By Matt Wolfe
Beautifully engineered and more expensive than the average house in 1929, the Duesenberg Model J was a magnificent automotive status symbol. Its owners were both famous and infamous. Al Capone, Howard Hughes, Mae West, Clark Gable and William Randolph Hearst all owned Model J’s. It was also the car of choice for royalty like King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who loved his Model J so much that he brought it with him after being exiled.
The Model J was the third and final model that Duesenberg produced. The company was founded in 1913 by brothers and self-taught engineers August and Fred Duesenberg. Every Duesenberg automobile was hand-built, and they were considered to be some of the best vehicles in the world. However, the brothers were terrible businessmen. The company struggled to sell cars throughout the 1910’s and 20’s and production was extremely slow. The company entered receivership in 1924 and almost went under in 1926 before E.L. Cord came to the rescue. He bought the company, making it part of Auburn Automobile Co., and commissioned Fred Duesenberg to create the Model J.
Available in a number of different wheelbases, the Model J’s bare chassis cost over $8,000, the equivalent of $110,000 today. Like most luxury coaches of this period, the bodies were all custom ordered by the buyer. Roughly half of all Model J’s had their bodies designed by chief designer Gordon Buehrig. All Model J’s were powered by Duesenberg’s “Straight Eight” engine, and some were fitted with an optional supercharger that enabled them to reach speeds of 140 mph. Though the Model J sold well, Duesenberg would not survive another decade. Fred Duesenberg died of pneumonia in 1932, and E.L. Cord closed the company in 1937 after running into financial troubles. The last Model J was assembled from leftover parts between 1938 and 1940.
Even decades after its demise, the Model J still drew attention and admiration from anyone lucky enough to see one. Of the Model J’s cultural impact, journalism legend Kun Purdy wrote, “The fact that a whole new generation still recognizes his cars as ‘the finest thing on four wheels’ would please Fred Duesenberg, which is perhaps the best monument that he could have.”