[The Duesenberg Special was sold at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach Auction, August 15, 2004 for $4,055,000. The catalog description is (c) 2004 by R.S. Carey and the auction company and is used with permission.]
The “Duesenberg Special”/Mormon Meteor, Land Speed Record
1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster
Engine No. J557
420 cubic inch inline eight-cylinder engine
Dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder
Supercharged, dual carburetors
3-speed manual gearbox
Live axle suspension with leaf springs
In an era of record-setters, Ab Jenkins and his Duesenberg Special the “Mormon Meteor” set them by the volume. Racing on Jenkins’ beloved Bonneville salt flats, Ab Jenkins and the Mormon Meteor performed landmark miracles of speed and endurance from both automobile and driver. There are few enough Model J Duesenbergs and they are the pinnacle of American automobiles in the classic era. Each is a triumph of design, materials and construction.
Only one is the most powerful, the fastest and the most recognized.
It is Ab Jenkins’ Mormon Meteor.
Duesenberg – A Brief History
The Model J Duesenberg is the ultimate American classic but the fascination with its style, performance, specifications, coachwork and owners sometimes overwhelms the greater story of Duesenberg: its dominance in American racing in the Teens and early Twenties.
Fred Duesenberg began racing on bicycles and later on automobiles. Like others of the day Fred Duesenberg maintained and developed his own machinery. Fred, however, had the advantage of his brother Augie’s help and they made a successful team. After working at Jeffrey and Mason, Fred and Augie set up on their own in St. Paul, Minnesota, establishing the Duesenberg Motor Co. in 1913. By the beginnings of the Twenties Duesenberg was the class of the field in American racing.
In November 1919 a team of three Duesenberg eights set American closed-course records at the Sheepshead Bay board track.
They built a twin-engined monster for Tommy Milton which set the American land speed record at 156.046 mph in April 1920 at Daytona Beach. It stood until 1927.
In 1921 Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix driving a Duesenberg eight with four-wheel hydraulic brakes.
For 1923 Indianapolis dropped its maximum engine displacement to 122 cubic inches (2 liters). Fred and Augie redesigned their straight eight with dual overhead camshafts, then added a centrifugal supercharger that made it the fastest on the track.
In 1924 Joe Boyer driving in relief of L.L. Corum won the Indianapolis 500 in his supercharged Duesenberg. Peter DePaolo joined the Duesenberg team in 1925 and won both the Indy 500 and the National Championship. George Souders won the 500 in 1927.
Duesenberg Model J
Errett Lobban Cord acquired Duesenberg, Inc. in 1926 with the expressed intention of making it the standard bearer for his burgeoning automobile empire. Fred Duesenberg was pulled away from his racing roots to design and build it, with power enough that, even with the most elaborate and luxurious coachwork, its performance would exceed that of any competing automobile. By every measure, the Model J met its brief.
Parts for 500 engines and chassis were ordered and eventually 481 of them were assembled into cars.
One engine, J557, and an unnumbered chassis were brought to Augie Duesenberg’s race shop to be assembled by Augie and Ab Jenkins into the Duesenberg Special.
Ab Jenkins first explored the Bonneville salt flats at 16 and brought racing to them in 1925 when he challenged the Union Pacific Railroad to a race across Bonneville to mark the opening of the first highway from Wendover to Salt Lake City. During the Twenties Jenkins was a successful building contractor based in Salt Lake City. He loved to drive, and he loved the Bonneville salt flats. Record-setting was his recreation. He was superb at it, a talented mechanic, and his honesty and business acumen lent itself to successful promotion and excellent relations with suppliers and manufacturers.
Jenkins set two cross-country records, then bowed out of point-to-point record runs out of concern that increased traffic and population along the route had made them unsafe. He concentrated on closed course records set on his beloved Bonneville salt flats.
