Lincoln and Cadillac aren’t the only brands that have built American luxury cars. They’re just the only ones that have survived. Much like Harley-Davidson and Indian once competed with Henderson and Crocker, so too did Lincoln and Cadillac have luxury rivals. Packard, which later merged with Studebaker is one. But even more well-regarded is Duesenberg. Jay Leno owns a few of the marque’s coach-built cars, but his 1930 LeBaron may have the best backstory of them all.
A Duesenberg is a real Duesie—er, doozy of an American luxury car
There’s a popular theory that Duesenberg is the origin of the term ‘doozy.’ Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster reports, that’s not true. But it’s easy to see why many would think that. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of the marque as the American equivalent of Bugatti or Rolls-Royce.
Interestingly, the Duesenberg brothers didn’t start out as luxury car builders, RM Sotheby’s reports. After immigrating to the US from Germany, the two first started with motorcycles before making race cars in Iowa under the Mason brand name.
After being bought out, they moved to Minnesota and started the Duesenberg Motor Company in 1913. They initially just built engines under contract; their clients included the military and even Bugatti. But after WWI, they settled in Indianapolis and started building race cars and luxury cars.
The company’s first production car was the 1921 Duesenberg Model A. And it was an incredibly advanced car, the New York Times reports. It was the first American production car with a straight-8 engine and 4-wheel hydraulic brakes. Packard wouldn’t have a straight-8 until 1924, and Chrysler wouldn’t release 4-wheel hydraulic brakes until 1925.
Then there’s the 1928 Duesenberg Model J, which Motor Trend describes as a 1920s Bugatti Veyron. Its straight-8 makes 265 hp, Hagerty reports, the same as a 1960s Jaguar E-Type. Then in 1932, the company introduced the supercharged Model SJ with 320 hp.
Like other luxury marques at the time, Duesenberg didn’t sell its cars with bodies. Instead, customers bought chassis with powertrains and took them to coachbuilders. The coachbuilder would fit a custom body and interior. It took hundreds of hours, Road & Track reports, and you can feel it in every metal knob and piece of wood trim.
Jay Leno’s 1930 Duesenberg LeBaron
Jay Leno’s 1930 Duesenberg LeBaron was bodied by one of those coachbuilders—specifically, LeBaron, Hagerty reports. Underneath, it’s a fully-loaded Model J, The Drive reports. Interestingly, the chassis dates back to 1928. However, because it wasn’t sold until 1930, it’s titled as a 1930 model.
In addition to the 7-liter straight-8 engine, Jay Leno’s 1930 Duesenberg has mahogany running boards, an automatic chassis lubrication system, and a dash-mounted altimeter. The dash also includes warning lights to remind you about service and fluid-change intervals—in 1930. It even has 2 windshields, one for the front passengers and one for the rear ones. And every bit of the interior is exquisite.
Although Jay Leno had this Duesenberg restored, he drives it regularly. And he says that it’s one of the few vintage cars that can genuinely keep up with modern traffic.
WWII, diamonds, and death: the Duesie’s backstory
But the most interesting part of this car is arguably its history. This 1930 Duesenberg LeBaron was originally purchased by a 17-year-old named William Ashton. His grandpa gave him $17,000 in stocks—the equivalent today of about $258,000. The two of them decided to buy a car with that money and bought this Duesie. While William’s dad thought it was a waste of money, a few months later the Great Depression hit.
The story then jumps to WWII. An American soldier and his buddies raided some banks in Berlin, finding a whole bunch of diamonds and gems. He hid his cache in the frame of a motorcycle. After being discharged, he had the bike shipped back to the US. He used the diamonds in 1958 to purchase a Connecticut estate and Ashton’s Duesenberg LeBaron.
Unfortunately, the soldier had a romantic falling-out and took his own life by running the Duesenberg in his closed garage. His brother then held onto it, but wouldn’t sell it to anyone who knew the story. Jay Leno met up with the brother at a motorcycle meet and decided to buy the car along with the soldier’s bike, not knowing the story.
Getting one of your own
Getting a Duesenberg today isn’t easy, especially a Model J. These luxury cars were expensive when they were new, and no two are exactly alike. They’re also rare; Duesenberg only made 481 Model Js, NJs, and SJs combined, Autoweek reports.
As a result of their exclusivity and rarity, Duesenbergs command high prices at auctions. As of this writing, only one has sold on Bring a Trailer, a 1926 Model A Opera Coupe. It went for $211,111. And that’s one of the cheaper models.
A 1935 Duesenberg Model SSJ recently set the record for the most expensive American car ever sold at auction. One of two ever built, it’s an even sportier Model SJ with 400 hp, Hagerty reports. And in 2018, it sold at a Gooding & Co auction for $22,000,000.
But, if you want something with a similar style at a lower price, you can always look for a Cord 810/812. By 1926, the Auburn Automobile Company had purchased Duesenberg. The company’s president, E.L. Cord, later established the Cord Corporation.
The 810/812 had some of the features of the innovative Citroen Traction Avant. It was front-wheel drive, with unibody construction and an optional supercharger, BaT reports. These coupes aren’t exactly cheap, but you can occasionally find them going for less than six figures.
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