The 1928 Auburn Speedster was Errett Lobban Cord's attempt to combine performance and style to boost sales. For an automobile company executive, Cord was a pretty good showman. One of his most spectacular productions, the Speedster was a racy image-builder car that proved to be a genuine bargain, to boot.
Panache: That was the word for the Auburn automobile, at least from the time Errett Lobban Cord entered the picture during the closing months of 1924. Barely 30 years old at the time, he found himself appointed general manager of a moribund firm whose principle assets consisted of some 700 unsold (and seemingly unsaleable) black cars cluttering up the company's storage lots. Output had fallen to something like six cars a week, and there was little prospect of finding buyers for even those few.
Cord, who always had an eye for something flashy, ordered the cars repainted in bright, eye-catching hues. The tops were chopped a little to lower the overall height, and a dash of nickel plate was added here and there. Thus revised and updated, and with prices lowered somewhat, the cars sold quickly, providing the company with some desperately needed working capital.
Looking ahead, Cord could see that radical changes would be required if the company was to be saved from an early death. Two areas, he concluded, held the keys to Auburn's future: performance and stying. Turning to performance first, he augmented his company's six-cylinder lines with a Lycoming-powered Auburn straight-eight, the 8-88. By mid-1927, an 8-88 placed second in a 75-mile stock-car race held at the Atlantic City Speedway. Piloted by veteran race driver Wade Morton, who was to become Auburn's chief test driver, the car crossed the finish line less than a second behind the winning Stutz, a car that sold for nearly double the Auburn's reasonable price of $1,695. On the Fourth of July, Morton rolled home the victor in a 100-miler at Salem, New Hampshire. The marque's performance image was taking shape.
At the same time. Auburn had become one of the industry's fashion leaders as well, with a design that featured two-tone paint and a beltline that swept up over the top of the hood, terminating at a point just behind the radiator cap. And in an era when most of the competition outfitted their cars with 20- or 21-inch wheels. Auburn used 18-inch hoops, contributing substantially to the car's low profile.
But something more was needed: an image-builder, a car that would draw the public to Auburn showrooms, one that would catch the eye and capture the imagination of motorists of all ages. A speedster!
In the end, over a period of nearly nine years -- with a couple of interruptions -- Auburn built three increasingly stunning generations of Speedsters. All of them rank among the most memorable automobiles ever produced.
On the next page, learn about the first generation of these flashy cars, the 1928-1930 Auburn Speedsters.
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1928-1929 Auburn Speedster
The 1928 Auburn Speedster took over plans that were already in place for a "second series" Auburn line planned for January of that year, a replacement for the warmed-over 1927 cars that constituted the "first series." In addition to a six-cylinder line there were two Lycoming-powered eights in this new roster: the Model 88, rated at 88 horsepower (as the reader might surmise); and the Model 115, also with horsepower to match its title.
To put these numbers in perspective, recall that this was at a time when the most powerful Buick was rated at 77 horsepower, and even the Cadillac could muster no more than 90. And by way of providing stopping power to match their speed, the new models would feature hydraulic brakes, something neither Buick nor Cadillac would adopt for another eight years.
These advances added up to a perfect basis for a Speedster. Or even two of them, one on the 8-88 chassis, the other on the 8-115. Although at least one source credits Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky with styling the new Speedsters, the work appears to have been that of Al Leamy, then a new member of the Auburn staff and the man who would later be credited with the design of the gorgeous L-29 Cord automobile. Under his skilled hand, and in addition to Auburn's distinctive hood molding, the Speedsters were given a daringly raked, vee'd windscreen.
Door cuts and hood louvers were set at almost as steep an angle, all of which conveyed the unmistakable impression of speed, even when the car was at a standstill. A golf-bag compartment accessible through a bodyside hatch (a popular item at the time), twin side-mounted spares, and a smartly tailored "boattail" rear deck completed the Speedster's dashing appearance. Luggage space was severely limited -- and well nigh inaccessible in any case. Nobody could have called the Speedster practical, but neither could anyone deny its head-turning beauty.
We caution the reader that the term "Speedster," while appropriate enough, was not meant to suggest that these two very special Auburns were "sports cars." Chassis and engines were identical to those of the Auburn sedans. Steering was relatively slow, and the standard three-speed, wide-ratio gearbox was used. And with wheelbases of 125 and 130 inches for the 8-88 and 8-115, respectively, maneuverability was limited.
Nevertheless, during March 1928, Morton covered the measured mile at Daytona Beach, Florida, in a record-breaking 108.46 mph while at the wheel of a 115 Speedster. Later that year, Morton broke another record, this one at Atlantic City, New Jersey, by covering 2,033 miles in 24 hours, an average of 84.7 mph. This was high performance indeed, at a time when the maximum speed limit in most states was no more than 45 mph!
