Car of the Week: 1936 Auburn Speedster

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Story by Angelo Van Bogart;
photos by Deb Van Bogart

Curt and Janine Schulze did exactly what it took to bring their 1936 Auburn Speedster back to like-new, factory condition. Their only mistake was telling people how they did it.

“I call this car ‘Itsa-Bitsa,’ because it is bits of this and bits of that,” said Curt of their Speedster. “Everybody knows the engine and the frame and the body weren’t all together from the factory and we spliced that cowl onto the car, but it is what it is. It is built with original Auburn Speedster parts.
“I guess my mistake from the get-go was telling everybody what I was doing,” he said. “Some longtime club members say, ‘You should have kept your mouth shut.’”

The world of Classic cars — especially valuable Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobiles — holds provenance paramount at trading time. Cars with documented backgrounds fetch the biggest bucks on the auction circuit and the moment when significant parts start getting swapped around — parts such as engines, frames and bodies — buyers get nervous. It’s an ideology that grew out of poor restorations of cars that were crudely pieced together. However, Curt and Janine Schulze doesn’t do anything crudely.

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The couple owns and operates Auburns Midwest, LLC in Prescott, Wis., with the same honesty and integrity the name and location imply. Hiding the true origins of their valuable Speedster was not an option.

“We bought a rolling car that couldn’t run in Columbus, Ohio,” Curt said. That was about seven years ago and shortly thereafter, the couple began acquiring parts that weren’t in the bins of their 1934-’36 Auburn rebuilding and reproduction parts business in anticipation of a restoration. Once Curt tore into the project, he realized the Speedster had been through water, fire and everything else Mother Nature could throw at it.

“I realized the car was in some kind of horrific accident, because the frame and cowl had been changed, but the rear parts of the front fenders and the doors were still there and the Speedster rear fenders and golf door were there,” Schulze said.

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“When I took the cowl off, I found the car was originally red and there had been a fire. And then what I suspect is, because it had some sheet metal flooring in it — makeshift stuff — that it probably sat outside for some time and rotted. The wooden sills were rubbish and a guy put new wood in the back and put some metal floors in that were very unprofessional.

“Whoever built the car, and painted it what looked like yellow refrigerator paint, was trying to build something on the cheap. He was doing the best he could in the ’60s or ’70s, or whenever the car was rescued from whatever fate had befallen it.”

When a Canadian car enthusiast who had Auburn parts died, Schulze learned of it from another Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club member who lived in Chicago and had purchased the parts. Schulze drove to Chicago to see what missing parts were available that he could use on the Speedster.
“I said, ‘Whoa, I can really use this,” Schulze said upon arriving at the parts stash in Chicago. “When that happened, the dollar signs went ‘ca-chink ca-chink,’ but I would have paid whatever it took.”

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With the purchase of parts in Chicago, Schulze acquired an original Speedster cowl and Speedster frame to go with his original Speedster body and fenders. Of all the unique Speedster parts, only the hood and windshield frame had to be reproduced during the restoration.

The car’s lack of an original cowl when Curt and Janine bought it probably explains why the Speedster project had stalled in the hands of a previous owner. The cowl the Speedster came to Curt with was from a Cabriolet or a Phaeton and not a Speedster, which has a shorter hood.
“[The hood] is an inch shorter than other eight-cylinder cars,” Curt said. “When they put this car together and put the engine in, they didn’t realize they had to move the firewall down and back. The factory modified the firewall. So [the previous owners] tunneled the engine into the firewall and realized they couldn’t put the manifolds on and that’s where they stopped. They could then see the fit was out of whack.” An original speedster cowl was one of the things found in Chicago.

Besides the cowl and shorter hood, there are many other parts that are specific to last-generation 1935 and ’36 Auburn Speedsters. No body parts are interchangeable between the Auburn Cabriolet, a convertible coupe, and the taper-tailed, roadster-style Speedster. Even the Auburn radiator shell was modified enough by the factory to warrant a different part number. Compared to other Auburn body styles, the Speedster hood is shorter; Speedster doors have a roadster-style cut; Speedster fenders are individual to each wheel and are of a “pontoon” design and were hand-built; Speedster rocker panels do not accommodate running boards; and, of course, there’s that famous “boat tail,” a term that made its designer, Gordon Buehrig, cringe.

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As the Speedster design implies, Buehrig was truly a gifted designer, but the 1935 and ’36 Speedster design may also have required a bit of magic. By recycling part of the previous Auburn Speedster bodies, Buehrig created an entirely different Speedster for the model’s curtain call.

