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October 3, 1912 – First win for Duesenberg

Generally speaking, drinking alcohol and driving don’t go together, unless you’re an observer of a race. Hopefully spectators were the only ones with a beer in hand on this day in 1912 when the Pabst Blue Ribbon Trophy race was held in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a short drive from Milwaukee, where PBR was established. It was at this race that a vehicle equipped with a Duesenberg engine won a professional race for the first time. While it’s only speculation, it’s said the Duesenberg brothers, Frederick and August, celebrated by shotgunning tall cans of PBR.

Starting grid for 1912 American Grand Prize race, held in Milwaukee

After immigrating from Germany to Iowa in the late 19th century the Duesenberg brothers became enthralled with motor car racing. They began their racing careers working with Mason Racing Cars, based in Iowa, between 1906 and 1913. It was while working there that the brothers designed the engine that was fitted to driver Mortimer Roberts’ race car, in which he won the 220 mile PBR Trophy race.

August and Fred Duesenberg circa 1925

In 1913 the brothers opened their own plant to produce whole race cars in St. Paul, Minnesota. They didn’t officially establish Duesenberg Motors Company until 1920. They achieved great success in racing in the early 1920s, leading to a 1926 they meeting with E.L. Cord, of Cord automobiles, who asked to purchase their company. A deal was etched and Cord purchased the company. The new company, renamed Duesenberg, Inc., with Fred as a VP and August overseeing racing development, flourished. The introduction of the Model J in 1928 ushered the company into a new era of luxury auto making. 

Model J protytpe

By 1929 Duesenbergs were selling for as much as $20,000, when a brand new Ford could be had for around $500. When the Great Depression hit the Cord began to crumble, resulting in Duesenberg ending operations in 1937. However, two final cars would be built in 1940, essentially pieced together from left over parts.

Duesenberg Model J owned by J.J. Mitchel, founder of United Airlines

Despite numerous attempts to revive Duesenberg, including a run of about 200 reproduction Model Js with Ford drivetrains built between 1978 and 2000, the company name lives on as a definition of luxury. Original Duesenbergs regularly sell for multi-millions. Of the 481 Model Js built between 1928 and 1937, 378 are known to survive.

Cover photo: 1908 photo of Montague Roberts (left) with brother Mortimer Roberts, who won the 1912 PBR Trophy race in a Mason race car powered by a Duesenberg engine.

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