Few changes were made in the 1929 Speedsters, now designated models 8-90 and 8-120, though horsepower was increased to 96 and 125, respectively. The increases were attributable primarily to changes in the fuel system.
Nor were major differences made for 1930, although the horsepower rating of the smaller eight was advanced to an even 100. The 1929 Auburns, having sold in record numbers, left little reason to spend a lot of money on retooling. Besides, the company's attention (not to mention its resources) must surely have been focused by that time on the forthcoming front-drive Cord. But there was one notable omission from the 1930 Auburn roster: The Speedsters had been deleted.
Continue to the next page to learn what came next for the 1931 Auburn Speedster line.
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1931 Auburn Speedster
Heading into 1931, Auburn Speedsters had never been volume sellers. But perhaps somebody at company headquarters -- maybe even E. L. Cord himself, for he was always something of a showman -- woke up to the fact that they had been great image builders for a company that was seeking to build its reputation, at least in part, on the superior performance of its cars. In any case, the Speedster reappeared for 1931 in a brand new guise.
In fact, the entire 1931 Auburn line was heavily revised. Both the six-cylinder line and the larger eight were gone. The former 8-95, bored now to 268.6 cubic inches, re-emerged as the 8-98. Rated at 98 horsepower, it became the marque's sole offering, although it was available in either standard or Custom trim, the latter incorporating "free-wheeling," a popular, though dangerous, fad of that era. (The Custom was listed as the 8-98A.) A heavy, X-braced frame was used, a first for a rear-drive automobile. (The design had first surfaced on the L-29 Cord.)
There was fresh styling from Leamy a design so attractive that probably only the Cords and Chryslers of the day could rival it for sheer good looks. With the help of 17-inch wheels, rather unusual at the time, the new Auburn stood some three inches lower than most of its contemporaries. Fenders were long and sweeping. The hood was high and impressively long, and narrow windows accented the low profile. The radiator grille, featuring dummy shutters on standards and working units on Customs, added a handsome touch. And the Speedster, as Richard Burns Carson has noted, "received a tail profile treatment reminiscent of the fan-tail sterns of early ocean liners."
The cars were sensational; the prices were moreso. At $995 for the sedan, the 8-98 cost $350 less than 1930's 8-95. (It even undercut the old Auburn Six by $100!) Fortune called it "the biggest package in the world for the price." And if the sedan was a bargain, so was the Speedster, priced now at just $945.
To be sure, certain adjustments had to be made in order to make possible these price reductions. Fit and finish were not quite up to previous Auburn standards, and some critics have said the cars' structure wasn't quite as solid. Perhaps the most significant difference had to do with the adoption of Midland "Steel-draulic" mechanical brakes in place of the Lockheed hydraulics of 1928-1930.
The Great Depression was sinking rapidly toward its nadir during 1931. It was a terrible time for the automobile industry, with sales totaling less than half the record figure posted just two years earlier. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. Plymouth, to the surprise of everyone except perhaps Walter P. Chrysler, zoomed smartly from eighth place to third on a 57-percent production increase for the calendar year. But the really sensational sales gain, at least on a percentage basis, was that of the Auburn. The numbers forged ahead by an astounding 130 percent, as Auburn jumped suddenly from 23rd to 13th rank among American automakers, handily surpassing its own previous production record, set in 1929.
Cord's sales strategy had been an unusual one. He deliberately sent to his dealers fewer cars than they ordered, claiming that for every available Auburn, two buyers were waiting. The idea was that in this circumstance, it was never necessary for the dealer to make an over-allowance on the customer's trade-in, a common practice then as now. And this, in turn, enabled Cord to hold the dealer's profit margin to a very slim figure.
On the next page, follow the history of the Auburn Speedster from 1932 to 1934.
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1932-1934 Auburn Speedster
Styling for the Auburn Speedster was unchanged for 1932, but several mechanical innovations were adopted. Among these were the Startix automatic starter; and, on the Custom models, Delco ride regulators -- shock absorbers that could be adjusted from the driver's compartment for a firmer or softer ride.
Free-wheeling, previously optional at $85, became standard equipment on all models and Customs came with a vacuum-controlled two-speed axle known as Dual Ratio. It provided the driver with a choice of "performance" (4.54:1) or "economy" (3.00:1) gearing. Best of all, prices were cut. When a second price reduction was ordained during the model year, the basic Speedster went for just $845, a cool $100 less than its 1931 counterpart and only $80 more than a six-cylinder Pontiac convertible.
Cord had one more ace up his sleeve for 1932: the 12-160, a 160-horsepower V-12. The monstrous Lycoming engine, which had a dry weight of 1,096 pounds, was unusual in a couple of respects. First, horizontal valves were used in an arrangement not unlike the Oakland/Pontiac V-8 of 1930-1932.
