Automotive History: 1980 Duesenberg – One Last Run at Exploiting a Hallowed Name

Duesenberg. The name brings back old Popular mechanics articles for me. In them, some comedian I’d never heard of before called Jay Leno would do a full page on how amazing these chrome-laden old cars were and how much powerful and better than any other car that was being built at that the time (’20s and ’30s). Way more powerful and faster too. I didn’t have the Internet back then, so I couldn’t quite figure out why they had disappeared if they had been so good. And even now that I’ve had the Internet for quite some time, I never knew that they had tried to revive the brand a couple of times. Let’s take a look at the latest of these to make the metal, all the way from 1979.

Now, this isn’t the first time that someone wanted to plug jump-leads to the Duesenberg name. Back in the early sixties Frederick “Fritz” Duesenberg, son of founder August Duesenberg, collaborated with noone less than Virgil Exner and Carrozzeria Ghia to bring us this, the 1966 Duesenberg. Based on an Imperial chassis and propelled by the same 340-horsepower 440 engine, it is perhaps the most well-remembered Duessy revival.

One that was on the way to success right up to the point when Fred McManis, playing the chief financier in this endeavor, decided to pull from the project and single-handedly brought it to a screeching halt after a single prototype. One that thankfully has survived through the years and recently came up for sale at an asking price of $375,000.

As for Duesenberg, it continued to make company to Packard, Cord, and Auburn in the dead brand bin until 1976; when two more Duesenbergs came into the field. Harlan and Kenneth Duesenberg, grandnephews of the original founders, were also consumed with a desire to bring the prestigious brand back into life. Of course, in order to produce something worthy of the name, they would have to get quite creative and get help from someone very talented to create a design. That last part came in the form of Robert Peterson.

Peterson had had quite a career by 1976. Having built race cars in Indianapolis until the early sixties, he joined forces with George Lehmann in 1963 to create Lehmann-Peterson coachbuilders. L-P’s claim to fame is the production of stretch Lincoln Continentals with backing from Ford from 1964 until 1970, when the venture fell apart. By the time 1976 rolled around Peterson was working on Moloney Coachbuilders, who bought what was left of L-P, in some unspecified capacity.

So that’s the talent, now about the basis. It is of course extremely expensive to design and develop a completely new car from scratch, so they needed a base. Fortunately, it was 1976, and body-on-frame sedans are still the bread-and-butter of American manufacturers. And if you’re going to use an American chassis, why not use the finest chassis from the most luxurious American manufacturer still around? The 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham would provide a fantastic base for the vehicle. Though, apparently, not its engine.

Here’s where things get a bit confusing. The sources I saw say that the engine on the prototype was Cadillac’s Fuel-Injected 425 V8, then producing a…respectable-for-the-time 195 horsepower. However, the 425 wasn’t released until the later, trimmer 1977 Fleetwoods, so presumably the buyer of a neo-Duesenberg would get a brand new Cadillac engine in that two or three-year old body. Isn’t that generous, for a mere $100k ($411k adjusted)? Were they going to buy used ’76 Caddys if anyone actually wanted one?

In any case, the list of changes to the original Cadillac included a quite tasteful interior with what looks to be full instrumentation.

A modern chrome interpretation of Duesenberg’s bowtie front bumper, and then a small pile of by the book 70’s styling cues. Wire wheels, stacked headlights, chrome waterfall grille, whitewalls. It all looked very 70’s Americana kitsch when it’s all said and done. I like a good slice of 70’s cheesecake, but this somehow just doesn’t do it for me if I’m honest, especially when compared to how some of those cues looked on the Ghia ‘66.

It did get good press at the time, with newspapers placing the $100,000 price tag front and center and noting that something that size and heft was unlikely to attract many buyers in a time where gas prices remained somewhat uncertain. Unfortunately, what wasn’t uncertain by the time that picture with the two happy Duesenbergs was being taken was the future of the car. In the words of Harlan, “we were underfinanced. We realized the effort was going to fail just after the prototype was shown.”

And sure enough, after that initial blip of press, there was nothing. No more pictures, no more info, no word about anyone actually putting down that initial $25,000 deposit (for the record, $25,000 would buy you six Toyota Corollas or one Jaguar XJ6 in 1980). Unlike Exner’s prototype, the 1980 Duesenberg simply vanished, nobody clamored for it and the last thing I can find about it was that someone had seen what was left of it sitting forlorn on a parking lot somewhere in Chicago.

Nobody has attempted to resuscitate Duesenberg again.

Epilogue: I don’t like ending articles on a sad note, so why don’t I close this one by showing you what Moloney coachbuilders did when they got a Cadillac to play with. Please enjoy this surprisingly tasteful pink and white 1974 Cadillac Sedan Deville wagon conversion custom ordered by the man with the blue suede shoes himself, Elvis Presley. You can find it, as well as many other interesting displays, on the Volvo Auto Museum in Lakemoor, IL. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you my web browser wants to correct Duesenberg to Heisenberg. How the mighty have fallen