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The Return of the Duesenberg--50 Years Later : ‘Old Design, New Technology’ Planned

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Duesenberg was one of the undisputed monarchs of the American road.

The cars were hand-built by two German immigrants, first in Elizabeth, N.J., and then in Indianapolis. Despite a reputation for quality workmanship that endures today, the Duesenberg Model J, the most popular model, had the misfortune to be introduced in 1929, the year the stock market crashed and the country slid into the Depression.

And so the dream had a short run for Fred and Augie Duesenberg, the brothers who designed and built the car bearing their name.

Now, 50 years after the last Duesenberg rolled out of the Indiana factory, the Duesenberg family is preparing to build the cars again, probably in Orange County, and industry experts say the company’s chances of succeeding are good.

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“It will be a synthesis of the old design and new technology,” said Ken Duesenberg, an industrial designer and grandnephew of Fred and Augie. “It won’t be a copy or a replica.”

Duesenberg, 61, said he has spent five years assembling investors and preparing to build the new cars, which will be slightly shorter than the original cars, or about the same length as the new Cadillac Fleetwood. The new Duesenberg also will be wider and lower than the original but will be built to the original Duesenberg specifications, Duesenberg said.

‘Finest Car in the World’

“Our goal is to build the finest car in the world,” Duesenberg said. At an estimated $150,000, the anticipated price tag will be a bit heftier than the approximately $20,000 it cost to drive away with a Duesenberg 50 years ago. But the target market will be about the same.

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Duesenberg reckons the luxury-car market is much greater today than it was in the 1930s, especially in prosperous Orange County. “There’s a good market, we can sell them worldwide,” said Duesenberg, who said he has secured most of the start-up money for the project but needs “a few more investors.” There is “no doubt” the project will proceed, he said, obviously relishing the prospect of leading an American challenge to Rolls-Royce and Mercedes, titans of the luxury-car market.

Cost of a prototype will be about $500,000, Duesenberg said, and it will then take about $5 million to get production up and running. Duesenberg plans to raise part of those funds from a public offering.

As planned, the new Duesenberg will be built in four designs: a two-door convertible coupe with rumble seat, a four-door convertible sedan, a four-passenger convertible coupe and a limousine. Duesenberg expects work to begin on the prototype “within six months” and expects production to begin two years after that. A plant site hasn’t been selected but “we prefer to build in Orange County (because) the bulk of the market probably will be (here).”

The new cars will be based on the original Model J styling but will employ General Motors engines and drive trains. From a mechanical and safety vantage, the car will be a modern machine, Duesenberg said.

Analysts seem to think the new Duesenberg venture has a good chance on the market.

Mario Gabelli, a New York securities analyst who heads Gabelli & Co., said “they’re not really selling a car,” but a luxury item.

“And there is a tremendous market for luxury items,” he said. “For a quality product that works, there is a very good market for it.”

“It wouldn’t even compete with any of the luxury cars the Big Three auto-makers produce,” said Daniel Bayston, an analyst with Duff & Phelps Inc., a Chicago-based investment research firm. “And the Big Three still lag compared with Mercedes, for example, in terms of engineering and quality.”

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Nevertheless, Duesenberg acknowledges the task will be difficult. “We will have to live up to the legend of its predecessor,” he said. Motor Trend magazine, for example, ranks the original Duesenbergs as “blue chips,” its top ranking of classic cars. A fully restored Duesenberg can be worth $1.6 million, car rebuilders say, and there are only about 470 of the Model J Duesenbergs remaining. About 285 of those are still in running condition. Those automobiles were so well-made that “they will go forever,” said an Orange County expert on the cars who will build the prototype but asked that his name not be used.

Part of the attraction of the old Duesenbergs is their individuality. The original Duesenberg factory produced the chassis and drive train and the buyer then took the car to a variety of coach builders, who would then design a body for the car.

How will the new Duesenbergs be faithful to the old styling while incorporating modern mechanical and safety components?

Almost all of the original Duesenberg engineering drawings survive in an Orange County garage. “It was an archeological find,” said the Duesenberg expert, who tracked down the drawings several years ago.


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