Second, cylinder banks were set at a 45- rather than a 90-degree angle. As a result, the width of the engine was reduced and Auburn claimed that the "out-of-step" firing interval induced by the 45-degree angle reduced the amplitude of any torsional vibration that might occur. Incidentally, the same angle was used by the contemporary Cadillac V-12, which tends to confirm stories that Auburn's V-12, like that of the Cad, must have been derived from what originally had been a 16-cylinder design.
The 12-160 bodies were the same as those of the 8-100, as the eight-cylinder series was now designated, though the chassis was lengthened by half a foot. And since the senior cars outweighed the juniors by some 660 pounds, as a safety measure they were fitted with hydraulic brakes. (The 8-100 retained the Steel-draulics.) Once again, prices were incredibly low, starting at $975 for a standard 12-160 coupe. Even the V-12 Speedster went for $1,145 as a standard, $1,275 as a Custom. It took $3,750 to drive home a 12-cylinder Packard convertible with the same horsepower rating.
In an effort to gain publicity for the new 12-160, a Speedster and a Brougham two-door sedan were sent to Muroc Dry Lake in California, where they racked up 37 new stock-car records for speed, some of which stood until after World War II. But the 12-160 was clearly the wrong car for those hard times. Auburn new-car registrations plummeted that year by more than 60 percent.
There wasn't much change for 1933, except that an upscale Salon trim line was added to both the eight- and 12-cylinder series (with Speedsters included in both new model lines). But if things looked bad at Auburn during 1932, they looked worse in 1933, with volume totaling less than half the dismal 1932 figure.
Obviously, something different was needed. Millions were spent in developing and tooling a totally new Auburn for 1934. Styling was once again by Al Leamy. A six-cylinder series, absent since 1930, was returned to the line, powered by a larger and more powerful engine than before, and priced as low as $695. But the Speedster was gone once again, and the V-12s, which retained the 1932-1933 styling, were kept in the line just long enough to use up leftover components.
On the next page, learn what befell the Speedster line from 1935 to 1936.
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1935-1936 Auburn Speedster
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. ..."
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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Auburn Cabin Speedster
Another very different Auburn Speedster was constructed during the closing months of 1928. Known as the Cabin Speedster, it was an enclosed, two-passenger sport coupe based on a 1929 8-90 chassis, but powered by the 125-horsepower engine of the larger 8-120.
Possibly the prototype for Auburns yet to come, it seems more likely the Cabin Speedster was planned from the beginning as a one-off built for display at the 1929 National Automobile Show in New York; records aren't clear on that point. Neither is it clear who was responsible for the car's design. Auburn advertised the Cabin Speedster as having been styled by race driver Wade Morton, who was serving as the company's test driver at the time. (The design patents were even registered in Morton's name.)
But it is questionable whether Morton had the necessary background and training to have come up with such a complex design. We'll never know for sure, but given that Auburn president E. L. Cord was no stranger to exaggeration, it seems more plausible to conclude that the Cabin Speedster actually represented the work of Alan H. Leamy, who had recently come aboard as Auburn's chief stylist.
The lightweight aluminum body, built by the comparatively obscure Detroit coachbuilding firm of Griswold, has been called bizarre. Certainly it was different, featuring a radically canted windshield, wicker seats, a ducktail deck, and cycle fenders that turned with the wheels. Quarters were dreadfully cramped, even for two people, but who ever said that a speedster had to be practical?
Practical or not, the Cabin Speedster is said to have been the sensation of the New York show. Then, in February 1929, it was dispatched to Los Angeles, where it was displayed at the Pacific Southwest Automobile Show. The enclosed Speedster was one of more than 300 cars shown under electrically lighted tents. Tragically, a short circuit set off a conflagration in which all of the cars were destroyed, so the original Cabin Speedster had a very short life.
Meanwhile, back in Indiana, the Auburn factory was working at capacity and the company's files were bulging with unfilled orders. Furthermore, with the L-29 front-drive Cord about to be introduced, the men of Auburn had more than enough to do. No more Cabin Speedsters were built.
Fast-forward to 1983, when Dr. Peter C. Kesling, of LaPorte, Indiana, undertook to build a Cabin Speedster replica. In fact, in the end, Kesling built two, the second fitted with a T-top roof, perhaps in an effort to make the cramped cabin more habitable. The first of the replicas was displayed at the 1986 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where it attracted at least as much attention as any car in the show. In the end, it placed second, behind a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Brewster-type Ascot, in Class F for European and American classics with new coachwork.
The Cabin Speedster may not have been practical, and to some eyes it wasn't beautiful, either. But it surely was one of the most interesting Auburns ever built.