whittell Jr, who was described as an eccentric playboy. It’s the perfect car for an eccentric playboy, don’t you think?

I’m not the only one who think that the Murphy Coupe was the best-looking Duesy, the car was last sold for US$10.34 million (RM43.7 million) and that was six years ago.

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