Clark Gable owned this rare Duesenberg Model JN convertible coupe until his wife, Carole Lombard, died in 1942. According to The Duesenberg Registry, he left the vehicle in Canada when his wife died. Gable instructed that the car never be seen in California while he was still alive.
- 420 CID DOHC Inline 8-Cylinder Engine
- Single Downdraft Carburetor
- 265 HP at 4,200 RPM
- 3-Speed Manual Gearbox
- 4-Wheel Hydraulic Drum Brakes
- Live-Axle Suspension with Semi-Elliptical Leaf Springs and Double-Acting Hydraulic-Lever Shock Absorbers
From auctioneers, Gooding & Company:
For all its visual splendor and technological excellence, the Model J could not have been introduced in more difficult times. While Duesenberg intended an initial run of 500 chassis for 1929, the Great Depression changed the face of the luxury car market overnight. The few individuals who possessed the means and confidence to purchase the phenomenally expensive Model J were of a rarified breed.
Just three years after the Model J was unveiled, Duesenberg began offering variants of the standard chassis with the hope of buoying sales. The supercharged SJ appeared in 1932 and proved popular with 36 examples built. Yet not all buyers were interested strictly in performance. By the mid-1930s, Duesenberg was offering a pricey car that didn’t even look particularly up-to-date. Other high-end manufacturers such as Cadillac, Packard and even Pierce-Arrow were adopting the latest streamlined styling, and the Model J was beginning to look obsolete.
In 1935, Duesenberg came up with the JN. In an attempt to imbue the new JN series with a clean, modern image and restore integrity to the marque’s refined aesthetic sensibilities, Duesenberg commissioned Rollston of New York City to fashion a line of tasteful body styles.
As one of Duesenberg’s longest-standing and most trusted collaborators, Rollston succeeded in combining streamlined contours with the elegant, classical restraint of the original Model J. In total, just three body styles were offered: convertible coupes and convertible sedans were available on the standard-length chassis, while sport sedans were produced strictly for the long-wheelbase chassis.
Signature styling cues included soft, sweeping curves, smaller 17" disc wheels, skirted front fenders, small dual taillights in place of the classic Duesenberg “stop” light and elegant carriage-body sills that brought the bottom of the doors very close to the running boards. On all JN body styles, the roofline, beltline and side molding were carefully arranged and integrated to introduce a long, sloping rear deck and thus, a graceful profile.
It is believed that only 10 JNs were built, of which four examples were bodied as convertible coupes, style number 434. All of Rollston’s JN body styles were delivered to Duesenberg “in the white,” ready for paint and trim to customer preference.
Today, these extremely rare Model JNs are fixtures in the finest classic car collections and are considered among the most attractive of the late-production Duesenbergs.
CLARK GABLE AND HIS MOTORCARS
Clark Gable, known during his heyday as “The King of Hollywood,” gained extraordinary fame for his legendary silver screen roles and projected the very essence of masculinity. In an industry characterized by its capriciousness, Gable maintained the affection of moviegoers longer than most stars of the era. As one of the top-ten box office attractions for two decades, marquees throughout the country would simply announce, “This week: Clark Gable.”
Offscreen, Gable was an avid sportsman who enjoyed duck shooting, fishing and the finest automobiles. Not only did Gable’s wealth and celebrity status grant him access to the most glamorous motorcars, he also had a genuine hands-on passion and appreciation for them.
In Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable, Lyn Tornabene writes: “Whenever he’s needed on the set, and not in sight, somebody is sent for him under all the parked cars, and usually he’s under one...tinkering. His former secretary, Jean Garceau...says that whenever she needs him she calls all the service stations on Ventura Boulevard until she finds him. He would have made a first-class mechanic or chauffeur. He’s got so much axle grease in the pores of his hands, no amount of scrubbing will remove it.”
Over the years, Gable developed into one of Hollywood’s first great car enthusiasts and owned an impressive array of automobiles, including top-of- the-line Packard Roadsters, Model J Duesenbergs and the rarest and most exclusive one-off Fords. Even after WWII, he continued to indulge in his passion and acquired the latest European sports cars, from a Jaguar XK120 to a Mercedes-Benz 300 Sc Cabriolet and 300 SL Gullwing.
