Story of the Week

Posted: 09.11.2014
Remembering the Legacy of Frederick S. Duesenberg
By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images - Courtesy of The National Automotive History Collection

Mr. Frederick Samuel Duesenberg was born in Lippe, Germany on December 6, 1876. In 1880, he was brought to the United States by his mother when he was just four years old. The family moved to Rockford, Iowa where Mr. Duesenberg began working for a farming manufacturing company at the age of seventeen. It was there he learned about the mechanics of how machinery within the industrial world worked.

In 1897, he and his younger brother August entered the bicycle business and soon achieved local recognition for their expert repairing and building of special racing cycles. After a brief career as a cycle racer, he later joined the staff of the Rambler Motor Car Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1902. A year later he returned to merchandising and organized the first Iowa Automobile & Supply Company in Des Moines, Iowa. It was there that he built and constructed his first Mason automobile which was used for racing.

Mr. Duesenberg raced automobiles for the love of it and he also believed it was a good way to promote automotive advertising in a competitive product. In 1905, Mr. Duesenberg competed in a 5-mile race with Mr. Jed Newkirk and his Ford vehicle winning by 50 feet at the finish line. It was Mr. Duesenberg’s first successful racing adventure. After that, his journey continued. He would also develop his first straight-eight Indy engine in the early 1900's. By 1906, the Mason Motor Car Co. was incorporated and capitalized at $25,000 by Mr. Edward R. Mason and D. J Pattee. Mr. Mason served as the President while Mr. Fred S. Duesenberg served as Superintendent.

By mid-May a new factory was complete and the first Mason automobile rolled out of the factory. However before production had even begun, Mr. Fred Duesenberg started advertising increasing publicity and making use of public demonstrations. Public response to the Mason automobile was quite favorable. Future plans for a larger automobile factory were under way soon after the car production began. After many great successful years with the Mason automobile and racing, in 1912, Fred and Augie Duesenberg concentrated on the work that they were most passionate about, building and racing automobiles.

1917 was the inaugural year of Duesenberg Motors Corporation. It was a joint partnership with the Loew-Victor Engine Co. and was valued at $1,500,000. All stocks were held by men of prominence in New York commercial and financial circles. Mr. Harbeck was named President and Managing Director while Fred and Augie Duesenberg were named to the post as Chief Engineer and Assistant Chief Engineer respectively. The Duesenberg Motors Corporation’s executive and sales offices were located at 120 Broadway, New York City. Public interest in racing declined in 1917 as the nation moved further into war activities. During World War I, Duesenberg had designed and produced a variety of aircraft engines for Italy, Russia and Great Britain.

After the war, and a successful French GP race in 1921, Mr. Duesenberg, introduced the first of his own legendary automobiles of the 1920's which was powered by an impressive power plant (265 Horsepower) engine. Not only did it offer great speed and comfort for Duesenberg drivers, but it also had unprecedented engine power due to skillful design.

The 1930's, unfortunately, brought on the depression era which affected many Americans. The automobile industry's output of passenger vehicles plummeted to 2,784,745 units which was a drop of 39.2% from the year 1929. The Duesenberg Company continued to manufacture great automobiles for the wealthy Americans and featured the Duesenberg Town Limousine by the Rollston Coachwork Company and other memorable models. However, The Duesenberg Manufacturing Company closed its doors in October of 1937. Unfortunately, this was the end of a great manufacturing process and a special era of a great classic automobile empire. Mr. Fred S. Duesenberg passed away in July of 1932 of pneumonia which had developed from injuries he suffered in an automobile accident. Duesenberg, whose name had long been associated with great automobiles and designs and manufacturing, will always be part of the auto industry and automobile heritage. His legacy will be remembered by future generations to come.

This story is dedicated to my good friend Mr. Don Butler, who died on February 19, 1991.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: Butler Don & Dammann H. George “Auburn Cord Duesenberg” Motorbooks International 1992. “Injuries Fatal To Duesenberg” Detroit Free Press July 27, 1932.)

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