1935-36 Auburn "Boattail" Speedster
The Auburn Automobile Company was one of the many "independent" automakers that was unable to survive the Great Depression. Like its fellow Hoosier Studebaker a generation later, Auburn did not go gentle into that good night.
Studebaker made its last stand in the early '60s with a burst of creativity all out of proportion to the resources it had to work with, producing the Gran Turismo Hawk, the Lark, the unique Wagonaire, and the timelessly swank Avanti. So, too, with Auburn, whose last years produced two cars which are still counted as among the most beautiful things ever to roll on four wheels: the "coffin nosed" Cord 810/812 and the topic of today's lesson, the Auburn Model 851 and 852 Speedsters, the last of the "Boattails."
When the sale closed, the Auburn Automobile Company had an inventory of about 700 unsold cars on the factory lot. It had laid off nearly everyone and cut production to six vehicles per week--and even that was too much. In the middle of the booming automotive market of the "Roaring Twenties," Auburn couldn't sell six lousy cars a week. No wonder the previous owners were so eager to get out of the business!
In the midst of this disaster, E.L. Cord saw opportunity.
The 700 unsold cars parked at the Auburn factory were a bit behind the styling curve, with a higher roofline than more recent designs, and every last one of them was painted a boring basic black. Under the frumpy exterior, however, they were competently engineered and had above-average straight line performance.
Like his contemporary and competitor Ned Jordan, E.L. realized that customers wanted "smart looking cars," and understood that a little flash could go a long way. Each car got a makeover consisting of a chopped top, a repaint into brighter colors, some nickel-plated trim, and a lower sticker price. After being dolled up, they sold quickly, bringing in much-needed working capital that allowed the company to get back on its feet. That also set the pattern for Auburn's brand identity. It would become known for cars which combined sharp good looks with sprightly performance and an affordable price.
By 1928, E.L. Cord's empire included engine-builder Lycoming and supercar marque Duesenberg, which had been acquired for its "halo" appeal, and so that Auburn and Lycoming could benefit from the Duesenberg brothers' engineering expertise. The Auburn "second series" automobiles introduced that year were available with a Lycoming straight eight of either 88 or 115 horspower. By 1928 standards, this was well into muscle car territory--the most powerful Cadillac then on sale had a 90-horsepower engine.
The Speedster was simply a two-seat roadster body riding on the stock Auburn sedan frame, with the stock drivetrain. The roadster got a radically raked windshield, jazzy two-toning, and a tapered rear deck, from which we get the "boattail" nickname. The taper was there to look pretty, and not for reasons of aerodynamics. While aerodynamics was not much of a factor in automobile design 84 years ago, the Speedster was undoubtedly more aerodynamic than its sedan sibling just by virtue of a smaller frontal area. It was also a bit lighter, and consequently had a performance advantage over the sedan--which was no slouch, mind you. The Speedster was less practical, with seating for only two and a small, awkwardly-shaped trunk that was hard to get into, but it made up for that by being orders of magnitude cooler.
I mean, c'mon, it has a side-loading golf bag compartment! How cool is that?
Auburn didn't sell a lot of Speedsters, but the Speedster had a "halo" effect which boosted sales of the less flashy sedans. Even after the 1929 stock market crash and resulting economic turmoil, Auburn more than held its own. In 1931, the nation's gross domestic product declined by 9.7% compared to 1930, but Auburn's sales were up 130%!
Things started to go sour in 1932. Auburn brought out a V-12 version of the Speedster and tricked out the entire line with fancier trim and gee-whiz features like a two-ratio differential and shock absorbers that could be adjusted on the fly from the driver's seat. Simultaneously, and for no apparent good reason, Auburn discontinued its entry level six-cylinder cars. 1932 was the worst year of the Great Depression, when the economy hit rock bottom--and Auburn was now building exactly the wrong product for the times. Sales fell by 60%.
