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Prior to the auction, guesses as to its eventual selling price were rampant, and the result was a staggering achievement for a Duesenberg.





In an era of record-setters, Ab Jenkins and his Duesenberg Special surpassed them all. Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats, he performed landmark miracles of speed and endurance. The Model J Duesenberg is the pinnacle of American automobiles of the classic era, a triumph of design, materials and construction. But only one such car is the most powerful, the fastest and the most recognized. It is the car on offer here, the Mormon Meteor.
During the 1920s, David Abbott Jenkins was a successful building contractor in Salt Lake City who loved to drive. He had set two cross-country records before turning to closed-course runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats. His first record attempt there came in 1932 in a Pierce-Arrow V12, in which he drove 2,710 miles in 24 hours, an average speed of 112.92 mph. He later raised this mark to 127.229 mph in 1934, as Jenkins worked to bring other land-speed racers to Utah.
Jenkins and Augie Duesenberg, the unassuming engineering genius behind earlier Duesenberg racing records, started to design the Duesenberg Special in May 1934 for competition the following year. Duesenberg body designer Herbert Newport was given the task of creating a streamlined body that was attractive, aerodynamic and readily adaptable. With a long tapered tail to reduce drag, the fenders (which were removed for record
attempts) received teardrop fairings to smooth the airflow. The chassis used stock Model J suspension and driveline, except for a dropped front axle that lowered the nose for better stability at speed.
Two engines were prepared, both modified stock supercharged SJ engines with special cams and a pair of huge Bendix-Stromberg carburetors installed on a "ram's horn" manifold. The result was 400 hp, up from the SJ's optimistically rated 320. It was enough to propel the car to a new record on August 31, 1935, pushing the 24-hour average speed to 135.47 mph.
Soon, however, the British land-speed record contenders that Jenkins had lured to the flats eclipsed his feats with their aero-engined giants. Jenkins and Augie then adapted this chassis and body to a 1,750-ci Curtiss Conqueror V12, and the car set new records for the 1936 season. It was then that the car became known as "The Mormon Meteor."
By 1938 its record-setting days were past, so Jenkins refitted the original Special engine and slightly modified the body by adding doors, a rudimentary top and removing the head fairing. He and his son Marvin drove the Meteor around Utah some 20,000 miles before selling it in 1943.
It passed through a number of owners, being acquired by the father of the present owner in 1959. The 1935 SJ Speedster was restored in 1962 to its 1937 road configuration in cream with red upholstery. It then won many CCCA, AACA, and A-C-D Club first places. The car was cosmetically restored again in 1984, and has since run the Colorado Grand four times, been shown at Pebble Beach, and appeared at numerous other events.
Aside from a few minor changes to make it more user friendly and reliable on tours, the Mormon Meteor as offered here remains as driven by Ab and Marv Jenkins following its Bonneville record runs. Its history is unchallenged; its originality is exceptional. The last time it was sold, Eisenhower was in the White House, making this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own the greatest Duesenberg ever built.

{analysis}{auto}366{/auto} The Mormon Meteor SJ Speedster sold for $4,445,000 at Gooding & Company's Pebble Beach auction, on August 15, 2004.
This was the highest price paid for any car at auction this year and the highest price ever paid at auction for a Duesenberg. Rick Carey, a veteran of the auction scene, remarked, "I had a ride in this monster before the auction and it is one of the most memorable events of my automotive life. It is strong, it is loud, it is elemental. A big hammer built for a specific purpose." Bidding was spirited, with the price jumping in $200k and $300k increments all the way up to $4 million, when a phone bidder added a final $50,000 to prevail.
There can be no dispute that the Mormon Meteor is a significant car, sold for a huge price. What is less clear is what to make of the sale. Prior to the auction, guesses as to its eventual selling price were rampant. Though Gooding did not publish a pre-sale estimate, many Classic Car Club members opined that the Mormon Meteor would bring from $6 to $9 million. None that I talked to ventured estimates lower than $5 million. (However, other sources told me they would be surprised if the car topped $3 million. But then, that's what the auction world is all about, isn't it? Establishing values where none have previously existed.-ED.)
However, no matter how you look at it, the price was a staggering achievement both for a first-time-out auction company and for a Duesenberg. But our question persists: Why $4.5m and not $3m or $9m?
Three factors tend to determine the value of the "Old Masters" cars that trade for over a million dollars. Two would seem to be negatives for this car, while one could be highly positive-provided the car was not bought by a museum, as has been speculated.
The first factor is the "generation effect," which is fairly simple: Collectors in their prime earning years-the ones that can afford a seven-figure car-have little nostalgia for the great cars of the '30s. The typical Duesenberg owner is old enough that estate planning rather than collecting is his overriding concern. This has meant that there is a steady supply of Duesenbergs coming on the market. In the case of the Mormon Meteor, this phenomenon might be offset by its widespread fame, but it's still of a different age and era. Most of the high rollers at current auctions were likely not born when this car was the fastest thing on four wheels.
The second factor is bragging rights. A fresh restoration or car that has not been shown for decades is more desirable than a recent winner or a well-known car, for obvious reasons. Though the Mormon Meteor will always draw a crowd, it has already been extensively exhibited and participated in numerous events.
The third factor, one that might actually favor this car, is that big money is gravitating to cars designed for use on the street but also usable on the track. These are all the rage, as wealthy entrepreneurs do not aspire to collect concours trophies as much as collecting experiences, on vintage race tracks and in retrospective events on the roads and estates of Europe. If you look at the world of Ferraris, Jags, Astons and Bugattis that exceed $1m in value, these are overwhelmingly "vintage-eligible" cars.
Over the past five years the Duesenberg market has seen "catalog-bodied" convertible coupes in the $500k-$750k range, phaetons and convertible sedans making slightly less, with sedans and limousines as low as $250k-$300k. Of four Duesenbergs to bring over a million in this time, two have been special-bodied roadsters, the ultimate luxury cars for the street or the concours stage. The highest price paid was for a Walker LaGrande roadster, which sold for $1,980,000 at RM Meadow Brook in 2001. (Originally restored in 1959, again in the 1970s, and apparently recently freshened, it won its class at this year's Pebble Beach Concours.)
So if the "normal" market for outstanding street Model Js is in the $1m-$2m range, just over twice that for this ultimate race-ready car seems reasonable. When the Meteor shows up in the pre-war class at Laguna Seca next year to run against the 8-Liter Bentleys, or when it leaves the starting line in Brescia to participate in the Mille Miglia, for the buyer who had the $4.4 million to spend, it will seem a small price to pay for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
(Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)
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