Frederick Samuel Duesenberg (December 6, 1876 – July 26, 1932) was a German-born American automobile pioneer designer, manufacturer and sportsman.
Fred Duesenberg was born in Lippe, Germany and immigrated to the United States with his parents and family when he was eight years old. The family settled in Rockford, Iowa. He was actually born as Friedrich Simon Düsenberg, and not with the middle name of Samuel as most sources say. Samuel was the middle name of his brother, August Duesenberg.
Entrance into engineering industry
In the 1890s, Fred began building and racing bicycles with his brother August. In 1900, they began playing with gasoline engines and began building motorcycles. In 1906 the brothers got money from Edward Mason, an Iowa lawyer, to manufacture cars. Fred Maytag, Maytag washing machine and appliance magnate, bought 60 percent of the company. The result was the Maytag-Mason Motor Company in Waterloo, Iowa. But neither Maytag nor Mason were experienced in the car business and the company gradually folded. The Duesenbergs went off to St. Paul, Minnesota to work on racing car engines. In 1913 the Duesenberg brothers founded Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company, Inc, in St. Paul to build engines and racing cars. Having raced their bicycles and motorcycles, it was natural that, as with other automobile builders, Duesenberg would use the Indianapolis Speedway as a laboratory, and for nearly twenty years his own entries participated in races there. By World War I their engines had made a good showing in the Indianapolis 500. Eddie Rickenbacker, World War aviation ace, drove cars powered by those motors before he flew in the war, piloting the first Duesenberg-powered automobile to prize money in 1914, finishing tenth.
Design changes during World War I
With the coming of World War I the Duesenberg brothers had cause to change many of their engineering ideas. The catalyst was a Bugatti engine. This straight-eight engine consisted of two straight-four engines. They were mounted in series on a common crankcase with two flat crankshafts which were both linked at 90 degrees to form a single shaft. The Duesenbergs were granted an American contract to produce the engine for the French government, and it was their experience with the Bugatti masterpiece that led to the design of the famous Duesenberg straight-eight engine. At the end of World War I, they ceased building aviation and marine engines in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1919 the Duesenberg brothers sold their Minnesota and New Jersey factories to John Willys and came to Indianapolis, Indiana where the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company was established in 1920. Fred was the manager and chief engineer and later president. The result was the Duesenberg Model A.
Although a self-made man lacking technical university training, Fred Duesenberg exerted a profound influence in the engineering development of the motor car. As a designer of racing models, he was internationally famous and many of his developments in this field were later incorporated in stock passenger automobiles. He was credited with the introduction in this country of the eight-cylinder car and of the four-wheel hydraulic brake and was instrumental in the perfecting of other mechanical advancements including overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. These were found in Indianapolis-manufactured cars (including the Stutz as well as the Duesenberg) but didn't make the journey to Detroit for almost seventy years.
Winning the Grand Prix
The Duesenberg was the first American car to win the famous Grand Prix at Le Mans, France, in 1921. Driven by Jimmy Murphy, the car established a new road record by outdistancing the entire field by fourteen minutes. Other Duesenbergs won Indianapolis 500 races three times in the 1920s, making the brothers the first to be three time winners of that race. The reputation of the unparalleled Duesenberg was founded on a brilliant racing heritage.
Downfall and late days
Despite being world-class engineers, the Duesenbergs were unable sell their Model A car, their first mass-produced vehicle. A minor shareholder unsuccessfully attempted to put the company into receivership in 1923 based on rumors. In 1926, the company was discussing merger with Du Pont Motors, indicating some level of financial concern. Duesenberg was only able to survive to the classic era because E. L. Cord wanted a "supercar" to round out his automotive duo of Auburn and Cord. Cord admired the Duesenberg Model A and in 1926 proposed a financial rescue, but it came with a price — Fred Duesenberg was to design the most extravagant car of its era. Cord insisted that the Model J be bigger (and heavier) than Fred would have liked, but the rest was pure Duesenberg. The Duesenberg Model J was the supercar Cord wanted. In October 1926, E. L. Cord told the Indianapolis Star, "The purchase of the Duesenberg factory is the culmination of my plans to be able to offer the world an automobile of undisputed rank. In fact, the finest thing on four wheels. Duesenberg cars will be strictly custom built, the owners selecting their own body styles, their own body makers and selecting their own colors. The price probably will be $18,000, no matter what model, from racer to limousine. We will give the buyer 120 mile-an-hour speed if desired. Naturally, the production of this type of automobile, which carries a warranty of fifteen years, will be limited and we are now taking orders..."
From that time on, Fred would cease to build racing cars and focus instead on passenger cars. Until his death, he served as vice president of Duesenberg, Inc., of Indianapolis, a subsidiary of the Cord Corporation. Early in 1927 the test board of the American Automobile Association presented to Mr. Duesenberg a bronze tablet in recognition of the leading part he had played in the development of several fundamental improvements in automotive engineering. In June 1931, at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers, he predicted that speeds of 100 miles (160 km) an hour on the highways would soon be common. However, his prediction soon became an irony when his car overturned a year later during a high-speed attempt. Today, speeds of 100 miles (160 km) an hour are still considered as speeding on most highways.
On July 2, 1932, Fred was driving his Duesenberg on a wet Lincoln Highway on Ligonier Mountain near Jennerstown, Pennsylvania when his automobile overturned, apparently at high speed. Mr. Duesenberg was expected to fully recover from the spinal injury and dislocation of the shoulder when pleural pneumonia developed. An oxygen tank brought from Pittsburgh was employed and he again was thought out of danger. On July 25, he suffered a relapse and died. His wife and son were with him at the end.
Frederick Samuel Duesenberg is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
He was a member of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce and a member and councilor of the Society of Automotive Engineers, on several of whose committees he served.