Though the Auburns best remembered today were built in the '30s and late '20s, the marque was established way back in 1903. That's when brothers Frank and Morris Eckhart, buggy-builders in the northeast Indiana town of Auburn, began selling an $800 chain-drive runabout with a single-cylinder engine.
Two-, four-, and six-cylinder models followed quickly in the years through 1912. Like other small, marginally capitalized automakers of the time, Auburn offered "assembled cars" built from a variety of proven, but brought-in, components.
As a result, Auburn was nearly stagnant by 1919, when the Eckharts sold out to a Chicago group headed by chewing-gum king William K. Wrigley, Jr. New capital and more-aggressive marketing were put behind a new model, the "Beauty Six," with streamlined body, disc wheels, step plates instead of running boards, and windshield vent wings -- all very advanced for the day. But a deep post-World War I recession cut greatly into car sales. With annual output below 4000 units, Auburn was on the ropes again by 1924.
Then came a second savior, Errett Lobban Cord, a brash young entrepreneur described as both "boy wonder" and "profane, bespectacled capitalist." Salesmanship was his claim to fame. Responsible for the selling and distribution of the majority of Moon Motor Car Company's production in the Chicago market alone, Cord attracted the attention of Auburn's Chicago owners.
Wanting to try the production end of the car business, Cord accepted the position of Auburn general manager. After promptly disposing of some 700 leftover 1924s, which netted enough cash to pay off Auburn's debts, he was made vice president. By 1926, he was both the firm's president and its chief stockholder.
Auburn prospered under Cord, gaining a modest competition image, greatly increasing exports, expanding its dealer body, and adding eight-cylinder models in 1925. With fast, handsome, and reliable cars priced incredibly low, Auburn passed the 20,000 mark in annual production by 1929. Though Eights naturally offered more vivid performance than Sixes, all Auburns were appreciated for their good looks and high value.
Deciding to concentrate on Eights and, ultimately, a Twelve, Cord dropped the Auburn Six after 1930. That year's final 6-85 series offered just a cabriolet, sedan, and sport sedan. Power was supplied by Lycoming, a Pennsylvania company Cord had purchased in 1929. The sturdy 185-cubic-inch engine produced 70 horsepower at 3400 rpm.
Despite modest $1000-$1100 pricing, the 6-85 was by no means dull: smooth and clean on a 120-inch wheelbase. Even so, Auburn sales dropped almost 50 percent for calendar 1930, and model-year volume declined to 14,360. With the Depression hitting hard, management concluded that the Six was just not profitable enough to retain, though it would return.
There were two Auburn Eights for 1930. The lower-priced 125-inch-wheelbase 8-95 was an unquestioned bargain, offering four models (the six-cylinder trio plus a five-seat phaeton) in the $1200-$1400 range. Its 247-cid inline engine was basically the 6-85 unit with two more cylinders and 100 bhp.
For $1500-$1700 you could have the same foursome as Custom Eight 125s, with that many horses from 298.6 cid. Mounting a 130-inch chassis, they weighed some 3900 pounds but could do almost 90 mph -- astonishing for the day. In 1929, this engine had powered a 3000-pound speedster to 100 mph -- a first for Auburn.
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1931, 1932, 1933 Auburns
Auburn was one of the few automakers to see higher sales after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Calendar-year 1931 production zoomed to a record of over 32,000 on the strength of more dealers and a line of fleet, luxurious, bargain-priced Eights.
Reflecting Cord's cagey sales strategy, the bigger eight was dropped along with the six, the smaller eight bored to 268.6 cid and 98 bhp. Larger, more-rakish bodies were placed on longer 127-inch wheelbases for identical Eight and Custom Eight series.
The latter featured standard freewheeling, but both lines offered speedster, coupe, cabriolet, brougham, phaeton-sedan, and closed-sedan bodies, plus seven-seat sedans on a special 136-inch chassis. All this moved Business Week to hail Auburn as "more car for the money than the public had ever seen."
