A historical marker near his hometown fascinated Ray Wotkowski and started him on a quest to learn more.
Planted along U.S. 30 in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the sign reads; “Frederick S. Duesenberg 1876-1932: Near this site on July 2, 1932, the builder of Duesenberg luxury automobiles was seriously injured when his supercharged Model J crashed into the mountainside. He died on July 26 at Memorial Hospital in Johnstown.”
Wotkowski suspected the message was misleading, if not dead wrong.
Through dogged detective work, Wotkowski has revealed the truth in an article published this spring in The Classic Car magazine.
Last weekend, on his first visit to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival that celebrates the cars built by Fred Duesenberg and his brother, Augie, Wotkowski was eager to talk about his automotive sleuthing.
Duesenberg did, indeed, die in Johnstown, where Wotkowski lives. The day afterward, a New York Times headline reported: “F.S. Duesenberg dies of auto injury.”
Inaccuracies such as that headline have persisted for decades, Wotkowski said, as he stood beside his handsome 1958 Studebaker Silver Hawk in downtown Auburn.
A former school principal and industrial arts teacher — and a “crazy car guy” — Wotkowski set out to dispel the myths. He chased down descendants of men who were riding with Duesenberg in the car, who towed it from the scene and took it on unauthorized joyrides — and original documents about the highway incident.
On that fateful day 89 years ago, Duesenberg started his journey in Wayne, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. He was driving a supercharged 1929 Duesenberg convertible that belonged to a Syracuse, New York, customer. Duesenberg was taking it back to the Indianapolis factory for adjustments.
Duesenberg headed west across the Lincoln Highway, today designated as U.S. 30. Before the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it provided the best route — although with only two lanes, steep grades and sharp bends — over the Appalachian Mountains.
Nearly 200 miles into his trip, Duesenberg stopped in the small town of Schellsburg, where he picked up a hitchhiking college student from Chicago, Frank Peacock, then agreed to give a ride to Peacock’s traveling companion, Gordon Langley.
The trio continued west on a stretch of road Wotkowski has driven often, over the summit of the Allegheny Mountains — at 2,800 feet — and on to the Laurel Mountains east of Pittsburgh.
While traveling down the west side of the Laurel Mountains, Duesenberg saw a car in his lane that was passing another car in a curve.
Duesenberg braked hard, and his car went into a clockwise spin. It threw Duesenberg and Langley, who was riding in the rumble seat, onto the roadway. Langley “landed on all fours,” Wotkowski wrote. Duesenberg, “landed awkwardly, injuring his ribs, dislocating his shoulder and bruising his spine.”
The car struck the mountainside lightly and stopped, Wotkowsi wrote. Peacock, in the passenger seat, hit his head on the windshield frame, which knocked him unconscious for a moment.
Duesenberg was able to check on the condition of his passengers. A state patrolman arrived, and only then did the young men learn they were riding with the famous creator of the car that had been carrying them.
Rescuers took the hitchhikers to the nearby Ligonier hospital and transported Duesenberg about 25 miles to the larger Johnstown hospital.
From his hospital bed, Duesenberg wrote a letter to his wife, telling her he was fine and would be home in a couple of days. He had no broken bones, he wrote, and the car was “not damaged much.”
The automotive genius turned out to be sadly over-optimistic about his recovery. He had suffered pneumonia seven times previously, and his hospital stay led to an eighth bout, which his death certificate would list as the cause of his demise on July 26 at age 55.
Duesenberg also had minimized his injuries, which are listed in the certificate as two broken ribs, a fracture of the left scapula and spinal injuries.
However, Wotkowski wrote, “Despite the sensational reporting of the period, the car had never turned over, never hit another car and had remained on the roadway.”
Ted Brant, not quite 20 years old at the time, towed the car back to a garage he operated near Jennersville, just west of the crash site, and held it until Duesenberg factory employees could pick it up after the July 4 holiday.
To make the powerful, expensive car roadworthy again, Brant needed only to replace a tire and straighten its left-front tie rod. Then he couldn’t resist temptation. On both July 3 and 4, Brant drove it to a nearby restaurant for people to admire. He also allowed 18-year-old Eugene Walter to take it for a spin up the mountain.
When Duesenberg representatives arrived the following week, they were able to drive the repaired car back to Indianapolis.
A half-century passed, and Gordon Buehrig, designer of classic auto bodies for Duesenbergs, Auburns and Cords, was giving a speech in Arizona. He mentioned the circumstances of Fred Duesenberg’s death.
Perhaps curious to learn more about the car involved in his brush with history, Peacock had come to listen. Afterward, he approached Buehrig and shared his account of what really occurred on that mountain in 1932. That led Buehrig to write an article entitled “How it Really Happened” for the September 1981 issue of The Classic Car. But he did not delve as deeply as Wotkowski would four decades later.
In his pursuit of the smallest details, Wotkowski tracked down the sons of Eugene Walter, who had heard their father’s stories about driving the damaged Duesenberg.
For their father’s 90th birthday, Walter’s sons had planned something special. The staff at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum helped them find car collector Robert Friggens of New Mexico, who owned that Duesenberg from 1972 until 2008.
In the fall of 2003, Friggins generously agreed to stop at Jennerstown on his way to the annual classic car show in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He drove Walter and his two sons to the crash site, where they took a photo that Wotkowski shares with his magazine article.
That crash scene, by the way, is 2 miles from the sign that supposedly marks the spot, Wotkowski said.
As for the car’s fate, Friggens sold it in 2008. Wotkowski said he’s been told it now is somewhere in Germany.
Wotkowski pledges that he’ll continue investigating the story of Duesenberg’s death, and if nothing else, he hopes to convince someone to fix the story on that inaccurate sign.