Gary Cooper's Duesenberg SSJ: World's fastest pre-WW2 road car expected to smash auction records
Many great cars have been built across the world in the last 120 years, but the Duesenberg Special Speedster Model J going to auction with Gooding & Company on August 25, 2018, is arguably the most important road car produced by the American auto industry, which dominated the century of the automobile.
Only two were made, this car going to 1930s silver screen idol Gary Cooper (inset in main image) and the second going to another all-time-great movie star Clark Gable.
After a six month promotional period with his SSJ, Cooper purchased this car, which was one of several Duesenbergs he owned during the 1930s. Cooper, who had begun his career in silent films and transitioned successfully to talkies, had an enduring acting career that eventually spanned 35 years.
Cooper starred in more than 80 movies and won two "Best Actor" Oscars for High Noon and Sergeant York, with a further three nominations for the ultimate personal screen award, most notably for the cinema classic, For Whom The Bell Tolls.
If being owned by two-time Academy Award Best Actor winner Gary Cooper isn't enough, the SSJ's subsequent custodianship is equally as exclusive and spectacular, as it has been owned by just two people since 1949: racer, car manufacturer and victorious America's Cup (yachting) skipper Briggs Cunningham (pictured above on the cover of Time magazine and with wife Laura and the SSJ in 1966); and Miles Collier, whose Collection ("a purposefully curated assemblage of the most profound and rare automotive innovations of our time") became the foundation of the REVS Institute. This car was part of that collection.
The auction records the Duesenberg SSJ could break
With a provenance of such significance, SSJ #2594 will almost certainly vault straight into the auction records if it sells at Gooding & Co's official Pebble Beach Auction, and with an official estimate of "in excess of US$10,000,000," there's every reason to believe it will surpass the implicit eight figure reserve price, and perhaps more than double that figure.
The first record likely to be broken is that of the most valuable Duesenberg ever sold, currently held by a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Long-Wheelbase Coupe which sold for $10,340,000 by Gooding & Co at Pebble Beach in 2011 (pictured above). That particular Duesenberg Model J was designed by Murphy under the direction of one of America's outlandish "Roaring Twenties" bad boys, Captain George Whittell Jr. Boasting just 12,000 original miles, the "Duesy" was originally purchased for $17,000 at a time when the average American doctor earned $3,000 a year.
The record for the most valuable American car ever sold at auction is also under threat, with the SSJ needing to exceed the $13,750,000 fetched by the very first Shelby Cobra (CSX2000, owned by Carroll Shelby and his estate for its lifetime) in Monterey in 2016, and the 1968 Gulf/Mirage Ford GT40 (inset) which sold for $11.0 million at Monterey in 2012. The GT40 was successfully raced in period by Jacky Ickx, Dr. Dick Thompson, Brian Redman and Mike Hailwood and was used in making the most famous car racing movie of all-time, Steve McQueen's Le Mans.
If the SSJ bids to $20 million, which is very possible, it will also take the record for the most valuable pre-WW2 car ever to sell at auction. That record was set at RM-Sotheby's Monterey auction in 2016, when a 1939Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Spider sold for $19,800,000. This was the ultimate Italian sports car of its generation, one of 12 extant Alfa Romeo Touring Spiders and the only "Immortal 2.9" to be offered at public auction this century.
If the SSJ price passes $20 million, it will join a very select group of cars indeed. In the history of automotive auctions, only eight cars have ever sold for more than $20 million. The Ferrari 250 GTO going to auction in Monterey will probably become the ninth, and if this car sells for what it is undoubtedly worth next weekend, the list will probably number 10 cars a week from now.
The fastest production road car in the world
We'll get back to the celebrity ownership of Duesenberg Model J/SJ and SSJ later in this article, because it's just too easy to focus on the Duesenberg's provenance and obscure just what an engineering milestone this particular car is.
Only two units were produced of the SSJ, and they were powered by a supercharged 7-liter (420 cu in) DOHC eight cylinder engine producing 400 hp (298 kw) at 5,000 rpm.
