By Brian Earnest
He never met him, but Ace Collins is sure the first owner of his 1934 Auburn sedan must have loved the car to death. The man bought the car new and cared for it for nearly six decades.
When it comes to affection for the stunning black and red Auburn, however, there is little doubt that Collins would give that first owner a run for his money. When Collins, a novelist from Arkadelphia, Ark., gets revved up and talking about his Auburn, it’s clear his love and appreciation for the car is as genuine as you’ll ever find.
It seems to be one of those happy affairs where the right car and the right owner found each other and became partners.
“I like the fact the car is a really just a ‘used’ car, for lack of a better word,” says Collins. “It’s not a show car. It’s a car that can be driven. I drive this thing. During normal weather, I drive it 3 or 4 times a week. It’s a used car. and I’m never going to restore it …
“You know, I sold a Cord Westchester about eight months ago. There is no more of a ‘wow’ car than the Westchester. People’s jaws dropped when we took it out. And it was fun to drive a rolling sculpture, but this is a car more from my heart. It will be in my will. It’s just such a joy to own and drive. It will never be for sale. I know it may be considered the Auburn ugly duckling, but in our family it is the favorite car we’ve ever had.”
The planets seem to have aligned perfectly for Collins’ Auburn model 652Y to lead a long life as an unrestored survivor. The original owner, according to Collins, was a mechanic at an Auburn dealership from York, Pa., who was able to scrape up enough money to buy the new six-cylinder 652Y that was aimed at customers who couldn’t afford the company’s more traditional, eight- and 12-cylinder luxury models. For less than $900, a buyer could get themselves an Auburn with plenty of room, a Lycoming straight-six under the hood, lots of style and a great reputation for quality.
“The 652Y sedan, it wasn’t a fancy car,” Collins noted. “It wasn’t like one of the fancy Eights. It would have cost more than a Ford or Chevrolet, but wasn’t a real high-dollar car … This guy probably got a good deal on it, because nobody wanted the [1934 Auburns] at the time.”
Auburn certainly seemed to be doing the wise thing for 1934 when a significant redesign made the company’s offerings sleeker, wider and more modern-looking than previous years. Company sales had been in a tailspin, falling from a high of 34,228 in 1931 to just 5,083 units in ’33 as the U.S. economy bottomed out.
The arrival of two lines of six-cylinder cars wasn’t enough to resuscitate the sinking company, however. Reception for the new models was lukewarm, at best, and sales rebounded only to 7,770 cars. Production of 1934 models was halted midway through the year and the company decided to tool up and move on to 1935. Two years later, after a small 1936 production run, the company that had been started by Charles Eckhart as a carriage-building venture in Auburn, Ind., and revived by E.L. Cord in the mid-1920s, was just a memory.
The 652Y was a small but interesting chapter in the Auburn history book. It was available as a sedan, two-door brougham, phaeton and cabriolet — all sharing the same 119-inch-wheelbase frame and aluminum-head 209.9-cid, 85-hp Lycoming six — the first time a six was offered by the company since 1930.
The 652 series had the 652X Standard line and 652Y Custom models. The Custom models like Collins’ car carried a three-speed manual gearbox that was connected to a two-speed rear axle. All four wheels had hydraulic brakes and new hydraulic shock absorbers went on all 1934 models.
The Sixes and Eights had a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it design that featured three curved louvers on the sides of the hood that were painted accent colors and designed to mimic the contour of the front fenders. The Art Deco design continued with raised horizontal moldings across the bottom and top edges of the bodysides and doors — all four of which are of the rear-hinged “suicide” style in Collins’ sedan. A unique split-glass arrangement in the front door windows allows the front and rear panes to be rolled up or down separately or together.
Ten years ago, Collins had mulled over the purchase of a 1936 Auburn, but then discovered through the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club that a 1934 Auburn was for sale in Ohio. “I didn’t even know what a ’34 Auburn looked like,” he admitted. That changed after the seller sent him some photos and video of the car, but the two sides couldn’t agree on a price. “I offered him a price and it was too low, but I kept it in the back of my mind and, gosh, about six or eight months later he said he needed some cash to support his wife’s new business and he needed to sell it. So that’s when I bought, without even seeing it, and had it shipped down here.”
