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.
If your Indiana car club is looking for a program for March 2017, I strongly recommend a trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum Indiana Automobiles: Precision over Production exhibit. Visit the Indiana Automobiles: Precision over Production exhibit before the closing date of March 26, 2017.
I believe the folks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum have done an incredible job of telling the story of Indiana-built automobiles. They have gathered 35 cars from an 1896 Reeves Motocycle to a 1963 Studebaker Avanti. Plus, nine race cars from a 1905 Premier to the 1950 Cummins Diesel Special are included.
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 introduced by Indiana automotive pioneers. Yet the innovators themselves have become nearly forgotten–overlooked as we take their inventions increasingly for granted as part of the standard equipment on today’s models.
Over 40 Indiana towns and cities can claim some sort of connection to our early automotive history. More than 400 firms – large and small – operated statewide between 1894 and 1963.
The earliest car on display at the museum is a Reeves Motocycle built in Columbus, Indiana, which used a two-cycle, two-cylinder Sintz gasoline engine with a variable speed transmission produced by Reeves.
As many of you know Indianapolis was one of the largest producers of automobiles in the nation. Some of these autos are well represented from the 1899 Waverley Electric to the 1933 Duesenberg Model J Berline. Other Indianapolis autos on display are various models of American Underslung, Cole, Marmon, Pathfinder, Premier, and Stutz.
Other makes built in other Indiana towns and cities are represented with cars like Apperson, Auburn, Cord, Davis, Haynes, Lexington, McFarlan, Monroe, Richmond, and Studebaker.
I invite your Indiana car club to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and check out these Indiana-built cars today. This may be the only chance you’ll see such a wide array of Indiana-built cars at one location.
For more information on Indiana-built automobiles, follow this link.
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.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum’s “Speakers Series” will kick off in the facility’s new multi-purpose meeting room tomorrow, February 16th @ 4:15 – 6:15 pm.
As many of you know, I am the kick-off speaker for the “Speakers Series” in conjunction with their exhibition, Indiana Automobiles: Precision Over Production. This exhibition has more than 35 historic, Indiana-built passenger cars, and several iconic race cars honoring Indiana’s automotive history.
My popular presentation “Mileposts in Indiana Automotive History” and other presentations will inform members and guests. Mileposts in Indiana Automotive History shares some of the legends, facts and figures that reflect Indiana’s role in America’s automotive heritage, when marques such as Duesenberg, Stutz and Studebaker propelled the state into a position where the number of Indiana auto manufacturers rivaled Detroit.
Check out my Monday blog posts at Cruise-IN.com documenting some the cars in the exhibit.
See you at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum’s “Speakers Series” tomorrow, February 16th.
On January 21st, I attended the Indiana Racing Memorial Association’s Collectible Show and found Wall Smacker a book written by Peter De Paolo in 1935.
After perusing the many tables of racing collectibles, I picked De Paolo’s book to learn about auto racing in the early days. In this well-written book, De Paolo describes his life as a riding mechanic and as championship driver from 1920 to 1935.
His introduction started watching his Uncle Ralph De Palma’s racing exploits at the Brighton Beach Course in 1914, where he won all five of the program’s races. His uncle went on to win the 1915 Indianapolis 500 driving a Mercedes Benz. Shortly thereafter, his uncle convinced De Paolo to get some mechanical experience working on cars in New York City.
In the fall of 1919, his uncle hired him as a riding mechanic on a Ballot racer that they campaigned across the country in 1920. Of his first racing experience at the Beverly Hills, California, board speedway, De Paolo stated, “I’ll never forget the thrills that were packed into those opening laps of my first speed experience.” He shares a lot of details of his first experience at the Indianapolis 500 where they finished fifth. Later that summer, they raced Ballot racers in France and Italy.
After the spring 1922 Beverly Hills race, De Paolo parted working with his Uncle Ralph. De Paolo started his first race driving one of Louis Chevrolet’s Frontenacs. In his first Indianapolis 500 driving the Frontenac, at 255 miles he had a lap and a half lead before having to stop for fuel and tires. After returning to the race, while attempting to pass three Duesenbergs, he slid into the northeast infield and smacked the inside wall and damaged the transmission. As the relief driver for Joe Thomas’ Duesenberg, De Paolo finished in tenth place.
In 1924 at Indianapolis, De Paolo finished in sixth place driving a Duesenberg Special. He drove the rest of the season for Duesenberg. In spring 1925, De Paolo finished second at Culver City, California, and first at Fresno, California. De Paolo’s confidence was growing as they reached Indianapolis for the 500. He qualified in second place to start the race. By the 25th lap as he came down the home stretch, no other car was less than a mile behind him. On his 250-mile pit stop, he was relieved from his car for bleeding hands. When he took over again, his car was in fifth place and quickly moved up to second place. He soon drove the Duesenberg Special to first place. In winning the Thirteenth Annual Indianapolis Classic he set a record of 101.13 miles an hour average, which stood for seven years, and answered a question many times asked of him – “What was your greatest thrill?” His total winnings were approximately $40,000. Later that summer, he won at Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Laurel, Maryland.
He continued to win in 1926, at Fulford-By-the-Sea, near Miami, Florida, and finished fifth at Indianapolis. He finished third place in the national standings. He continued to race in 1927, winning again at Altoona, and finishing second at Salem, New Hampshire and won the AAA National Championship. He retired from racing in 1929. In 1935, he was the mentor for Kelly Petillo in winning the Indianapolis 500.
Pete De Paolo had a colorful career in auto racing. His book Wall Smacker does a great job telling his story. I invite you obtain a copy and enjoy the story.
You should attend the Indiana Racing Memorial Association’s Collectible Show in late January and the Indy Bench Racing Weekend in late March to find some racing collectibles.