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Ecstasy of gold: All the other attempts to revive the Duesenberg as a carmaker

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Photo courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

Duesenberg pretty much undisputedly sits atop the heap as the most luxurious, most exclusive, and most storied American carmaker to have existed, all the more remarkable given that the nameplate has been gone from the automotive landscape for 80 years. But those last 80 years haven’t exactly gone Duesenberg-less thanks to no less than four revival attempts.

It’s a tempting goal to revive – and not just replicate – the marque. Name recognition is already in place, you’re guaranteed plenty of free press, and like the modern-day Bugattis, you could essentially name your price. If, that is, you nail the right blend of power, luxury, technology, styling, and financing, and the various Duesenberg revival attempts have yet to manage that feat. Let’s run them down anyway.

First, some sources have mentioned a late Thirties revival attempt by Augie Duesenberg himself (Frederick, who died in 1932, didn’t live to see the end of Duesenberg production, let alone any revival attempts). It’s not clear what those sources refer to, though there were some attempts in about 1936 at a major refresh of the Duesenberg’s design just before E.L. Cord’s automotive endeavor collapsed in 1937, leading the Cord receivers to sell the Duesenberg factory to Marmon-Herrington. (These sources might also be misinterpreting the fact that Augie Duesenberg the last Model J not in the Indianapolis factory but in Chicago.) The rights to the Duesenberg name – along with those for Cord and Auburn – went to Dallas Winslow, an entrepreneur who snapped up the leftovers of defunct car brands to continue selling replacement parts to owners of orphaned cars.

Winslow in turn sold the Duesenberg rights about a decade later to Marshall Merkes, an Indianapolis businessman who convinced Augie Duesenberg to take another crack at the Model J engine and chassis, modernizing it with fuel injection and high-strength alloys. Rather than sell new Duesenbergs, Merkes had the idea to lease them and keep the cars as a company asset. “The new Duesenberg wouldn’t be a car so much as it would be a symbol,” Merkes told Ken Gross in an early 1980s interview. “If you had one, you’d be a member of an exclusive society.” Merkes didn’t follow through with his plans, however, citing Tucker’s failure in the marketplace as a good reason not to try any alternatives to the manufacturer-distributor-dealer-customer model of automotive sales. One up, one down.

While Randy Ema bought Merkes’s inventory of parts, drawings, and literature following the latter’s death in about 1984, it’s not clear whether the rights to the Duesenberg name came with Merkes’s estate. Likely not, given the other revival attempts that came and went by that time.

Another Duesenberg enthusiast, Mike Kollins of Detroit, also believed that the legendary Model J engine shouldn’t be relegated to 20-year-old cars, so in 1950 he bought a Model J, yanked the straight-eight drivetrain, and fitted it under the hood a new 1950 Packard Super convertible. “Under” is a stretch in this case – Kollins had to shape a bulge running the length of the hood, under the windshield, and into the dashboard to fit the engine. Along the way, he added an upright Duesenberg grille and some lengthened coves along the sides to mimic the original’s sweeping fenders. It’s unclear whether Kollins intended to go into production with his “Kollins-LeGrande” Duesenberg once he completed it in 1958; he did, however, hold on to the one-off until his death in 2003. It has since sold at RM’s 2006 Arizona auction for $132,000 and again at RM’s 2008 Hershey auction for $118,250. Two up, two down.

As the son of Augie Duesenberg, Fritz Duesenberg certainly had a legitimate claim to returning the Duesenberg marque to production, a mid-Sixties effort we detailed earlier this week. He had a big-name designer working for him, a well-respected coachbuilder behind construction of the Imperial-based prototype Duesenberg Model D, and a couple of factories in the works for the start of production, but financing fell through, and the one prototype sold to satisfy debts. Three up, three down.

After the immense publicity given the Model D and at least a couple replicar efforts that popped up during the Seventies, it took some time before brothers Harlan and Kenneth Duesenberg – either nephews or grand-nephews of the original Duesenberg brothers – felt comfortable enough to try another family-backed effort at resurrecting the marque. In 1979, they hatched a plan to buy new Cadillac Fleetwood Broughams from GM, have limousine builder Lehman-Peterson rebody and retrim the cars and add the distinctive mustachioed bumpers, and then sell them for $100,000. “We almost made it,” Harlan Duesenberg said, but “we were underfinanced. We realized the effort was going to fail just after the prototype was shown.” Four up, four down.

Speaking of the modern-day Bugattis, a company called Duesenberg Custom Coach sprang up about a decade ago promising a revived Duesenberg based on a Mercedes chassis but powered by a 12-cylinder rotating engine. Designer Jeff Teague contributed some designs and served as a consultant on the project, apparently based out of Hong Kong, but remained tight-lipped about it. That effort too seems to have gone nowhere. Five up, five down.

While the rights to the Duesenberg name reportedly sold for seven figures several years ago, a trademark filing for the Duesenberg name from earlier this year appears to belong to the same company behind the Cord revival effort, though it appears to apply only to “reproduction automobiles of classic design, parts for original and reproduction automobiles.”

So while no effort is currently underway to revive the Duesenberg as a carmaker, give it another few years and we’ll likely see another.