American Classics

Crashing the Roaring Twenties with the Duesenberg SSJ

Known for building winning race cars, Fred and Augie Duesenberg were American pioneers of motorsports. Together, the Duesenberg brothers created their own automotive company, but they struggled. They could not find a way to make a profit from their road cars.

In 1925, entrepreneur E.L. Cord saved the Duesenberg brothers from losing everything. After buying them out, he instructed them to build the world’s finest road car. Right at the peak of the Roaring Twenties, Duesenberg unveiled the J model. 

Ready to compete with the most powerful and luxurious automobiles in the world, only a crash could stop them. Eventually, the Great Depression took its toll, but not before unleashing the supercharged Duesenberg SSJ, the first American supercar. Unfortunately, they only made two SSJ models before closing shop.

Duesenberg has three models, the J, SJ, and SSJ. They all share the same 32-valve 7.0L DOHC straight-8 cylinder engine, but the SJ and SSJ have superchargers. Who doesn’t like the option of having more power?

Based on their successful racing engine designs, this 8 cylinder churns out 265 hp without forced induction. Again, without the forced induction of a supercharger, this engine can propel the J model to a top speed of 119 miles per hour. The Duesenberg J was the fastest and most expensive American automobile available. 

Adding a supercharger to this already powerful roadster is where the fun begins, without sacrificing prestige or comfort. The model SJ cranks 320 hp out of the legendary straight-8 engine. Of the two supercharged models, the SSJ features 80 more horsepower than the SJ.

A special dual-carburetor setup and ram’s horn manifold is responsible for coaxing 400 hp out of the Duesenberg SSJ. The other notable difference between the models is the SSJ’s shorter wheelbase design. With a wheelbase of only 125 inches, the SSJ is much shorter than the models available featuring a 142.5-inch or 153.5-inch wheelbase.

Having a shorter wheelbase definitely lends handling improvements while offering slightly better braking ability compared to the longer versions. Still, this is a car with bacon strips for tires, not meats. Do not expect the handling of a modern sports car, just kick back and enjoy the pleasant straight line potential.

Even though the speedometer goes up to 150 mph, keep in mind the drum brakes are nearly a century-old design. It may be tempting to release 400 horses out of the gate simultaneously, but do so at your own risk. This car is a speed demon, plan your braking responsibly.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

The Duesenberg SSJ features an elegant exterior with vintage styling. An external spare tire rests between the taillights on the rear of the stylish roadster. A soft convertible style top offers the option of a roof for chilly nights, a luxurious amenity for its time.

Shifting gears in the Duesenberg SSJ occurs through a dogleg pattern 3-speed manual transmission. It is a front-mid engine with rear-wheel drive layout. Although starting it requires a series of steps most modern drivers would compare to rocket science, the engine sounds unique.

The Duesenberg SSJ is still a star to this day, but in its era, it was larger than life. There are only two Duesenberg SSJ models in existence. Popular actor Gary Cooper bought the first one in 1935, enjoying his fame in the open-air hot rod. 

Then, the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable saw Gary Cooper in the SSJ and convinced Duesenberg to lend him the other one. Legend has it the two actors would frequently race the Duesenberg SSJ models in the Hollywood Hills.

Many other actors in Hollywood wanted their promotional photographs taken next to a Duesenberg J. It was the most popular luxury car of its era with owners ranging from Al Capone to Howard Hughes. The SSJ provided the cherry on top for an already reputable car.

With a price tag between $8,000 to $15,000 in the late 1920s, the regular Duesenberg J was expensive. This translates to $120,000 to $210,000 today. The list price for the Duesenberg SSJ sold to Gary Cooper is only $5,000, still a hefty sum back then.

Although the American automaker Duesenberg no longer exists, their record-breaking place in automotive history is secure. In fact, the Duesenberg SSJ formerly belonging to Gary Cooper sold for a record $22 million.

If you are looking for a Duesenberg SSJ for sale, you may be waiting a while before one becomes available. If you are a glass half-full kind of person, it gives you plenty of time to keep saving and investing.


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