As an unrestored survivor, the Auburn wasn't perfect, but Collins wasn’t the least bit disappointed when it arrived. “I fell in love with everything about it,” he said. “It started up easily. I loved the way it handled and drove. It smoked a little, so we took the head off and it came off in three pieces. It had literally melded to the block after all those years in that position… You could tell the engine had never been apart. We discovered the rings had just deteriorated. There was no scoring on the block and a we didn’t need to do anything but put new rings in it, put a new aluminum head on and it’s been running like a champ ever since. Other than normal maintenance, nothing has really been done to that car.”
Collins isn’t sure if the black and red paint is original, but it appears to be. Ditto with the interior. Both have the patina and age spots that 79 years of loyal service bring.
“Nobody can tell me if the black paint is original or not. I can’t find any evidence of a repaint based on overspray and things like that,” he said. “It might have been repainted in early 1960s, and they did such a good job you can’t tell, but the paint is lacquer and it has the cracks and has the scratches and the spidering. It looks like it’s the original paint. It has to be back at least to the ‘60s. The nickel plating and the stainless have never been touched. You can see a little rust and all the little imperfections.… If the interior was redone, it was redone perfectly. It is original material and original style. It has a couple holes in the interior, a couple moth holes in the headliner … There is a hole from the driver's foot in the carpet … The ring job and new head was the only thing mechanically done to it, I know that.”
Some owners would be eager to give the car a repaint, but Collins won’t hear of it. He jokes about the “prehistoric feel” of the original, rock-hard rubber on the running boards, and the pesky leak in the roof. “I park it wherever there is a parking space. I treat it like a used car. That’s one of the joys of owning it,” he says. “The only thing I don’t do is drive it in rain because the ol’ top seems to leak, and the spot it leaks is right over the driver. Oh, and I don’t drive it when it’s real cold, either, because the heater core is shot. It starts fine, I just don’t like to freeze to death.”
Collins jokes that he’ll never use the original roll-down shade in the back window “because then you’re blind and you can’t see out the back.” The footrest in back is a nice touch when Collins loans out the car for weddings and other festive affairs. There isn’t any music on board, however. “It doesn’t have a radio,” he says. “Never has.”
Collins regularly takes the car to shows and hobby gatherings within a couple hours' drive. He has no hesitation about getting out in traffic or taking the Auburn for an all-afternoon drive. “I do go to local shows in this area. I think nothing of driving 60, 70 miles to go to a show. I’ve won a lot of shows by default because there are so few pre-WWII cars that show up. It’s a shame more people don’t take their old cars out. I know there are a lot of pre-World War II cars out there just sitting in garages and you never see them.
“The car is amazingly tight, for a car this old. It’s got the hydraulic brakes that work very well, much better than brakes on most old cars I’ve been in. There are no rattles to speak of. You tool around town in the low ratio of the two-speed rear end. It pulls our hills just fine. It accelerates well for an old car … When you get on the highway you drop it down into high and you can scoot down the highway at 65, 70 mph with no problem.”
So far, Collins has never seen another 652Y sedan from 1934. “I’ve been told there are 26 of them. Whether that is accurate or not, I don’t know. There have been two that have turned up in recent years that nobody knew about. There may be more out there that may not have been registered or are not in a club.”
The one topic of conversation that always seems to come up when Collins takes the car out in public is the paint job. Yes, the paint is an original factory combination. Auburn was known for its bold paint combinations, which Collins frequently gets to explain. “These are Art Deco cars, but people have this mentality that cars from the '30s are always black,” Collins laughed. “They aren’t used to seeing a car that has a splash of color. Actually, Auburn had a lot of wild paint jobs and a lot of the time they used three colors. This one has only two. I have to tell them that this car, for an Auburn, is mild.”
With 79,934 miles and counting, Collins is looking forward to many more years of daily driving and weekend old car hobby fun in his beautiful and original “used car” Auburn. The car simply makes him happy, and that’s a pretty good reason to keep driving it.
"It’s a car that makes people smile,” he says. “That’s why I love it when people drive old cars. It absolutely makes people smile.”
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