Auburn scrambled to reform its product mix, discontinuing the Speedster after 1933 and bringing back six-cylinder engines for 1934. The '34 Auburn sedans were restyled at great expense. They don't look bad to modern eyes, but something about them--maybe it was the "cat whisker" detail lines on the hood sides--rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and Auburn didn't sell nearly as many as it needed to. Auburn now had a perception problem: because sales were slowing it seemed to be in decline, which meant that anyone who bought an Auburn risked getting stuck with an "orphaned" car if Auburn went out of business, which meant fewer people bought Auburns, which slowed down sales and reinforced the perception of decline, which ... well, you can see where things were heading.
It was in these desperate days that designer Gordon Buehrig was given the job of restyling the Auburn line for 1935. Mr. Buehrig had previously designed the "factory" Duesenberg bodies (for those cheapskates who didn't want to pony up for the extra expense of custom coachwork) and would go on to do the Cord 810 and the Continental Mark II, so the project was definitely in good hands.
The total redesign and tooling budget was a paltry $50,000, which forced Mr. Buehrig to make up in creativity what he lacked in resources. It would be an understatement to say that he rose to the occasion.
Auburn couldn't aford to re-do all of the sheetmetal, so Mr. Buehrig concentrated on the parts that would have the greatest visual impact: the hood, grille, and fenders. The result was a ram-bowed Art Deco wonder that looked like a completely new car.
The 1934 restyling had been based on the previous 1931-33 body design, and because so little of the underlying structure had been changed,the new fenders and hood and radiator shell could also be bolted directly onto a '31, '32, or '33. There happened to be about a hundred or so leftover 1933 Speedster bodies lying about gathering dust, and these were given the new hoods and fenders and stripped of their running boards to transform them into 1935 Speedsters, to be displayed as show cars and marketed for their halo effect.
Under the new hood, the straight eight acquired an optional supercharger designed by Augie Duesenberg, its presence announced by Duesenberg-style bright metal side pipes. The blower pumped the big Lycoming up to 150 horsepower, giving the 1933 1935 Speedster near-Duesenberg rates of acceleration and a triple digit top speed. Each car had a placard on the dasboard which purported to certify the top speed achieved in a test drive at the factory, and bore the signature of the test driver. I say "purported" because only about 20% of the cars were actually tested before leaving the factory. You might describe the placards on the other 80% as "fake but accurate," because regarless of whether or not your Speedster had been formally tested, it was easily capable of going over 100 MPH.
We're not sure how many Speedsters were produced between the introduction of the '35s in late 1934 and the end of production. Gordon Buehrig put the figure at 600, but most historians think it was more in the neighborhood of 180.
Whatever the actual number was, it wasn't enough. Production of Auburns ended in August of 1936, and after a last valiant try with the Cord 810 and 812, Auburn exited the auto business entirely in 1937, as E.L. Cord got himself crosswise with the SEC and was forced to sell off his empire.
It wasn't quite the end of the Boattail, however. The Speedster, much like the Avanti, was simply too cool to be allowed to die. Several manufacturers have, from time to time, offered replica or "continuation" Speedsters like the one in the photo below, and if you see a Speedster on the road travelling under its own power, it's most likely a replica.
This particular one was built by California Custom Coachwork, and is owned by Dan DeClerk. The body is a faithful line-by-line re-creation in fiberglass, dressed up with genuine NOS Auburn chrome, sitting on a modified 1970 Mustang chassis with the stock Mustang suspension and drivetrain (351 Cleveland V-8, FMX automatic transmission, 8" rear end). Dan tells me that it drives like a car from the 1960s, complete with the inevitable "play in the steering," but since it's about 500 pounds lighter than the donor Mustang, and the engine is closer to the center of the car, it has better handling and "has a tendency to light up the rear tires--but I avoid that, since it has real spoke rims."
Looks pretty swank there, Dan!
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The magnificent white replica Speedster at the top was photographed by my son's schoolmate Ryan this past summer in downtown Medina. The 1929 Speedster photo is from Flying A Garage. The '34 sedan and the '35 Speedster came from the photo collection at amee.ca. The '35 sedan is from Conceptcarz. The '35 speedster ad is from Wikipedia. Dan DeClerk provided the photo of his CCC replica.