Car of the Week: 1935 Auburn Custom Six

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Story & photos by Angelo Van Bogart

Curt and Janine Schulze restore Auburns and reproduce Auburn parts through Auburns Midwest, their Prescott, Wis., business. Yet their favorite Auburn may very well be the featured unrestored 1935 Custom Six sedan.

“It is one of our favorites,” Curt said. “When I spend two to three years building one and get a junior and a senior award, they’re kind of special, but then they go in the background… and they almost always go into storage. This car is in a position where we can take it out. We just took it out last week.”

Auburns were meant to be driven, a fact pushed by its builder that promoted the Auburn’s prowess at speed. The speed exploits of Ab Jenkins behind the wheel of a 1935 Auburn Speedster were heralded in ads and in film footage of the day, although by the time Jenkins pushed the Super-Charged Speedster to break 70 speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats that year, the Cord Corp. was already a master at promoting its cars in speed and endurance runs.

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The short version of the 1935 Auburn’s history goes back to 1934, when the mid-priced car was completely restyled amid a gloomy economy. For the 1934 model year, Auburns were designed with a very round body that was very en vogue. Flanking the bulbous body was a set of four Art Deco fenders incorporating flares in the skirting, the front two fenders holding a swept-back, V-ed radiator grille encased in a bulbous painted shell. The man credited for the design is Alan Leamy, a proven master of his craft with the circa-1929 Model J and Cord L-29 designs topping his resume. When it came to the 1934 Auburn design, however, Leamy’s work was a flop, at least in the opinion of Auburn salesman.

They returned from an auto show with a dismal number of orders and blamed Leamy’s Art Deco 1934 Auburn for the poor reception. Likewise-renowned designer Gordon Buehrig was quickly charged with updating the 1934 Auburn design in order to make the 1935 models more saleable. Buehrig simplified the bulbous fenders and the grille, creating a universally pleasing design to which history has been more kind.

For 1935, Auburns were available as 653 Six and 851 Eight models. The 85-hp six-cylinder 653 models like the Schulzes’ car, as well as the 851 Eight model, were offered in Standard, Custom and Salon form, each offering more features than the previous model. Six-cylinder Auburns rode a 120-inch wheelbase in 1935, while eight-cylinders rode a 127-inch wheelbase. For 1935, Auburns featured an improved ride via a lower center of gravity and reduced unsprung weight. According to Curt Schulze, most Auburn owners find the six-cylinder on the shorter wheelbase to be the best handling of 1935 Auburns.

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“They steer lighter, and I think the consensus of every Auburn owner with both [a six and eight] is a six runs better,” Schulze said. “A six has a fully counterweighted crankshaft. Only supercharged versions of the eight have the counterweighted crankshaft. The weight and proportions make the six handle better, and the lion’s share of owners would say the same thing.

“As a matter of fact, this is a hilly area, and back when I had my 1934 [Auburn] phaeton, I wanted to see how far it would go up the hill in high gear. Part way up the hill, I had to shift into second. I had a 1935 Cabriolet and I got a little farther up the hill before I shifted into second. Then I had a 1934 sedan with a six and got all the way up the hill in first.”

With so many Auburns under their belt, the Schulzes knew exactly what they were getting into when they bought the 1935 Auburn Custom Six— almost back to day one.

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“This car was used by the Auburn factory, maybe as a loaner, in 1935 and 1936, and then it was sold locally in 1937,” Schulze said.

Curt and Janine Schulze became the third owners of the car in 2012. They bought it from fellow Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club member Al Gengnagel of Auburn, Ind., who learned of the car in 1975 by word of mouth and found it in an Indiana barn still under title to the original owner. Apparently, the car had been placed on blocks in 1955 and not driven for 20 years. All Gengnagel had to do to get the car running was install a battery and pour in fresh gas. The Auburn has been running ever since.

Aside from its originality, Schulze said the Auburn is rather unusually optioned.
“The factory put on chrome artillery wheels and decked it out,” he said. “The factory was funny that way. The car didn’t come with a clock and didn’t come with a radio and a trunk. It did have those chrome wheels and other accessories — two windshield wipers and a Dual Ratio rear end — which would be common to upper-end cars.”

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The car also features bright accessory speed lines at the rear of the front fenders to keep the front-opening front doors from scraping.

“It’s a Custom and kind of customized.”

The Schulzes had wanted the car for several years, but it wasn’t until two years ago that Gengnagel was ready to sell. They have endeared the seller – and their friend – by naming the car after him.

“We call the car Genny. It’s genuine – all original – and we got it from Gengnagel,” Schulze said.

Being in the restoration business, owning a car that is so intact and original has its uses. Not only can they see how a car was built, they can use it to accurately reproduce parts for other hobbyists restoring cars. It’s a lot like turning the clock back to the 1930s, when such a car could be found at an Auburn dealership.

“We know what finish was on the bolts, for example — was it painted, Parkerized, cadmium or natural? — for accurate restoration of our cars and our customers’ cars,” Schulze said. “If we sell something, we like it to have the correct finish and be authentic and with this car, we can tell a lot how it was.

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“It also gives clues as to how the cars were assembled [for restoration purposes],” he said, offering the example: “We know the front fenders were on the frame before the bodies were dropped.”

Inside and out, the sedan remains so close to how Auburn built it in 1935, Schulze finds it easier to list what is not original on the car. His list of replacement parts includes obvious components, such as tires, hoses and a battery, and he did have to replace a couple incorrect components that had been swapped out during maintenance, such as the generator and the carburetor. The original wiring had become “scary,” he said, so the car had to be rewired. Aside from that, the Schulzes have gone to great lengths to keep the paint, chassis and especially the interior as it was in 1935.

“That particular [upholstery] material in the car is 1935-’36 Auburn six-cylinder only, and we knew of a fellow with a coupe who wanted to put leather in his car,” Schulze said. They asked the coupe owner for the original upholstery, and “he said, ‘I don’t know what you would want this for.’ Janine stitched in and spliced in the other car’s upholstery in this car’s wear spots [to keep it original].”

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It’s all part of the Schulzes’ mission to keep the car as authentic and as original as possible.

“We have never, ever entertained the idea of restoring it,” Schulze said. “We went into this with the idea of preserving what is there, because it’s the only 1935-’36 car that I know of that is preserved that well. It’s had a sheltered life. The tops on those cars deteriorate and the water comes in, but it still has the original top material on it.”

The future of the Schulzes’ Auburn is pretty clear. When the car isn’t serving as a source for authentically reproducing parts and restoring other cars, Curt and Janine plan to drive it.

“Our pastor really likes that car, and when we have an opportunity, we take him out to lunch in it,” Curt said. “He just thinks that is the greatest car.”

Auburns Midwest
Prescott, WI
715-262-3183
auburnsmidwest.com

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