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How Marmon Cars Work


1931 Marmon Eights
Flagging sales left this 1932 Marmon touring model as one of the last production cars the company would debut.

As if the Sixteen weren't enough, Marmon offered five different Eights in two 1931 series. The first series, announced in August 1930, comprised the 120-inch wheelbase Model 79 with the 110-bhp, 303.2-cid engine; the 114-inch Model 69 with an 84-bhp, 211.2-cid engine; and the 136-inch Big Eight, still with a 125-bhp, 315.2-cid powerplant.

The last became the Model 88 for the "second series" issued in January 1931, and was reduced some $450 to spark sales -- which it didn't. At the same time came a new Model 70 to replace both the model 79 and the 69; it used the 69's engine but sold for $950-$1045, far less than its predecessors.

Despite this weeding out of less-popular models, Marmon sales dropped by over half. Registrations (the only reliable figures available) totaled 5687 for calendar '31, good for only 25th in the industry between LaSalle and struggling Reo. Sixteen sales were hobbled by a long delay.

Prototypes attracted much attention at the winter auto shows, but deliveries didn't begin until April 1931. By that point, most prospects had opted for a Cadillac Sixteen or something less conspicuous. As a result, Cadillac's Sixteen outsold Marmon's by a 10-to-1 margin.

Besides plummeting sales, Marmon was also now contending with wracking internal problems. The engineering department split into two warring camps, production people had trouble getting out the Sixteens, and the sales force was struggling to overcome the Roosevelt's low-bucks image.

Retrenchment seemed the only course, so the 1932 line was pared to just the Sixteen, the 70, and the 125. The last was a two-model line offered on a 125-inch wheelbase to replace the Big Eight/88, and it gave away nothing but a shorter distance between the wheel centers and many dollars in price. Both the sedan and coupe listed for just $1420 versus $2220-$2920 for comparable predecessor models. Yet for all this, registrations were the lowest yet, just 1365.

Those price and model reductions left some feeling that Marmon was about to leave the fine-car field. Actually, it was preparing to do just the opposite. For 1933, the Sixteen was the only Marmon you could buy, and you could get one for about $1000 less on average. The coupe and sedan dropped to $4825, the seven-passenger sedan fell to $4975, and the convertible sedan eased to $5075. Specifications were unchanged.

The price cuts didn't solve the big problem. Marmon Motor Car Company was broke. It was duly sold in January 1934 to the American Automotive Corporation, organized and backed by Harry Miller, the famed Indy race-car designer, and a hot-shot promoter named Preston Tucker, whose own postwar car would win both fame and infamy. But they couldn't get things moving again, so Marmon was liquidated by receivers in 1937. The new company produced Marmon-Herrington trucks into the 1980s and truck components, such as four-wheel-drive conversions, after that.

Left stillborn was the HCM Special, a revolutionary V-12 car designed by Howard Marmon and chassis engineer George Freers. This envisioned a cut-down Sixteen with four-wheel independent suspension, tubular "backbone" frame, and an aluminum body with new Teague styling highlighted by slab sides, pontoon fenders, and integral headlamps and trunk. A prototype was built for $160,000, financed out of necessity from Howard's personal fortune, but it never had a chance. It was stored on the Marmon estate in North Carolina until Howard's death in 1943, eventually it made its way to industrial designer Brooks Stevens' automotive museum in Mequon, Wisconsin.

Like so many other makes, Marmon fell victim to the Depression for lack of corporate strength and a strong market base. All it had was brilliant engineering and bold visions. Too bad they weren't enough for any car company in those very hard times.

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