The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Duesenberg, August Samuel
(December 12, 1879–January 18, 1955)


Duesenberg, Friedrich Samuel

(December 12,1876-July 26, 1932)

–automobile inventors, designers, and manufacturers—were the two youngest children of Konrad and Luise Conradine (Driesen) Duesenberg. The boys were born in Germany, Friedrich in Lippe and August in Kirchheide, Lippe-Detmold. Their father died when the boys were young, and their mother emigrated with her children to America in 1885, settling in Rockford, Iowa, where the boys grew up and became known as Fred and Augie. Fred married Isle Denny on April 27, 1913. They had one son, Denny. Augie married Gertrude Pike in 1905, and they had a son, Frederick.

    In the 1890s Fred opened a bicycle shop in Rockford; Augie later opened a bicycle shop in Garner, Iowa. By about 1900, they were experimenting with gasoline engines, attaching them to bicycles to make some of the first motorcycles. In 1905 they moved to Des Moines and received financial backing from a local attorney, Edward R. Mason, to design and begin manufacturing an automobile that was called the Mason. "Old Number One," which appeared on February 19, 1906, had a 24-horsepower, two-cylinder, valve-in-head, 5 by 5 opposed engine. Their early cars were called Mason Hill Climbers, and they demonstrated the sturdiness and power of the car by performing feats such as driving the car up the west steps of the state capitol in Des Moines. In 1910 Fred Maytag of Newton bought 60 percent of the company and formed the Mason Maytag Motor Company. The new company relocated to Waterloo, where production was expanded to include four-cylinder engines. In 1913 Maytag sold out and went into manufacturing washing machines.

    The Duesenbergs went to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they founded the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company, and started building engines and race cars. Their engines would later be adapted for motorboats and airplanes. In the next few years, they would also open manufacturing plants in Chicago and Elizabeth, New Jersey. As early as 1912, they were racing their cars at the Indianapolis 500. One of their early drivers was Eddie Rickenbacker, who would become a famous air ace a few years later during World War I. In 1914 Rickenbacker placed tenth at Indianapolis, and in future years the Duesenberg racers underwent vast improvements. During the 1920s, Duesenberg racers won first place at Indianapolis three times; at the 1922 Indianapolis 500, Duesenbergs took 7 of the first 10 places. In 1931 the first American-made car ever to win the Monte Carlo Grand Prix was a Duesenberg.

    During World War I, the Duesenberg brothers began to develop straight-eight engines. In 1920 they sold their plants in St. Paul, Chicago, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, and relocated to Indianapolis. Fred became manager and chief engineer and later president. Augie became plant manager. Their first car, the Model A, did not sell well, but in 1926 a merger with E. L. Cord, who was already manufacturing the Cord and Auburn automobiles, helped turn the corner. Cord wanted the Duesenbergs to design an extravagant luxury car, and Fred designed the Model J, which went into production in 1929. Cord's intent was to have these cars custom built, with the owners choosing their own body styles and body makers and selecting their own colors. The price would be $18,000. These models were produced until 1937, and a number of well-known celebrities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Mae West, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and William Randolph Hearst, owned this model. The production of this car inspired a new phrase in the American language. At first, people began to refer to the car informally as a "Deusey" and the phrase, "It's a doozy!" evolved from it, referring to anything that is of superior value or that makes a vivid impression.

    At the height of their cars' popularity, Fred was badly injured in July 1932 while driving one of his own cars, and he died on July 26. Five years later production on the Duesenberg car ceased when the Cord Company was forced into bankruptcy and sold to the Aviation Corporation. After World War II, Augie unsuccessfully tried to resurrect the old Duesenberg luxury car. He died of a heart attack on January 18, 1955, and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Sources Many Web sites contain information about the Duesenbergs and their automotive products, but the information found there varies and sometimes conflicts from one site to another, so readers and researchers should be cautious to cross-check information. An entry for Fred Duesenberg in The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 16 (1918), shows him in midcareer. Brief mention is made by John Zug, "Early Iowa Automobiles," Annals of Iowa 36 (1962), 276– 80; and Philip G. Hockett, "As if in a Dream: Automobile Projects and Production in Iowa, 1870–1983," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 87 (2006), 149–53. Articles on the Duesenbergs and their cars can be found in the Des Moines Tribune, 5/29/1967; and Des Moines Register, 141 3/5/1985, 7/7/1993, 10/29/1997, and 11/3/2002. A front-page article on Fred Duesenberg's death is in the Des Moines Tribune, 7/26/1932; and an obituary appeared in the Tribune, 7/28/1932.
Contributor: David Holmgren