One other car was produced using the same 400 hp engine, and it was dubbed the Mormon Meteor, and was a streamlined long wheelbase Model J designed for speed attempts. The Mormon Meteor was sold at Gooding's Pebble Beach auction in 2004 for $4,252,500, making it one of the fifth most expensive cars ever sold at auction at that time. It sold for such an extraordinary amount because it was easily the world's fastest car at the time, and it proved it comprehensively.
Just how fast the SSJ could be in the right circumstances is conjecture because the two showcase SSJs were never tested, but on August 31, 1935, the Mormon Meteor covered 3,253 miles in 24 hours at Bonneville, stopping every 400 miles for fuel and tires. That equates to a 24-hour average speed of 135.47 mph and was a world record at the time, as was driver David Abbott "Ab" Jenkins' best one hour speed of 153.97 mph. Remember that is an average speed, so the Meteor topped out well above 160 mph. The car's peculiar nickname derived from its devoutly religious Mormon driver, who led an austere life, and famously never smoked or drank alcohol.
Given that the Duesenberg SSJ used an almost identical engine to the Mormon Meteor, this car going to auction was unquestionably the fastest production car in the world prior to WW2 and for some considerable time after WW2. See our recent feature The fastest cars in history: 1946 to now to get an idea of just how far ahead of its time the SSJ really was.
A brief history of the Duesenberg Model J, SJ and the SSJ
Duesenberg Motor Company began in 1913, and had several successful models in the Model A and Model X prior to the legendary Model J of 1928. Duesenberg also raced very successfully, winning both of the world's most important races, being the French Grand Prix in 1921, and the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925, and 1927.
In 1926, the company was purchased by wunderkind Errett Lobban "E. L." Cord and preparations began for the Model J, a car that Cord's stated objective was "to be the best in the world."
The Duesenberg Model J was designed from the outset to become "the world's best car" and was announced with great fanfare on December 1, 1928 at the New York Car Show.
It was unfortunate timing, as the launch preceded Black Tuesday by less than a year. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crash which catalyzed the Great Depression occurred. Given that Model Js were retailing for around $15,000, sales dwindled as the world was plunged into an unprecedented economic upheaval.
Despite the company becoming a victim of economic circumstance, be of no doubt that the Duesenberg Models J, SJ and ultimately the SSJ are the most desirable American classic automobiles, with their exemplary performance, coachwork and celebrity ownership.
Duesenberg owner and automotive industry giant E. L. Cord was a man who had reason to believe in his abilities. When Cord assembled his empire under the banner of the Cord Corporation in 1929, he was just 37 years of age, and already controlled 150 companies, including Auburn, Duesenberg and Cord automobiles, Lycoming Engines, New York Shipbuilding, Checker Cab, Stinson Aircraft Company and American Airways (now American Airlines). He is one of very few people in history to have twice made the cover of Time magazine.
Rather than cutting back with the Great Depression biting, Cord doubled down by releasing an even higher specification supercharged 320 hp (239 kW) supercharged "SJ" model in 1932. It ended sadly, as the business climate was not conducive to sales of outrageously extravagant automobiles, and in May 1935, production of the Model J was discontinued as the austere economic climate caused the Cord empire to begin crumbling. Instead of the 500 Model J units a year that had been forecast, just 428 Model Js had been sold in more than eight years, and 22 cars were still unsold.
Duesenberg's masterful brand positioning
The above sampling of Duesenberg Model J advertising of the period makes for fascinating investigation. Unique Cars and Parts has gathered together Duesenberg Model J advertising by year from 1927 through 1935 and it shows considerable innovation and understanding of brand development at the outset of the black art of targeted communication, moving from the initial advertising which focused on the exclusivity and customization available to Model J clients (above left), through to sophisticated brand positioning. The 1935 campaign (the four images at above right) which ran in elite audience magazines such as Vogue, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, Forbes and Vanity Fair was one of the first advertising campaigns that did not show the product, becoming one of the first advertising campaigns to adopt the now well-worn advertising agency adage of "selling the sizzle, not the sausage."
