Making Jay Leno's Duesenberg Classic Car Road Ready
January 1, 2009 5:46 PM
When it comes to replacing cylinder heads in a Duesenberg, there is next to nowhere to turn—there just aren't any spares left. Jay found one brave soul who went to work casting the 185-pound cylinder heads from blueprints that didn't even show the casting cores. Now this cherished classic can get back to where it belongs—on the road.
By Jay Leno
Published in the January 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics.
Duesenbergs, I love ’em. They called the Duesy America’s Mightiest Motor Car. Introduced on the eve of the Great Depression, the Model J had a 420-cu-in. twin-cam 32-valve straight Eight. Peugeot was first with four-valve heads, in 1912, and Bugatti had three-valve heads in the 1920s, so Duesenberg was really using European technology, but on a grand scale. Almost no one did those heads on a 7.0-liter engine. Even today, Americans like to take something small from Europe and make a huge version of it. Take the new Ford Flex; it’s like a giant Mini Cooper.
The Duesenberg straight Eight developed about 265 hp normally aspirated and 320 hp with an optional supercharger. To put that in perspective, Cadillac’s V8s of the same vintage produced just 90 hp. The Duesy was the supercar of its time. Only 481 Js and SJs were built before production ended in 1937. During World War II scrap drives, some of these magnificent cars were actually cut up for the war effort. Today, spare parts are scarce. And there are no spare cylinder heads available. That’s right. None, zero, zip.
So when I heard through Duesenberg guru Randy Ema that a guy in Wisconsin named Jim Schneck was going to cast new Duesy heads, I became very interested. Ema has factory records and some of the few remaining spare parts, too—but no cylinder heads.
I had never met Jim, but he came highly recommended, so I thought I’d take a chance. This is one of those things that you do on faith. He owns an unrestored Duesenberg SJ Brunn Riviera, and he likes to drive it, so he’s very familiar with these cars.
People have no idea of the work that goes into recasting vintage cylinder heads. Just making the patterns for those heads took six months. And the heads themselves? They took the better part of three years. The heads are cast iron, so the molten metal mixture has to be much hotter than aluminum. And each head weighs about 185 pounds.
We live in a time when we think everything today is so much better than what came before. But the people who built Duesenbergs were artisans. Back then, foundry work was an art form. It’s so hard to duplicate what they did decades ago. When Jim decided to cast a Duesenberg head he studied the blueprints, but they didn’t show what the casting cores looked like.
As you’d suspect, he had casting problems and core shifts, since the sand cores tend to move in the molten metal. But the Lycoming factory in Williamsport, Pa., that built those engines for Duesenberg had similar problems. Jim didn’t change the design in any way. And that’s good. You want to keep something like this true to the OEM specs, so the car develops its power commensurate with what it had originally.
The new heads look terrific; I bought the first one. They sell for $42,000 each with the valves installed. Jim’s not going to make a lot of money on this project. But he’s doing something important. At the auctions, you see Duesenbergs with incredible paint and chrome, and yet inside the motors, they’re literally worn out. No one seems to mind. People buy what they can see. So they spend $50,000 to $80,000 on a paint job for a classic car. But you tell them, “Hey, I need a new cylinder head, because mine is corroded,” and they say, “Yeah?” and just look at you.
In England, the Bentley Drivers Club is one of the most active old-car clubs in the world, because they have craftsmen to manufacture nearly all the parts you need to keep an old Bentley on the road. But in this country, most people who have an old car like a Duesenberg put it in a garage, and since it’s almost never used, nothing breaks. And because nothing breaks, there are no parts available to fix it. And since it doesn’t need to be fixed, the people who know how to make the parts or fix the cars—well, they eventually pass away.
There were plenty of old factory guys around back in the ’60s and ’70s who could tune a Duesenberg. Setting the valves on one is a 40-hour job. It takes a full week. These cars were built back when technology was expensive and labor cheap. Now, it’s the other way around—labor’s the killer. Today, it’s crazy to pay a guy for 40 hours of work doing valves. Tuning your Duesenberg costs the same as having the service done on a Ferrari Enzo.
You know, we’ve gotten away from our basic mechanical beginnings. These old cars were designed by real engineers. Over the years, people have done fixes upon fixes to try and improve on that engineering. But if you restore a car exactly the way it was originally, it will work just fine. I drive my Duesenbergs everywhere, and they operate flawlessly—driving them is the best way to keep these cars on the road.
In the ’50s and ’60s, people still drove old cars every day. In the ’70s, guys fixed up old cars and drove them on the weekends. In the ’80s, they were put on display and occasionally taken on a tour. By the ’90s, they were trailered to events like Pebble Beach, taken off the trailer and barely run at all. What happens next is, they’re all in museums.
Duesenbergs are considered one of the “old masters” of the classic automotive world. That encourages guys like Jim Schneck to tool up and make cylinder heads. Now you have a car you can actually drive, not a piece of static art on display. Maybe people will make some other scarce parts as well, like artisans do for the Bentley Club. Perhaps someone will get really brave and cast a cylinder block.
In the past, if you had a Duesenberg motor with a bad head, all you could do was sell it for parts. Thanks to Jim Schneck, you can make that Duesenberg run again. To anyone who plans to re-create a much-needed part for other vintage automobiles, I say: Thank you. You will be revered by those of us who cherish them.