The Auburn Automobile Co. was started in Auburn, Ind., in the early 1900s. The company’s early products earned accolades for their sporty but luxurious character. In 1919, the company was one of the earliest automakers to offer streamlined styling, but it had engineering and financial problem. In 1924, a youthful E.L. Cord stepped in to save the company by making it exciting and youthful.
The Cord touch
Cord started by launching successful new models with more performance. In 1925, Chief Engineer James Crawford whipped up the Auburn 8-63 that used a Lycoming straight-eight. By 1927, Cord purchased Lycoming and became a builder of engines as well as transmissions. Herbert Snow, formerly of Velie Motors, came aboard to replace Crawford that year.
Cord bought out the Duesenberg Brothers of Indianapolis, who were known for their racing cars. Fred and Augie Duesenberg didn’t have great success building Duesenberg passenger cars, but under E.L. Cord, Fred had a big part in creating the Model J “super car” that debuted in late 1928. In 1929, Cord added the innovative front-wheel-drive L29, but the Great Depression hurt sales.
Part of Cord’s youth formula for Auburn was the addition of a Speedster model in 1928. The car was styled with a tapered tail borrowed from a one-of-a-kind Duesenberg Speedster built in 1927. The 1928 and 1929 Auburn Speedsters had mechanical upgrades to make it perform as racy as it looked.
By the early ’30s, Auburns had been restyled with larger bodies and a choice between eights and 12s. With these changes, Auburns became elegant and modern with L-head engines and rigid rear axles. The 160-hp Twelve was America’s only 12-cylinder car priced under $1000, but its affordability did not translate into greater showroom sales owing to the Great Depression.
A sexy Speedster was re-introduced late in 1931, an example of which established nine international and 31 American stock car speed records. Despite such promotion, the Speedster added little income or profit. Sales for 1931 were 28,103 Auburns and continued trending downward. In 1932, Fred Duesenberg died of pneumonia while recovering from injuries in an automobile accident.
Auburn production fell to around 11,000 cars in 1932 and 6,000 in 1933 — the company was clearly struggling. The entry-level 1934 Auburn 652 meant a six-cylinder engine returned to Auburn. The 850Y eight received a new a 279.9-cid L-head engine with an aluminum cylinder head; it and the 652 received stylish new bodies.
The year 1934 passed by with some pricey changes and even lower sales. E.L. Cord retired to England when his family received threats after the Lindbergh kidnapping. The Auburn Twelve was discontinued. Duesenberg President Harold T. Ames, Chief Engineer Augie Duesenberg and designer Gordon Buehrig were called to Auburn.
A restyled Auburn for 1935
These men were tasked with developing a new Speedster to generate much-needed publicity for the Auburn brand. The 1935 Auburn sales catalog promised, “On the following pages you will find a picture book story of the 1935 Auburn.”
This factory literature talked about Auburn’s “aero-streamline design;” comfort-controlled interior; ridged twist-proof frame; “no-starved-cylinders engine;” four-wheel hydraulic brakes; long leaf springs with metal covers; ride stabilizer; ventilated high-output generator; 8-1/2-cu.-ft. of luggage space; rain-proof cowl ventilator; and Dual-Ratio axle.
The “picture book” described the 127-in. wheelbase eight-cylinder 851 model and the 120-in. six-cylinder 653 model as “exclusive, distinctive and individual” products of Auburn Automobile Co., a division of Cord Corp. The eight-cylinder 851 line was illustrated in the brochure with the sedan, the Phaeton Sedan (convertible sedan); coupe; Brougham (two-door sedan); and cabriolet. The 851 Speedster model was a late addition.
Creating a racy Auburn
Gordon Buehrig further streamlined Alan Leamy’s 1934 Auburn design for all 1935 Auburns, then went to work on new, sleek 851 Speedster styling. All Auburn employees were operating with a limited budget to create fabulous cars on a shoestring, and that included work on the Speedster. Speedy development was important, and finances dictated modifying leftover Speedster bodies from the 1931-1933 generation of Speedster to create the 1935 Speedster. This work was done at Auburn’s Connersville, Ind., factory. To these earlier Speedster bodies, Auburn workers retrofitted a tapered rear end styled after a Duesenberg SJ Speedster that Buehrig had also designed. The 851 Speedster front end used the same style of hood and grille as the rest of the 1935 Auburn line. However, the 851 Speedsters also featured handmade fenders of a design similar to Buehrig’s previous Duesenberg SJ Speedster.
