A huge upset was caused in 1921 when a team of four American Duesenberg racing cars were shipped to Europe for the French Grand Prix, and one of them, driven by Jimmy Murphy, won the race. The event was held over the LeMans course, two years before the first running of the 24 Hour race. Shortly after returning home, Murphy purchased the car from the Duesenberg brothers and then replaced the engine with a straight-eight Miller. With this combination, Murphy won the 1922 Indy 500 at a record 94.484 mph as the first ever to do so from the pole position. It is also the first race car to have four-wheel hydraulic brakes.
After the First World War the United States was anxious to return to racing. Engine displacement sizes were loosly regulated beginning in 1914 thus making the racing field more level. By 1920 the regulations were more strictly enforced in an effort to regulate the sport. Manufacturers found an advantge with the invention of forced induction.
In 1920 the displacement size was set at three-liters for many races, including international events. The Targa Florio and the 500 Mile Sweepstake at Indianapolis were two such events with regulated engine sizes. For the 1921 season, the French Grand Prix at LeMans was added to the schedule.
In Europe there were only a few marque's that ventured race entrants. Among the list were the French Ballot, Sunbeam, and Peugeot. Peugeots entrant at the 1920 Indy 500 Mile race was forced to retire after experiencing mechanical issues.
On state side the Duesenberg brothers were creating a straight-eight cylinder racer. Their knowledge grained from their 1916 Indy 500 entrant was very valuable as the vehicle had finished in second and was a strong rival for the prized first place crown. the outbreak of World War I had the brothers furthering their knowledge with the construction of engine for military purposes such as those for marine and aero.
The Duesenberg engines were made up of two blocks of four cylinders with each cylinder featuring two exhausts and one inlet valve operated by a single overhead camshaft. A shaft connected to the crank drove the camshafts. Horsepower was in the neighborhood of 115. This was an increase in horsepower by 15 over their road-going varients. A three-speed manual gearbox was used to send the power to the rear wheels. Most of the competition was using four gears which left the Duesenberg at a disadvantage. Top speed was around 110 mph which is very impressive. Imagine traveling in this vehicle on rough roads without seatbelts and in full exposure to the elements. The chassis is a ladder frame and attached with live axles in both the front and rear with semi-elliptic leaf springs and friction dampers. Brakes were on the rear wheels.
The Indianapolis 500, known by other names during its early existence, was the highlight of the year during the early 1920's in International competition. For 1920 Duesenberg managed a third, fourth and sixth place finish. Their position would have been more fruitful if mechanical difficulties had not plaqued their endeavours. When the checkered flag dropped it was the four-cylinder engined Monroe in first place.
For the 1921 season, the ban that forbid many European companies from competition had been lifted. Teams once again competed at LeMans and other stages that were convenient for the European marketplace. The Ballot automobiles were expected to be among the most dominant of the field. Their four-braking season had them at an advantage. Duesenberg modified their racers to use hyraulically operated drums, a first in racing history. Duesenberg became the first American company to enter a Grand Prix race.
Though the Ballots were the favorite, it was the Duesenberg's that held the crowds attention. A fierce battle lasted throughout most of the race between Duesenberg and Ballots. Many had thought that the drivers of the Duesenbergs were only experienced with oval courses and would be incapable of competing on the rough European road courses. As the race continued many racers were forced to retire prematurely as the rough road surfaces claimed many vehicles. As the race progressed the roads only became more treacherous. Jimmy Murphy in his Duesenberg was leading the race with only a few laps to go when he was struck by debris and his tires were shred. His radiator was pierced and his engine began to overheat. He manged to get his racer back to the pits where he used water to cool the engine. Much to the surprise of the crowd and better judgement of most of his crew, he re-emerged onto the track. He coaxed his racer the additional 10.6 miles and crossed the finish line in first place. His car had averaged 78.1 mph and became the first American team to win a Grand Prix event. This would not happen again until the 1960's.
Following the season, Duesenberg continued their racing endeavours on the United States soil. Victories occured at the Indy 500 in 1922 and 1924. This was a true testament of the vehicles capabilites, and the ingenuitiy of the Duesenberg marque.
By Daniel Vaughan | Jul 2008