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Duesenberg Model SJ Mormon Meteor Special, J-557, 1935

  • Duesenberg J-557 was built by David Abbott Jenkins, Herbert Newport, and Augie Duesenberg for the purpose of attempting land speed records. The trio succeeded, notably with a record of averaging 135.57 mph over 24 hours, and a record of averaging 153.97 mph over one hour. All record attempts were conducted on the Bonneville Salt Flats, running a large, ten-mile ring. Set in autumn of 1935 (sources vary between August and October), the 24-hour speed record would stand until 1961.
  • Notable of these records is that they were captured by a car that was ostensibly a modified stock chassis and drivetrain, which speaks volumes of the engineering brilliance that defined Duesenberg. At the time, no American car manufacturer produced a motor that approached half of the Model J's performance. And the Special prepared by Jenkins and Duesenberg improved on that margin of superiority. Stock Lycoming straight 8-cylinder motors yielded about 265 bhp, whereas the modified unit in the original speed record car broached 400. High-lift cams pushing a 7.5:1 compression ratio, massive updraft carburetors, new intake manifolds, and a centrifugal supercharger proved both powerful and reliable. Not to be exclusive to racing, these modifications were later applied to numerous road-going Model Js.
  • Following his success in late 1935, Jenkins purchased the car from Duesenberg for $4,800. He then replaced the modified Lycoming 8-cylinder with a Curtiss Conqueror V-12 aero motor. With over 600 horsepower, the car reclaimed and reset numerous records in its dossier. Jenkins and Babe Stapp raised the 24-hour record to an average of 153.82 mph, and set a record for averaging 148.64 mph over 48 hours. However, the weight of the V-12 over-taxed the Model J chassis, causing strong understeer at speed. Thus, further speed record runs would be attempted with a purpose-built car.
  • Jenkins returned the car to road use, resintalling the original modified Lycoming unit, J-557. Along with his son, Marvin, Ab would put more than 20,000 miles on the car in private use. Even after Jenkins' ownership, the car continued to receive regular care and frequent use, notably while the property of the Kershaw family, who owned J-557 from 1959 to 2004.
  • Note that the vehicle depicted here is the Duesenberg Special run at Bonneville in 1935 under Lycoming power, and it is also the Mormon Meteor run at Bonneville in 1936 and 37 under Curtiss power. The Mormon Meteor name was applied retroactively to the original Special, prompting the Curtiss-powered version to be renamed the Mormon Meteor II. But again, they are two versions of the same car. Also note, even though we identify all Model Js by their engine numbers, this particular car has no chassis number, and is perhaps unique among Duesenbergs for it.
  • Ab Jenkins' specialty was endurance records. Already by 1935 he had driven a specially prepared Auburn and a Pierce-Arrow at Bonneville, in addition to over 40 cross-continental runs. Surprisingly, however, Jenkins was not a proponent of wheel-to-wheel racing. Though he enjoyed the business of chasing records, he confined high-speed motoring to closed circuits, and according to most, maintained a nearly irreproachable driving record, never receiving a speeding ticket and only once merging car with obstacle. That incident occurred in 1951, when he connected with a water slick at 200 miles per hour.
  • Of the man's personality, you will note that the Mormon Meteor moniker gives a nod to Jenkins' affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But beyond the obvious, Jenkins was a keen marketer. He understood the value of endorsements, and used his widely acknowledged good character to secure funding from all manner of companies over the course of his driving career. It was owing to this knack for sponsorship deals that Jenkins was able to manufacturer a driving career in the first place, though he did serve a stint as the 24th mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah.
  • Interestingly, while all this automotive commotion was happening, Ab Jenkins entered into a playful duel with performance motoring veteran Barney Oldfield... on tractors. Again, the impetus was advertising. In this case, tyre manufacturers wanted to prove to farmers the value of rubber tyres to replace tradition steel wheels. FIrestone teamed with Oldfield, who began running high-speed demonstrations, topping 64 miles per hour. Meanwhile, Jenkins also teamed with Firestone up for a tour of their own. On an Allis-Chalmers with specially designed tyres, Jenkins would prep for his automotive speed runs with a few open-air sprints on the tractor. He set a record of 68 mph-plus at Bonneville, comparing the experience to riding "a frightened bison."


Last Updated: Aug 19, 2017