The first record attempt at Bonneville came in 1932 with a Pierce-Arrow V12. Driving without relief, as he would do on most of his record runs, his face coated in grease to protect it in the open cockpit from the wind and temperatures that reached 112º in the heat of the day, Jenkins completed 2,710 miles in 24 hours, averaging 112.92 miles per hour. He raised the speed to an average of 117.77 mph in 1933, then brought it to 127.229 mph in 1934.
Ab Jenkins loved competition, and he believed passionately that the Bonneville salt flats were the ideal site for speed records. He worked tirelessly to bring others, particularly the British who regularly came to Daytona Beach, to run with him at Bonneville. His campaign was successful in 1935, attracting John Cobb, Malcolm Campbell and Captain George Eyston to the salt.
Jenkins opened the 1935 season setting a series of stock car speed records with an Auburn Speedster, then drove 68 miles per hour on an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor, an experience “like riding a frightened bison.” Jenkins then turned the salt over to John Cobb and his Napier-Railton special, leaving in place for Cobb’s team all the facilities that had been set up for the Auburn and Allis-Chalmers record runs. Cobb established a new 24-hour record of 134.85mph.
Jenkins moved back onto the salt two weeks later driving the Duesenberg Special.
The Duesenberg Special
The Duesenberg Special started with an unnumbered standard 142½” wheelbase Duesenberg Model J chassis. Duesenberg body designer Herbert Newport was given the task of creating a streamlined body that was attractive, aerodynamic and readily adaptable. Planning and design began in May 1934, with Newport’s body drawings completed in December. Newport’s design met everyone’s objectives.
Starting from a steeply sloped radiator grille and fully enclosed front frame horns the Duesenberg Special had a narrow two-seat body for minimal frontal area, full belly pans and a long tapered tail to reduce drag and turbulence. 18″ wire wheels were needed to fit the largest available diameter Firestone racing tires, then the wheels and tires received ingenious fenders with tapered teardrop fairings. The fenders themselves were removed for the record runs, leaving the teardrop fairings to smooth the airflow disrupted by the tires. The chassis used stock J suspension and driveline except for a special dropped tubular front axle that dramatically lowered the nose for better stability and air penetration. One of the Duesenberg Special’s signature features is the single headlight set just above the frame horns at the bottom of the grille. It was focused on the gently curved black line on the white salt that marked the 10 mile diameter record-setting track.
Augie Duesenberg prepared two engines which were specially modified from the stock supercharged SJ engine. Special camshafts were designed and ground by cam genius Ed Winfield. A pair of duplex Bendix-Stromberg UU-3 carburetors – unique to the Duesenberg Special – were installed with a “ram’s horn” manifold developed by Augie Duesenberg to feed each pair of siamesed intake ports separately. The Duesenberg Special’s engine made 400 horsepower at 5,000 rpm on the dynamometer, up 25% from the SJ’s optimistically-rated 320 horsepower.
Yet, other than its streamlined body there were only a few thoughtful modifications separating the Duesenberg Special from a standard SJ Duesenberg, unlike the purpose-built aircraft-engined behemoths under Cobb, Eyston and Campbell. Its later history would vividly demonstrate how few these really were.
After testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Duesenberg Special was loaded on a truck and dispatched to Salt Lake City and the Bonneville salt flats.
The 1935 Records
Following Cobb’s season-opening record runs Jenkins, Augie Duesenberg, and the rest of the Duesenberg Special crew moved onto the salt flats. For the first time Jenkins brought along a relief driver, Tony Gulotta who had driven the Studebaker-powered Rigling entered by Jenkins in the 1931 Indy 500. In the Duesenberg Special’s first attempt at the records a bearing failed after 300 miles, but the Special had broken all Cobb’s records to that point.
Both engines were expressed back to the Duesenberg plant in Indianapolis where they were fitted with special new bearings from Federal-Mogul. The engines were rushed back to Bonneville and a new record attempt started but it, too, ended prematurely at 1,960 miles when the crankcase split.
The second engine was installed and Jenkins, this time admitting fatigue and accepting relief from Gulotta, started the third attempt. The Duesenberg Special stopped every 400 miles for fuel, tires and a safety check. On August 31, 1935 the run ended and the Duesenberg Special held a succession of new records including the top mark, covering 3,253 miles in 24 hours at 135.47 miles per hour, an amazing accomplishment.
