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Auburn, Indiana

When people talking about American cars they usually think of Detroit being the centre of the American car industry and home of the big names. But this is just a development of the time when mass production and cost efficiency reduced the variety of car manufacturers spread out all over the country to a few remaining names. In the beginning of the last century, the dawn of motoring, numerous independent small companies and individuals designed horseless carriages just like the Eckhart family. Charles Eckhart led the family business building carriages but the increasing request for the automobile and his sons interested in the new technology led to the foundation of the Auburn Automotive Company in 1903, the same year that saw the first car bearing the name Auburn. After a few year of production with changing success the first chapter of the company ended with the death of the patriarch and the first World War, a time that took a lot of the small companies from the map.

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In 1919 a group of financiers from Chicago (including the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.) bought the leftovers and invested a good amount of money in the small company so the production of the latest Eckhart designed model “Beauty Six” brought some success. But this success did not last for long as none of the investors was really into the car industries or even a talented car salesman. The big companies were already in mass production giving them a big advantage both in the prices of the purchased parts or resources and certainly in the finished product. The small companies could not compete with them as long as they did not feature some advanced ideas or technology, something the dated Auburn model range could not offer so a lot of cars produced remained unsold.

This is the time the story of the Auburn Automotive Company really starts to become what she is known for today. Errett L.Cord, a former car salesman in Chicago (for examples for Moon automobiles) took over the duties of the company. He first sold off the remaining cars to dealers at a discount to get money to satisfy the needs of the investors and to start a new model line. He realized that the cars had to be different from the large production cars so he headed for the Pennsylvania based engine manufacturer Lycoming to introduce the 8-cylinder in his model range. Furthermore the cars became more attractive with a two- tone colour scheme rather than the usual black. Over the years Cord expended the company and bought about 150 smaller companies to built up the Cord empire, the most significant of these acquisitions was without doubt Duesenberg.

Founded by the German-born brothers Friedrich “Fred” and August “Augie” Duesenberg the Indianapolis based company was known for their sportive character with race cars for Indianapolis or at the French GP (as seen in the Simeone Collection). Although under the roof of the Cord company Duesenberg remained separate as the luxury brand of the car range. Without the financial pressure of the self-reliance the Duesenberg brothers were able to design their masterpiece, the famous Model J. Just before the great depression this car topped everything on the market, both in power and size. Certainly this had its price as a chassis bodied by one of the known coachbuilders came up to 20.000 $ (like the famous show bodied “20 Grand” in the Nethercutt Collection) and the car was designated for the wealthy industrialist, but during the following recession just few of them were able to drive these cars when dismissing their employees at the same time. So it is no surprise that many of these gems were delivered to celebrities like the movie stars James Cagney, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper, the latter two even got a special short chassis version of the latest supercharged chassis (the SSJ Speedster). The Model J added very much to the fame of the Auburn Automotive Company both back then and today as it is one of the most sought after American collector cars, at home at all major collections and concours events or featured lot on the international auctions.

But the Duesenberg was not the only new car in the year 1929 as the name Cord itself appeared for the first time on the radiator of a car with the Cord L-29, this innovative design was the first front driven production car in the US. Although the cars back in that time needed enough ground clearance due to the road conditions a low chassis was always the best feature to give a car a sportive and modern look. Many years before this was achieved by the underslung chassis but with the invention of the front wheel drive and the absence of the drive shaft under the chassis the L-29 was very advanced and with different coachwork a show stopper in the show rooms, a fact that also boosted the sale of the cheaper Auburn models as they were associated with the luxurious Duesenberg and Cord models.

As mentioned above the big depression following the crash on the Wall Street in October 1929 crashed the market for luxury cars and soon the Auburn based company came into trouble selling their high priced products in sufficient numbers. New models were needed to get the people back in the show room, a task that was given to Gordon Buehrig who worked for Duesenberg since 1929. After his move to the “main company” one of his first designs was the Auburn 851 Speedster before he had to design the successor of the Cord L-29. The result was the very innovative Cord 810 with the horizontal air intake rather than a proper radiator mask and the first pop-up headlamps in the automotive history. The car was just finished in time for the 1935 motor shows and was quit a sensation, no other company by that time was able to show such a stylish in-house bodywork. Unfortunately the car did not satisfy the expectations as the hasty development led to an immature car.

Finally in mid 1937 Errett lost control of his empire and the new owners decided to close the automotive branch so the Auburn Automobile Company was closed by the end of the year.
Within just a decade the name Auburn raised to the top of the market and disappeared again but the models of Cord, Auburn and Duesenberg are far more than just a footnote in the automotive history and for a while Auburn was the centre of the luxurious American car industry.

Since that time the clocks slowed down a little bit in the small town in Indiana but the good times are omnipresent and one can see that the residents are proud of this part of their history. Hotel rooms are named after Cord and Buehrig, Posters of the annual Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival could be seen in every store. Every labour day weekend ten thousands of car nuts are coming over to Auburn to celebrate the cars of the era but Auburn is also worth a visit during the rest of the year.

Back in 1974 the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum opened its doors to more than 2 Million visitors to the present day in the former Headquarter of the original company during Errett Cords ownership. The splendid restored industrial brick building of the art deco era with tinted limestone and large show room windows featuring the brand names of the company is listed as a National Historic Landmark and is noteworthy alone, not to mention the collection of about 120 cars donated to the museum or on loan by collectors or other museum.

