Clark Gable and Gary Cooper each owned a Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadster during the mid-1930’s.
Both Gable and Cooper were passionate about their motor cars and had the ambition to custom order a Duesenberg Short-Wheelbase Roadster. These custom-built Hoosier-made Duesenbergs were the nation’s most expensive in the range of $15,000 to $18,000. At the time, Duesenberg was the nation’s best engineered and fastest prestige automobile.
Only two of these exotic 1935 Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadsters were built by Duesenberg, Incorporated in Indianapolis. Each automobile was built on a 125-inch wheelbase chassis and equipped with a special, dual-carburetor, dual overhead camshaft, supercharged engine, producing 320 horsepower. Top speed was a claimed 130 in high gear and 104 in second.
Gable’s car was red and silver, while Cooper’s car was a more restrained medium gray and pale gray. The lightweight open-roadster custom bodies were designed by the legendary Duesenberg stylist J. Herbert Newport and built by LaGrande at Central Manufacturing Company in Connersville, Indiana.
Both these Duesenberg roadsters were on view at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in 1998. This was the only time both had appeared together.
These Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadsters are celebrated in the collector car hobby.
Before their move to Indianapolis in 1920, the Duesenberg brothers Fred and August built extremely high quality and advanced engines and automobiles, but were seldom financially successful. Part of their reason for moving to Indianapolis was to return to their racing roots and be near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where they had already enjoyed some success. The speedway also could be used for testing their passenger cars as well as the racers.
Their most famous racer appeared in 1920, a 183 c.i. eight-cylinder engine with single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder. It won the 1921 French Grand Prix. In the 1920’s Duesenberg racing cars were the great rivals of the Millers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and victory was assured in 1924 by the adoption of a cen¬trifugal supercharger. Duesenberg enjoyed repeat victories in 1925 and 1927. It is interesting that the Duesenberg racing operations were not officially supported by the auto production firm. The racing operations were located on the second floor of the Thompson Pattern Shop directly across Washington Street from the factory. The operations were a separate entity headed by August Duesenberg.
The first Duesenberg production car debuted at the end of 1920. This Model A was an extremely expen¬sive, very advanced, luxurious car, which pioneered the use of straight eight-cylinder engines and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. The Model A was produced until 1926. In 1926, Errett Lobban Cord of Auburn, acquired con¬trol of the company. He commissioned Fred Duesenberg, to develop the ultimate motorcar that would outclass all American makes.
The Model J, introduced at the New York Automobile Salon for the 1929 model year, was the most remarkable automobile in America: bigger, faster, more elaborate and more expensive than any other. Its 420 c.i., eight cylinder engine, had dual overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder; a layout of rac¬ing type said to develop 265 bhp at 4,250 rpm. Although the complete car weighed more than 4,980 pounds, it was claimed to be capable of 116 mph in top gear and 89 mph in second.
In 1929, the cost of the long, low-built chassis was $8,500. Duesen¬bergs were very popular with all leading coachbuilders and the com¬pany preferred to sell cars complete with bodies designed by them but made by approved builders (i.e. Murphy, Bohman & Schwartz, Judkins, Derham and LeBaron). In this form, catalogued models cost up to $18,000.
In 1932 a supercharged version of the Model J, the SJ, was added. A maximum speed of 129 mph was given the SJ, with an accelera¬tion figure of 0 100 mph in 17 seconds.
Celebrity buyers included New York Mayor, Jimmy Walker; William Randolph Hearst, Eliza¬beth Arden, Mae West, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. The make survived the Depres¬sion but died in the collapse of the Cord Corporation in 1937. The total Model J production was 480.
Duesenberg’s were the ultimate Indianapolis-built motorcar. Today, we can enjoy them at displays and collections across the country.
For more information on Indiana-built automobiles follow this link.
Indiana once vied for Michigan’s title as the automotive titan of the United States. It was at a time when the names of automobiles like Duesenberg, Stutz and Cord brought worldwide acclaim to the Hoosier state. Indiana’s contributions to automotive history have been numerous. Tilt steering, cruise control and hydraulic brakes are just three examples of the innovations created by Indiana automotive pioneers. Yet the innovators themselves have become nearly forgotten–overlooked as we take their inventions increasing for granted as part of the standard equipment on today’s models.
Indiana’s automotive innovation began with Elwood Haynes’ kitchen experiment on an internal combustion engine in the fall of 1893. Haynes’ research and development led to the demonstration of his “Pioneer” automobile along Pumpkivine Pike, outside Kokomo, on July 4, 1894. Haynes and two passengers traveled at a speed of seven miles an hour and drove about one and one-half miles further into the country. He then turned the auto around, and ran the four miles into town without making a single stop.
“I remember as the “little machine” made its way along the streets we were met by a “bevy” of girls mounted on wheels.,” Haynes noted. “I shall never forget the expression on their faces as they wheeled aside, separating like a flock of swans and gazing wonder-eyed at the uncouth and utterly unexpected “little machine.”
In 1898 the Haynes-Apperson Company was incorporated and auto production was on its way in Indiana.
By the late 1800s Indiana’s plentiful supply of lumber had also lured several industries into its borders, including the makers of carriages and wagons. The automobile industry in the early 1900s was a natural offspring of carriage manufacturers, which could provide not just parts but the skilled labor as well. Five Indiana manufacturers entered commercial automobile production in the late 1890s.
By 1900, The Haynes-Apperson Automobile Company was one of the few firms in the country with annual production exceeding 100 units. In the 1900s, 74 different models were introduced by Indiana manufacturers. These models range from A to Z, with names like Auburn, Cole, InterState, Lambert, Marmon, Maxwell, National, Overland, Premier, Richmond, Studebaker, Waverly, and Zimmerman.