Becoming the ultimate status symbol
The Great Depression severely depleted the number of people who could afford a Duesenberg Model J, which served to further heighten the status of those who could afford to spend more than 10 times the average annual wage on a car.
At the pinnacle of society, a Duesenberg Model J had become a powerful status symbol partly due to clever Duesenberg advertising targeting the wealthy elite and partly due to E.L. Cord's immense influence in Hollywood. This was a time before television, and indeed, the movie theaters that had sprung up in every town across the world were still transitioning from silent movies to "talkies." Radio was becoming the second mass communication medium behind newspapers, but the movies were giving the world its first view of life beyond the horizon and the glamour of Hollywood was intoxicating the masses.
Superstar Clark Gable was already a Duesenberg devotee, well before he was offered a free Duesenberg SSJ for six months for promotional purposes. Indeed, though the car was offered to him $5,000 (approximately one third of its value) at the end of the six months, he turned it down. He already had a Duesenberg Model JN Convertible Coupe, after all.
Gable's star was in the ascendancy, with him winning the best actor academy award in 1935 for It Happened One Night, and though he did not win another best actor academy award, Gable is best known for his lead role in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. In 1996, Steven Spielberg purchased Clark Gable's 1935 Oscar to protect it from commercial exploitation, donating it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts.
Gable's 1935 Duesenberg Model JN Convertible Coupe has a remarkable history, having been central to one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals between Gable and actress Carole Lombard. It was an extra-marital love affair so famous they made a movie about it.
Gable's Model JN Convertible Coupe was the car Gable, a married man, asked her to go for a drive in when she delivered the famous line, "Who do you think you are? Clark Gable?" The car went to auction at Pebble Beach in 2012, with bidding reaching $6.4 million but failing to meet reserve.
Beyond the two superstars given promotional usage of the two SSJ Duesenbergs, the number of notable screen idols who drove Duesenbergs was however, overwhelmingly disproportionate, and it is hard to believe that E.L. Cord wasn't behind many of the deals that were done to entice the idols of the depression into his cars.
Leading ladies by the score
The main image above was taken at the workshop of Merlyn "Joe" Kaufmann in Manitowac, Wisconsin circa 1962. Kaufmann restored Duesenbergs and handled around 65-75 of them over the years. The three cars above had all belonged to movie stars (each pictured below their respective cars) and the Greta Garbo car at left was the most expensive car ever to sell at auction in 1972 when it fetched $90,000 at a Kruse International auction. In 1987, during the first collectible car boom, Kruse sold it a second time, for $1.4 million. Marion Davies' Duesenberg is often attributed to the ownership of press mogul William Randolph Hearst but Davies was his mistress and Hearst showered her with gifts, the Duesenberg being one of them. Between her career and Hearst's patronage, when Davies died in 1961, she owned three New York skyscrapers, The Desert Inn in Palm Springs, and an estate in Beverly Hills. Clara Bow, who became known as "the It girl," was the leading actress of the 1920s and "came to personify the Roaring Twenties".
Given the Duesenberg Model J cost more than a decade of the average wage during a period when hundreds of thousands of American families were being evicted from their homes due to foreclosure, unemployment rates had reached 25 percent and those who were employed were earning less every week, there's nary a Duesenberg Model J without a good story attached because only remarkable people purchased them. We have added 20 of the more remarkable Duesenbergs to the image gallery with links to their spectacular provenance in the captions. They all make great reading.
The following are just a few of the Duesenbergs Model J and SJ cars and the people that owned them. There are many more in the image archive for this story.
"Is that a gun in your pocket ..."
One of the most controversial public figures in history was actress, writer and comedienne Mae West. West was a master of the one liner and double entendre, which led to constant issues with censorship and further added to her fame. Her list of quotable quotes is worth looking up, because it is almost endless in number, all creative and funny: "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better"; "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before"; "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted"; and "Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often."
Though she didn't drive, West noted in her biography, entitled Goodness had nothing to do with it, "I did enjoy, every once in a while, buying a nice car for someone else to drive me around in."
