Duesenberg’s SJ models were noted for the performance of their 320-horsepower supercharged straight-eight engines, but the sportiest of the SJ models was the super-short-wheelbase variant dubbed “SSJ” by enthusiasts (but never Duesenberg itself). Just two were built, primarily for publicity purposes, and next month Gooding & Company will offer the 1935 Duesenberg SSJ roadster once owned by actor Gary Cooper as part of its 2018 Pebble Beach sale.
Chassis 2594, equipped with engine J-563, was reportedly sold to Cooper at manufactured cost to promote Duesenberg’s sporting image among blue-chip celebrities. Stories vary on the second SSJ model, long associated with actor Clark Gable, a friend of Cooper’s and a fellow motoring enthusiast. Some state that Gable purchased his SSJ first, prompting his friend Cooper to order a similar – but more powerful – example. Other accountings say that Gable never owned the second SSJ – engine J-567 – at all, but instead was given use of the car at no charge. The most wonderous of all tales, and one we sincerely hope is true, says that Cooper and Gable, in their SSJs and accompanied by Harpo Marx in his Mercedes-Benz SSK, frequently drove the canyon roads north of Hollywood with a degree of enthusiasm generally frowned upon by law enforcement.
Duesenberg J models were generally available in two wheelbase lengths – 142.5 inches or 153.5 inches – while factory-built SJs (excluding cars later modified by owners) typically rode on the shorter chassis. The SSJs were built upon an even shorter frame, one that measured just 125 inches from axle to axle and was reportedly crafted from an existing 142.5-inch chassis. Roadster bodies for both SSJs were styled by Herb Newport and built by La Grande, and J-563, the car to be offered in Pebble Beach, came powered by a twin-Schebler-carburetor-fed version of the supercharged 448-cubic inch straight eight, said to be good for 400 horsepower. Top speed of the car was claimed to be 140 mph, but was electronically measured at 126.6 mph at Muroc Dry Lake in California. With a curb weight of 5,080 pounds and a massive vertical grille disrupting airflow, even the latter number is more than slightly impressive.
It’s not clear how long Cooper held onto J-563, but the car passed through a string of owners before being acquired by collector and automotive historian D. Cameron Peck in 1949. Its next owner of record was sportsman, racer and car-builder Briggs Swift Cunningham, and the SSJ was a beloved feature in his Costa Mesa, California, museum, which opened in 1966 and closed at the end of 1986. Miles Collier purchased the collection from Cunningham, including the SSJ, and the car has long been exhibited as part of the Collier Collection and now, The Revs Institute.
The Duesenberg SSJ has ties to Hemmings as well, as it was featured in issue 100 of Special Interest Autos, published in August 1987. Regular contributor Arch Brown was fortunate enough to drive the Duesey, newly acquired by Miles Collier, though he admits that, “We didn’t’ run the SSJ fast enough to really get the benefit of the supercharger. Wouldn’t want to take the responsibility for opening up such a valuable car, especially when it’s more than half a century old.”
That said, Arch did remark on the car’s heavy clutch and steering, which required considerably more effort than even the largest Packards of the day. In keeping with the car’s sporting nature, its suspension was stiff, leading to impressively flat cornering, but perhaps at the expense of occupant comfort. Arch felt the engine made more horsepower than torque, requiring it to be spun up to produce reasonable acceleration, but praised the smooth shifting of its non-synchronized transmission. As for the turning circle, even the car’s short wheelbase didn’t help, with the SSJ requiring 47.5 feet (more than the width of the average four-lane road) to cut a 180-degree turn.
The car’s braking system, which combined hydraulics with a vacuum assist, was described as “far superior to the typical binders of 50-odd years ago.” John Burgess, then the retired director-manager of the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum, elaborated further, saying, “Duesenbergs had by far the best brakes of anybody in the world, probably, at that time.” The secret was a hydraulic system that used a variable orifice, controlled by a lever mounted beneath the dash. For maximum braking on warm and dry roads, the lever could be set to “Boost” to provide the shortest stopping distance. On wet roads, however, this setting would lock the wheels, requiring the driver to select “Rain” mode, which delivered less hydraulic pressure. For slippery surfaces, such as ice or mud, the brakes could be further dialed back to prevent the wheels from locking.
Burgess recalls the car needing attention when acquired by the museum, with much of the bodywork, fabrication and repair carried out in-house. The supercharged engine, however, was entrusted to Jim Hoe, who bored the cylinders an extra one-eighth inch and bumped compression to 8.1:1, while also tightening up the clearances on the car’s centrifugal supercharger (another reason, perhaps, that Arch wasn’t willing to press his luck testing the SSJ’s performance). In this tune – reportedly the same as Ab Jenkins used on the Mormon Meteor – Burgess believed it made an honest 400 horsepower, though the car was not tested on a dynamometer.
Cooper’s SSJ was originally finished in a two-tone shade of beige, and based upon documentation from Duesenberg’s archives, the museum was prepared to return the car to its original livery. Further research, including a call to Cooper’s widow Veronica (or “Rocky,” as she was known), revealed the reason for its current – and long-term – two-tone grey hue. It was Rocky who advised her husband that “she wouldn’t be caught dead in a beige car,” prompting the movie star to have the car painted in its current scheme shortly after taking delivery.
The Collier Collection isn’t known for selling its assets, particularly one as high-profile as this Duesenberg, but Miles Collier is now envisioning a larger mission than even The Revs Institute. In his own words,
Believe me, it is not easy to part with this wonderful car. It symbolizes so much in our history, and has so much glamour and speed. But my mission is bigger than just one car. In today’s world, the automobile’s continued ability to be meaningful is under threat. Will the personal car be part of people’s lives in the future? Will people understand and remember that the automobile is the most important invention of our age? That it shaped the world as we know it? I want to ensure the legacy of skills, appreciation and care for the importance of motorcars is not lost.
Thus, proceeds from the car’s sale will be used to support Collier’s ongoing and expanding efforts towards preserving automotive history and culture. Gooding and Company isn’t giving a precise pre-auction estimate, only stating that the car is expected to command “in excess of $10 million” when it crosses the auction stage in late August. Its next owner, then, will have the satisfaction of owning a part of automotive history, coupled with the knowledge that his investment was a contribution towards the future of the collector car hobby.
Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach sale takes place on August 24 – 25 at the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center in Pebble Beach, California. For additional details, visit GoodingCo.com.