The growth spurt between 1910 and 1920 separated the nation’s auto makers into two groups–the “mass-produced auto giants” and the “craftsmen.” Most of Indiana’s auto makers chose to be “craftsmen” and purchased automotive parts and assembled them by hand. Thus, these companies were small, and many became known for producing high-class and high-priced cars. Nearly every one of the Indiana cars that became well-known were in this category, includ¬ing names like Duesenberg, Cord, Stutz and Cole, appealing to the upper end of the consumer market.
The teens saw the introduction of another 69 Indiana models. Included in this group are Elcar, Empire, Jack Rabbit, Lexington, McIntyre, McFarlan, Monroe, Parry, ReVere, and Stutz.
Until about 1920, there seemed to enough demand for both the “mass-produced” and “high-quality” cars. However, a series of eco¬nomic factors at this time helped contribute to the decline of Hoosier auto making. Price slashing and an expansion-crazed environment trapped Indiana manufacturers in a philosophical battle with the Michigan titans. Hoosiers were ill-prepared for this kind of competition, and most wanted to remain craftsmen choosing to concen¬trate on “higher priced” vehicles instead of diversifying. Plus, the economic recession in the early 1920s added more financial burdens on the population, which became increasingly interested in the “mass-produced auto.”
Michigan had the financial backers willing to commit financial resources to give the state’s auto manufacturing the boost it needed. The Hoosier financial community generally proved to be of little assistance to its own local automobile industry.
Indiana in the twenties saw this decline to 22 models introduced. Among these were Blackhawk, Cord, Duesenberg, Elgin, Erskine, H.C.S., Lafayette, and Roosevelt.
Studebaker was the lone Hoosier survivor of the depression, continuing production for another 30 years, ending in December 1963.
Commercial production of the automobile in America began a little over 120 years ago, and America’s lifestyle has never been the same. Indiana automakers have made many contributions to that history. So, the next time you drive your car, you might wonder where you’d be without Indiana’s continuing automotive innovation and contributions.
For more information on Indiana cars & companies, follow this link.
The Duesenberg Motors Company building complex was located of the southwest corner of West Washington Street and South Harding Street.
Duesenbergs were produced in this ten-building complex from 1921 to 1937. The only building remaining from the complex today is the Final Assembly Building #3, just south of the intersection of Washington and Harding. This building has the restored sign Duesenberg Motors Company sign on the north façade facing Washington Street. The other nine buildings were demolished to build the Indy Metro bus maintenance facility in the early 1980’s.
The Final Assembly Building was constructed in 1922 and housed the road testing department, the machine shop, and the final finishing department for work on the chassis and engines. Measuring 15 bays long along Harding Street and three bays wide facing Washington Street, the building has steel-frame brick curtain walls, windows and doors. Included are “daylight shops” with a monitor skylight running the full length of the building, providing natural light to illuminate the factory floor.
In 1926, Errett Lobban Cord from Auburn bought the complex to produce the luxurious Model J Duesenberg, which had a custom body and a high-horsepower, straight-engine. The car sold for $14,000 to $20,000 in the 1920s and 1930s. The company counted movie stars, industrialists and millionaires as customers. Duesenberg 480 Model J cars between 1929 and 1937. Thirty-six had supercharged engines producing 320-horsepower.
One fact is particularly remarkable: over 75 percent of the original Model J Duesenbergs are still roadworthy some 90 years later. No other American marquee has been so fortunate.
The Duesenberg Motors Company building is one of over 30 Indianapolis automaker buildings and homes that still exist today. I invite you to take an Indianapolis Auto Tour to sample our automotive heritage. Click here to Plan Your Visit.
If you are an auto enthusiast looking to do something that is truly unique in Indianapolis, then scheduling an Indianapolis Auto Tour fits the bill.
Did you know that at one time Indianapolis had more automobile manufacturers than Detroit?
Fortunately, Indianapolis still has over 30 manufacturing buildings and homes from this era to document this heritage. Did you know Indianapolis’ auto heritage is much more than auto racing.
Dennis E. Horvath is a “genuine car nut,” who enthusiastically shares his obsession for autos and touring. With a 20-year background sharing auto history, many have said that “Dennis brings the story of Indianapolis’ automotive heritage to life.”
Have Dennis travel along with you and learn about the Indianapolis auto leaders who had a significant impact on the American transportation experience. For example, find out about how Louis Chevrolet became the first builder to win two Indianapolis 500’s with cars built in Indianapolis. Hear about the Duesenberg brothers building their prestigious luxury cars and race cars on Washington Street. Learn about Carl G. Fisher, one of America’s forgotten promoters, starting as a bicyclist in the 1890’s and going on to promote auto racing and develop transcontinental highways and leisure destinations. Discover tidbits about Harry C. Stutz who accomplished an amazing feat with his first Stutz automobile that finished 11th in the 1911 Indianapolis 500-mile race.
These and many more unique stories allow you connect to our transportation heritage. It extends from our everyday car, to luxury cars, and modern highway systems. Indianapolis Auto Tours transport you back to the era when autos were more about the journey than the destination.
Testimonial For anyone with even a passing interest in the auto industry, Indianapolis Auto Tours, conducted by Dennis Horvath, provides a fascinating look at how pervasive the industry once was in the city of Indianapolis. There are a surprising number of buildings still standing that help tell the story of the auto industry’s early days in Indy. Buildings that once housed legendary marques, such as Marmon, Stutz, Duesenberg, and numerous others still have a physical presence in the city, but many people unknowingly drive right past them every day. Dennis relates fascinating stories about not only the companies, but also the leading industry personalities who once occupied those buildings whose success in the formative years of the auto industry ensured their rightful place in history.
Ted Woerner, Co-Owner, Miles Ahead