West was at the height of a career, which ultimately spanned seven decades, at the time the Model J was new, and she was the undoubted sex symbol of the era, so it isn't surprising that she would be a Duesenberg aficianado. She didn't do anything by half measures.
At top left above is a 1935 Duesenberg Model SJ Town Car by Bohman & Schwartz originally created by J. Herbert Newport (who also styled the SSJ) for Mae West in 1934. The actress declined the design on the basis of either cost or impatience for its creation, depending upon whom you ask. The design was finally built for Ethel V. Mars, who announced her appointment as CEO of the Mars Candy Company by purchasing the car on a factory-supercharged, 320 hp SJ chassis. The car has sold twice at auction in recent times, fetching $3,630,000 and $4,400,000 respectively.
Instead of the rather sedate town car, West opted for the Bohman & Schwartz-bodied 1934 Duesenberg J-370 convertible coupe at bottom left above.
Other leading actors who owned Duesenberg Model J or SJ cars during this period include Errol Flynn, Laure Jarny, Joe E. Brown, James Cagney and another high profile leading man, Tyrone Power, pictured with his 1930 Duesenberg Model J Torpedo Berline Convertible. The car went to auction a few years back and attracted a high bid of $1.4 million, failing to meet reserve.
Eccentric genius Howard Hughes started as a movie producer, won an Academy Award for Best Producer, then built an empire in the aviation industry. Hughes owned several Duesenbergs along the way. The Model J above began life as a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Tourster by Derham (one of eight built), but was converted by Hughes into a powerful purpose-built automobile for his gliders. It subsequently passed through the collections of Otis Chandler and John McMullen after being restored to its initial glory. It sold for $825,000 at auction.
Beyond the entertainment celebrities who helped to publicize the Duesenberg Models J and SJ were the rich and powerful. Banker and collector of extraordinary automobiles Harry Yeaggy now owns the above 1929 Duesenberg J/SJ Convertible, which he showed at Amelia Island this year, taking home the Best in Show Concours d'Elegance Trophy for his trouble. The Duesenberg J/SJ Convertible has Murphy coachwork restyled in period by Bohman & Schwartz, and it was purchased new by Edward Beale McLean, the then publisher of The Washington Post, husband of famous socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean (both pictured) and the last private individual who purchased the famously "cursed" 45-carat (9.0 g) Hope Diamond. He died in a mental institution a decade later, but the symbol of the power he once wielded in the nation's capital survived. As a side note, Harry Yeaggy's extensive collection includes James Bond's famous Aston Martin DB5 (#8 on our all-time list of most expensive movie cars), the $11,000,000 Ford GT40 (#32 on our all-time list of most expensive cars and #3 on our all-time list of most expensive movie cars) which was once the most expensive American-made automobile, and the aforementioned Mormon Meteor.
Provenance has always been a key factor in auction values, but the last decade has seen it become increasingly important for cars including movies or major entertainment celebrities in their résumé. Logically, the celebrity factor is only relevant to the audience of car buyers, so the star qualities of Gary Cooper which were once extremely powerful, may be a little past their use-by date, but maybe not.
Yet another factor with this car is that it was built prior to WW2, and pre-WW2 cars sell for significantly less than post-WW2 cars. Just 22 percent of the top 200 most valuable cars sold at auction were built prior to WW2.
In the car's favor is that it was almost certainly the fastest production car of the pre-war era, and the fastest road car of any era will always do well at auction. This was the fastest road car in the world for two decades.
Beyond that, this is the ultimate Duesenberg among the 378 known to survive, with an impeccable provenance and is very likely to sell well above $10 million, because those who can afford discretionary expenditure of that magnitude on a car are generally aficionados of the highest order. Watching this car sell will be well worthwhile. It will be webcast from the Gooding & Co web site with the entertaining Charlie Ross presiding, and we expect this lot to come under the hammer around 7 pm on Friday August 24, 2018.
Source: Gooding & Company
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So things haven't changed that much in 85 years? Except now these amazing cars are going for more like a couple centuries worth of the average wage.