A big car for a big country. Introducing the very first Duesenberg.
“This is pure American history. It’s definitely the most significant vehicle now in the museum’s collection – even if it weren’t restored, it’d still be at the top of that list. It’s not just a car, it’s a family’s history and legacy.” Brendan Anderson.
Using nothing but my imagination, the American car industry of the mid-teens to late 1920s conjures images of cityscapes swarming with Model Ts, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and the like in fast-paced black and white. Or, in glorious technicolour, causing rooster tails of dust on the plains, perhaps outrunning the law or maybe enjoying the thrill of newfound speed. Never once considering the idea of fruit and cars to be connected – other than a vehicle for moving the produce – it has come to light more recently that this fruit/ car intersection goes far deeper than peel.
Fred and August Duesenberg were highly regarded motor racers. With cash from victories and contracts connected with the Great War, they decided to try out the potentially more lucrative domestic personal automobile market. Consider that a typical Model T Ford cost around $400 in 1919, the freshly relocated to Indiana (from New Jersey) brothers had big plans for customers and therefore customer car number one was for a large fellow – in extreme.
‘Yes, but what’s all this about fruit’, you say? Settle down now – patience beings its own rewards. Duesenberg’s first customer was a fellow by the name of Samuel Northrop Castle, grandson of the Hawaiian businessman of the same name who inaugurated Castle & Cooke, which morphed into Dole Foods Co, the world’s largest producer of fruit and vegetables. At seven feet tall and weighing three hundred pounds plus, a Tin Lizzy simply wasn’t even a consideration for this giant. He’d crush it like a grape.
Chassis number 601 along with engine number 1001 was therefore sent to Cleveland coach workers, Bender for a very large one-off construction. Total price coming in at over $7000, or just over 200 Lizzies. With its in-line eight cylinder engine, four-wheeled hydraulic brakes, full length aluminium belly pans and even with Castle’s girth aboard, this car could easily top 100mph. Ideal then for using as plantation scout car as well as personal transport. From order to delivery on the Pacific island took two years – one wonders how many poor horses succumbed to ferrying Castle around, pre-Deusie.
Obviously pleased with his wheels, which were used daily, the Duesenberg was returned to the factory some years later for some additions: a luggage rack, new lighting and a new steering wheel. Did Castle crush it like a pineapple when some kale proved not curly enough? Returning to Hawaii, the car served him until his death in 1959, some thirty eight years of use. The climate must have assisted in the car’s longevity though he could well afford quality mechanics along with the physical will to get things sorted should any maladies occur.
The car was subsequently brought to California, remaining in the family’s custodianship with nephew James Castle where he stored it away for almost the same amount of time SNC had used it. Rumours abounded that the Duesenberg was up for sale in the sixties but it took until 1994 for the car to come to light once more, this time for a thorough restoration. And only because a horse was seen chewing through the cars upholstery in the barn. James Junior and his wife CyrAnn fell in love with the car all over again. A celebratory can of peaches may have been consumed.
Bruce Canepa was chosen for the three-year, million dollar restoration fabricating many items in order to return the Duesenberg to its original 1921 Samuel specifications. The level of craftsmanship garnering accolades at both Amelia Island and Pebble Beach concours d’elegances. Praise indeed.
This link shows an internal picture. It was long considered the car had a cut out section to accommodate Castle’s size – this proved untrue, the firewall simply being set back more.
The Castle family then began a quest to find a permanent home for the pristine and unique Castle A motor, looking to many American museums for guidance. Brandon Anderson, CEO of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Indiana brokered a In Perpetuity deal where the car would be on permanent loan. This actually means the car’s value is zero; with the museum being a public trust and should they fail, the Duesenberg along with all other artefacts would by necessity be redistributed to other museums.
The car, which still fires questions over its theoretical value, “can never be owned by an individual again” according to Anderson. There are huge plans for a car and Castle family exhibition as well as “frequent trips out for this, the first ever Duesenberg.”
Fortuitously, this very year is the hundredth anniversary of the Duesenberg Automobile & Motor Company (for the museum click this link ) where this huge car now has a pampered and highly photographed future ahead. Not only would Samuel Castle along with the Duesenberg brothers surely have approved, but this fascinating tale of an equally larger than life car (and owner) alters my perception of early American motoring completely.