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Originally published Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Gable, Lombard and a '35 Duesenberg

Auto collecting: A custom-bodied Duesenberg Model JN is said to have played an important role in the romance of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. The car comes up for auction this month during the Pebble Beach Concours festivities.

The New York Times

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HOLLYWOOD — To begin a seduction, a couple could do worse than flirt in a 1935 Duesenberg. Clark Gable, known for his cars and his flirting, attended a celebrity gala held by the actress Carole Lombard on the evening of Jan. 25, 1936. Before the night was over, she and Gable went out for a ride in his rare Model JN Convertible Coupe, beginning one of the most famous affairs in Hollywood.

There are a lot of myths about the couple, but the way this story goes, they ended up a few miles away at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where Gable had a suite, and he invited her up for a visit, according to Gooding & Co. (http://www.goodingco.com/car/duesenberg), which is now selling the car. She famously replied, "Who do you think you are? Clark Gable?" (Another version of the story has her delivering the line on the dance floor that night).

Nevertheless, a scandalous affair ensued. Gable, still married, was often spotted in the Duesenberg with Lombard, driving from her bungalow on Hollywood Boulevard to nightspots, restaurants and hotels all over town.

"I've never seen a car with a history behind it like this one," said David Gooding, president of auction company, which is selling the car on Aug. 19, the day of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance near Monterey, Calif.

The car is also undeniably rare; fewer than a dozen JNs were built, only four of which were convertibles, the auction house said.

"The record for an American car sold at public auction is $10.34 million, for a Duesenberg — the 1931 Whittell Coupe — which we sold last year," Gooding said. "In many ways, however, Gable's 1935 JN is an even finer example."

During a test drive around old Santa Monica neighborhoods, the view down the Duesenberg's long hood is almost regal. Its 420-cubic-inch in-line 8-cylinder engine pulled like a train; it was reputed to have a 115-mph top speed "right off the showroom floor," Gooding said. Its wheelbase of nearly 12 feet gave the car a poised, sublime ride. And its enormous steering wheel guided the wheels straight and true, although its vacuum-assisted drum brakes provided somewhat uncertain stopping power.

It was suggested to Gooding that the elegant, 18-foot-long Duesenberg seemed to exude an aura of its own.

"I'm glad you said that," he replied. "I believe every car has a personality of its own, and I feel that about this car especially."

The Model JN that Gable bought originally had a body by Rollston. But Gable, who also owned a collection of other Duesenbergs, Packards and Mercedes-Benzes, took it to the coachbuilders Bohman & Schwartz in Pasadena, Calif., for a complete reworking.

"Not only did Gable sketch out many of the changes he wanted himself, he also got hands-on with it and worked on it himself," Gooding said. "I don't recall an example where a celebrity got so involved and essentially helped craft the car."

The modifications included a body-colored radiator cowl and headlamp pods, raked windshield, relocation of the side-mounted spare tires to a double-deck "continental kit" at the rear, rear fender skirts, chrome side pipe exhausts (with a driver-controlled bypass lever) and a handsome, stowable convertible top.

It was also repainted from a pale green to a luminous cream that seems to glow.

Gable and Lombard married in 1939. In 1941, they set off in the Duesenberg on an epic vacation that took them from Encino, Calif., to Vancouver, British Columbia, a trip of about 1,300 miles.In Vancouver, the couple saw the Duesenberg for the last time. They stored it there, planning to return the next year to drive it back to California. They took the train home.

In 1942, Lombard was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas. Gable, devastated, instructed an agent to sell the Duesenberg. Gable died in 1960.

The Duesenberg became a vagabond, crisscrossing the country, changing hands about a dozen times. It was repainted at least four different colors. Its engine was replaced in the 1950s.

But the current owner, Gooding said, acquired it in 2006 and ordered a restoration to the Gable era.

The car's odometer shows 13,416 miles. "It's really poignant when you consider how many of those miles were put on this car by Clark Gable himself, "Gooding said. "Usually with Carole Lombard by his side."

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