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Coachwork by LaGrande
Formerly Part of The Briggs Cunningham Collection and from the Miles Collier Collections | One of Only Two Examples Built | Delivered New to Hollywood Icon Gary Cooper | Special Short Chassis Model J with Twin Carbureted Supercharged Engine
THE DUESENBERG SSJ One of Two Short-Chassis, 400-Horsepower Special Speedsters
In 1926, Errett Lobban Cord acquired the Duesenberg Motors Company, an Indianapolis firm specializing in finely engineered road cars. More than anything else, Cord bought Duesenberg for its reputable name, which carried with it an air of international prestige and a genuine motorsport pedigree. After all, cars built by Fred and Augie Duesenberg had won both the Indianapolis 500 and the French Grand Prix.
Having secured Duesenberg, Cord set out to build his pièce de résistance – the most powerful, expensive, and exclusive automobile the world had ever seen. In 1928, he unveiled the magnificent Duesenberg Model J, a 265 hp luxury car whose chassis alone cost $8,500. His timing could not have been worse.
The stock market crashed in 1929 and America was plunged into the Great Depression. Cord’s sprawling automotive empire, which included Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, and many other subsidiaries, began crumbling. To make matters worse, Fred Duesenberg, the visionary behind the Model J, died in July 1932.
In May 1935, Duesenberg management notified their remaining employees that production of the Model J would not continue. Since its introduction, just 428 Model Js had been sold and the company still had 22 unsold cars on its books. These figures fell far short of Cord’s original goal of selling 500 examples of the Model J per year. Desperate times called for desperate measures. A master promoter, Cord decided to make use of his Hollywood connections. He hoped that building two special Duesenbergs and placing them in the hands of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable – the most famous celebrities of the day – would generate enough publicity to sell the remaining Model Js.
With this directive, Harold Ames, president of Duesenberg Inc., tasked chief designer J. Herbert Newport Jr. with creating these new “special speedsters,” which were to be built on a shortened 125" wheelbase – the only two such chassis ever built. Today, these short-chassis speedsters are more widely known as the SSJs – an appellation coined in 1951 by J.L. Elbert, author of Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car.
One of Newport’s original concepts for the SSJ was a thoroughly modern, streamlined roadster that bore little resemblance to any previous Duesenberg. This design featured aerodynamic pontoon fenders, a rounded radiator shell, tear-drop step plates, and bi-plane bumpers. In The Duesenberg, the book he co-authored with Louis William Steinwedel, Newport recalls the development of the SSJ:
“Final designs were sometimes reached only after much trial and error (i.e., customer disapproval). In the process of creating the final SSJ roadster for Gary Cooper, this more modernistic approach was tried and rejected in favor of the more classic design which finally emerged.”
Newport’s final proposal for the SSJ was instantly recognizable as a Duesenberg. Not only did it incorporate the classic radiator and fenders, it featured a distinctive bodyline that recalled LeBaron’s sweep-panel phaeton, one of the most popular body styles for the Model J. The design also incorporated external exhaust pipes, a rear-mounted spare, and a rounded tail section, with no trunk or rumble seat, giving the SSJ the appearance of a traditional European sports car.
Central Manufacturing Company of Connersville, Indiana – one of the many businesses Cord acquired during the 1920s – constructed the SSJ’s sporting, lightweight coachwork. Although Central built these two bodies for Duesenberg, they have been attributed to “LaGrande,” a fictitious entity created to make the Midwestern subsidiary sound more dignified.
The SSJs were powered by the ultimate Model J engine – a supercharged straight eight with twin carburetors and special cast-aluminum “ram’s horn” intake manifolds. Only three Duesenbergs ever left the factory with this outrageous 400 hp engine: the two SSJs and Ab Jenkins’ Duesenberg Special, known as the “Mormon Meteor,” for which two engines were supplied. With more than four times the horsepower of a contemporary V-8 Ford, the SSJs were the most powerful production cars built before WWII. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that a car with so much power was seen again.
Completed in late 1935, the SSJs were virtually indistinguishable, apart from their colors and taillights. That December, E.L. Cord’s son Charles, who was then working as a salesman for the factory’s Los Angeles dealership on Wilshire Boulevard, personally delivered the SSJs to Gable and Cooper.
E.L. Cord had hoped that the arranged sales of the two SSJs would prove to be a successful publicity stunt, one that might save Duesenberg from the brink of collapse. But despite his extraordinary efforts, the spectacle drew little attention; no photo or film is known to survive that show Gable and Cooper with their Special Speedsters.