Of all the cars Clark Gable owned, none possesses the remarkable history and romance of the sensational automobile presented here.
A HOLLYWOOD ROMANCE
The last of four JN Convertible Coupes built, this striking open Duesenberg was originally delivered to the factory’s Los Angeles, California, branch in December 1935. Following the New Year, the handsome Rollston-bodied Duesenberg, chassis 2585, engine J-560, was sold to its first owner, Clark Gable.
On January 25th, Gable drove his brand-new Duesenberg Model JN to the White Mayfair Ball in Beverly Hills. It was on this fateful night that a casual friendship between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard began to blossom into Hollywood’s most poignant romance.
Four years earlier, they had co-starred in No Man of Her Own, a comedy about a card shark who weds a small-town beauty on a bet. At that time, Gable had yet to achieve great recognition and Lombard was happily married to debonair actor William Powell.
By January 1936, both Gable and Lombard were household names and the circumstances of their personal lives had each taken a dramatic turn.
Lombard divorced Powell in 1934 and became one of the highest-paid actresses in America, earning over $450,000 in one year for three movies and a series of popular radio shows. Gable – the 35-year-old heartthrob and star of It Happened One Night and San Francisco – had established himself as a successful leading man but felt trapped in a doomed marriage with Ria Langham, an oil heiress seven years his senior.
At the Mayfair Ball, Gable and Lombard spent a great deal of time together, shared dances and eventually slipped away to take a spin in the new Duesenberg. When Gable stopped in front of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he was then living, he asked Lombard if she wanted to come up to his suite.
“Who do you think you are?” Lombard exclaimed, “Clark Gable?”
Undeterred, Gable returned with Lombard to the party and asked her out on a proper date. A few days later, Lombard acquiesced.
Less than a week after the chance meeting in Beverly Hills, Gable arrived at Lombard’s house in the middle of a Winter downpour. According to Lombard, the splashy Duesenberg Convertible was “leaking like toilet paper,” a situation that she found quite amusing and he found deeply embarrassing.
In no time at all, Gable approached his preferred coachbuilder, Bohman & Schwartz of Pasadena, to have his Duesenberg dramatically updated. Not only was the Convertible Coupe in need of weatherproofing, Gable felt that the subtle Rollston design was far too conventional for his needs. After all, a Hollywood leading man needed to stand out in a crowd.
To realize his automotive fantasies, Gable worked in cooperation with legendary designer Wellington Everett Miller. Widely regarded as one of the most talented and influential automotive stylists of the 1930s, Miller worked as the head designer for two of the most respected American coachbuilding firms, Locke and Murphy, and helped Packard create a series of elegant production bodies. An early adopter of Art Deco-inspired streamlined features, Miller successfully updated many Duesenbergs and his designs for Bohman & Schwartz represent the very best of mid-1930s automobile styling.
As this car was to be for his personal use, Gable envisioned the JN Convertible Coupe as a sporting two-seat roadster that was as theatrical as its owner. Throughout the design process, Gable was intimately involved and worked in tandem with Miller to create the highly individualized coachwork. The result is one of the most successful collaborations between an owner and a coachbuilder. Gable had a preternatural instinct for automobiles and his wonderfully stylized Duesenberg JN Convertible Coupe is a splendid exaggeration of the classic American roadster – sporting, sassy and absolutely grand in every sense.
Contributing to the overall impression of length is a dramatically raked windscreen, rear-fender spats and a full-length hood that stretches past the firewall, terminating at the trailing edge of the cowl. This marvelous lengthening effect is further accentuated by the use of “continental-style” dual rear spares, each enclosed in a metal cover, the effect of which is dramatic and unique to this car.
Gable also requested rectangular mesh hood sides, scooped and V’d hood ventilators, elegant single-bar bumpers and distinctive sun visors with a unique articulating hinge that allows for clean, uninterrupted storage. Other noteworthy additions include external exhaust pipes, painted radiator shell and headlights and a reworked convertible mechanism that gives the car a sleek, integrated look even when the top is raised.
Finished in a light, monochromatic color scheme and equipped with whitewall tires, Gable’s Convertible Coupe has a clean, modern appearance that is entirely unique.
