July 2, 1932 was the beginning of the end for a legend in the automotive industry.
On this day, Frederick Duesenberg, a German immigrant who helped create the early 20th century line of luxury cars, was involved in a shipwreck along the Lincoln Highway – modern day Route 30 – in the county of Somerset. This resulted in a trip to the hospital from which the 55-year-old Indianapolis man never returned.
Sixty-seven years later, the Latrobe-based western Pennsylvania region Antique Automobile Club of America installed a plaque near the crash site – about four miles west of Jennerstown – to honor Duesenberg and keep alive the knowledge of the tragic event.
This road sign is now gone. The club has appealed for help to find him.
“Over the years there have been many times the sign has been knocked down and re-erected by area club members,” said Mars area club member Alan Terek.
In October, he was apparently overthrown again. But this time, Terek said, the club was unable to determine where the plaque is.
“We checked with local and state road service employees to see if they had the plate, but to no avail,” he said.
Terek said an unspecified reward is being offered for returning the cast metal plaque, which is white with black lettering. “No questions asked,” he said.
According to a article by Elisabeth M. Marsh, published by the German Historical Institute and posted on immigrantentrepreneurship.orgafter his father’s death, Duesenberg’s family immigrated to Iowa in 1885.
Early in his career, Fred Duesenberg moved from repairing farm equipment to building, selling and racing bicycles. He worked in the first auto repair garage in Des Moines and then opened his own garage with an associate.
After taking a correspondence course in mechanical drawing, he began designing his own automobiles, producing his first car with his younger brother, Augie, in 1905.
Working on more powerful engines, the brothers found themselves in Indianapolis and created race cars that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927. By the early 1930s they were also producing custom luxury cars including the price could reach $20,000. Hollywood stars who drove them included Clark Gable and Cary Grant.
The cars were produced in limited numbers. “The Duesenberg was a status symbol,” Terek said, noting that many cars today sell for over $1 million.
In early July 1932, Duesenberg was returning to Indianapolis in a supercharged convertible belonging to a New York State customer when he was wrecked just west of Jennerstown.
Ray Wotkowski, a retired high school principal and vintage car collector who lives in Sidman, Cambria County, researched the wreckage and the circumstances of Duesenberg’s death. Editor of the club publication Keystone Packards, he gave presentations and wrote about the accident.
According to Wotkowski, Duesenberg had picked up two college students who were hitchhiking and driving down the west side of Laurel Mountain when he reacted to an oncoming car that moved into his lane as it passed another vehicle in climb.
The convertible spun and crashed, throwing Duesenberg and one of the students from the car. Wotkowski learned the students were treated at a small hospital in Ligonier while Duesenberg was taken to a hospital in Johnstown for treatment of more complex injuries – including multiple broken bones.
“In a letter Fred wrote to his wife the day after the accident, he said doctors expected him to be out of hospital in three or four days,” Wotkowski said. Duesenberg developed pneumonia, an illness he had battled many times before.
“There were no antibiotics back then,” Wotkowski said. “The numerous bouts of pneumonia diminished Fred’s ability to recover and his heart finally gave out at 7.35am on July 26.”
Anyone with information on the location of the sign is asked to contact Terek at [email protected] or 724-586-9489.