Next time you slam on the brakes to avoid a fender-bender, whisper a small prayer of thanks to Fred and Augie Duesenberg. Seventy-five years ago, the brothers introduced four-wheel hydraulic brakes on their first luxury car, the Duesenberg Model A.
Modern motorists might consider hydraulic brakes a no-brainer, but it was a risky move at the time. Rivals claimed cars equipped with front brakes would spin out or even overturn during panic stops.
The Duesenbergs fought those scare tactics. Determined to produce a state-of-the-art vehicle, they launched a 'Safety First' marketing campaign worthy of Volvo in the 1990s. But that's getting ahead of the story.
According to Louis Steinwedel's book The Duesenberg, the brothers' saga started in Iowa, where they ran a bicycle shop. In 1900, Fred Duesenberg added a small gasoline engine to a bicycle, and the brothers soon started building race cars.
During World War I, they designed powerful six- and eight-cylinder engines for motorboats, and they tested a monster V-16 Bugatti powerplant for the U.S. Army's fledgling air force. After the war, the Duesenbergs decided to produce a luxury car with the straight eight-cylinder engine they had developed for their race cars. The engine had powered three Duesenberg race cars to third, fourth and sixth places in the 1920 Indianapolis 500, and the brothers were confident it could outrun anything on the road.
But they also realized their car -which could top 100 mph - would be too fast for the rear-wheel brakes available at the time.
Burned-out brake linings were a constant headache for motorists, and stopping distances were hazardously long.
In 1909, the Italian carmaker Isotta-Fraschini had equipped its vehicles with brakes on all wheels, and Peugeot had used them on some racing cars. But when the Duesenbergs drew blueprints for their new car, four-wheel brakes were still a novelty on both sides of the Atlantic.
So the Duesenbergs decided to adapt the Lockheed hydraulic brakes they had used on a 1914 race car. When the motorist pressed the brake pedal, a piston would force fluid out of a master cylinder into the four brake lines.
To increase pressure, a second booster piston would feed extra fluid into the brake lines. The fluid would surge into cylinders in each of four brake drums, which transmitted the pressure to the brake shoes.
Braking pressure ranged up to 500 pounds per square inch, far exceeding the performance of rival mechanical brakes.
The Duesenbergs raced against time to prepare their prototype for New York's 16th Auto Salon in 1920, a prestigious event at the Commodore Hotel that showcased luxury marques like Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suiza.
The Duesenbergs missed the registration deadline. After Fred Duesenberg offered a bribe, the car was displayed in the hotel foyer.
Although it was isolated from the other cars on display, the Duesenberg Straight 8 drew considerable attention. In advertising flyers, the Duesenbergs predicted the car 'was built to outclass, out-run and outlast any car on the road.'
To make that boast come true, the brothers began producing prototypes in 1921, building their first batch of chassis in an Indianapolis workshop just two miles from the city's famous race track.
The production version was introduced late in 1921, but only a few vehicles were produced. In 1922, production totaled 149 Duesenberg Straight 8s. Depending on the body style, the Straight 8 was priced from $6,500 to $8,800, ranking as one of the continent's elite luxury cars.
To gain credibility for such a pricey vehicle, the brothers returned to the race track, winning the French Grand Prix in 1921. They also staged several endurance runs at the Brickyard. In 1923, a Duesenberg touring car circled the race track for more than 50 hours, stopping only twice to change tires. A chase car delivered gasoline, water and relief drivers. After 3,155 miles - dubbed a 'coast-to-coast' endurance run - the team called it quits.
Next the Duesenbergs launched a 'Safety First' marketing pitch to counteract a newspaper ad campaign that some competitors had mounted against hydraulic brakes. One pamphlet dubbed the brakes 'the most astonishingly successful accomplishment in automotive engineering.' The Straight 8 could come to a stop from 60 mph within 144 feet, the pamphlet claimed, adding that a car equipped with conventional two-wheel brakes would require 333 feet. If true, the Duesenberg's stopping power would have been comparable to a contemporary Jaguar XJ-12, which can come to a stop from 60 mph within 128 feet.
For several years the Duesenberg remained the only U.S.-made vehicle with four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Eventually, another industry maverick - former World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker - decided to buck conventional wisdom. As a prewar race car driver, Rickenbacker knew something about automobiles, and his fame helped him line up investors for Rickenbacker Motor Co. At the 1922 New York auto show, he unveiled a V-6 car with a starting price of $1,485.
In 1922-23, Rickenbacker sold 8,220 cars. Profits were low, so he decided to make some improvements. In 1924, he outfitted his cars with four-wheel brakes.
The brakes were mechanical - not hydraulic - but Rickenbacker was convinced he had a winner. In a series of full-page newspaper ads, he proclaimed the virtues of his four-wheel brakes, and Rickenbacker waited for purchase orders to roll in.
Instead, he found himself the target of a marketing counterattack. Studebaker Corp. newspaper ads warned that four-wheel brakes were dangerous.
Critics claimed the car would roll over if it braked during a turn, while others said all four wheels would lock up under hard braking. Still others asserted that passengers would be injured by pitching forward against the instrument panel during a panic stop.
In his autobiography, Rickenbacker blamed his company's eventual bankruptcy on that whispering campaign.
Fred and Augie Duesenberg fared little better, although their hydraulic brakes weren't to blame.
Despite the Straight 8's superior performance, the car's styling was simply too stodgy for the Roaring Twenties. Sales peaked in 1923 at a measly 140 units, and only 500 were sold during the car's entire production run.
The Duesenbergs lurched into bankruptcy in 1926, but the brothers found a financial angel in Erret Lobban Cord, a canny former car salesman from Chicago who understood the need for stylish automotive packaging.
In 1924, Cord had agreed to run Auburn Co., a tiny automaker that was struggling to survive. After giving the car a dramatic facelift, Cord had revived profits in short order.
He had something similiar in mind for Duesenberg, which he acquired in 1926. Cord held the brothers' engineering abilities in high regard, but he knew that the Straight 8's styling didn't match its performance.
Under Cord's financial guidance, the brothers halted production of the Straight 8 in 1927, and went to work on the Model J. Introduced at the New York Automobile Salon on Dec. 1, 1928, it caused a sensation.
A young designer named Gordon Buehrig designed Model J's coachwork, and he gave it an elegance that its predecessor lacked. The Model J and its supercharged variant - the SJ - is considered one of the most elegant luxury cars ever built.
But the Duesenbergs suffered a tragedy in 1932. Just a few months after the SJ was unveiled, Fred wrecked one of his cars while descending a mountain road in Pennsylvania. He died a few weeks later. Five years after that, the company plunged into bankruptcy.
However, the Duesenbergs' engineering innovations outlived the company. Cars began to sport straight-eight engines, and automakers began to equip their vehicles with hydraulic brakes. Another Duesenberg feature - the overhead cam - is standard on today's high-tech engines.
Decades after the heyday of the Duesenberg brothers, the industry also has adopted their marketing ideas. When it comes to anti-lock brakes, airbags or side-impact protection, automakers are proclaiming Safety First.