Donald Campbell in Bluebird set the one mile land speed record at 301.13mph only days later on September 3. Then Captain Eyston in Speed of the Wind, powered by an unsupercharged 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Kestrel aircraft engine, raised Jenkins’ 24-hour record to 140.52 mph.
It’s hard not to think that this is what Ab Jenkins had in mind all along, stimulating interest in record-setting on the Bonneville salt flats by bringing the fastest competition in the world to meet the challenge of the stock Duesenberg-based Special. Setting and breaking records in rotation, each competitor was challenged by the others. Even though the Duesenberg Special’s reign as the fastest automobile in the world was short, it was significant both for what it foretold of the future of record-breaking and for the power, handling and durability of the basically standard Duesenberg J chassis and its mildly modified engine.
On February 29, 1936 as part of his original agreement with Duesenberg Jenkins bought the Duesenberg Special along with all its spares for $4,800, but this was far from the end of its record-setting career.
The “Mormon Meteor”
Working with Augie Duesenberg and Lycoming, Jenkins adapted a 1,650 cubic inch Curtiss Conqueror V12 to the Special’s Duesenberg chassis and body, re-naming it the Mormon Meteor, the winning name submitted to a contest in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News newspaper. The team returned to the salt in 1936 and into easily the most exciting season ever held at Bonneville, or anywhere else, for land speed records. Jenkins was there, and so were Cobb and Eyston.
Eyston set the first records, averaging 149.096 mph for 24 hours and 136.34 mph for an almost unbelievable 48 hours.
Co-driven by Babe Stapp, the Mormon Meteor growled off in early September. Jenkins and Stapp bettered Eyston’s average through 12 hours at 152.84 mph but a driveshaft universal joint failed just after 12 hours ending this attempt.
Cobb then took to the course, besting Eyston’s 24-hour record with a 150.163 average but not going for the 48-hour mark.
Jenkins and Stapp started again. At 50 miles the Conqueror-powered Mormon Meteor was fastest, and fastest it remained through two full days on the Bonneville salt with averages of 153.823 mph for 24 hours and 148.641 mph for 48 hours. Set with a still essentially stock Duesenberg J chassis against the best purpose-built record-setters from England’s specials builders, Jenkins, Stapp and the Mormon Meteor stood at the top of the heap at the end of the 1936 Bonneville season.
Mormon Meteor III
In 1937 Jenkins returned to Bonneville with a completely new car. Mormon Meteor III was built by Augie Duesenberg and powered by a Curtiss Conqueror. Another series of record exchanges ensued but in 1940 Jenkins and Cliff Bergere driving the Mormon Meteor III captured every world and American Class A and unlimited record from 50 km to 24 hours. Jenkins and Mormon Meteor III continued to set speed and endurance records at Bonneville until 1950.
Ab Jenkins had been elected mayor of Salt Lake City in 1939, a race he won without spending a dime or making a speech. His final records were set with a 1956 Pontiac, capturing all American Class C and stock car records up to 24 hours and averaging 118.375 mph for 24 hours. He died on August 9, less than two months later.
The Duesenberg Special’s Subsequent History
After concluding that the record-setting days of the Duesenberg Special/Mormon Meteor, were past, in 1938 Ab Jenkins refitted the 1935 Duesenberg SJ Special engine J557 built by Augie Duesenberg. Jenkins slightly modified the body by adding doors and a rudimentary top and removing the head fairing. The Mormon Meteor’s single headlight remained. The exhaust pipe was dropped below the door to get its heat away from the passenger.
Ab Jenkins and his son Marvin drove the Mormon Meteor some 20,000 miles around Utah in the following years. It is no wonder Ab got elected mayor without campaigning. Driving this thundering speedster around Salt Lake City was advertising beyond price and only added to Jenkins’ name-recognition.
