Monday, December 8, 2014

Olympian Automobiles of the 1930s: Duesenberg, Cord, and Others

King Alfonso XIII of Spain standing next to his 1930 Model J Hibbard and Darrin Town Car.

Tom Mix and his Cord! On the lawn outside, 2000 curious onlookers gathered, some had pocket cameras and some had autograph books, as if they expected to see a multitude of celebrities.

Olympian Automobiles of the 1930s
            The Great Depression was replete with many ironies, none more obvious to those living at the time than the magnificent, extravagant automobiles that were being produced for a privileged few during a time of enormous dislocation. At the very top end of the American automobile market in terms of production numbers stood Packard, which outsold Cadillac. Other prestige cars included Cord, Duesenberg, Franklin, Lincoln, Marmon, and Pierce-Arrow. These marques reflected an Olympian Age in automobile history. The best of these makes included the Cadillac V-16, the Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrows, the Auburn boat tail speedster, the coffin-nose Cord, and perhaps the most publicized vehicle of that type and era, the Duesenberg SJ and SSJ.4 They were opulent, shiny, large, and stunningly beautiful. And they performed. Unlike today, where performance is measured in 0-60 acceleration times and top speed, cars like the Cadillac V-16 were judged by their ability to accelerate in high gear from 5 to 25 mph. It was performance criteria that weighed the most with luxury buyers, who were unconcerned with the V-16’s top end of 87 mph or its 9-10 mpg.5
            The Duesenberg Models J, SJ, and SSJ were the most glamorous cars that one could own during the early 1930s; the cheapest J sold for 20 times the price of the least expensive Ford Model A, with prices typically between $13,000 and $20,000 when custom bodywork was added to the powertrain and chassis. The phrases “he drives a Duesenberg” and “the world’s finest motorcar” said it all during the Great Depression. Duesenbergs were long, low, powerful, beautiful, and often open. One wonders what a displaced sharecropper thought when standing beside the road and seeing one of these cars passing by. It was the car that many Americans, no matter how down and out at the time, aspired to own. The Duesenberg was the ultimate idol in a culture that increasingly worshipped things, especially the automobile. Right or wrong, they were one important scene in the American dream of that era, much like a Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Bentley today.
            And appropriate to the American dream, the Duesenberg came out of Midwest farm soil. The Dusenberg brothers, Fred and August (Augie) were born in Lippe, Germany during the 1870s and grew up in Iowa. They first made a reputation in bicycle racing between 1897 and 1899, briefly made bicycles, and added a motor to one of them. They moved to Des Moines, where they founded the Iowa Automobile and Supply Company and modified cars for country fair races. Their success with a two-cylinder engine named the Marvel gained the attention of local attorney and financial backer Edward R. Mason. In 1904, the brothers then began making the Mason car, “The fastest and strongest two-cylinder car in America.” Later, the Maytag family purchased the company, moved it to Waterloo, Iowa, and changed the name of the car to Maytag-Mason. Regarded as poor businessmen but mechanical geniuses, Fred and Augie were gradually marginalized at Maytag-Mason. In 1913 they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they made small, high-speed engines, eventually producing marine engines for the Navy during WWI. In 1920, the operation moved to Indianapolis, where shortly thereafter, the first Dusenberg car, the Model A, was manufactured. In a 1922 ad, the Dusenbergs proclaimed that the Model A was “Built to outclass, outrun and outlast any car on the road.” The Dusenberg quickly developed a reputation for racing prowess. It was the only car ever to win the French Grand Prix, doing so in 1921, and it won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925, and 1927.
            The Dusenberg models that followed were not only the reflection of Fred and Augie’s genius, but the result of a heated rivalry between the brothers and perhaps Americas’ the most talented automobile engineer ever, Harry Armenius Miller.6 Miller, one year younger than Fred Duesenberg, was also a product of the Midwest, in this case Wisconsin. Like the Duesenbergs, Miller would also prove to be a poor businessman who entered the automobile industry via the fabrication of racing bicycles. During the 1920s, Miller, based in Los Angeles, made major innovations in racing engine design, including the use of the supercharger and front wheel drive. Racing pushed both groups towards bankruptcy, but before the decade ended, Miller cars won four Indianapolis 500s and set a land speed record of 171 mph.
            In 1926 Errett Lobban Cord acquired Dusenberg, and plans were soon underway for what became the Model J, a car that was to be better than anything the Europeans could make. The Model J finally appeared in 1929, and its debut resulted in many superlatives. Above all, it was rolling sculpture. The J was nearly 20 feet long, with a prominent radiator and a sensuous rear. Its exterior hid what was the heart of this vehicle, a huge 7-liter double overhead cam straight 8, with four valves per cylinder and numerous aluminum components. The J was the car of the moneyed and mighty, and the ultimate status symbol. It has been claimed that the phrase “It’s a Duzy” was coined, a connotation that was a tribute to anything superb. Careful scholarship, however, suggests that the term, with a slightly different spelling, was in use prior to the Duesenberg’s appearance on the automotive scene.7 Whatever the issue about word, perceptions and desires related to the Duesenberg are far more important. Two of Hollywood’s greatest stars of the era, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, bought short wheelbase Duesenberg roadsters (SSJ’s) in 1935, and their photographs standing next to their cars belied the immense suffering of many Americans during those desperate times.