The earliest Auburn Speedsters dated to 1928, when the taper-tailed two-seater inspired by a one-off Duesenberg Model X speedster bowed as the raciest model in the Auburn Automobile Co.’s 115 line. The Auburn Speedster continued into 1929, was halted for 1930, then a second iteration reappeared in the line during late 1931 and into the 1932 model year. Auburn Speedsters were then continued through 1934 but due to the Great Depression, there were leftover bodies. (Any speedster dated as a 1934 is actually an unsold 1933.) Although the Auburn body design was very different between 1931, when the Speedster was revived, to 1935, Buehrig was able to create a new Speedster design based on the leftover 1931-’33 Speedster bodies. Only the earlier passenger compartment was used on the last-generation Speedsters of 1935 and ‘36; the chassis and front end was all 1935-’36, the fenders were in the style of 1935-’36 models and a different Speedster tail was inspired by a later Duesenberg Model J speedster, also of Buehrig’s design.

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“This is a late car, a 1936,” said Curt of the couple’s Speedster. “The early (1935) cars, the first 10-12 cars, were different. They had different manifolds, different hoods, but they looked pretty much the same to an untrained eye. Those cars are ’33 bodies that came out of Union City Body Co. that the factory started modifying. Auburn started the streamer behind the hood ornament and swept down the body. ’34 was the last year Auburn did that, so on the leftover cowls of the ’34 bodies, they hammered that streamer down. What they did [on those Speedsters] was pound down the reveal molding and lead it in to conform to the lines of the 1935-’36 Speedster door and hood.”

The tail on the few earliest 1935 Speedster bodies was also cut off so the new tail designed by Buehrig could be installed by craftsmen to completely update the bodies to fit the 1935 design and chassis. Once the supply of leftover 1933 Speedster bodies was exhausted, new bodies were built at the Auburn Automobile Co.’s Connersville, Ind., factory.

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Speedster chassis were likewise modified versions of the standard Auburn frame with many of the changes crudely undertaken by the factory. According to Schulze, there is a 5-inch extension at the back of the frame to accommodate the longer Speedster body, and there are different holes in the Speedster chassis to fasten down the unique body. Special braces for the narrower Speedster body are crudely welded to the frame, and on the left side, where the exhaust comes off the muffler, an area of the frame is hacked away to make room. However, all the mechanical components are the same between Speedsters and other supercharged Auburn models from 1935 and ’36, from the exhaust to the suspension to the springs to the Schwitzer-Cummins-built supercharger on the 150-hp, 279.9-cid Lycoming straight-eight engine.

The whole Speedster exercise was a last-ditch effort to save Auburn. By the mid-1930s, the automaker was in serious financial trouble. Building the Speedsters during this era was a publicity stunt to drive customers to Auburn showrooms where buyers would select a bread-and-butter six-cylinder sedan or, possibly, one of the convertible models. (By comparison, a six-cylinder 1936 Auburn sedan was $982 versus $2,245 for a Speedster.)

The factory workers’ sweat into basically handcrafting each Speedster was matched by efforts of the company’s public relations department, which hit the road in the White Caravan, a parade of four white Auburns that traversed America with stops at dealers to garner publicity for Auburn dealers and automobiles. Despite the company’s best attempts, 1936 would be the last year of Auburn production. Just 1,263 were built for that final model year, down from 6,316 in 1935. Only a tiny fraction of those ’35 and ’36 Auburns were Speedsters.

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“There are a lot of claims of 500-plus speedsters built, but they only built 146 cars so we are pretty lucky to get the one we got,” Schulze said.

Were the Speedster not lucky enough to have landed in the hands of enthusiast experts so dedicated to the Auburn brand that they make parts for them, it may never have returned to the road at all. Not only did Curt and Janine reproduce some of the parts, Curt did most of the restoration work himself, leaving only the engine rebuild to Frank Cek and construction of the new hood and final body panel alignment to and L’Cars Automotive Specialties in Cameron, Wis. Curt sprayed the authentic Preston Green paint on the fitted panels.

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For all their work, Curt and Janine have earned junior and senior awards at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club’s 2014 and 2015 Reunions in Auburn, Ind. Although the car has been judged as an authentic Speedster that’s been authentically restored, perhaps Curt’s greatest satisfaction is knowing the car has earned the respect of those who collect them. Although the Midwesterner is too modest to publicly admit it, Curt has received his fair share of inquiries to purchase the car by some of those collectors, even though it’s not for sale.

“I build these cars for me,” Curt said. “I don’t ever build anything for resale. But once is a while, someone will make me an offer I can’t refuse.”

After all, where would he find another project Speedster to restore?

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