I was a precocious child. But like a corgi in a tuxedo, it didn’t always bring me joy or respect on the street. I talked early, albeit with a sibilance that conflated my Ls and Rs with Ws. I read early, though reciting tales of ejected jet waste I’d gleaned from the Detroit Free Press didn’t delight my preschool peers or teachers, who preferred I attend to pamphlet-like booklets featuring the inane trials of a rat who’d run and sit. I wore a little gray suit and carried a briefcase to my first day of kindergarten.
This story originally appeared in Volume 9 of Road & Track.
So when other third-graders expressed their affection for Challengers and Camaros, or 280ZXs and RX-7s, I followed my esoteric ideals. I loved the cars of the classic era, the impossibly profligate Hispano-Suizas, Packards, and Isotta Fraschinis crafted for fat cats during the Great Depression.
More than anything, I loved Duesenbergs, and no Duesenberg more than the SJ.
The SJ was based on the Model J, a vehicle that had been imagined by company owner E.L. Cord as the finest car ever built. When it was released in 1928, a rolling J chassis cost $8500. With commissioned bodywork it could easily reach $15,000— equivalent to nearly $250,000 today.
The SJ upped the potency of the Duesenberg brothers’ Indy-winning, double-overhead-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder straight-eight by adding a supercharger, which bumped horsepower from 265 to 320. (The most powerful Cadillac of the time, a 7.4-liter V-16, made just 165 hp.) Rakish exhaust pipes emerged sidelong from the Duesen- berg’s hood, like chromed serpents’ tongues lash- ing lesser cars—and they were all lesser.
I was smitten. I borrowed books on Duesenbergs from the local library. I made drawings of Dual Cowl Phaetons and Disappearing Top Roadsters. I conducted an independent study project on E.L. Cord. For my bar mitzvah, I had a Duesenberg-shaped cake, a closed-body SJ Rallston coupe.
But there was something foreboding about the greatest Duesenberg of all, the SSJ. Built on a shortened version of the SJ chassis and endowed with a massaged engine, a second carburetor, ram’s-horn air inlets, and a lightweight body, it was not only the most powerful American car ever built (with 400 hp, it maintained that title until 1958), it was a corporate death knell. Only two were produced, in 1935. Duesenberg gave them to Hollywood stars Clark Gable and Gary Cooper in a last-ditch influencer effort to revive floundering sales. It failed. By 1937, Duesenberg was bankrupt.
But when the opportunity to drive Gary Cooper’s SSJ presented itself some years back, I didn’t balk. Though I’d never actually driven a Thirties classic before, I coffined myself into the selfish cabin, followed the arcane pre-conditioning regimen, and pulled the lengthy starter cord, expertly, like a straw-hatted concours judge. The 6.9-liter engine did not shout. It soughed like a distant tidal wave. The clutch was oddly light, though it engaged only once my leg was pinned at the edge of the turned-metal dash. Shifting the non-synchro three-speed required double-clutching and a ghastly combination of delicacy and brutality. The gas pedal, shaped like a foot, begged to be kicked.
Kick it I did. Cooper and Gable were purported to have raced their SSJs through the Hollywood Hills. I could see why. When I got on the juice, it was not the supercharger’s distant whinny that alerted me to the boost, but the stunning rush. This car could accelerate from 0–60 mph in 7.8 seconds. In 1935. That’s as quick as a 1977 Ferrari 308 GTS.
But with the top down and the wind face- planting me above the chopped windscreen, I did not feel like a leading man in a street battle for pinks. I felt terrified.
Though equipped with the most sophisticated brakes of its time—adjustable four-wheel hydraulic drums—the car still weighed 5000 pounds. The manhole-size steering wheel offered a sense of the front tires’ engagement, though interpreting what was occurring beyond the 70-foot hood felt as abstruse as translating Silbo Gomero. The narrow roads were strewn with obstacle debris from a hurricane. And the car was an irreplaceable artifact. Shortly after my drive, it sold for $22 million.
Still, I pushed forward. I’ve never been a rule follower. My youthful training in obscure abnormality had pushed me to always slink in through unofficial channels: around the side and to the top. So for my first drive of a classic, I accepted that I was driving not just a Duesenberg, but The Duesenberg. And with that acceptance, the drive became a reverie. This is one of the joys of getting old. Fuck-giving erodes, and gratification is enhanced.
I’ve been writing about cars for 13 years—my bar mitzvah in the industry—but in a career of getting in and out of invaluable cars, the SSJ drive remains the highlight. An impossible diptych of E.L. Cord’s ruined dreams. And my own.
1935 Dusenberg SSJ courtesy of John Mozart.