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
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
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
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