Auburn 851/852 Speedster
There is something to be said for those whose reach exceeds their grasp. They may not be successful in business; in fact, they may fail in the most spectacular fashion, but while their candle burns at both ends it can give off a lovely light.
Erret Lobban Cord was just such a type. The kind of person who could sell beef jerky to vegetarians (canned tuna to Greenpeace?), Cord was called in to work a minor miracle with the Auburn Automobile Company in 1924. Ultimately, the miracle he wrought lasted more than 10 years and produced some of the grandest cars ever to turn a wheel.
When Cord took over the general managership of Auburn, he entered a company that had 50 years of history behind it. Founded in 1877 by German immigrant Charles Eckhart, the wagon-making firm had branched out into automobiles by 1903, when Charles' sons, Frank and Morris, built a one-cylinder chain-drive runabout. Quickly the small Indiana-based company added two-, four- and six-cylinder cars to their line. Despite an advanced model called the Beauty Six, which featured a streamlined body and was bereft of running boards, however, Auburn was essentially a non-starter in the crowded American marketplace.
In the 1921-22 recession that destroyed many U.S. car companies, Auburn tumbled toward receivership only to be rescued by chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley. Soon thereafter another Chicago businessman, E.L. Cord, entered the picture. Cord had first gained some notice by the sales job he did for the Windy City-based Moon Automobile Company. Cord had started as a salesman with Moon when he was well short of his 25th birthday, but his hard-charging style and gift of gab sent him up the ladder to become first general manager, then a director of Moon.
Recruited to take over as general manager of Auburn despite the fact that he was under 30, he got the moribund company moving again by rapidly selling off excess stock on hand, moving 750 cars in a matter of months. Soon he was named vice president, and by 1926 he wasn't just president of the company, he was also its chief stockholder.
The late Twenties were good years for Cord and Auburn. With a line that included both six- and eight-cylinder models, it sold more than 20,000 cars in 1929. Certainly, Henry Ford wasn't worried, but the company seemed to be solidly successful. Cord added the famous Lycoming engine plant to his growing list of holdings and prepared to launch a car line that would bear his name. The front-drive L-29 Cord did, indeed, create a stir in the marketplace, but almost before the paint was dry on the model the stock market crashed.
Despite an attractive array of cars that appeared to be priced right, Auburn sales dropped 50 percent in 1930. Perhaps Cord was giving an inordinate amount of attention to the L-29 to the detriment of his bread-and-butter Auburn line.
In any case, Cord dropped all the six-cylinder models from the Auburn catalog in 1931 and saw sales rebound to a record 32,000 units. Attractive styling and value-for-money were the watchwords. An eight-cylinder Auburn went for as little as $945 that year.
Cord took his value-plan to the logical extreme the following year with the introduction of a 12-cylinder model. With a V-12 designed by Auburn's George Kublin and built by Lycoming, the line-up might have been the most compelling values of the decade. The least expensive V-12, a coupe, cost just $975, while the lusciously attractive Custom Speedster was ticketed at just $1,275.
Sadly, instead of continuing their remarkable climb, Auburn sales tobogganed to less than 8,000 as the economy skidded again. 1933 was even worse and in 1934 sales leveled off at an abysmal 4,700.
Ever the optimistic sales type, Cord had engaged in an acquisition binge, buying not just Lycoming, but another engine-builder (Ansted), Duesenberg, Checker Cab, and a wide variety of other companies. When things were headed south in 1934, Cord headed east to England where he laid low while Duesenberg president Harold T. Ames tried to make sense of the operation.
With the 1934 line of Auburns stiffing in the marketplace, the shaky Auburn management team set designer Gordon Buehrig and engine designer Augie Duesenberg to work on a quick revamp for 1935. At the time Buehrig was deeply involved in a "baby Duesenberg" project that would eventually become the legendary Cord 810, so his work was quick but certainly not dirty.
He took the V-12 Speedster model and totally redid the front end, hood, cowl and fenders to bring it up to date. What is most striking is the way the new "pontoon" fenders complement the pre-existing boattail body. With an aggressive grille, teardrop headlamps and chrome exhaust pipes jutting from the engine compartment, the 851 is a study in masculinity. Its exclusive feel is accentuated by its low, close-fitting convertible top, narrow windscreen and tiny side windows.
Duesenberg worked similar magic on the new engine, taking the recently re-introduced six cylinder engine and building an eight by the simple expedient of adding two cylinders. Bore and stroke remained the same. This resulted in a displacement of 279 cubic inches and peak horsepower of 115, but with the addition of a Schwitzer-Cummins supercharger horsepower jumped to 150. (Oddly enough, Cord also introduced a Cummins diesel-powered model that year.)
Ever the promoter, Cord immediately sent fabled driver Ab Jenkins to the Bonneville Salt Flats to drive the 851 in a 24-hour endurance run. The car passed with flying colors, and, as a result of the stunt each 851 Speedster carried a plaque attesting that it had been driven by Ab Jenkins at a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, the way Auburns were selling in 1935 Ab Jenkins might as well have offered to have Sunday dinner with each and every buyer. Deliveries barely topped 5,000 in 1935, and in 1936, with the 851 renamed the 852 for no apparent reason, sales collapsed to just 1,850.
Disaster also dogged the launch of the new Cord 810/812. Rushed to market before it was ready, the first cars had significant problems that sent sales reeling. The final straw was the federal investigation of E.L. Cord and his business practices.
Though promised, no 1937 Auburns ever appeared; Cord sold out; and the Auburn Speedster became nothing but a wistful memory of what could have been, maybe should have been, but wasn't.