First seen in the 1934 Auburn 850Y, the 1935 Auburn 851’s long-stroke L-head eight was developed by Herb Snow, who’d been promoted to Auburn vice president of engineering, and George Kublin, the new chief engineer. Using a 3-1/16 x 4-3/4-in. bore and stroke and Stromberg carburetor, the 279.9-cid engine made 115 hp at 3600 rpm.
Standard in Speedsters and optional in other 851 models was a supercharged eight engineered by Schwitzer-Cummins in Indianapolis with help from Augie Duesenberg. The centrifugal blower was driven by chain from the camshaft to a 1:1 bevel gear that used a vertical output shaft running constantly under the Stromberg downdraft carburetor, to carry a planetary friction drive geared to run the supercharger at six times crankshaft speed. This gave a one-third boost in power at low cost. The supercharged engine put out 150 hp at 4000 rpm with a blower speed of 24000 rpm. The engine’s compression ratio remained at the stock 6.2:1.
To avoid high piston speed problems, Auburn’s well-known Dual-Ratio rear axle was used. An overdrive in front of the differential let a driver shift ratios from 5.1:1 for acceleration to 3.7:1 for cruising. The Dual-Ratio axle had been standard equipment beginning with the 8-100A in 1931. The driver engaged it via a pre-selective lever on the steering wheel hub and clutch pedal vacuum triggered it. The synchronized three-speed transmission effectively had six gears.
Auburn 851 Speedsters carried a plaque with race driver Ab Jenkins’ signature etched onto it. The plaque was additionally inscribed, “This Auburn automobile was driven up to 100.6 mph prior to delivery.” The speeds on these plaques varied, but Jenkins had not personally driven each Speedster to the noted speed. He had driven a Speedster to set 70 international/national records at Bonneville, however.
Priced at $2,245 fob Auburn, the 851 Speedster weighed 3,765-lbs. It had a 59-in. front and 62-in. rear tread and 6.50 x 16 tires with a box frame. Supercharged cars had four rust-resistant external exhaust pipes and “Super-Charged” badges on the hood. Speedster owners usually parked to show off the external pipes.
Ab Jenkins once stated that 500 Speedsters were built, but experts believe around 150 were actually built. In 1936, the 851 became the 852, but little changed other than the numeric designation. Auburn sales dropped again and 1936 marked the end of Auburn production. Even the 1936 “coffin-nose” Cord introduction failed to save the corporation. The Cord sold at first, but mechanical ills hurt it and ACD production ended altogether in 1937. Thanks to the supercharging and the Speedster, Auburn went out with a bang.
A Speedster survivor
Today’s Speedster prices are many times the original price, if an owner is willing to sell. The car featured here is a matching-numbers supercharged 1935 Speedster 851 that is currently for sale at Fantasy Junction in Emeryville, Calif. Asking price? $885,000.
An Oct. 12, 1978, article in The Desert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs, Calif., showed a picture of this Auburn and its then-owner Ray Distel in a promotion for a “Western Days Celebration” car show at the Fashion Mall in Indio, where Distel lived.
“Distel’s bright red Auburn Boat Tail Speedster Model 851 is a popular sight in town and will be a highlight of the show,” the story read.
“Distel purchased it in San Diego, in 1962, for $1,400,” continued the article. “He recently turned down an offer of $65,000 for it.”
Fantasy Junction has documentation that says Distel was aware of the “very-well-maintained and original car” well before buying it. He knew it spent many of the early years of its life in California. As such, it was a very solid car with no rust, and it had no structural damage.
The 1962 purchase date mentioned in The Desert Sun article makes sense, since Distel, a Greyhound Bus driver, advertised a 90-percent-restored 1935 Auburn 851 convertible (the factory name was Cabriolet) for sale in the April 1962 Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Newsletter. This suggests that he was selling the Cabriolet, which needed a top and running boards, to help finance the purchase of the Speedster.
