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1928-1936 Auburn Speedsters

1935-1936 Auburn Speedster
The redesigned Auburn Speedster returned in 1935.
The redesigned Auburn Speedster returned in 1935.

In March 1934, E. L. Cord packed up his family and temporarily moved to England, claiming to have received kidnapping threats against his two sons. In charge of things back home was his chief lieutenant, Lucius "Lew" Manning. But Manning was a financier, not an automobile man, and Duesenberg president Harold Ames was brought in to serve as executive vice president of Auburn. There wasn't much activity at Duesenberg by that time, and Ames was able to bring with him Gordon Buehrig and August Duesenberg, respectively chief stylist and chief engineer at Duesenberg, Inc.

Leamy's design for the 1934 Auburn, though it looks acceptable enough in retrospect, went over like the proverbial lead balloon at the time. A crash program was undertaken to make the design more acceptable to the public. Buehrig was charged with the responsibility of facelifting the Auburn, while Duesenberg's job was to find some inexpensive way to enhance Auburn's performance image. Their budget, including tooling, was a minuscule $50,000.

In his book, Rolling Sculpture, Buehrig recalled, "With a $50,000 budget we couldn't do much. The decision was made to do nothing to the chassis or body and to concentrate on the front end sheet metal and fenders. Both front and rear fenders were changed, with a deeper skirt on both. We designed a larger, more impressive radiator shell and radiator grille and a new hood on which we eliminated the long-time Auburn trademark of the body 'sidebelt' running into the hood. ..."

1935 Auburn Speedsters were adapted to leftover 1933 Speedster bodies.
1935 Auburn Speedsters were adapted to leftover 1933 Speedster bodies.

It was an extraordinarily effective job and with high hopes riding on it, the redesigned 1935 line was rushed into production in mid-1934. But something very special was needed for the auto shows that winter. Harold Ames was aware that something like 100 speedster bodies were left over from the 1931-1933 run. Gordon Buehrig quickly adapted the older body to the 1935 chassis, fashioning a new hood to match up the 1935 radiator with the 1933 cowl.

Meanwhile, Augie Duesenberg had developed a highly efficient (and relatively quiet) supercharger, calculated to give the new Speedster (or, at the buyer's option, any eight-cylinder Auburn) a level of performance that was little short of awesome. The 1931-1933 Speedsters with a normally aspirated 270-cubic-inch eight were listed at 100 horsepower; with 10 more cubic inches of displacement and Duesenberg's "blower," the 1935 version was rated at 150 horses.

Auburn claimed that each of the supercharged Speedsters was road tested at speeds in excess of 100 mph before delivery. A plaque affixed to the dashboard of each car attested to the speed at which it had supposedly been driven, each label bearing the signature of either Wade Morton or "Ab" Jenkins. The truth of the matter appears to be that, although all of the Speedsters were doubtless capable of topping 100 mph, no more than one car in five was actually tested.

The third-generation Speedster was carried over unchanged into 1936. It compiled something like 70 speed records over the two-year period of its production, a remarkable performance for a $2,245 automobile. Buehrig estimated that approximately 600 of these formidable machines were built, though Auburn historians now put the number at about 180; it is said that Auburn lost money on every one of them. But that can't take into account the publicity value the Speedster brought to Auburn.

Sales of the bread-and-butter Auburn sedans were faltering, however, doubtless in large part because the public was dubious about the company's future. Nobody cares to be stuck with an "orphan" car. Production was halted during August 1936, though the Cord automobile carried on for one more season and a handful of Duesenbergs were built to special order during that period.

A year to the month later, E. L. Cord sold his holdings in the Cord Corporation (the holding company for his varied business interests, including carmaking) for a modest $2.6 million. But of course, by the time Cord sold out there were no more Auburn Speedsters, no more Auburns of any kind, for that matter. A pity, for Auburn, especially with its three generations of Speedsters, had built some of the most exciting automobiles American motorists had ever seen.

On the next page, learn about the 1928 Auburn Cabin Speedster, a one-off enclosed sport coupe that got a lot of attention.

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