“It’s a Duesey.” Many writers will have you believe the term originates with the great American car manufacturer, Duesenberg. While the Duesenbergs certainly fit the expression as being exemplary, the term is actually much older than the car company. The phrase is a derivative of the English slang term, “daisy”, that can be found in books almost 100 years older than the car company, and records show the spelling as “doozie” more than 20 years prior to the Duesenberg brothers building their first cars.
Just like many people believe the term “it’s a doozy” came about as a result of the popularity of the luxurious Duesenberg Model J, there is also a misconception that the Duesenberg race cars were supported by the sales of the Duesenberg roadsters to the rich and famous. The Duesenberg brothers’ rise to fame was a direct result of their desire, and ability, to go faster than everyone else, and it was a result of their racing efforts that lead to the production of cars for the public.
Fred Duesenberg’s desire and ability to go faster were clearly demonstrated at the age of 17 when he set a world record on a bicycle of his own design in 1896. Having troubles finding a motorcycle capable of keeping pace with him, Fred and his younger brother, Augie, developed an internal combustion motor to be mounted to one of their bicycles. Only one prototype motorcycle was created before they turned their attention to cars.
From 1900 through 1913, the brothers worked their way from being mechanics up to being designers and finally opening the Deuesenberg Motor Company in Des Moines, Iowa. The brothers had a growing reputation for making powerful, lightweight, reliable engines and they set out to prove themselves on the world stage.
In 1914, their first entry at the Indianapolis 500 saw Eddie Rickenbacker (who later went on to establish himself as an ace pilot in the first World War) piloting a Duesenberg to 10th place. The Duesenberg Racing team had another 72 starts during the racing season, with an astonishing 34 wins, 7 second place and 14 third place finishes.
For the next few years the Duesenberg Racing team remained competitive but Fred’s attention turned to developing engines for boats and planes. During WWI they manufactured engines for the US Army and Navy, and continued to improve on existing designs.
It was after WWI ended that they manufactured their first car for consumers, the Model A. Even with a steep 1921 price tag of $6,500, the Duesenberg brothers couldn’t keep up with the demand for their cars. Because of the complexities of the car and high quality standards, Duesenberg had troubles manufacturing more than 100 cars per year. This lead to the company going into receivership in 1924.
It took investment from E.L. Cord, owner of Auburn Automobile, in 1926 to keep the Duesenbergs making cars. Cord wanted the brothers to manufacture a luxury super car to compliment the Auburn and Cord marques he already owned. This request for a super car resulted in the Duesenberg Type J which is widely regarded as one of the finest American cars ever produced.
Looking back at the financial struggles of the Duesenberg brothers, I believe it is fair to say that part of their troubles stemmed from their love of racing. It was during the 20s that the Duesenberg name became indelibly imprinted in racing history. At the French Grand Prix in 1921, driven by Jimmy Murphy, Duesenberg became the first all US team to win a Formula One race (Dan Gurney, driving the Eagle-Westlake at the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix is the only other American that can make this claim). Duesenberg also became the first manufacturer to win the Indianapolis 500 three times with wins in 1924, 1925 and 1927.
The final racing achievement by Augie Duesenberg could also be seen as the greatest. He worked with designers Herbert Newport and Ed Winfield to create the awe-inspiring Mormon Meteor for David Abbot ‘Ab’ Jenkins. This car was designed specifically to break records using available car parts rather than the aeronautic engines being used for most speed attempts. Jenkins broke 21 records with the Mormon Meteor between 1938 and 1940. His 24 hour record of 161.18 average mph still stands (for comparison, the current record average speed for the 24 Hours of Le Mans is 138.13 set in a Porsche 917 back in 1971).
When the Mormon Meteor changed hands back in 2004, it sold for an impressive $4.4 million dollars. A few years ago, Jay Leno had the opportunity to drive the car and described the experience as being “mechanically involved” with a great sense of what’s happening. The pre-production photos of the model being released later this year by Automodello have me extremely excited.
As a whole, there just aren’t enough models available for these classic Duesenberg race cars. DG Models made a fun kit of the 1921 racer that won the French Grand Prix. If you don’t want to wait for the Automodello model of the Mormon Meteor, then you could get one of the limited edition reproductions from Retro 1-2-3. Beyond these rare,and expensive models, a collector is looking at hand crafted, one-off models to add a racing Duesenberg to the collection. Looking at these beautiful cars, I’m not surprised that so many people associate them with the phrase “it’s a doozie.”