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1966 Duesenberg Model D by Ghia

The Duesenberg Model J was the mightiest of America's great 1930s Classics. Pioneer automotive journalist Ken Purdy once said it "will live as long as men worship beauty and power on wheels."

Still, some can't resist trying to improve on a legend, particularly when they bear the same name. That, in a nutshell, explains why the only two attempts at a modern Duesenberg — at least so far — have been made by descendants of brothers Fred and August Duesenberg, creators of the immortal J.

The first attempt began in 1964 when Augie's son Fred A. "Fritz" Duesenberg resigned as chief engine engineer for the Labeco test-equipment company to join forces with one Milo N. Record, a sales and promotion specialist at Goodyear.

The impetus for their partnership was Virgil Exner, who had just been ousted as styling chief at Chrysler. As Virgil Exner, Jr. later recounted in Special Interest Autos magazine: "My dad was [then] in semi-retirement. He'd done a number of designs for Esquire [in late 1963, interpreting] how some of the classics ... might look in the modern era."

Of Exner's four "contemporary continuations," only an updated 1934 Packard went unbuilt. His modernized Mercer idea was translated into the one-off 1966 Mercer-Cobra. His Stutz speculation led directly to the trio of Pontiac-based Stutz Blackhawk models that sold in tiny numbers from 1970 to the mid-1980s.

But, of course, it was Exner's latter-day Duesenberg that interested Fritz — and Texas real-estate baron Fred J. McManis, Jr. With dreams of raising at least $5 million in start-up funds, Fritz formed a new Duesenberg Corporation in Indianapolis, where his father and uncle had built their towering machines 30 years before. Fritz installed himself as chairman and McManis as president.

The Duesenberg Model D concept car was the only car built by the 1960s Duesenberg Corporation. It had been started by Fritz Duesenberg, son of one of the original Duesenberg founders, with real-estate baron Fred J. McManis, Jr. as president.

Their initial vision was a $10,000 super-luxury sedan on a 120-inch wheelbase, but that soon grew into an even costlier car with a 132-inch chassis and an aluminum V-8 with more than 500 cubic inches and 300 horsepower.

Targeted yearly volume was variously quoted at between 200 and 1,000 units by sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to monthly "buff" magazines. Moreover, as Fritz told Car Life's Ed Janicki: "We plan no annual changes [though], we might consider a change or modification after ten years. You couldn't sell [one] and then obsolete it in two years with this price."

After selecting a final design from 15 working sketches submitted by the Exners, Fritz okayed a prototype of what came to be called the Duesenberg Model D. Construction was entrusted to the famed Ghia works in Italy — logical, as Ghia had built most of the elder Exner's Chrysler show-car designs of the Fifties.

Engineering work became a joint effort between Dale Cosper, a veteran of the original Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg concern, and Paul Farago, fresh from birthing the Chrysler-powered Dual-Ghia. But there was never any rush to completion because financing was slow and hard to come by. Hopes of attracting new money prompted the prototype's first public showing, which didn't come until the spring of 1966.

Like its hallowed forebears, the new Model D had grand proportions: A four-door brougham sedan measuring 137.5 inches between wheel centers and 245 inches overall. The announced price was a lofty $19,500. Still, it included automatic transmission (Chrysler TorqueFlite), automatic climate control, all-disc brakes (big Airheart units), torsion-bar front suspension, chrome wire wheels, and power everything.

Per Duesenberg tradition, back seaters could scrutinize their speedometer and clock; they also enjoyed a separate radio, fold-out writing tables, and even a TV and bar. Interior trim was top-grade leather with solid mahogany accents.

The exterior blended nostalgic elements — razor-edge roof, center-opening doors, clamshell-shaped wheel openings — with trendy stuff like hidden headlamps. With 350 horsepower from a stock 440 Chrysler V-8 (the 426 Hemi was considered but rejected, as was all-independent suspension), the Model D had good performance for a 5,700-pound biggie.

But this first modern Duesenberg never went any further. Though plans were afoot for limousine and four-door convertible models, simple start-up of sedan production demanded $2.5 million, and the money was nowhere to be found.

So, after a few months in the limelight, Duesenberg Corporation faded away, which was a real shame. According to the few who've driven it, the Model D handled well for its size and had all the luxury anyone could want.

But the potential demand for such a costly "retro" car in 1966 was tiny, if not non-existent, and the concept itself was probably flawed. As Car and Driver later opined, the Model D seemed the "perfect 1934 dream car. ... [Fred and Augie Duesenberg] would have kept up with the times."

Images:; Special Interest Autos

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