I was trying to translate the concepts of ‘1927 Duesenberg’, ‘Model X’ and ‘one of a kind’ to the Italian gentleman when Peter Heydon fired up the engine ready to take his turn passing the reviewing stand. It was Sunday afternoon, public admission day for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este at Italy’s Lake Como, and admirers had been flocking around the car since first thing.
‘DOO-zen-berg,’ I said, having to rummage desperately through my minuscule Italian vocabulary; hell, there isn’t even an ‘x’ in their alphabet. ‘Duesenberg e una macchina della corsa… racing… Indy… French Gran Premio…’ My man looked highly sceptical, pointed at the car and mumbled ‘Indy?’ Clearly, this huge American luxury yacht idling in silence on the manicured lawn didn’t strike him as racing car material.
‘No, no,’ I replied, ‘not this one, non questo.’ Maybe a different approach was in order. ‘Macchina della corsa…’ I said, holding up my left hand, ‘…and macchina della eleganza,’ holding up my right. ‘Sort of un Bugatti Americano.’
Then Peter used his favourite party trick for politely clearing a way through jostling spectators: he reached down and turned the nickel-plated handle in the floorboard. Heads snapped towards the deep, race-bred, straight-eight growl throbbing through the open exhaust cut-out. With one extra bark of the throttle for dramatic effect and a touch of his hat in thanks, he rolled majestically into the suddenly open path.
I turned back to my Italian gentleman; like everyone else in sight, he was watching the car amble away and smiling ear-to-ear. ‘Ah, si,’ he beamed, ‘DOO-zen-berg!’ – and walked off happy as a clam.
Okay, so the analogy seems a bit thin from here. Frederick and August Duesenberg had virtually nothing personally in common with Ettore Bugatti beyond European origins – and the German-born brothers left theirs for the USA in early childhood. Ettore was a textbook European aristocrat; Fred, the self-educated design genius, and Augie, the master mechanic who could fix anything, were just plain Iowa farm boys.
But seeing (and hearing) the Duesenberg there at Villa d’Este, among the finest of old European finery, the parallels were obvious. Both Bugatti and Duesenberg built extraordinary Jazz Age racing cars, as well as competition-inspired road machines of outstanding performance, style and, yes, elegance. And, long after their best motor sport days were gone, each continued to create road cars now seen as masterpieces.
Both also ultimately gained more pride than profit for their troubles. And while Ettore was an Italian living in France who basically defined the classic French automobile, immigrants Fred and Augie made the grandest, most American of American cars ever, models that became part of the country’s cultural heritage. People still use ‘a real Doozie’ as a superlative, car enthusiasts or not.
It’s a shame, though, that I couldn’t get across the ‘Model X’ and ‘one of a kind’ idea. Most people know Duesenberg only from the Models J and SJ of the 1930s, vehicles manufactured under the firm’s ownership by brash entrepreneur EL Cord as cost-is-no-object hypercars, the Veyrons of the era.
Yet the Model X comes from the ’20s, when still-independent Duesenberg won the Indianapolis 500 three times, as well as the 1921 French GP: the first and still the only grand prix victory for a totally American-built car with an American driver. The X was also the last of that line of Duesenbergs and, as it turned out in the case of this particular unique example, the first of something completely different.
In the beginning, however, it was more an act of desperation. The Duesenbergs didn’t actually sell a production car under their own name until 1921 – only racers. And thanks to a total lack of business acumen, it wasn’t long before they were in trouble.
The original Model A (first called the Model Eight but, as with the X, retrospectively re-nicknamed after the J arrived) was a fine automobile, far purer than the later J. It had a race-derived SOHC straight-eight and the same revolutionary four-wheel hydraulic brakes as used on the GP winner. Overpriced and under-promoted, it barely sold; even when it did, the racing-distracted brothers often couldn’t fulfil the orders.
The solution, as far as senior sibling Fred was concerned, was a new car – and when the bottom fell out of the business and Cord bought control in 1926, that’s what was being worked on. An evolution of the Model A, it’s what we now call the Model X. It had an improved engine with revised breathing and more horsepower, plus a lower, stronger chassis with springs relocated above the frame rails and a new hypoid rear axle.
