From one-cylinder runabout to 12-cylinder speedster
by Bill Vance
The Auburn Automobile Co., named after its home town of Auburn, Indiana, grew out of the Eckhart Carriage Co., owned by brothers Frank and Morris Eckhart. The Eckharts decided to enter the automobile business at the turn of the century using purchased components like engines, frames and axles bought from various suppliers.
Auburn Automobile Co. enjoyed limited local success until it showed a car at the Chicago Auto Show in 1903. This generated enough interest that they were soon selling their one-cylinder, chain-drive runabouts in modest numbers. They moved to a two-cylinder engine in 1905, a four in 1909 and a six in 1912.
The company prospered moderately, rarely exceeding 2,500 sales a year, until by the mid teens financial difficulty loomed. Auburn was rescued in 1919 by a group of Chicago investors that included chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.
The new owners weren’t experienced automobile men. Also, the economy took a downturn in the early ’20s, and in spite of its attractive new Beauty Six model, Auburn was on the ropes by 1924. Production almost stopped, and the factory had several hundred unsold cars.
Auburn, like so many other regional manufacturers, was on the brink of disappearing, until it was saved by the arrival of a brash young man named Errett Lobban Cord.
Although only 30, Cord already was somewhat of a legend based on his success selling Moon cars in Chicago. He was hired as Auburn’s general manager with an option to buy into the company.
Cord’s first action was to get rid of those unsold cars. He had the roofs of the touring cars lowered, had them painted in bright colours, and dressed them up with the generous use of nickel plating. The cars were soon all sold at a good profit, and by 1926 Cord was president of the company.
He then went on to build an empire controlled by his Cord Corp. Included were the Duesenberg Motor Co., the Columbia Axle Co., and Lycoming Manufacturing. Lycoming supplied Auburn engines, and Columbia built the two-speed rear axles.
Under Cord’s management the best remembered of all Auburns, the boat-tailed Speedsters, were built. They appeared in 1928, and were powered by a 115-horsepower, 4.9 litre (298 cu in.) inline eight-cylinder Lycoming engine.
This much power in a relatively light 1,633 kg (3,600 lb) car promised spirited performance; Cord intended it to compete with it competitor, the Stutz Black Hawk. To enhance the Auburn’s reputation, Cord began establishing speed and endurance records.
In 1928 an Auburn Speedster reached 175 km/h (108 mph) at Daytona Beach, averaged 136 km/h (84.7 mph) for 24 hours at the Atlantic City Speedway, and then won the prestigious Pikes Peak
This was outstanding performance, competitive with the Stutz. And its $2,000 price was almost a steal compared with the $5,000 Stutz.
The 1929 stock market crash hurt Auburn’s 1930 sales, but they rebounded to over 29,000 in 1931, its highest year ever. Buoyed by this success, Cord dropped the Auburn’s six-cylinder engine, kept the straight eight, and for 1932 joined the likes of Cadillac, Packard and Pierce-Arrow by bringing out a V-12.
To fit the existing chassis, the 12 had a very narrow vee angle, and unusual horizontal valves. The optional Columbia two-speed axle gave it six forward speeds.
Building on its reputation for good value for money, Auburn stunned the industry by offering its 12-cylinder car for under $1,000.
By 1932 with the Depression worsening, Auburn sales slid to 11,646 and the company lost $1 million. It carried its ’32 models over into 1933, and sales dropped to 5,038.
In spite of new aerodynamic styling for 1934, and reviving the six cylinder engine and dropping the 12, sales kept falling. As a rescue mission Duesenberg’s chief stylist, Gordon Buehrig, and chief engineer August Duesenberg, were brought in.
Duesenberg, working with Lycoming and Schwitzer-Cummins, developed a centrifugal supercharger for the Auburn eight. It was driven through a planetary friction drive, and raised peak horsepower to 150 at 4000 rpm.
Buehrig revived the boat-tailed Speedster (it had been dropped for 1934) and designed a raked windshield and torpedo-shaped fenders, and removed the running boards. He ran four huge chrome-plated flexible exhaust pipes out of the left side of the hood, a styling cue that would immediately become associated with supercharging.
Racer Ab Jenkins took a supercharged Speedster to the Bonneville salt flats in Utah and set 70 speed records, including 805 km (500 miles) at 166 km/h (103 mph). Auburn therefore became the world’s fastest stock car.
The associated publicity lifted sales somewhat, although not enough for a profit. When Auburn sold only 1,844 cars in 1936 production ceased, and another grand old name disappeared from the automotive scene.