As his Duesenberg was nearing completion, Gable was told to arrive at the Bohman & Schwartz workshop on a Friday to collect his freshly styled car. When he and Lombard arrived in the morning, they were informed that the car was not quite ready and that they could pick it up after lunch. Rather than dine on their own, the couple felt the circumstance warranted a celebration and returned to the coachbuilder with sandwiches and champagne for everyone. As the atmosphere became increasingly jovial and champagne was consumed steadily, it was soon clear that the car was not going to be completed by the end of the working day.
Gable assured them that this was not a problem and asked that the car be delivered to him at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. At this point Chris Bohman, then a student in college, volunteered to deliver the car to Gable, as his formal dance was being held at the hotel’s ballroom the following evening. On his way to Beverly Hills, Bohman collected his date in the one-off Duesenberg and upon his arrival at the Beverly Wilshire, Gable and Lombard came down to see the finished creation.
A few hours later, while Chris Bohman and his date were seated in the ballroom, the door opened and the whole room fell silent. Gable walked up to the young Bohman, thanked him for delivering the car and asked if he could join their table for dessert. Gable was particularly pleased, as Lombard had enjoyed the restyled Duesenberg as much as he did. After dessert had been served, the band started up and everyone returned to the dance floor. In classic style, Gable asked Bohman if he could have the first dance with his date and then proceeded to dance with every girl in the room.
Throughout the following year, Gable and Lombard enjoyed a romantic courtship and by 1937, the duo was so inseparable that they were cited in a Photoplay article as one of “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives.” The situation was increasingly problematic for Gable, who was then competing for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind and did not need the additional notoriety. With the encouragement of MGM head Louis B. Mayer, Gable filed for divorce from Ria Langham.
Around this time, Gable’s Duesenberg was becoming a star in its own right. Featured in the Hal Roach comedy Merrily We Live, starring Brian Aherne and Constance Bennett, the striking JN Convertible Coupe was refinished in a darker color and further updated with bullet headlights for its big screen debut.
On March 29, 1939, as soon as he had a break from the production of Gone with the Wind, Gable and Lombard drove to Kingman, Arizona, and were married. The only other person in attendance was Otto Winkler, Gable’s press agent. Considered one of the happiest couples in movie land, they settled in an elaborately restored farmhouse in then-rural Encino, California, where they led a quiet, idyllic life.
In 1941, Gable and Lombard drove the Duesenberg up the West Coast to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they vacationed in the unspoiled scenery and watched the thoroughbreds run at Lansdowne racetrack. When their stay was finished, Gable left the Duesenberg in a garage at the track and he and Lombard returned to Los Angeles by train. Their plan was to return the following year, take the train up the coast, collect the car and return home. Sadly, this was not to be.
On January 16, 1942, Carole Lombard, along with her mother and Otto Winkler, boarded a TWA DC-3 to return to California following a successful war bond rally; 23 minutes after taking off from Las Vegas, Nevada, their plane crashed into Potosi Mountain, killing all 22 passengers aboard.
Gable and Lombard’s six-year romance – perhaps the greatest Tinseltown love story – ended in misery. No Hollywood writer would ever imagine such a tragic ending.
Following Lombard’s death, Gable was inconsolable and fell into a deep depression. On August 12, 1942, he joined the US Army Air Corps and trained to serve in aerial gunnery. During the war, he flew five combat missions, including one over Germany as an observer gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. According to legend, Gable was Hitler’s favorite actor; the leader of Germany offered a substantial reward to any person who could bring the star to him unscathed.
Even after his return to American soil, Gable remained deeply saddened by the loss of his wife. According to his friend David E. Jordan, Gable said that he could never bring himself to ride in the Duesenberg again without Lombard. It was the car that they had their first date in and it held too many painful memories for him to own it any longer.
Instructed by Gable to sell the car, Mr. Jordan travelled to Vancouver and had the track manager get the Duesenberg out of the garage. Freed after years of static storage, the car was tuned by a local mechanic and driven south to Los Angeles, where it was consigned to a local dealer – either Bob Roberts or Peter Satori – with orders to sell the car to someone outside California.
By the late 1940s, Gable’s Duesenberg ended up in the hands of Donald Ballard, a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose parents led the popular “I AM” religious movement in Los Angeles. During this period, Mr. Ballard owned another open Duesenberg – a Murphy Roadster equipped with a similarly raked windscreen. After some time, Mr. Ballard sold both Duesenbergs to S.P. Motors of Albuquerque, New Mexico, operated by Alta and Earl Sanders and James Palmer.