Though Cord’s Hollywood production was a flop, and Duesenberg became extinct, both SSJs survive today as automotive icons – the ultimate expressions of America’s greatest motorcar.
A STORY OF CONNOISSEURSHIP The History of J-563, From 1935 to Present Day
In December 1935, Charles Cord presented Gary Cooper with this Duesenberg SSJ, identified by chassis no. 2594 and equipped with engine J-563. Duesenberg had built the two SSJs on spec and loaned them to Cooper and Clark Gable for a period of about six months. At the end of the term, the stars were offered these cars at the factory’s cost, approximately $5,000. By all accounts this was an incredibly favorable deal, as Model Js typically retailed for $15,000. Gable ultimately decided not to purchase his SSJ, so Duesenberg sold it to Georgie Stoll, an MGM music director. Cooper, however, greatly admired the powerful and stylish car. He bought this SSJ from Duesenberg, sweetening the deal by trading in his Derham Tourster against the discounted purchase price.
While it is known that Gable’s SSJ was originally finished in Yukon Gold and Chocolate Brown, the original color scheme of Cooper’s car has been the subject of some debate. This is likely the result of a color change that took place soon after delivery, as described in the Atlanta Constitution on December 15, 1935:
“Gary Cooper went home the other night with a new Duesenberg car in a sort of sand color. The next day he brought it back. His wife, Sandra Shaw, didn’t like the shade. So there’s a new paint job being done in a dark, dark green, with silver trimmings.”
The exact duration of Cooper’s ownership of the SSJ also remains a mystery. Several early images of J-563 place it in Los Angeles during the late 1930s. In fact, during this period, both SSJs were photographed at Bob Roberts’ famous car dealership at the corner of Ivar and Selma, less than two miles from Paramount Pictures.
What is definitively known, however, is the name of the Duesenberg’s second owner – Reese Lewellyn Milner. Reese Milner was born in 1916 to a prominent Los Angeles family residing in Berkeley Square, a glamorous, palm-tree-lined enclave southwest of downtown. Milner’s mother, Winifred, was a member of the family that founded Lewellyn Iron Works, a firm that supplied much of the metal used to build Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century.
Reese, known to his friends as “Bud,” was a fabulously wealthy young man. He attended Stanford University, ran Milner Oil Company, and was active in his family’s real estate holdings, which included the expansive Rancho La Vista in Ojai, California. In 1946, Milner married Ann Miller, the 500-taps-a-minute dancing star of Hollywood musicals.
Milner was in his early 20s when he owned the 400 hp Duesenberg and kept it for only a brief period before selling it to a Stanford classmate, Robert Stanley Dollar Jr. of San Francisco. Born in 1915, Dollar Jr. was, like Milner, the heir to an incredible fortune. His grandfather was a captain of the timber industry, and his father was the president of Dollar Steamship Lines, one of the world’s largest corporations. In the late 1920s, Dollar Sr. purchased the Wychwood estate on Lake Tahoe’s north shore and indulged in his passion for boating.
Dollar Jr. earned a distinguished racing record at Lake Tahoe in the 1930s and achieved a degree of international fame for his participation in European races like the 1935 Spreckels International Trophy, held on the River Seine in Paris.
A connoisseur of speedboats, he acquired and campaigned legendary racers such as Mercury and Baby Skipalong. In 1948, he built the boat of his dreams, Skip-a-Long of California, an aluminum hydroplane powered by a 2,000 hp Allison V-12 aircraft engine.
It is fitting that Stan Dollar Jr. would own a car like the SSJ – a powerful and sporting machine with a distinguished pedigree and provenance. A photograph of J-563 taken during Dollar’s ownership was published in Fred Roe’s classic Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection; it reveals that the car’s rear fenders were slightly modified prior to WWII.
Stan Dollar Jr. sold J-563 around 1940 to Ernest Kahl, a resident of Alameda, California’s exclusive Gold Coast neighborhood. When the US Army deployed Kahl in 1941, the Duesenberg was sold to Glenn B. Shepard, a California citrus farmer and boat racer. In the mid-1940s, John Seelinger, a San Francisco-based mechanic and broker, refinished the SSJ in a two-tone color scheme, rebuilt the engine, and sold it to Donald Baldocchi, an industrial designer employed by Cornelius Sampson and Associates.
In late 1948 or early 1949, J-563 was sold to John Troka of Chicago, a Duesenberg enthusiast who bought and sold an estimated 75 Model Js. Soon after, the SSJ was acquired by pioneering collector D. Cameron Peck of Evanston, Illinois. Peck, who already owned the Gable SSJ, had a worthy new owner in mind for this rare, short-chassis Duesenberg – his friend and fellow collector Briggs Swift Cunningham. Cunningham jumped at the chance to buy one of the famed SSJ examples and paid $3,500 for J-563.
