1927 Duesenberg Model Y Phaeton

The Duesenberg Model J Prototype
1927 Duesenberg Model Y Phaeton

Coachwork by McFarlan

Chassis No. 912

Engine No. 1594

Relics of the design and development process of the great classic cars of the Twenties and Thirties are virtually non-existent. After they served their purpose they were discarded as all efforts focused upon applying the lessons learned with them to making a commercial and artistic success of the legendary automobiles they preceded. Even more rare are examples which retain the fingerprints of their builders.

This Duesenberg was assembled by Augie Duesenberg using most of the bodywork of the Duesenberg Model Y, the prototype assembled to test and develop the chassis of the immortal Duesenberg Model J. Counting Duesenberg, Inc. and Augie Duesenberg it has had only seven owners, the most recent for over a half century, and has a continuous history since 1932.

Its importance is difficult to overstate. Since it was assembled by Augie Duesenberg in 1932 it has had only a single mechanical overhaul and a cosmetic freshening with new paint, chrome, top and upholstery both done in the early Fifties. It is the sole tangible link with the epic gestation of the Model J, a story which has been told again and again but only here with this Model Y takes physical form.

The Duesenbergs, Fred the designer and Augie the implementer, were the best known names in American racing during the Twenties. Their inline eight cylinder engines were the class of the field for many years. In 1922 seven of the top ten finishers at Indianapolis 500 were powered by Duesenberg eights, all of them completing the full 200 laps. The Duesenbergs’ mastery of centrifugal superchargers propelled another Duesenberg 8 to victory at Indy in 1924, then again in 1925 in the hands of Pete DePaolo.

Harry Miller was a little quicker to adapt to the smaller 91 cubic inch engines required by revised rules in 1926 but Fred and Augie Duesenberg caught and surpassed the California builder in 1927 with a victory by George Souders, over 3 1/2 mph faster than the second place Miller.

The distractions of the road car business no doubt was wearing on Fred who was much more involved with it than his brother who concentrated on building, maintaining and tuning the racing cars. Established in 1920 to succeed the Elizabeth, New Jersey-based Duesenberg Motors, the first road car built by the Indianapolis company was the Model A with single overhead camshaft inline eight-cylinder engine. In addition to the advanced engine Fred incorporated hydraulically-actuated four-wheel drum brakes, the first American production car to use them. It was an advanced and very attractive package with a 134” wheelbase chassis more than adequate to carry the large, luxurious coachwork envisioned by anyone who could afford its $6,500 price with the most modest factory coachwork.

Errett Lobban Cord, just 32 years old but already successful at turning around Auburn, acquired Duesenberg in 1926 and gave the company a new lease on life.

Duesenberg had a development of the Model A underway when Cord took over. Called the Model X, it employed a larger bore version of the Model A single overhead camshaft engine. A short run of a dozen or so were assembled during 1927 from parts on hand in the wake of the acquisition.

More important events were afoot as Fred Duesenberg and E.L. Cord debated the concept for the greatest car in the world. Duesenberg the racing engineer and designer viewed mass as his enemy. Deliberately designing a big, bulky automobile, even one with a huge, powerful engine, was contrary to everything he and Augie had done for years. Even racing conspired against size, shrinking engine sizes from 183 cubic inches to 122 cubic inches and finally to the diminutive, jewelry-like 91 cubic inch supercharged eights of Miller and Duesenberg in the late Twenties. Everything argued for the superiority of light weight, ingenious design and modest size and it was with the Duesenberg Model Y that Fred Duesenberg staked his position.

Built on the Model A’s 134” wheelbase, the Model Y stuck with the 5” stroke of the Model A but with a 3 1/2” bore for 385 cubic inches displacement, much larger than the 2 7/8” bore of the 260 cubic inch Model X. Fred experimented with three different cylinder head configurations, all with a single overhead camshaft. The first employed Fred’s preferred cam drive system of shafts and bevel gears and had two valves per cylinder. The next went to a four-valve per cylinder arrangement and the cylinders bored out an eighth (412 cubic inches) probably to make room for the four valves. Neither appealed to Cord who was annoyed by the noise of the camshaft drive gears leading Duesenberg to the third and final iteration of the Model Y with a Link Belt silent chain camshaft drive.

Griffith Borgeson in the Automobile Quarterly book “Errett Lobban Cord” projects the Model Y’s power at 154 brake horsepower. It would have been more with the 3 5/8” bore 412 cubic inch configuration and four valves per cylinder, approaching if not exceeding 200 brake horsepower.