            The J was produced between 1929 and 1936, and it was complemented by the Model SJ, introduced in 1932, a supercharged version that contributed to the some 36 Dusenberg speed records, including the 24 hour world’s record run of 1935 in which a 400 horsepower car averaged 135.47 mph, with one lap timed at over 160 mph on a 10 mile oval at the Bonneville, Utah salt flats. Dusenbergs were a prime example of the technological sublime, and remain one of the most desirable of all collectible cars in America.8
            The Duesenberg was only one of Errett Lobban Cord’s ventures during the 1920s and 1930s.9 A one-time used car salesman, Cord rose meteorically during the early 1920s to become one of America’s leading business figures (he was twice on the cover of Time), and directed companies that manufactured in addition to the Duesenberg, the Auburn Boat-Tailed Speedster and the Cord 810 and 812.10 Despite Cord’s contributions to the introduction of some of the most innovative automobiles of the twentieth century, he cared and knew next to nothing about automotive engineering. Perhaps this is key to developing an understanding of why his influence was short-lived, but he did correctly perceive that style and innovation were most significant to car sales once the Model T had had its run. As a stock manipulator, he had little interest in his cars once they were introduced. Indeed, in his drive to release startling new designs so as to whip up consumer interest, insufficient time was spent in ensuing product quality. Consequently – and it should be no surprise – his automobile empire crumbled in 1937.
            While Cord’s business success increased Auburn sales during the 1920s, like many others of that day he wanted to put his name on something of value. He did so in 1929 with the introduction of the Cord L-29, America’s first front wheel drive car made in substantial numbers. In a brochure authored by Cord to entice customers, Cord wrote “The Cord car is a specialty car, different from others . . . Being the very latest automotive development however, it creates an entirely new place never before occupied by any other car.”11 The Cord L-29 drew on the innovative technology developed by Harry Miller and allowed the body of the car to be significantly lower than comparable models that employed rear-wheel drive. It was introduced in the summer of 1929, however, absolutely the wrong time for an unproven design to hit the marketplace given what would happen to the American economy later that year. Despite weak sales of the L-29 after 1930 and the fact that the Auburn Automobile Company never profited from the sales of this model (approximately 5,600 were manufactured between 1929 and 1932), Cord was undeterred in building an empire that included not only automobile manufacturing but also Lycoming engines, Century Air Lines, Century Pacific Airlines and Spencer Heater Company.
            In 1934 Cadillac and Pierce-Arrow introduced aerodynamic coupes, and in response, Cord charged a small group of underfunded designers to respond. What crystallized was the Cord 810 (a supercharged version would be later manufactured, the Cord 812). Compared to the common cars of the era, the Cord 810 had the appearance of a vehicle from Mars.12
            Designed by Gordon M. Buehrig, perhaps the most talented American automotive designer of the twentieth century, the “Coffin Nose” Cord 810 was a brute with personality.13 Among the innovations of the 810 were front wheel drive, the first practical independent front suspension, an “alligator” hood free of chrome trim, fingertip shift, concealed headlights, step down frame and body arrangement, v-shaped windshield, smooth, aerodynamic back, and pontoon fenders. The 810’s aircraft-like instrument panel was stunning, made even more attractive by its soft lighting. Buehrig had taken the many cutting-edge contemporary styling ideas and combined them in what can only be regarded as a remarkably beautiful car. Further, to develop this design, Buerhrig, working with Dale Cosper, designed and built clay modeling equipment at Auburn that was used for the first time in making a one-quarter scale model that was extremely accurate. It made the scale-up to working prototype possible in a shorter period. This table-top device would become the industry standard to at least to the 1950s.
            More than two thousand Cord 810s were made during the mid-1930s, and the car could perform. Its 175 horsepower engine would propel the 810 at more than 112 mph, a stock car record until 1954. It was described as “decidedly unconventional and “born and raised on a highway,” but by 1937 its production run ended with the closing of the doors at the Auburn Automobile Company. Years later Gordon Buehrig would reminisce and attempt to answer the question of why the Cord 810 ultimately failed. He claimed that it was such a radical design that more time was needed to develop and refine it before it was introduced to the market. However, E. L. Cord impatiently rushed the car into the market, displaying the car at the New York Auto Show only five months after the prototype was built. Just as people can fall in love with a car, so too can they fall out of love, especially when that car lets its owner down on the side of the road. As Buehrig recalled, the Cord’s steering shimmied, its front white walls were covered with grease (due to the improper application of grease to the universal joints), its engine overheated, the transmission would jump out of gear, and few mechanics were bold enough to work on the car. The Cord 810 was cutting-edge technology not taken to completion.14

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