In 1949, Cunningham’s life centered around cars. He competed in international sports car racing and filled the stables of his Connecticut estate with new acquisitions, from significant antiques and classics to the latest state-of-the-art racing cars. A founding member of the Automobile Racing Club of America, and the Sports Car Club of America, Cunningham was the consummate enthusiast. His passion even led him to establish a factory in Palm Beach, Florida, and construct his own breed of American sports cars.
On March 25, 1949, Cunningham sent a letter to his mechanic Jim Hoe, the restorer immortalized in Ken Purdy’s article “The Duesenberg Man.” In it, Cunningham declared, “Have just purchased thru Cam Peck in Chicago the second special short chassis Duesenberg, a duplicate of his own. I believe there were just 2 made.”
In a 1975 issue of the ACD Bulletin, Hoe describes his own fond memories of the SSJ: “Briggs asked me to fly to Chicago and drive J-563 back. I didn’t mind at all. I think this was in May of 1949, it was a delightful trip. Back in Connecticut I gave the car a complete check over, re-timed the valves and made other adjustments. Before this work, it was a delightful car to drive, afterwards it was a bomb. … I had a wonderful time with that car. It was a winner, all the way.” Early in his ownership, Cunningham registered the SSJ in Connecticut with plates reading “DUSY.” He also had the car repainted an olive drab color with a dark blue sweep panel. In this form, J-563 was pictured in several publications, including Ralph Stein’s great book The Treasury of the Automobile.
When Cunningham moved to California in the early 1960s, he established the Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, to share his magnificent car collection with fellow enthusiasts. Upon its return to the West Coast, the SSJ was refinished in its current two-tone gray color scheme and registered on the now famous PIY-series license plates. Over the next two decades, the Duesenberg made occasional appearances at local concours and, according to Cunningham’s curator John Burgess, even ran at the Muroc Dry Lake, where it was reportedly timed at 126.6 mph.
The SSJ remained a fixture in the Cunningham Automotive Museum until December 31, 1986, when the entire collection was sold to Miles C. Collier.
For the past 32 years, the SSJ has been a highlight of the Miles Collier Collections. During this time, it has been prominently displayed at Revs Institute in Naples, Florida, enjoyed on Sam Mann’s celebrated Duesenberg Tours, and exhibited at prestigious concours d’elegance including Amelia Island, Pebble Beach, and Meadow Brook Hall.
Consistent with Collier’s ethos as a collector, this historically important artifact has been carefully maintained and preserved, rather than restored. As a result, the SSJ remains in largely original condition, wearing an irreplaceable patina and character. It possesses marvelous details, like its folding canvas soft top and sections of original leather upholstery. The car’s rich history is present in its condition with its various layers of paint and modifications to the rear fenders and bumper, made in California during the late 1930s. Unlike many Duesenbergs, the SSJ survives with its original chassis, engine, and coachwork intact. The odometer shows just over 20,000 miles, and it still runs and drives like an impeccably maintained, low-mileage machine.
All in all, this SSJ is a truly exceptional motorcar. One of only two Model Js built on a shortwheelbase chassis, and equipped with a special twin-carbureted, supercharged engine, the SSJ was E.L. Cord’s final attempt to save Duesenberg Inc., the crown jewel of his empire. As the most powerful, sporting version of its breed, the SSJ has long been regarded as the ultimate Duesenberg.
Delivered new to Hollywood legend Gary Cooper, the SSJ then passed through a string of fascinating California owners, from a young millionaire in Los Angeles to an industrial designer in San Francisco. Since 1949, this car has been in the hands of just two caretakers – Briggs Cunningham and Miles Collier, among the greatest names in car collecting. This Duesenberg SSJ is, quite simply, a timeless automotive treasure, one that will forever remain in the pantheon of great cars.
FOR THE LOVE OF CARS An Open Letter by Miles C. Collier
I love cars. My Dad loved cars. Everyone remembers their first car! Parting with this particular car, and all it means in the history of the automobile, is incredibly difficult for me. But the mission I am on is bigger than just one car.
It was Briggs Cunningham, family friend and one of the greatest collectors of all time, who gave me the opportunity to watch over his collection. My dad drove Briggs’ early road-racing hot rod, the Bu-Merc, at the New York World’s Fair ARCA race in 1940. After the war, in 1950, when Briggs embarked on his quest for victory at Le Mans, both my father and my uncle Sam were his team drivers and advisors.
