Four-hundred horsepower is impressive today. It was incredible in 1935, when the dying Duesenberg company built two “short” wheelbase (125 inches all the same) Duesenberg J chassis with specially tuned supercharged engines given that rating. They were popularly – but never officially – called SSJs. One was purchased by Gary Cooper, and the other was borrowed from the factory by Clark Gable, who never actually owned it, although he had other Duesenbergs, as befitted a movie star of the grand era when such people were larger than life. No other car had quite the presence of a “Duesy,” which also enriched the language with its contracted name as a superlative.
Of the thousands of different cars I’ve driven, none has quite matched the king-of-the-road feeling I got sitting behind the wheel of a Duesenberg roadster fifty years ago. On the road in a J in 1993, I was struck by the modern performance, the good ride, and the terrible three-speed nonsynchromesh gearbox. The unassisted steering, while nice on the go, was a chore to deal with at low speeds. The twin-cam, four-valve engine was ahead of its time in 1928, but the car was an anachronism by the end. Duesenberg planned to sell 500 units annually, but fewer than that were made in nine years of production, from 1928 through 1937.
Acceleration from rest would have been hampered by the car’s great weight and clumsy gearbox, but there was plenty of shove available in top gear. Some observers estimated a 160-mph top speed for this model, although the poor aerodynamics of clamshell fenders make that unlikely. No matter. I’d prefer an SSJ to any of the 200-mph cars available today.