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It has been nearly 70 years since the last Duesenberg rolled off the assembly line, but the super-stylish king of American luxury automobiles is about to be resurrected. Duesenberg, the Maple Plain (Minn.) company that bought the trademark in 1996, has announced that next year its sister company, Duesenberg Custom Coach, plans to unveil the Duesenberg Torpedo Coupe.
It's the first new Duesenberg on the market since 1937, when the original company closed its factory after the Depression slowed sales. The slinky, sexy newcomer promises to retain the elegant charm of the old Duesies, as they are affectionately called by vintage-car aficionados. But redesigning the classic is no easy challenge. It requires finding a delicate balance between honoring an automotive icon and creating an innovative, marketable machine that stands out from other luxury brands on the market.
"AN EMOTIONAL SPARK." "How do you bring back a car that was such a statement to drive, a car that was basically a rolling sculpture on four wheels?" asks Jeff Teague, principal of Augora Hills (Calif.)-based Teague Design International and the designer of the Torpedo Coupe. With its swooping fenders and distinctively long front grille, the Duesie has long been viewed in the same exclusive (and expensive) league as ultra-high-end European autos like Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, or Maybachs.
Restored Duesies dating from the 1920s and 30s can easily fetch $1 million and more. For generations, the car has been the favored wheels of Hollywood honchos like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, and more recently, Jay Leno.
Teague, who won a design contest held by Duesenberg Custom Coach in 2002, began his process by recalling his early memories of the car. He wanted to ignite "an emotional spark," which he believes is essential to produce that "Wow!" reaction to an innovative car design.
YESTERYEAR'S COLORS. "My dad, who was vice-president at American Motors, ingrained in me that the Duesenberg was the Stradivarius violin of cars," Teague says. "So a newly launched Duesie, I think, has the pressure to turn heads."
Teague started with simple hand-drawn sketches that featured the brand's most distinguishing elements, before starting on a computer rendering or working out the engineering details, which are yet to be fully developed. "I was drawn to the 1932 and '31 models, and decided to keep the original grille," Teague says.
The two-tone speedsters and roadsters made in those years often featured the signature Duesie paint job of dramatic swaths of color on the front end of the car that stretched onto the doors, which Teague includes in the new design. Another element that suggests the earlier cars is what he calls "flowing fenders," which rise above and halo the wheels in a graceful fashion.
"DIFFERENT PROPORTIONS." While he has been careful to maintain some features reminiscent of the 1930s Duesies, Teague had to consider other factors for both practicality and marketing reasons.
"It's much more complicated to design a car today than 75 years ago," Teague says. He cites safety issues, like engineering a car that isn't prone to roll-overs, or providing crumple zones, as practical matters that have resulted in generic-looking luxury cars that comply to industry standards. As Teague says: "Cars today have to have different proportions."
So Teague thought of ways to distinguish the Torpedo Coupe from other autos on the market. To signify its heritage as a status symbol, he designed the car to have a "powerful front end." In profile and from behind, the Torpedo Coupe resembles a ferocious animal, crouched to pounce, with the fenders suggesting muscular haunches.
UNIQUE POWER PLANT. To infuse the car with a literal sense of power -- and an innovative edge over other luxury vehicles -- Teague and David Hartje, CEO of Duesenberg Custom Coach, are planning to outfit it with a groundbreaking new engine designed by Eddie Paul, an El Segundo (Calif.) car designer and principal of E.P. Industries.
Known for the one-off cars he's created for Hollywood films like The Fast and the Furious, Paul is developing a superlight-weight, fuel-efficient engine called the Cylindrical Energy Module (CEM) engine. The design is based on a pump that Paul patented in 1992 that's used by firefighters and the U.S. Forestry Dept. The three men believe its possible debut in the new Duesie will associate the revivified brand with the same spirit of innovation that the original company was known for.
Paul's 12-cylinder engine is scalable, and prototypes have been made in sizes as small as that of an average watermelon and weighing only 100 pounds each (some car engines can reach 1,000 pounds in weight). Unlike most car engines, which are stationary, the CEM rotates and in the process draws the car's fuel in to self-lubricate. As a result, no oil pump is necessary.
POWER TO SPARE. The mechanism features just one spark plug at each end and emits one-sixth of the heat of a typical car engine, so it can be air-cooled. It's also designed to accommodate both standard and diesel fuel. With gas prices at an all-time high, and eco-friendly cars like the Toyota Prius becoming a status symbol among movie stars (Cameron Diaz and Larry David own them), the addition of the CEM to the Duesenberg Torpedo Coupe might just add to its appeal.
Hartje and Paul have yet to finalize or confirm the inclusion of the CEM in the first Deusie Torpedo Coupe, which Hartje plans to debut at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. As a backup, Hartje says the first version of the car will feature a modified Mercedes V12 engine -- the type that's found in a Maybach.
The Duesenberg Torpedo Coupe will be made in a limited edition -- about 25 to 50 the first year, Hartje estimates -- and is intended for the same buyer willing to plunk down six figures for European cars like the Rolls-Royce Phantom, which costs $328,750. The Torpedo Coupe will be priced in the same range, according to Hartje.
LUXE LIFE. Despite record high gas prices in 2005, evidence suggests consumers are still interested in super-luxury cars. Although sales of Rolls Royce and Maybach each decreased an estimated 42.9% in 2005, according to Woodcliff Lake (N.J.) market-research firm Autodata, actual sales of Bentleys were up 47.4% in the same period -- suggesting that consumers' desires for certain types of ultra-high-end cars haven't stalled.
If the Torpedo Coupe's blend of retro details and contemporary styling, combined with the possibility of an innovative and efficient new engine, catch the eye of buyers, the Duesenberg should have a doozy of a rebirth.