The September 1965 ACD Club Newsletter showed a picture of Distel in his Greyhound uniform with his car and reported, “The very beautiful 1935 851 S/C Auburn Speedster of Ray Distel of Indio, obviously an excellent restoration which our West Coast members will probably see (or have already seen) at the West Coast meet.”
According to Fantasy Junction’s documentation, Distel purchased the car and used it for fun, but also displayed it at various events, including early ACD Club gatherings in California where the car was photographed and featured in early newsletters.
The Nov.-Dec. 1970 ACD Club Newsletter carried a mention about Ray Distel and two other club members with 851 or 852 Auburns — Dick Fritch and Stan Platt — displaying their cars during an ACD Club meet at Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, Calif.
Distel and C. Erik Baltzar of Palm Desert, Calif., started the Desert Classic Car Association in 1971. Baltzar said the group did a formal concours show that continues today. “Ray Distel’s Auburn was always there,” Baltzar noted. “He drove it everywhere and took people for rides in it; one of my favorite memories was of when he took it to the hot air balloon nationals when it was held near us. He rode around there with girls in the car.”
According to Fantasy Junction, the car wore black-and-yellow California license plates during these years and was titled and registered in California in Distel’s name. The photographs and written summaries accompanying the car today indicate that Distel owned it for more than 30 years (we estimated 38 years from 1962 to 2000).
When Distel became sick, the car was sold to a well-known collector named Archie Burton who retained the car for approximately 10 years. During that time, Burton was intent on restoring the car and disassembled it for restoration, but never put it back together.
Burton passed away and the Auburn, then in pieces, became part of his estate. In 2010, the Burton estate sold the car to Auburn restoration specialist Lon Krueger, of Scottsdale, Ariz. In researching the car, we spoke to Mr. Krueger who said he could not remember exactly how long he had the Speedster in his possession. He said that Ray Distel had bought a lot of parts and that he (Krueger) took the car completely apart.
According to Krueger, when he sold the car, he had a package of photos, clippings and documents that went to the new owner who lived in Seattle, Wash. The documents say that, at the time of his purchase, Krueger was able to inspect all the parts, engine and body panels and that he verified the originality of the components. To his surprise, it was among the most original Auburns he’d seen.
Krueger’s Auburn expertise included ownership of multiple cars, the restorations of five Speedsters, numerous top concours wins and long-term ownership and operation of Sun Valley Classics, a restoration facility specializing in prewar Classic cars.
Documents reveal that Krueger completed the Auburn Speedster’s restoration in approximately 2015. He then arranged for it to be on display at the Blackhawk Museum, Danville, Calif., where it was shown as part of a museum collection of some of the most opulent prewar cars, including American and special-bodied European cars from the Art Deco era. During the time the car was displayed there, the current owner purchased it.
Among the many documented features of this car is that it is one of approximately 150 built during the two final years of Auburn production. We spoke with Auburn Cord Duesenberg authority Randy Ema about this car. Ema is best known for his knowledge and restorations of Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs. Not surprisingly, he is the ACD Club’s Auburn Historian and was so in 1967, when Ray Distel owned the car.
Ema’s examination of the car concluded that Distel’s supercharged Speedster retained the correct matching-numbers engine, correct supercharger, correct numbered chassis that matched the cowl tag and the original (not reproduction) Ab Jenkins 100-mph speed plaque. Also included was a photo of the Speedster with a car Ema owned.
According to a current ad for the car, it has serial number 313168E and has been driven less than 50 miles since Krueger completed his restoration. Krueger collects Auburn-related automobilia and literature and picked a Swiss Green color from old paint chips showing optional Auburn colors. The interior is done in Caramel Beige leather.
Baltzar said he couldn’t imagine Distel not being active with his Speedster back in the ’70s, which was bright red then. “He bought it in good condition and he always kept it immaculate,” Baltzar recalled. “It won many First Place and Best of Show awards. The Auburn Speedster had no dings, dents or scratches. Ray was a real showman; he loved people and he would always, always make the best of any situation.” Of course, it always helps if your ride home is in an Auburn Speedster!
(Contributors to this article included C. Erik Baltzar, Caroline Cassini of Fantasy Junction, Randy Ema, Sam Grate of the ACD Museum, Robert Joynt, Lon Krueger of Sun Valley Classics, Raffi Minasian, Steve Snyder of Vault Cars and Robert Teal.)
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