When entering the museum though the gift shop the doors open to a step back into the heyday of the American automotive coach build era. The lower level of the museum was originally the dealer show room where the latest models were displayed to the visiting dealers to order just on the level above. The brown terrazzo floor with the painted ceiling elements and the art deco lamps in the well-lit show room delivers the perfect surrounding for the Duesenberg Model A and J, the Cord L-29 and later 810/812. The oldest cars in the room during our visit were a pair of Auburn 8-88 from 1926 illustrating the status quo of the company when Cord took over. They already feature the mentioned two-tone paint, especially the Roadster in orange-white looks fresh even with the old-fashioned wooden wheels. When comparing these with the Cord 812 Convertible on the turntable one can easily see the development of the design within this short period.

In the back of the room are two very special cars, an Auburn 852 Hearse and the Cord E-1 Prototype. The Cord was build as a prototype for the model year 1932 with a longer wheelbase compared to the L-29 and a large 12-cylinder engine. Certainly this was way over the top in the financial difficult times so the E-1 never made it into production. The Auburn on the other side was produced according to necessity as a commercial version for the use as a funeral car or ambulance during the last year of the company.

The open stairway leads up to the second floor with an additional showroom and the associated administrative rooms. The Classic Gallery features American cars dating from 1925-1948 including a few more Duesenberg, Auburn and Cord but also from Packard, Lincoln, Stutz or Cadillac. To mention is the first car to see when coming up the stairs, the red Cord L-29 Speedster. This is a perfect replica of the one-off design built for the 1931 New York Motor Show and later driven by American Actress Jean Harlow. Just around the corner is the black 1937 Cord 812 that was originally owned by Errett Cord himself. This car was reported unsold at the time of the companies closure and shipped to Cords residence in California, it remained in the family ownership until it was donated to the museum.

As Gordon Buehrig was an important element of the success of the company the display also features some cars designed following his time in Auburn. The 1948 Tasco was inspired by the airplanes of the time both on the outside and the cockpit but it remained a one-off, the 1979 Buehrig was the last car designed by Buehrig and the first to bear his name. It is based on the Chevrolet Corvette and intended as a small series but it just 4 prototypes were built before Buehrig passed away in 1980.

Gordon Buehrig also leads to the administrative area of the building, the headquarters offices on this level. The Buehrig Gallery of Design shows the development of the design of the Cord 810 including a clay model that was originally used to transfer the lines from the scale model to the full size working model. This is the final design that got the green light for production, the technical drawing were done just next to the gallery in the design office. The design was that modern that it was even taken over by Graham after the closure and the molds were reused in the Graham Hollywood and Hubmobile Skylark.

Also rebuilt is the original office of Errett L.Cord himself, the tea can on the table looks like he is coming back taking his place behind the desk to manage his empire in a few minutes.

Two important keys to success in the late 1920s and early 1930s was the advertising and the export. Just when Cord took over control of the Auburn Company he started to advertise in newspapers to make the company internationally know. An own advertising department formed slogan like “It´s a Duesy” or “He drives a Duesy” when these cars were part of a luxurious lifestyle. In a time of many small companies it was important to get the company name and the cars known over the county borders, an own export office was responsible for the export in 93 countries all over the world.

To round off the “factory tour” the associated Engineering Hall of Technology shows the technical innovations of the company including several engines and the Cord L-29 Chassis showing the front wheel drive technology.

But the Museum is not just about the Cord era, it also shows the time before Cord took over with a nice small gallery of the early Auburn. This shows the range from the first Eckhart built cars that still looked very much like their previous carriage to the Beauty Six that helped the company to survive during the “Chicago- Years” prior the arrival of Cord. The cars of the brass era have a very special charm, centre piece is a wonderful 1911 Model N Touring Car in stylish white.

But Auburn was not the only car company that was based in Auburn. Over the years the small town was home of about 11 manufacturers, a small gallery shows some examples of Kiblinger, Imp, McIntyre and Zimmerman. But also outside for Auburn Indiana had a lot of car companies as shown in the next room. A board shows in detail what companies were resident in Indiana, the best known and longest surviving are without doubt Studebaker and Packard that lasted after the fusion until 1963. Most of them were located around Indianapolis like Stutz or Marmon.

So what is the conclusion after a day in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum?

The ACD Museum is certainly a must visit for all interested in this period of automotive design, it features the largest public collection of these luxurious cars shown in a very special and unique setting. This is even more impressive when keeping in mind that there is no active manufacturer standing behind that concept. It was raised and is now operated by a lot of dedicated individuals who had a vision to keep this part of the history alive. Many people have honoured this by donating cars to the museum and one can hope that this will continue in the future. The museum does not just display the cars but also shows the historical concept in the company at a time when most of the former plants and headquarters in Detroit are demolished.
Certainly the Festival on Labour Day might be the best date in the year to visit Auburn but for all those travelling in this region a visit is well worth a detour during the rest of the year.

For more information please visit the museums website www.automobilemuseum.org

Report & images: Peter Singhof www.ClassicCarPhotography.de

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