GRR

Doug Nye – The Incredible History of one Duesenberg

05th July 2016
doug_nye_headshot.jpg Doug Nye

Just getting back to the normal grindstone after the Festival of Speed weekend I was hunting for some candid Bruce McLaren personality photos.They had been requested by a New Zealand production team who have been working hard on a full 90-minute documentary movie telling Bruce’s story. I have long since ceased to be surprised at how badly I file material but one print which came to hand really did make my jaw drop. 

deusenberg_06071604.jpg

It’s the shot appended here showing a tall, rather gawky-looking single-seater blurring past the Goodwood pits at speed. It’s plainly from the 1949-50 period with Freddie March’s famous concrete-beam barriers plainly quite freshly installed each side of the course.

The car is the Brooklands Duesenberg single-seater, which I believe – in the 1930s – set the fifth-fastest time ever around the high-banked, bumpy and daunting Outer Circuit at the old Weybridge track. It is in fact a fascinating car – today preserved at the Brooklands Museum – but it was owned for many years by our late, great friend Denis Jenkinson, of ‘Motor Sport’ magazine.

In fact the car used one – and we have never satisfactorily established which one – of probably seven chassis frames built by Duesenberg in 1927 for American track racing. It is believed to be the only one of those seven to survive. The Indy racing formula to which it had been built, permitting such slim-bodied single-seat open-wheelers way ahead of Grand Prix racing, had been replaced by the so-called ‘Junk Formula’ which re-introduced the riding mechanic (two-man crews) resulting in a great waste of human life.

The ex-Indy Duesenberg owned by Whitney Straight at Brooklands 1934 - Giulio Ramponi in cockpit, Billy Rockell on left-rear wheel

The ex-Indy Duesenberg owned by Whitney Straight at Brooklands 1934 - Giulio Ramponi in cockpit, Billy Rockell on left-rear wheel

But for 1933 Augie Duesenberg had been approached by the Italian President of the Scuderia Ferrari, Count Carlo Felice Trossi, who wanted a state-of-the-art American track racing car for Libre racing in Europe. It would be unfair to state that Duesenberg then conned the wealthy Italian, but in the best used-car dealing terms they certainly saw him coming… “Yessir – one single-seat track car comin’ right up sir!"

They fitted the originally 1.5-litre 1927 Duesenberg chassis with a nominally 4.25-litre straight-8 unsupercharged engine built by ‘Skinny’ Clemons along Miller lines in 1931. The car was shipped to Trossi in Italy and he ran it in the Monza Grand Prix – a mechanical failure there being blamed for the spilled oil contributing to two tragic accidents which claimed the lives of three great drivers – Giuseppe Campari, ‘Baconin’ Borzacchini and the Polish Count Stanislaus Czaykowski.

The car was then rented to American-in-England Whitney Straight, for Brooklands racing. The astute young driver and team patron saw the Duesey as a potential Outer Circuit lap record breaker. Straight took aim at John Cobb’s contemporary 140.93mph record in the 24-litre Napier-Railton. The Duesey fell short at 138.15 mph but this was a new Class C (up to 5,000 cc) lap record.

1935 BRDC 500 at Brooklands - ‘Buddy’ Featherstonhaugh co-drove Duesenberg with Dick Seaman but retired when tank split

1935 BRDC 500 at Brooklands - ‘Buddy’ Featherstonhaugh co-drove Duesenberg with Dick Seaman but retired when tank split

Straight then retired from racing upon marriage, and the Duesenberg was sold on to R. L. (Jack) Duller for 1935. It was raced it at Brooklands by a variety of drivers including Dick Seaman, ‘Buddy’ Featherstonhaugh (the English jazz saxophonist-cum-racing driver) and the formidable Mrs. Gwenda Stewart.

The ageing car regularly put in flying laps at an average speed of over 130 mph around the high Brooklands bankings, but in 1937 it came up against a then-BARC restriction on cars over ten years old. It later survived the war, and was rescued by Daniel Richmond, of subsequent fame as the proprietor and engineering brain behind Alexander Conversions, the tuning company. The decidedly hard used Clemons straight-8 engine was separated from the car and sold to Ireland, where it ended up in the ex-Bobby Baird Emeryson owned by Henry Kyle. That power unit was replaced in the Duesey’s chassis by a Ford V8, and Richmond sprinted the car briefly in the late 1940s.

1936 BRDC 500 - Mrs Gwenda Stewart in the Duesenberg

1936 BRDC 500 - Mrs Gwenda Stewart in the Duesenberg

Around 1950 Daniel Richmond offered the car for sale. William Boddy – the famous ‘W.B.’ – editor of Motor Sport magazine – was of course a profound enthusiast for all things Brooklands, and he arranged on the telephone to buy it. Rashly, as it turned out, ‘The Bod’ told Jenks he was doing the deal and he’d arranged to go down to Wiltshire (I think it was) to collect the great car from Richmond later that week.

To Jenks’s abiding discredit, he pre-empted his friend, whizzed down within hours, and bought the car from Richmond under ‘The Bod’s nose. He justified the heist purely by saying the car stood a better chance of proper care if he had it, because he was far more technically inclined, and that ‘The Bod’ was more a Parry-Thomas Leyland man in any case… Friction from that act would persist, and occasionally surface, over the next 40 years of their otherwise enduringly friendly relationship. ‘The Bod’ would just grunt when the Duesenberg might be mentioned, and mutter “Huh – typical Jenks”…

Postwar – the Duesenberg fitted by Daniel Richmond with Ford V8 engine at a sprint start, possibly Gosport

Postwar – the Duesenberg fitted by Daniel Richmond with Ford V8 engine at a sprint start, possibly Gosport

In any case, Jenks ended up with the Duesenberg-Ford, and over a period of years he badgered Henry Kyle in Ireland until he was finally able to acquire the Emeryson itself, which by that time was Jaguar XK-engined since the Clemons engine had retired hurt. It came with the car, and again all survived in Jenks’s tender care – which meant largely years of neglect.  From time to time he’d “fettle up” some aspect of the chassis, or the engine, but he never had two brass farthings to spend on significant restoration.

Ultimately, he bequeathed car and engine to the Brooklands Museum, and as his executor I was happy to hand it all over to them after his death – aged 75 – in November 1996. Slowly, Crosthwaite & Gardiner in Sussex have been working on a running Clemons straight-8 to go into the frame – and we still hope that one day the ex-Count Trossi, ex-Whitney Straight, ex-Dick Seaman, ex-Gwenda Stewart, ex-Jack Duller, ex-Daniel Richmond, ex-Jenks Duesenberg will again thunder into uproarious life. When it does I am confident we will see it running at Goodwood – again…

Images courtesy of The GP Library

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