Duesenberg SSJ - The Most Expensive American Car
Find Out Why It’s So Much Better Than Anything Elseby Safet Satara, on
As a part of Monterey Car Week, Gooding auction house organized Gooding’s 15th Annual Pebble Beach Auctions and broke 23 records, selling some of the most extraordinary classic cars at the venue. Just to put the importance of this auction into perspective, I will say that of all the cars offered there, 25 were sold for more than $1 million. Yet, I am most interested about one - the $22 million 1935 Duesenberg SSJ - a car once owned by Gary Cooper. This isn’t just about any expensive car sold at an auction. Gary Cooper’s 1935 Duesenberg SSJ became the most expensive American car ever sold at an auction. This is, ladies and gentlemen, the most expensive American car ever made. Save for the Lunar Rover (estimated price for development in 1972 was $38 mil), but I guess that the Lunar Rover isn’t actually in competition with the Duesenberg. The Duesenberg SSJ is the fastest pre-war car in the world. It has provenance like no other car you will hear about.
Personally, I have some strange cravings for Duesenbergs (despite seeing one only once). If you were to ask me what car company I’d like to see resurrected, it would be the Duesenberg. Forget Hispano Suiza, Packard, or Tucker. I want a Duesenberg. But done right. And that is the problem. I think it is impossible to have a Duesenberg in the world of today. After learning about the SSJ, the most expensive American car, you will know why...
Why does it exist?
Duesenberg was sort of a Rolls-Royce mating Bugatti but in America. Only the best would suffice, and the 1935 Duesenberg SSJ (Special Speedster Model J) was the best of the best.
Only two were produced, in what seemed like Duesenberg's move to entice the rich and famous of the era to buy what was one of the most expensive American automobiles of the time.
After the economic crisis of 1929 swamped most of the major car producers and dramatically reduced the number of people who were actually able to buy such extraordinary machines (like the Model J itself), Duesenberg moved to market its products in Hollywood. The money was there, and the two biggest stars of the big screen, Clark Gable and Garry Cooper were Brad Pitt and Chris Hemsworth of the day. I feel that the production of the SSJ in the first place was a marketing move as both of the produced cars ended up in their hands. First, both received their cars on a six-month loan, and Gary Cooper bought his "loaner“ afterward. This was probably agreed upon beforehand. Nevertheless, Clark Gable already owned a Duesenberg.
Actually, I found out that stars like Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, and Clara Bow all owned Duesenbergs. This only shows that the marketing campaign with Clark Gable and Garry Cooper, as well as the overall image of Duesenberg, was really powerful.
So, what did the stars of the time own in fact?
In the simplest of terms, the Duesenberg SSJ was the best automobile in the world. It was a 400 horsepower machine, which made it the most powerful pre-war car. Also, it was probably the most luxurious and the best-built thing rolling the streets of Hollywood and the world. Right now, I can only compare it with the likes of the Bugatti Chiron, or even the new Divo, although they do not seem to be nearly as exclusive as the SSJ.
With all that said, I am quite sure that the SSJ may be the most important American car. Ever.
Even more important than the original Ford GT that beat a Ferrari, or the Bel Air, or the mighty Model T itself. I say that because this was the first time the American car industry beat everything. If you are having a discussion with somebody about pre-war cars, mention the Duesenberg SSJ. You’ll beat them all. First, it looked right, it was powered right, and it was as luxurious as they get.
At the time the only car that could really hold a candle to it was the 1936 Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic. Although, looking like no other car ever, it was not as fast as the SSJ. Heck, I have a problem writing these words as I cannot choose which one I like more despite never seeing any of them in person. Strange. I am thinking now that if someone, in that imagined discussion, were to mention the Type 57 SC Atlantic, you’d lose. Enough with the conjecture. Let’s talk tech.
Although it was based on top of the Model J chassis (the car marketed as "The World’s Finest Motor Car“), the SSJ received a shortened wheelbase. With 125 inches in length, the wheelbase isn’t exactly “short short,” but compared with the long sedan – the Deusie - there was 17 and a half inches less car. Such a considerable cut made it possible for the creation of a bespoke open-roadster body crafted by LaGrande. This was, of course, the best in the business.
With all the gear inside, the weight of the Duesenberg SSJ hovered around 5,300 lbs - something to that of a modern-day Bentley Continental GT.