S.P. Motors specialized in Duesenberg motorcars and acquired at least seven Model Js throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. During this period, Sanders installed engine J-521 in the Gable Duesenberg, although the original, highly visible bell-housing number, J-560, has always remained intact.
In August 1951, G.W. Cleven of Albuquerque offered the Duesenberg for sale, asking $3,750. The car was eventually sold to professional wrestler Robert “Hans” Hermann, who paid $2,500 for the aging classic. Hermann, who was half of the successful and essentially unbeatable tag team with “Killer Kowalski,” won the NWA Pacific Coast Tag title in 1951.
From there, the Duesenberg was sold to Richard S. Luntz of Indianapolis, Indiana, who consigned it with Chicago, Illinois, Rolls-Royce and Duesenberg dealer “Honest John” Troka. In October 1953, Troka sold the Gable Duesenberg to Paul V. Colianni of Arlington, Illinois, who paid a record price of $4,500. By this time, the Duesenberg had been refinished in maroon and equipped with a single rear spare.
Although Mr. Colianni owned a lovely home, his single-car garage could not accommodate the imposing Duesenberg and it was instead displayed at Troka’s showroom before relocating to Joseph Kaufmann’s shop in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
In late 1973, Charles H. Johnson, Jr., a Ford dealer and Duesenberg collector, acquired the Gable Duesenberg after chasing it for many years. “It was a dirty old rusty brown,” Johnson recalled, “The front was off, the hood was off. But I want to tell you she was still gorgeous! I paid $75,000 for the car. It was a very fair price.”
Mr. Johnson treated the Duesenberg to its first comprehensive restoration and displayed it with great success, earning a string of ACD, AACA and CCCA awards throughout the late 1970s. For three months in 1979, the famed Duesenberg JN was exhibited at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg (ACD) Museum in Auburn, Indiana.
In May 1980, Jerome Sauls of Pennsylvania acquired the Duesenberg, only to sell it to P.A. Parviz of London, England, two years later. In January 1983, Tom W. Barrett, III discovered the Duesenberg in a Beverly Hills garage and bought the car from Mr. Parviz. From there, the Model JN joined the famed Behring Collection and was displayed as part of the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, California. In 1995, Chairman Lee purchased the Duesenberg and it continued to remain a fixture at Blackhawk for the next decade.
In 2006, the current caretaker acquired the Gable Duesenberg and immediately set about returning the car to its original splendor. To conduct the restoration of this important automobile, the owner enlisted the services of Stone Barn Automobile Restorations in Vienna, New Jersey, a leading restorer specializing in the great coachbuilt American classics.
When it was unveiled at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2007, the magnificently restored JN Convertible Coupe justifiably earned a prestigious special award: the Gwenn Graham Most Elegant Convertible Trophy. A remarkable testament to the quality and accuracy of the restoration work, as well as the inherent significance of this car, the Gable Duesenberg has since taken Best of Show honors at two of the most prestigious concours venues – Amelia Island and Meadowbrook. Having been treated to attentive care in one of the world’s great classic car collections, the Duesenberg remains in show-quality condition inside and out.
Commissioned by the most recognizable actor of the 1930s, this one-of-a-kind JN Convertible Coupe possesses the unmistakable imprimatur of its original owner. Not only is the photo of Clark Gable posing with his stylish custom-built JN Convertible Coupe one of the most iconic images of a classic automobile, it is also integral to the fabric of popular culture.
The legacy of this car has powerful, lasting connections to the Golden Age of the American film industry, the art of custom coachbuilding and the pioneering years of car collecting. In its inspired origins and glamorous early history, it scales the heights of automotive folklore. Unique, dramatic and instantly recognizable, this legendary Duesenberg is arguably the most iconic example of all.
An exceptionally beautiful and important automobile, Clark Gable’s Duesenberg is to many the holy grail of American classics and possesses each and every quality that connoisseurs demand of a collectible object: impeccable presentation, extraordinary pedigree and the magnetic, show-stopping personality that defines a true Hollywood star.
The auction estimate is $9,000,000.