Jay Leno: Duesy Set Bonneville Records in 1930s that Stand Today
March 1, 2009 4:03 PM
Long before megasponsors, endurance racing pioneer Ab Jenkins raced for the love of the sport, sometimes driving for more than 24 hours straight. Jay Leno had a chance to test drive Jenkins's custom Duesenberg, the Mormon Meteor III, a 750 hp monster that takes some real elbow grease to steer.
By Jay Leno
Photographs by John Lamm
Published in the March 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics.
David Abbott “Ab” Jenkins was one of America’s least known motorsports heroes. He spent years setting long-distance speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, beginning back in 1932. That was decades before the Southern California Timing Association, which runs today’s Bonneville Speed Week, sanctioned racing there. Ab was a motorsports pioneer.
In the early years, Bonneville had a 10-mile circular track, so racers could run 12, 24 or even 48 hours—stopping only to refuel. There wasn’t much sponsorship in those days. If you got a case of motor oil it was like, “Hey, I got some free oil!” Years ago, an average guy could build a land-speed car in his garage and go set a record.
Like other racers of his era, Ab raced for the love of the sport—he did it all himself. Not only was he the driver, but he had to be the engineer, the R&D guy—and he had to build the car too. He knew when it broke, knew when it was running perfectly, and he could drive it for 24 hours straight at 160 mph.
Ab had that great all-American-boy stuff of the 1930s. Today we have kids who are almost inherently computer whizzes. In Ab’s day, there was a generation of boys who were mechanically adept. Almost from birth, they could pick up something and go, “This is off by a few thousandths of an inch here.” Ab wanted to be a good role model for those kids. So he always drank milk. He didn’t touch liquor, caffeine or drugs. Ab Jenkins was a Mormon, and his car was aptly named the Mormon Meteor.
Ab’s Mormon Meteor ties together two great elements of American automotive history: Bonneville and the Duesenberg brothers. Ab’s Meteor, a 1935 Duesenberg Special, had a streamlined body and a supercharged 420-cu-in. straight Eight that developed around 400 hp. On his third attempt in the Mormon Meteor, Ab beat British racer John Cobb’s record, averaging 135.58 mph for 24 hours.
Of course, Ab wanted to go even faster, so he got a Curtiss Conquerer aircraft engine—a 1570-cu-in. V12 that put out 750 hp. Augie Duesenberg designed a new bellhousing and flywheel to replace the old propeller drive. Working with Ab’s son, Marvin, Augie oversaw the V12’s installation. They changed the car’s name to the Mormon Meteor II. And in the summer of 1936, Ab averaged 164.47 mph for 500 kilometers (about 310 miles), breaking the record of British driver George Eyston. With Babe Stapp as his relief driver, Ab averaged 153.82 mph for 24 hours, and stayed in the car to do 148.64 mph for an amazing 48 hours. In 1937, with Indy winner Louis Meyer co-driving, Ab averaged 157.27 mph over 3700 miles in the Meteor to break his own record.
But the Curtiss V12 was too heavy for the Duesenberg chassis and the car understeered at high speeds, so Ab had Augie design a new chassis. This car became the more streamlined Mormon Meteor III. In those days, streamlining was whatever you thought it was. Nobody was testing in wind tunnels. It was all just common-sense engineering. The Meteor III’s body was offset 6 in. on its chassis, because the records were run in huge circles for hours and hours. Imagine driving in a circle for 24 hours straight at over 170 mph. People get exhausted today driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco with the air conditioner and all the other stuff on.
In July 1939 Ab had been running the Meteor III with a huge tail fin for added stability for 3 hours at over 171 mph. Suddenly, a fire caused by an overfilled fuel tank engulfed the car. Locked in the cockpit, Ab was rescued by Marvin, who pried off the canopy. Just a few weeks later, still recovering from his burns, Ab climbed back in the Meteor III and broke all the 12-hour endurance records. Talk about an ironman!
Long-distance running at high speed is a lonely business. It doesn’t have the glamour and the glitz of nose-to-nose competition. Guys who do this sport toil in obscurity. Amazingly, some of Ab’s records are still standing. In 1943 he sold the Meteor to the state of Utah for $1. He could have sold it to make money, but he donated it because he loved his state. Periodically he’d borrow it to set more records. Today it’s the star of the forthcoming John Price Museum of Speed in Salt Lake City.
Recently, I had a chance to start up the Meteor. It fires up like an old car—if you were born after 1980 you may not understand. You turn the key of a car today, and there’s no sense of warmup or waiting for things to settle in; you just go. But there’s a mechanical sensitivity to old cars. You start ’em and, as the cylinders kick in one by one, they go, PUHPUHPUHPUHooommmmpuhpuhpuh! You give it a little gas and ease the choke back in to keep it from stalling and maintain that mixture exactly where it should be. There’s a great sense of mechanicalness to it.
Although I only drove the Meteor a few hundred yards, it went GUHGUHGUHGUH, and I could feel the tremendous thrust. Engines now are more efficient, and they make more power, but there’s nothing like those big displacement engines for torque. You let the gas out, the car leaps forward and you say, “Geez, I didn’t do anything.” You’re moving a lot of metal here. Just to turn this thing, I’d think your arms would ache—but you’re mechanically involved.
It’s not unlike my watch. At the end of an evening, I like to pick it up and turn the mainspring. It just goes clickclickclickclick—it’s a very satisfying click. And I feel like I’ve done something. You either get a kick out of that or you don’t. Ab Jenkins would like my watch.