Duesenberg authority Randy Ema in his history of the Model J in Automobile Quarterly volume 30, number 4 describes how the gear-driven 4-valve Model Y engine was installed for road testing in a Model A chassis fitted with an open body procured from McFarlan in Connersville. The McFarlan Carriage Company had been in business since the middle of the nineteenth century and had begun manufacturing automobiles in 1910 while continuing to supply coachwork to prestige marques including Locomobile. The weak market of the late Twenties and the loss of two successive leaders to illness, Harry McFarlan and Burton Barrows, left it struggling. In 1928 it, too, became part of E.L. Cord’s expanding empire, just in time to supply the phaeton body for the experimental Duesenberg Model Y.

The Model Y phaeton, and a similar Model Y with sedan coachwork which has not survived, provided the test bed for the rest of the Model J’s chassis and running gear, developing with an engine with power approaching that envisioned for the Model J the suspension, brakes and other details that would be translated almost directly to the Model J.

Aside from engineering development the prototype served another purpose, the opportunity to try out Alan Leamy’s design for the muscular, imposing grille, headlights, hood and fenders of the Model J. Duesenberg expected that its clients would procure only rolling chassis and commission individual coachwork from the leading firms of the day. The signature look which Leamy created with slightly tapered radiator air intake inside a massive chrome shell, giant headlights and flared, slightly crowned fenders with raised tapered rib was the sole visual identification that Duesenberg could count on to create a consistent presentation and identity.

It first appeared on the Model Y and has become synonymous with tasteful, distinctive, elegant classic design.

As development of the Model J continued before its December 1928 debut at the 1929 New York Auto Salon the Model Y was employed in Indianapolis in shop service and occasional demonstrations. It appeared in the earliest Model J publicity with Fred Duesenberg at the steering wheel and was often seen and occasionally photographed outside the Duesenberg factory. After Fred Duesenberg’s death in 1932 and with the near glacial pace of Duesenberg sales in the depths of the Great Depression the Model Y phaeton was sold to Augie Duesenberg on the condition that he destroy the chassis.

Augie was working at Duesenberg as an engineering consultant perfecting the supercharged SJ but was mainly involved with his long term love, racing. In these tough times he re-purposed the Model Y’s engine – probably into a racing car – after dutifully scrapping its chassis. The phaeton body was quietly installed on a Model A chassis and engine and sold to Mr. Hugh R Baylor in Indianapolis. At his death it was willed to his chauffeur and remained in his possession until he died when it passed again by bequest to his sister, Lela Nichols, in 1941. She apparently drove it infrequently to church and around Indianapolis. Eventually it was parked in her garage. In about 1951 James T. Leeson of Hattiesburg, Mississippi was searching old tax records looking for Duesenbergs and came upon the record of this car, eventually purchasing it. A copy of Lela Nichols 1941 title comes with the car.

Leeson overhauled the engine, transmission and brakes, installed a new brake booster and freshened it with new paint, chrome, upholstery and top. After driving it about 6,000 miles he sold it to the father of the present owner in 1956.

During the Fifties and Sixties a debate ensued over the identity of this car among the legends of Duesenberg history like J.L Elbert, Fred Roe, A.J. Hoe and Ray Wolff. Its mixture of parts from various sources were debated in letters and notes trying to decide if it was a Model A or a Model X. Unconsidered was the ultimate conclusion that this is the surviving Duesenberg Model Y, assembled by Augie Duesenberg himself.

Its original Model Y body parts include the full passenger compartment bodywork, radiator, hood, fenders, emergency brake, steering gear and wheel, headlight brackets, sidemounts and running boards.

With its distinctive visual presentation with Al Leamy’s prototype Duesenberg Model J front sheet metal and grille and with the hands of Augie Duesenberg liberally employed in its construction and assembly it is one of the most important of all Duesenbergs, the link between the Model A and the legendary Model J. It is the tangible manifestation of the debate between Fred Duesenberg and E.L. Cord over the concept and creation of the Model J as the largest, most powerful production automobile in the world. In the end Cord’s view prevailed, but this car hints at the smaller, lighter, more responsive automobile that Fred Duesenberg preferred and believed was the direction which luxury cars should take.

It has been carefully preserved in the famed collection of the present owner and his father and recently has been displayed for many years at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg museum in Auburn. It is featured in many publications, most notably Fred Roe’s “Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection” and comes with an extensive file of receipts, letters, notes and photos.

There are many important Duesenbergs but there is no more significant Duesenberg than this 1927 Model Y Phaeton. It proudly displays the original Al Leamy hood, grille and front sheet metal design which is instantly recognizable as the hallmark of the Duesenberg Model J. It was personally assembled by Augie Duesenberg.

Its survival in such complete and original condition is something of miracle but most important, it is the physical presence from a watershed moment in the history of the automobile which resulted in the creation of one of the titans of the classic era, the Duesenberg Model J.

Bid to $500,000 but not sold at Worldwide’s Auburn Classic Auction in 2009, an opportunity missed.

Another opportunity missed are my photos of the car. I’ll try to find them.

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