Classic Profile: 1921-26 Duesenberg Straight Eight

This Duesenberg Straight Eight has sedan bodywork by Charles Schutte | Courtesy of the author
This Duesenberg Straight Eight has sedan bodywork by Charles Schutte | Courtesy of the author

The Automobile Trade Journal of July 1, 1920, wrote, “The Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Corp. has bought a factory site in Indianapolis and plans 2,400 cars the first year of operation. In addition to a special Duesenberg engine, the car will be equipped with four-wheel brakes and an axle designed by Fred S. Duesenberg. The new car is stated to be 400 lbs lighter than those of similar power and will obtain from 18 to 22 miles on a gallon of gasoline.”

And so it was that the Duesenberg brothers of motor racing notoriety would introduce the first production car of their own design. Fred and August were German immigrants whose family had settled in Iowa. From an early age, the brother’s were involved with racing and engine building.

After an earlier failed attempt to produce an automobile called the Mason, they moved to Minnesota and opened Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company in 1913. In 1919, they sold their existing facilities to John Willys and move to Indianapolis, where they would produce their most notable achievements.

The Duesenberg Straight Eight (later termed the Model A) would be shown in November 1920 at the New York Automobile Salon and would be the first American production car to employ a straight-eight-cylinder engine and four-wheel brakes.

The car pictured here wears coachwork by Charles Schutte, a somewhat obscure body company from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Charles Schutte Body Company was primarily a commercial coachbuilder (buses) until they had the opportunity to build bodies for the short-lived Argonne car. This provided them the exposure needed to sign an agreement with Duesenberg to build a small run of production bodies for the Straight Eight (closed cars only).

The Straight Eight would be sold between 1921 and 1926 with roughly 650 produced – well short of original estimates. In this same time span, the brothers would win the French Grand Prix (the first American car to do so) and two Indianapolis 500s (in 1927 they would be the first to win three Indy 500s). Regardless of their racing success and the quality of their production cars, sales were slim and the company was losing money.

However, they did inspire one individual with the resources to save the company. E. L. Cord would purchase the Duesenberg Company out of receivership in 1926 and re-organized it as part of his growing empire of automobile companies, where the brother’s were put to work creating one of the greatest cars of the classic era – the Model J Duesenberg.

Tragically, Fred would die as a result of injuries after crashing a Model J at high speed in 1932. August would see E. L. Cord go bankrupt and the Duesenberg Company come to an end. He passed away in 1955.

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