Tuesday 18th January 1955
August S. Duesenberg (75), German-American automobile industrialist, died. In the 1890s, August Duesenberg started building and racing bicycles with his brother Frederick. In 1900, they then began playing with gasoline engines and also motorcycles. In 1906 the brothers obtained financing to manufacture cars from Edward Mason, an Iowa lawyer. F. L. Maytag, washing machine and appliance magnate, bought 60 percent of the company. The result was the Maytag-Mason Motor Company at Waterloo, Iowa. But neither Maytag nor Mason were experienced in the car business, and the company gradually folded. The Duesenberg brothers went off to St. Paul, Minnesota to work on racing car engines, and in 1913 they founded Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company, Inc. to build engines and racing cars.
With the coming of World War I the Duesenbergs had cause to change many of their engineering ideas. The catalyst was a Bugatti engine. This straight-eight engine consisted of two straight-four engines. They were mounted in series on a common crankcase with two flat crankshafts which were both linked at 90 degrees to form a single shaft. The Duesenbergs were granted an American contract to produce the engine for the French government, and it was their experience with the Bugatti masterpiece that led to the design of the famous Duesenberg straight-eight engine. At the end of World War I, they ceased building aviation and marine engines in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1919 the brothers sold their Minnesota and New Jersey factories to John Willys and came to Indianapolis, Indiana, where they established the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company in 1920. August Duesenberg was the plant manager who turned brother Fred’s designs into reality. The result was the Duesenberg Model A.
Having raced their bicycles and motorcycles, it was natural that, as with other automobile builders, the Duesenberg brothers would use the Indianapolis Speedway as a laboratory, and for nearly twenty years their own entries participated in races there. Fred designed and Augie manufactured one of the last American “hand-made” racing cars that dominated the Indianapolis 500-mile race in the mid-1920s, luxury automobiles more powerful than even the biggest of modern production cars. Augie as chief mechanic also supervised and directed the fortunes of the famed Duesenberg racing team. Their cars won seven of the first ten places in the 1920 race, and they built the racers that won the Memorial Day race in 1924, 1925 and 1927.
Although the Duesenberg brothers were world-class engineers, they were unable to sell their Model A car, their first mass produced vehicle. A minor shareholder unsuccessfully attempted to put the company into receivership in 1923 based on rumors. In 1926, the company was discussing a merger with Du Pont Motors, again indicating possible financial difficulty. Duesenberg was able to survive to the classic era because E. L. Cord wanted a “supercar” to round out his automotive duo of Auburn and Cord. Cord admired the Duesenberg Model A and in 1926 proposed a financial rescue.
Ab Jenkins set a 24-hour speed record of 135.47 miles an hour in a Duesenberg on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935. Soon thereafter, the Cord Company, near bankruptcy in 1937, was sold to Aviation Corporation. After World War II, August Duesenberg attempted to revive the Duesenberg marque, but his efforts soon floundered. His son Frederick P. “Fritz” Duesenberg attempted another revival in 1966.
August S. Duesenberg was inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame (later renamed Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame) in 1963 and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1990.