In July 1921 Duesenberg became the first American automaker to win a European Grand Prix.

Duesenberg 183

Albert Guyot in the recently rediscovered Duesenberg 183 at the 1921 French Grand Prix. Public domain image.

It was a most improbable victory, but in July 1921 Duesenberg became the first American automaker to win a European Grand Prix. Four Duesenberg 183s were fielded by the Indianapolis-based squad, and of these, just one, residing in the Simeone Museum, is known to have survived the decades intact (a second car, built from period-correct parts, is enshrined in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum). Now, a long forgotten third team car has surfaced, and plans for its restoration are under way.

The 1921 French Grand Prix, held at Le Mans, was the first running of the race since 1914, when World War I preempted any such events on the European continent. Despite the cessation of hostilities in November of 1918, race organizers still had a difficult time filling the grid for the 1921 race. Costly entry fees were one reason, and Duesenberg may have ignored the race but for the generosity of spark plug magnate Albert Champion, who funded the team’s entry into the event. The American Automobile Association (AAA) representative in Paris, W.F. Bradley, negotiated the team’s late entry, and the four Duesenbergs joined a field that consisted of four Ballots, seven Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracqs, and a lone Mathis.

Powered by a inline eight-cylinder engine rated at 114 horsepower and mated to a three-speed gearbox, the Duesenbergs were competitive with the favored Ballots, which used a four-speed transmission. The Duesenberg’s big advantage, however, was hydraulic brakes on all four corners, which allowed later braking than their French rivals.

The juice brakes initially proved problematic on the Le Mans street circuit, and in practice for the race,  driver Jimmy Murphy overturned a team car, ejecting himself and teammate Louis Inghilbert. Inghilbert had been scheduled to drive the number 17 Duesenberg, and was merely acting as navigator for Murphy, who lacked prior experience on the challenging gravel course. Both Murphy and Inghilbert suffered broken ribs in the crash, and it seemed unlikely that either driver would be ready to start a race in less than a week.

Duesenberg 183

Guyot during the race. Public domain image.

Murphy soon checked himself out of the local hospital and, ribs taped, climbed back aboard the number 12 car with riding mechanic Ernie Olson. Inghilbert, who’d suffered more serious injuries in the crash, relinquished his seat in the number 17 car to driver Andre Dubonnet, and the remaining team cars were piloted by Joe Boyer (#16) and Albert Guyot (#6).

Unlike today’s F1 standing starts, the cars were released two by two, in 30 second intervals. Position was determined by elapsed time instead of track placement, and at the end of the first lap Murphy’s Duesenberg was scored in first, followed by Boyer. Boyer soon took the lead, but on lap 17 of 30, his engine let go.

That gave the lead back to Murphy, who also managed to set the race’s fastest lap despite his painful injuries and a punctured radiator. When the checkered flag waved after 30 laps, American driver Murphy was the first across the finish line, followed, 15 minutes later, by the Ballot of Italy’s Italian-born Ralph DePalma. Next was French driver Jules Goux, also behind the wheel of a Ballot, who finished six minutes behind DePalma. Dubonnet finished fourth in his number 17 Duesenberg, and Guyot, in the number 6 Duesenberg, finished in sixth place.

An American team, driving an American car, with an American driver behind the wheel, had captured victory in the first postwar European Grand Prix, much to the chagrin of the French. The post-race banquet should have been cause for celebration, but when the champagne was uncorked it was French driver Goux who was toasted for his skill and bravery during the event, and not Murphy or even DePalma. Disgusted, Murphy and his Duesenberg teammates left the awards banquet before dinner was served.

All four team cars were returned to the United States, and Murphy reportedly purchased his Duesenberg to run in the 1922 Indianapolis 500. After swapping the Duesenberg eight-cylinder for a more competitive Miller, he became the first driver to win the race from the pole position. The following year, 1923, riding mechanics were made optional at the Indianapolis 500, effectively ending the era of two-seat race cars.

Murphy’s Duesenberg was badly damaged in a 1923 crash at Beverly Hills, but in the 1950s it was reportedly found on a Hollywood studio backlot by Murphy’s former riding mechanic, Ernie Olson. Olson rebuilt the car, returning it to its as-raced in 1921 appearance before selling it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. While the car does contain parts of the original, today it is best described as a tribute to the Duesenberg that Murphy drove to victory at Le Mans.

That left the Joe Boyer car, number 16, as the sole known and documented survivor. Today this resides in Philadelphia’s Simeone Automotive Foundation Museum, restored to its pre-French Grand Prix appearance and resplendent in its white with blue American racing colors.

When news of another car surfaced, purchased by Rob Kauffman at RK Motors, we turned to Evan Ide, a senior specialist for Bonhams Auctions and owner of Historic Vehicle Services in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, for details. Evan helped to research the car, verifying its authenticity prior to the sale. While the Duesenberg 183s lacked frame numbers, there are certain distinguishing characteristics that set these cars aside from other Duesenbergs. A marque expert would know to look at the placement of bolt holes and frame crossmembers, but the most distinctive characteristic is the hydraulic front brake assembly used on the four Grand Prix Duesenbergs.

Each of these cars used a unique front axle which ran the brake plumbing though it instead of across it. In addition, the Duesenbergs used solid metal tubing instead of flexible rubber brake hoses, and only the Simeone car currently shows this setup. The Simeone car, and the one recently purchased by Kauffman.

There are other clues as well, including documentation from long time owners. Purchased by tire dealer and racer Ed Kaster, the car was actively campaigned in California throughout the 1920s. In 1930, the car’s original engine threw a connecting rod, and was replaced by a later Duesenberg Model A engine. The seller had the original racing engine, and its carburetors differed in serial numbers by a single digit. While such details could conceivably be faked, the question is why? Though historically significant, it’s unlikely this Duesenberg will ever cross an auction block as a big-money lot.

As Evan told us, the car was also written about extensively in a 1964 Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club newsletter, with its history well-documented. It isn’t so much that the car was lost for the past nine-plus decades, it’s more like it was hidden in plain sight.

As with the restoration of its 1966 Le Mans-winning Ford GT40, RK Motors is planning regular updates on its newly rediscovered Duesenberg 183. We’ll update our readers with additional images and video as it becomes available.

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