If the 1931 Eight was a remarkable buy, the 1932 Twelve was even more so: the least-costly V-12 on the market at prices ranging from $975 for the Standard coupe to $1275 for the top-line Custom Speedster. The engine, a 391-cid Lycoming designed by Auburn chief engineer George Kublin, packed a healthy 160 bhp at 3500 rpm. It was mounted in an X-braced frame spanning a kingly 133-inch wheelbase.
Custom Twelves featured the well-known Columbia dual-ratio rear axle with 4.55 and 3.04:1 gear sets that could be selected below 40 mph, which effectively provided six forward speeds. Eights continued as before, as did the usual body types, including eight-cylinder long sedans. The beautiful V-12 boattail speedsters, so rare today, were the best expressions of that year's Auburn styling.
Yet despite these peerless cars, sales plunged in 1932 to a calendar-year output of just over 11,000. Red ink continued gushing in 1933, as volume fell to under 5000. While all this mystified E.L. Cord, hindsight reveals that a V-12 at any price just couldn't interest many buyers in the depths of the Depression. Unsold '33 V-12s were retitled and sold as '34s. Auburn's Eight, which had exhausted what demand it had enjoyed in 1931, was little changed for '32 and '33.
Worse, Cord was now spread very thin building his far-flung business empire. He'd bought Duesenberg in 1926, launched the front-drive Cord L-29 three years later, then acquired Lycoming, the Ansted engine company, several midwestern corporations, and even Checker Cab -- plus shipbuilding and aviation interests.
Perhaps to avoid a brewing scandal over his management of these enterprises, Cord fled to England in 1934 and promptly dropped from sight. Eventually, his conglomerate's fortunes were handed over to Duesenberg president Harold T. Ames.
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1934, 1935, 1936 Auburns
The 1934 line of Auburns featured all-steel bodies with more-streamlined, but less-distinctive styling by Alan Leamy of L-29 renown. The Six was revived with a 210-cid Lycoming engine making 85 bhp at 3500 rpm. Eights used a revised, 280-inch version of the previous straight eight developing 100 bhp with a cast-iron head or 115 bhp with a high-compression aluminum head.
Standard and Custom models on a 119-inch (Six) or 126-inch Eight chassis were offered for as little as $695 (Standard Six) in an effort to win Depression-depleted dollars. But these cars didn't sell. Poorly received styling (especially the "shovel front") often get the blame, but 1934 wasn't a good sales year for any make.
The '35 Auburns benefited from the talents of two automotive legends -- designer Gordon Buehrig and engineer August Duesenberg. Buehrig was given a modest $50,000 and told to do what he could to improve Auburn styling. Adding a bold grille and massive hood to the existing body did the trick.
Augie, meantime, was asked to adapt a Schwitzer-Cummins supercharger to the eight. Horsepower jumped to a hefty 150 horsepower. Supercharged cars were identified by external exhausts. The six and 115-bhp eight were carried over. The result was a line of very pretty cars that would include Auburn's final glory -- the superb 851/852 speedster.
Buehrig didn't have enough money for a complete redesign so he worked with the midsection of leftover '33 Speedsters, giving the old bodies the new front-end treatment, beautifully curved pontoon fenders, and a new boattail. All Speedsters were supercharged and could hit 100 mph right out of the showroom, yet they sold for as little as $2245. Once again Auburn was offering truly unbelievable value.
But 1935 proved a confused and ultimately disappointing year, so the 1936 Auburns were predictably almost unchanged. The six-cylinder 653 became Series 654, still offered in standard form as well as Custom and Salon "Dual Ratio" models. The same arrangement, plus supercharged models, applied to the 1936 Series 852.
Yet despite this still-brilliant fleet of cabriolets, broughams, phaetons, sedans, and the 852 Supercharged Speedster, sales refused to improve. Speedster production, for instance, came to less than 500 for both years.
Like a prodigal son, E.L. Cord returned from England in 1936 to salvage his crumbling empire, only to find the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission ready to launch major investigations of his doings. One result was the cancellation of planned 1937 Auburns. The make was dead.
Cord would manage to keep most of his fortune, and in later years got involved in western land speculation. Though he is not remembered fondly by Auburn fans, it's doubtful the make would have risen so high without him. It's a shame that its life at the pinnacle was so short.