Motivation was a major part of the equation here. The best car in the world had to have the most powerful engine in the world. Based on top of the 420 cubic-inch, straight-eight engine found in the Model J, where it produced 320 horsepower in its most potent form, Duesenberg additionally improved the eight-cylinder. With dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and a centrifugal-type supercharger, power output surged to 400 horsepower, making it the most powerful pre-war car.
Well, Garry Cooper was the first owner of the Duesenberg SSJ with a chassis number J-563 (Clark Gable’s car had a chassis number J-567). Hell of a way for a car to start its life isn’t it!? Obviously, with such provenance, it is hard to argue with the incredible value of this very SSJ.
Cooper, who bought the car from Duesenberg for close to $5,000 after the six months loan period, said something curious about it:
“When I first came to Hollywood I used to dream, ‘Boy, if I had money I’d have the hell-firedest automobile ever assembled!’ I had one, I had two. I flashed around. In a lot of ways. For a time. Then I got to wondering why I wanted those sensational cars…It gave me a feeling of superiority to pull up beside some other fellow’s car in my deluxe job.”
Obviously, he did not mess around with telling the entire world he liked acceleration, craftsmanship or whatever, he just said what he felt. Duesenberg gives a feeling of superiority. Accept it.
Expectedly, other owners had been rather picturesque as well. Gary Cooper’s Duesenberg SJJ ended up in the hands of Briggs Cunningham in 1949. This guy lived a dream. Not only did he sail yachts he built, but also raced cars he constructed. Quite a happy guy, who sold the whole car collection, including the famous SSJ, to Miles Collier in 1986. Miles Collier intended to build what was described as “a purposefully curated assemblage of the most profound and rare automotive innovations of our time.”
The SSJ had to be a part of that collection. However, the time had come for the SSJ to continue its journey and Collier said why:
“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.”
Anecdotes and Facts
Yup, this anecdote is part of Wikipedia, so it must be the truth, right? Ok, I did thorough research, and it seems that this one is true - Gary Cooper and Clark Gable apparently used to race Duesenbergs SSJs on Hollywood Boulevard. Imagine the scene - two of the most notable actors of the time and the two fastest and most powerful cars on earth racing. Illegal race at that, but no police car could ever catch up to them.
According to some sources, the Duesenberg SSJ was able to achieve up to 140 mph. However, more conservative (and I believe more realistic) estimates put a top speed at 126 mph.
Despite being one of the most expensive cars on earth at $5,000, the Duesenberg SSJ was three times less expensive compared with certain editions of the Model J
The two produced SSJs were identical, save for the paint job and rear lights
Years did not affect Gary Cooper’s Duesenberg SSJ much. The car is still in excellent condition with only some leather inside the cabin actually getting a makeover.
There was a third Duesenberg with the famed 420 cubic-inch, 400 horsepower engine.
Dubbed the Mormon Meteor, it was actually a heavily modified Model J designed for speed records.
E. L. Cord became a Duesenberg owner and actually greenlighted the SSJ project in order to reinvigorate the brand and even more precisely target the customers. E.L. Cord’s son, Charles, personally delivered the SSJs to Gable and Cooper in December 1935.
“This incredible car embodies everything that is exciting about an automotive masterpiece: beauty, rarity, provenance, and sheer power. This SSJ is one of the all-time greatest classics and is poised to set an auction record for pre-war American cars,” said David Gooding, Founder, and President of Gooding & Company.
This introduction was welcomed with great enthusiasm at this year’s Gooding & Company Pebble Beach auction.
The price hiked up to $10 million basically in an instant, with buyers actually bidding it all the way up to $22 million.
Considered to be one of the finest American cars of all time, the Duesenberg SJJ owned by Gary Cooper thus became the most expensive American car ever sold at an auction.
The 1935 Duesenberg SSJ is one of only 378 Duesenbergs known to have survived. That makes it even more valuable considering that Duesenberg was built only for the rich (and famous I might add). Thus, reaching such a high price at an auction was actually expected. Many experts considered that it will break many records. And it did, by a large margin.
However, its ties with Gary Cooper and the fact that it is possibly the best American car ever produced is only part of the story.
The other part is the brand Duesenberg. It was built by Duesenberg brothers who constructed cutting-edge racing cars in the Twenties. Back then, they won the 1921 French Grand Prix and dominated the Indy 500.
Obviously, history like this intertwined with race tracks, Hollywood actors and best tech imaginable can deliver impressive results. It is a bit sad that the U.S. does not have more of such powerful icons.
Read our full review on the 1926 - 1937 Duesenberg Model A.