Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tom Mix and his Duesenberg Come to Kingsport Aug. 12, 1934

Ben Sullivan and I have been joking for the past few years about Tom Mix’s Duesenberg.

Tom Mix was the old western movie star, probably the most famous cowboy star of the twenties. And Ben has told me for years about how Tom came to Kingsport with the circus when Ben was a little boy. Tom didn’t ride in on his famous horse Tony. He drove into town in a Duesenberg while Tony came on the circus train.

And I’ve been telling Ben that was probably the first time a Duesenberg came to Kingsport. And also probably the last. And we both laugh.

I saw Dave Berry at the Mason-Dixon reunion Saturday and I knew I could test my theory. No one in Kingsport knows more about old cars than Dave.

So I asked Dave: Could that have been the first time a Duesenberg came to town? And was it the last.

First a few words about the Duesenberg. It was manufactured in Auburn, Indiana from 1913 to 1937 and is generally regarded as the finest car ever manufactured in this country. Each auto – and there were only about 1,200 built over that 25-year period – was handmade. So they weren’t cheap. They cost a king’s ransom. Which explains why the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII owned one. Also King Carol II of Romania and the Duke of Windsor, the man who would be king.

In Hollywood Gary Cooper had one; also Clark Gable (when Gable saw Cooper’s he knew he had to have one), Howard Hughes, Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino. And Tom Mix.

That was the car that Mix drove into town in on August 12, 1934, a 1932 Duesenberg J-462 Custom Speedster.

Two days later he drove out of town, heading to Johnson City for the circus’s next date.

And, I joked, that was the last Kingsport saw of a Duesenberg.

Not exactly.

Dave Berry says a car collector from the Northeast brought a Duesenberg to Kingsport for a national car show ten years ago.

And there was one other appearance of the fabled car in Kingsport, an incident in the forties. Dave says, “A bunch of gypsies were driving a Duesenberg and they broke down on Chestnut Ridge.” Somehow the stranded travelers got hold of Frank Taylor, well-known for his skills repairing foreign cars. “They wanted to swap him for his Ford but they wanted $300 in addition. He didn’t have it.”

And thus Kingsport missed out on an opportunity for a home-owned Duesenberg.

We may never get that chance again. Duesenbergs, of which about 600 are thought to still exist, are much prized on the classic car auction circuit.

Tom Mix’s 1932 Duesenberg Speedster was sold at auction in 2003 for $530,000. Edsel Ford’s 1931 Speedster went for $1.76 million six months ago. A year earlier the last Duesenberg ever manufactured, a 1937/1940 Model SJ Cabriolet sold at auction for $2.55 million.

As for Tom Mix, he made only one more cowboy picture after his circus show in Kingsport.

He died in a car accident in the Arizona desert three years after visiting Kingsport. He was speeding down a road and ran into a construction detour. The old cowboy was driving a 1937 Cord 812 convertible, widely known as a Baby Duesenberg.

Tom Mix drove a Duesenberg similar to this 1932 Speedster into Kingsport on August 12, 1934.


At 12:05 PM, OpenID tennesseeguy said...

Oddly enough, before his Hollywood career Tom Mix was a law enforcement officer in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. More here:

At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be off topic but I found it interesting that there were ads for 2 different beer gardens on the Johnson City highway. The Silver Dollar and the Green Parrot. Both featured dancing and 1 was even open Sundays. That sounds pretty wild for Kingsport of 1934.


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