This wasn’t exactly what EL Cord had in mind; he was already doing well with his medium-upmarket Auburn and Cord brands, and wanted a full-on flagship for his empire. Fred was ordered to drop what he was doing – August had left after the buy-out to focus on racing – and come up with Something Big: that is, the Model J. The 13 Model X chassis already laid down were broken up, converted to J specs or finished and sold as a stop-gap measure pending
the arrival of the mighty J.
All except for one. Looking to put a touch of excitement on the Duesenberg stand at the 1927 New York Salon, the firm sent one X chassis to an automaker and coachbuilder named McFarlan, a now almost forgotten company of low volume but high quality, and a customer of Cord’s Lycoming engine business. The little outfit rose to the occasion admirably, sending back the car that Peter Heydon was invited to bring to Villa d’Este all these years later: one of only four Model X survivors, and the single example of the early Duesenbergs that was clothed as a boat-tail roadster.
Many marque experts consider this the rarest of the rare Duesenbergs, and the design is now recognised as the prototype for possibly the most striking and beautiful American car of the age, EL Cord’s Auburn Boat Tail Speedster. ‘You might also mention,’ Peter told me, ‘this was called a “boat roadster” on the official drawings, not a “boat-tail roadster”. And no, it didn’t look like this when I bought it.’
Following its show appearance the X was initially sold to a prominent Chicago hotelier, but it fell on hard times when the market crashed and subsequently went through many hands before reaching Peter’s in 1997. Some were friendly: Duesenberg historian Allen Sandburg basically saved the car from the scrapyard and located vast quantities of missing parts, while enthusiast William Dreist made a brave but faltering start on restoration. Others were not so sympathetic: somewhere along the line the X had inherited a Cadillac engine and was partially rebodied to more closely resemble an Auburn.
Yet it couldn’t have found better hands in the end than Peter’s. His restored Model A is an Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club show winner, and he’s also the Meadow Brook Concours chairman. More importantly, he has a genuine affection and feel for history, for heritage – from carrying his grandfather’s pocket watch to helping save a safe house on the Underground Railroad, the abolitionist network that aided escaping slaves.
A teacher of English and creative writing for over 20 years at the University of Michigan, he did his PhD on Robert Browning and credits the poet with inspiring a good deal of his passion for all things old. ‘When Browning wrote on subjects from antiquity, he said he was “revivifying the past”. I like to think that what I do in some small way follows in that theme,’ Peter explained.
When it came to the Model X, some major ‘revivifying’ was needed, too. Despite many key original components such as the engine mercifully being present, others had to be sourced or fabricated: recreating the cast alloy running boards took many attempts, and the correct headlamps finally came from a derelict fire engine. The entire process took nearly three years. ‘Repairing the clock alone took 18 months,’ Peter told me, ‘but if you need a good watchmaker, I know one…’
Heydon obviously has the patience of a natural-born teacher, as well as the enthusiasm and perception. Whereas some owners will merely park up and wander off to the bar, he loves to meet and greet; he’ll chat with any spectator who shows sincere interest for as long as they care to stay, then warmly shake their hand and give them a glossy photograph. If the guys in the White House were smart, he’d be an ambassador.
It might be best, however, if they sent him to a country with larger roads. Driving the X around the tight confines of northern Italy takes some getting used to. The car’s vast size and low seating position makes spotting its corners difficult, and the three-speed crash gearbox with its long, spindly lever requires delicate double-declutching.
But the brakes are surprisingly good, the suspension tactile and the steering, if stiff, is also precise. The car’s character is very definitely not pre-war luxury but pre-war sporting – and when the road opens up, I just put my foot down and let the rumbling straight-eight torque sweep me along.
It doesn’t even matter that there isn’t much open road on a late Sunday afternoon at Lake Como, either; it’s enough to potter along through the traffic, and enjoy an occasional burst of that exhaust cut-out. By this time, you see, Peter has made his pass by the reviewing stand, and the award for Best in Class is sitting on the seat between us. It’s a real Doozie, too, and we’re both smiling ear-to-ear, happy as clams. Revivified, you might even say.