It was sold in 1943 to Bob Roberts in Los Angeles. Roberts sold the Mormon Meteor to Tom Troka in Chicago in 1946. Troka drove it from LA to Chicago and sold it two years later to collector Ben Hudson in Georgia.
Hudson had the engine rebuilt by Duesenberg specialist A.J. Hoe who assembled it for break-in without the supercharger or special twin carburetors. It apparently performed so well they were never re-installed during Hudson’s ownership which included long trips from Georgia to Indianapolis and to Maine. Eleven years later in 1959 he passed it on to a friend, the father of the present owner, who had it restored by John Griffin. Griffin recalled scraping a cupful of Bonneville salt from inside the cowl. At this time the original supercharger, special dual carburetors and intake manifolding were recovered from A.J. Hoe and re-installed, returning the Mormon Meteor to its 1937 road configuration.
Completed in 1962 in its original cream livery and with red upholstery and wheels, the Mormon Meteor is a CCCA, AACA and A-C-D Club first place winner. After restoration it accumulated another 2,500 miles before it was cosmetically restored again and rewired in 1983-84 for the present owner.
Following its show career the Mormon Meteor has participated in the Colorado Grand four times and competed in numerous other events and tours. On one of its Colorado Grand runs it was selected Best of Show among a field which included pontoon fendered Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas and pre-war Alfa 8Cs.
Its high performance Ed Winfield cams were replaced with stock Duesenberg camshafts while owned by Jenkins. It now has a more usable 3.31:1 rear axle ratio and it has been converted to a 12 volt electrical system, including rewinding the original generator. In the interest of reliability the blower pressure is now regulated to about 1½ pounds boost (having been about 5 psi when running for records in 1935). A safety bar has been added to the passenger’s door [the owner calls it “the Mounger Bar” in recognition of the time on the Colorado Grand when Pebble Beach Concours Co-Chairman Glenn Mounger was in the passenger seat during a 1 mile run in 33 seconds (109 mph)]. The engine runs Carillo rods and Forged True pistons but aside from these changes to make it more user friendly and reliable on tours the Mormon Meteor remains as driven by Ab and Marv Jenkins following its Bonneville record runs.
Although the Mormon Meteor is familiar to everyone with a passion for great automobiles, its presence is best experienced in person. It exudes charisma and power. Long and low to the ground, it is the epitome of a prewar speed car. Its giant exhaust pipe emits a roar that is as much tactile as audible, the repeated, balanced pounding of seven liters of Duesenberg inline eight, a sharp and authoritative counterpoint to the smaller eights of prewar Alfas and Maseratis. Driving it is an unforgettable experience and one which the current owner, who has driven it frequently and thousands of miles, describes with fresh enthusiasm even after over 40 years in the family.
Wherever the Mormon Meteor appears it is the center of attention, and its ground-shaking exhaust assures its arrival will not be overlooked.
The Duesenberg Special was the fastest automobile in the world, a modified Duesenberg J with Augie Duesenberg-tuned engine and special bodywork which stood up to aero-engined giants from John Cobb, G.E.T. Eyston and Malcolm Campbell. Then it was again the fastest automobile in the world as the Mormon Meteor.
It is the last genuine Duesenberg race car, the culmination of a long and legendary line of champions, the ultimate creation of Fred and Augie Duesenberg.
Its history is unchallenged; its originality is exceptional. It is Olympian in its presence and performance.
The last time it was sold Dwight David Eisenhower was in the White House. The Mormon Meteor is one of the all-time “keepers” among collector cars, yet it is tuned and prepared for driving in long distance tours and events. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own the greatest Duesenberg built: Ab Jenkins’ Mormon Meteor.
The ultimate Duesenberg race car, holder of the Land Speed Record up to 24 hours
Known and important history from new, accurately restored as driven by Ab Jenkins
Carefully prepared and driven on the most important and enjoyable events and tours
The fastest, most powerful, most famous Duesenberg SJ: Ab Jenkins’ Duesenberg Special/Mormon Meteor.