Following my family’s genetic imperative to love cars, in 1986 I acquired Briggs’ exquisite collection, including the SSJ. The SSJ is an example of Briggs’ perfect taste. It is unrestored (this is one of today's major value drivers); and it is beautifully turned out in Briggs’ immaculate style. In addition, the SSJ is the absolute ultimate expression of the marque and is one of only two ever built. What a car!
For an American classic car, it is just crazy fast, and would be right at home on the Colorado Grand. I took the SSJ to countless concours, and I also loved just driving it. On Sam and Emily Mann's Duesenberg tours, we'd wait at least 30 minutes after all the other Duesenbergs had departed and then drive easily – as we thought it – to lunch, where we'd arrive 30 minutes early.
The SSJ is just that much faster than any other Duesenberg.
The SSJ has been housed in the Revs Institute, Naples, Florida, which my wife, Parker J. Collier, and I founded together in 2008. Revs Institute’s mission is to drive the recognition of the automobile as not only a great social change agent, but also one of the highest expressions of all that is great in the human mind and spirit.
But the automobile’s continued ability to be meaningful is under threat. Will the car be part of people’s lives in the future? How can we ensure that the legacy of skills, knowledge, and care for motorcars is not lost?
Parker and I remain committed to pioneering approaches to the sharing of cultural and practical knowledge around meaningful cars. It is vital that knowledge of the historical role of all vehicles — including cars like the SSJ — and sheer appreciation of cars is carried into the future. After considerable research, deliberation, and debate, we have formulated two clear directions for the future. We want to share this unique opportunity with friends and colleagues, to ensure that we work together to create a strong legacy, carrying our knowledge of the importance of automobiles out to the world.
Revs 2.0 is an idea-driven — not object-centered — new nonprofit initiative to provide the meaningful car community with insights and expertise they couldn’t find anywhere else. Together with a new team of thinkers and leaders, we will assist the meaningful car community to better understand, interpret, use, collect, and care for the automobile and its history. Our first step is to welcome a diverse group of strategic thinkers to assist and define the growth of this initiative.
Meaningful Ventures™ will create profitable, self-sustaining enterprises to carry the cultural legacy of the car to future communities. We aim to educate, energize, and enlist car enthusiasts, men and women, in discovering the world of the automobile. We will use a range of creative strategies to achieve this.
Work has begun, with friends, colleagues, and like-minded people, to build Meaningful Ventures™ that reflect this vision. Collier Car Clubs will set up communities of meaningful car owners. Collier AutoMedia will educate, entertain, provoke, and inform digital visitors and readers. The Panzer Project uses a vintage, Mercedes-Benz 540 K Action Panzer as a reminder of the realities of evil. Collecting Arts is the creator of a revolutionizing curation software system for virtually any kind of collection.
We are considering many more Meaningful Ventures™, and we invite you to talk with us, debate with us, and help devise new solutions to leaving legacies for the future.
In short, the sale of our great, glamorous Duesenberg SSJ is something of a stake in the ground. This is a significant car. Selling it is significant. This is an invitation and a warm welcome to all our friends, supporters, and colleagues, and to all those we have yet to meet who share our ideals.
Join us. Share in our mission and help shape the future of meaningful cars for next generations.
Miles C. Collier Naples, Florida, Summer 2018
DRIVING IMPRESSIONS At the Wheel of the SSJ by David Gooding
Each time I drive a Duesenberg, I am impressed by the car’s wonderfully over-the-top exuberance – its extraordinary scale, immense power, and brash, showy character. The Model J is a distinctly American creation, and yet it’s unlike any other car built in Detroit or Indiana during the classic era.
Then there is the SSJ, which is something else altogether. With its 400 hp, twin-carb, supercharged engine and lightweight roadster body, this is no ordinary Duesenberg. Visually, it is the archetypal prewar sports car – with an impossibly long hood, radically raked windscreen, rear-mounted spare, and four gleaming pipes bursting from the engine bay. The SSJ is a seriously fast car, one that will leave most European thoroughbreds in its dust.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, the SSJ is quite friendly to drive. It shifts easily, has powerful brakes, and has really impressive handling – balanced and predictable, with light steering. Open the exhaust cutout and it makes a thundering, straight-eight roar, accompanied by glorious noises on overrun.
The SSJ is the original factory-built hot rod and, without hesitation, the most exciting, enjoyable American classic I have ever driven. If only Duesenberg had started building cars like this in 1928 instead of 1935....