Retro Racing: Remembering Marv Jenkins

Automotive history in general, and auto racing in particular, lost one of its legendary pioneers Sept. 14, when Marvin Edward Jenkins died at home in St. George, Utah, after a recent illness. He was 88.

Marv was the son of David Abbott “Ab” Jenkins, who set more speed trials records than anyone, most of them at his beloved Bonneville (Utah) Salt Flats. Ab died in 1956, at age 73.

While Ab attracted most of the headlines, Marv was involved in his dad’s speed efforts from age 11 on, as a builder, mechanic and driver. In later years, Marv played the pivotal role in perpetuating Ab’s legend and the rescue/restoration of the most famous of Ab’s cars, the Mormon Meteor III.

Born in 1883 in Spanish Fork, Utah, Ab Jenkins’ family moved to Salt Lake City in 1887. He was attracted to motor vehicles and speed. He tried his hand at short track and cross-country motorcycle racing. When a new road was built on the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats in 1925, Ab was asked to race a train with a car for publicity. He won by five minutes and felt the salt beds would be a good place for speed trials, like Daytona Beach, Fla.

Marv was born Oct. 23, 1919, and was helping his father’s speed efforts by the time he was 11. That included driving Studebakers that Ab was using to set records. 
In 1932, Pierce-Arrow, owned by Studebaker at the time, hired Ab to get more performance out of its new V-12 engine. Ab did so, and thought a test at Bonneville would give P-A some much needed publicity. He took a stock Pierce-Arrow to Bonneville minus top, windshield and fenders, set out a 10-mile circular course and driving alone, set a 24-hour mark of 112.9 mph. Marv was involved in the process. It was not an official record, as no sanctioning body was involved.

A Pierce-Arrow return for 1933 brought more support and American Automobile Association (AAA) timing to make it official. Many records were set by Ab, including a 24-hour mark of 127.3 mph.

To fortify the 1934 Pierce-Arrow run, a new streamlined body was used. To help in its construction, 14-year-old Marv was sent by train to Buffalo, N.Y.
“We drove right out to the salt,” Marv said of the 1934 run. “We changed the points and plugs. That’s about all we did and then Dad went out and set a 24-hour record with an average speed of 127.9 mph. That was the last time he drove for Pierce-Arrow and the last time he drove the 24 hours himself.”

With Pierce-Arrow in financial problems, Ab’s next vehicles would come from Duesenberg, which was building a somewhat modified SJ roadster and wanted Ab to run it on the salt.

Using an unnumbered chassis and coming with two Model J straight eights (one supercharged engine plus an additional block and head), the Duesenberg Special was constructed by Augie Duesenberg in his shop across from the factory using the supercharged engine. Augie was not hired by Errett Lobban Cord when he bought Duesenberg in 1926, but his brother Fred (who died in 1932) was. Augie preferred building racing machinery and was given the task of readying the Duesenberg Special for its 1935 run. The supercharged straight-eight engine was modified by Augie Duesenberg and Ed Winfield.

After engine problems, it took a third attempt by Ab and co-driver Tony Gulotta.  Among the records was a 24-hour mark of 135.5 mph. With Duesenberg near the end of the line and no need for further speed runs, Ab bought the Duesenberg Special and spares for $4,800. However, it was not the end of the car’s exploits.

For 1936, Ab had the car modified to accept a Curtiss Conqueror V-12 aircraft engine. Marv was sent to Augie’s shop, at age 16, to help with the installation. No longer tied to Duesenberg, the car was renamed the Mormon Meteor.  Ab was a devout Mormon and credited the religion’s principles for his success.

With a tail-mounted fin, and new power, the Meteor again set several records, with Babe Stapp as a co-driver. For 24-hours it averaged 153.8 mph and for 48 it was good for 148.6.

Updated for 1937, the now Mormon Meteor II returned to set 87 more records. However, it still retained the more or less stock Duesenberg chassis and Ab felt it was no longer competitive. 

He and Marv returned the II to stock condition with a Duesenberg eight and together they drove it on public roads for some 20,000 miles before selling it in 1943. It changed hands several times and today has been restored by Harry Yeaggy.  It won best of show at Pebble Beach Concours in 2007. Ab and Marv were not done yet, and neither was Augie Duesenberg. They designed and built the Mormon Meteor III in Indianapolis. It had a new tube chassis and again drew on the Curtiss V-12, modified, for more power. Constructed in 1938, it was the last major race car Augie Duesenberg built.  It was given a shakedown run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Marv began working for Winfield, underage, in the garages at the Speedway. He helped set up the III for the Indy test.

Marv went on to become a pilot for Western Airlines at 21, and was a captain at 23. He still maintained his racing duties when time permitted. In 1940, Ab was able to run the III at Bonneville and with Cliff Bergere as a co-driver, set more records with a 24-hour mark of 161.2 mph. It would stand for nearly a half century. After that, the III was retired and sold to the state of Utah for $1, under the condition that it be displayed in the capitol and properly maintained. Ab at the time was the mayor of Salt Lake City due to his popularity, and would be so for four years. In 1941, Ab introduced Marv to a pageant beauty queen Noma Andrus and later that year they married. They were the parents of four children.

Marv continued his speed work after World War II, and worked on the Novi program. He was to drive in a Bonneville run with the Novi Indy car in 1947, but there were mechanical problems, a facet of Novi history for years to come.Ab reactivated the Mormon Meteor III for its last Bonneville record try on Labor Day 1950, and set 26 world/U.S. records including a top speed of 199.2 mph. A 12-mile track was laid out for these runs.  After that, the car returned to the care of Utah.
Ab and Marv’s final record-setting performance at Bonneville was in 1956, when they co-drove production ’56 Pontiacs to 26 records, including a 24-hour average of more than 118 mph.

Ab was chosen to drive the pace car for an August 1956 event at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. He died in Wisconsin on Aug. 9 while being driven to the track.
Marv moved to Texas as part of his aviation pilot career. He retired and moved to St. George, Utah, in 1982. While there, he heard that the Mormon Meteor III had been badly neglected by the state of Utah and even was lost.

He found it in the open in poor shape and in 1991, sought to reclaim it, as had been provided in Ab’s original contract.
Bureaucratic bungling resulted in Marv not getting legal possession until 1998.  He set out to restore the III to its original splendor and spent more than 7,000 hours and untold dollars in bringing it back to the way he remembered it.

“All my Dad ever wanted was for people, especially kids, to see the car,” Marv said. It was finished in 2001, and Marv tested it on a drag strip. It was supposed to make a demonstration run at Bonneville in 2002, but rain prevented it. Along with the III was a recreation of the 1934 Pierce-Arrow, faithfully constructed by John Hollansworth of Hot Springs, Ark. They were able to make their Bonneville run on Sept. 19, 2003. Speed records were no longer the quest. Hollansworth reportedly got the V-12 up to 114 mph and Marv was content to cruise the III at about 60 mph. 

In his final years, Marv Jenkins continued to show the Mormon Meteor III and spread the word to younger generations of the legend and cars of Ab Jenkins.

Marv Jenkins may have spent much of his life in the shadows of his famous father, Ab, but he saw to it that those shadows will remain with us for a long time to come.

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