The Castle Duesenberg: One historic car that elevated two family legacies
Samuel Northrup Castle was a large man with deep pockets, a huge heart for Hawaii, and big plans for the big island. With a love of automobiles and plenty of means to acquire them, the savvy industrialist was looking for the very best car that money could buy. No one built bigger or better cars in the 1920s than Indiana brothers Fred and Augie Duesenberg.
Appropriately enough—considering the Castle family had amassed wealth and influence on the island with business holdings in everything from rapid transit and gas to sugar—Samuel Northrup Castle was ahead of the curve when he became the proud owner of a 1921 Duesenberg Straight Eight. The very first Duesenberg Straight Eight, in fact.
That gorgeous automobile now resides in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, a gift from the Castle family, which owned it for a century. Recently, the Duesenberg became the 27th member of the National Historic Vehicle Register, which was created in collaboration with the U.S. Department of the Interior to recognize and document the country’s most historically significant automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, and commercial vehicles.
Brandon Anderson, executive director and CEO of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, says the Castle Duesenberg certainly earned its place on the list.
“This is a unique story,” Anderson says in a documentary video, The Castle Duesenberg: Luxury Legend, released by the Historic Vehicle Association. “This isn’t passing down your grandmother’s china. It is the first-ever passenger Duesenberg sold to the public … It’s the epitome of luxury. It’s the finest of the fine. It’s a Duesey.”
Fred and Augie Duesenberg had already made a name for themselves in the racing community when they decided to start building passenger cars in the late 1910s. The 1921 Duesenberg Straight Eight Coupe—later referred to as the Model A—was the very first.
Castle placed his order in 1919, but Fred Duesenberg, ever the perfectionist, spent so much time perfecting the car’s single-overhead-cam eight-cylinder engine that actual production was delayed for nearly two years. As with other luxury car buyers of the day, Castle purchased the chassis, engine, and suspension from Duesenberg and then sent the car to a custom coachbuilder.
Anderson says the Duesenberg brothers “created a product that no one else could create,” and that kind of exclusivity came with a hefty price tag. He says a Duesenberg “cost about $7000, when at that time you could buy a Model T for about $450.” Including the coachwork, the price could rise to as much as $13,000. That’s about $189,000 today.
Because Castle stood 7 feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds, Bender Body Company of Cleveland had to make accommodations for his large frame, which made the car even more unusual.
“The pedals are very far back. The way it sits, the center of the vehicle is very tall,” Anderson says. “It has a look about it that really distinguishes it from other vehicles, especially other Duesenbergs. It’s a very beautiful vehicle—very understated elegance.
“That sweeping rear with the trunk, the high-level windows, and the unique front of the body … all together, composed as one package … it’s unmistakable. There’s no other body like that.”
The Straight Eight was also the first passenger vehicle with four-wheel hydraulic brakes.
The HVA documentary delves further into Duesenberg’s history beyond the Castle car, telling the story of the automaker’s rise (including E.L. Cord’s involvement and Duesenberg’s best-known model, the Model J and later, the SJ and SSJ) and the company’s eventual fall in 1937.
The Great Depression took its toll, and it’s easy to see why. The automaker was up front about its clientele, which did not include the common man. “Those (people) actually buying these cars would have been politicians, royalty—kings, queens, princesses, princes—(and) some of the more higher-paid Hollywood elite,” says Sam Grate, curator at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum. “Duesenbergs weren’t built for the 1 percent, they were built for the .1 percent.”
Samuel Northrup Castle died of a heart ailment on February 10, 1959, four days after his 79th birthday. Ownership of the Duesenberg Straight Eight was transferred to Castle’s nephew James Christian Castle, and when James died in 1994, the car went to his son, James Jr. (Jimmy), and his wife CyrAnn. By then, it had been placed in storage and was no longer driven.
CyrAnn Castle, an experience equestrian, discovered it in a barn while riding on the family property, although she didn’t know what “it” was.
“Is that a tractor all covered up in there?” she asked Jimmy.
“No, it’s the family Duesenberg.”
CyrAnn immediately answered, “That has to come out of there.”
Beginning in 2010, the car underwent a five-year, 10,000-hour body-off restoration to return it to its former glory, a meticulous process that included the use of period-correct tools and processes. It retains most of its original components. “Every part of the process was really well thought out,” Anderson says. “This was not just a restoration to bring it up to current standards, this was a preservation project and restoration project to bring it back to its delivery to Mr. Castle.”
The tedious work paid off, Anderson says. “If you take that vehicle and you marry it to the original 1921 photo, they are identical. It looks like it just walked out of that photo.”
After showing the Duesenberg occasionally over several years, the Castle family decided to donate the car to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, where it could be enjoyed by the public.
“There are so many things I love about the car,” Anderson says. “I think it’s what it represents—it’s a family legacy. And being able to tell that story … I’m honored, I’m blessed, because it is so significant.”
Says Grate, “The car left a legacy of telling what a car could be. You could aspire to have the biggest, the greatest, and the fastest … Not only do you have something that’s long and fast and powerful, but you have something that can be elegantly styled—(look) beautiful down the road. Even today, people are inspired by the look and design of Duesenbergs.”
And it all began with this one.