The term ‘luxury automobile’ usually conjures up images of finely tuned cars racing on Germany’s Autobahn, Italy’s winding country roads or London’s affluent boulevards. But from 1920 to 1937 the center of the luxury car universe was Iowa.
Frederick and August Duesenberg – two of the world's finest car builders and the brains behind the American luxury car icon – got their start in the Hawkeye state when they emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s. By the early part of the 20th century, they became skilled mechanics, operating a bicycle-and-motorcycle shop in Garner, Iowa. In 1904, they started a company and built their first automobile.
By 1910, Frederick Maytag had taken over the firm, renaming it the Maytag-Mason Corp., with production in Waterloo, Iowa. But the brothers wanted to build race cars, and Maytag conveniently dropped his automobile venture, later turning to washing machines. By 1913, the brothers formed the Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company, Inc., in Garner.
However, it was not until 1920 that they began production of elegant luxury cars bearing their name. Soon the name Duesenberg was a household word and the cars became known for speed, style and luxury. Moreover, the brothers' vehicles excelled in all races.
In fact, in 1921, seven of the first 10 finishers at the Indianapolis 500 were Duesenberg racers. And a Duesenberg car won the Indianapolis 500 race in 1924, 1925, and 1927. More importantly, in 1921, automotive racing legend Jimmy Murphy became the first American to win the French Grand Prix when he drove a Duesenberg to victory at the Le Mans racetrack.
The Duesenberg quickly became one of the most popular cars in America. Soon, millionaires and movie stars such as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and the Duke of Windsor were driving them. At a time when the average physician earned $3,000 a year, the Duesenberg’s price tag began at $13,500, reaching a whopping $25,000 for its high-end models.
The Duesenberg’s advertising stated that it was the best car in the world, and their world-beating performance and extreme opulence backed up that claim. It was said at the time that the only car that could pass a Duesenberg was another Duesenberg, and that was only with the first owner's permission.
The Duesenbergs would be immortalized in the American lexicon by the phrase “it’s a doozy,” which traces back to the fabled Iowa-built automobiles. They were built with such precision that some 80 years later the term “doozy” remains synonymous with quality, even though the term technically predates the famed automobiles.