In the closing years of the 19th century the automobile was little more than a circus sideshow curiosity, and an obsession for eccentrics. In 1896 a Duryea Motor Wagon was given top billing over the albino and fat lady at the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
By the dawn of the 20th century dozens of manufacturers were producing automobiles to meet the swelling public demand. Even companies such as Studebaker that was a leading producer of horse drawn vehicles began producing automobiles. The company’s first offering was an electric car designed by Thomas Edison.
The list of pioneering automobile manufacturers includes Auburn of Auburn, Indians. This company would become a leader in innovation. It would also serve as the cornerstone for a legendary automobile company that would become synonymous for styling and performance.
This story begins with Charles Eckhart. He had apprenticed as a wheelwright for Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana and then advanced in the company to become well versed in all aspects of carriage and wagon manufacturing. These skills served him well when he launched his own carriage manufacturing business in Auburn, Indiana.
In partnership with brothers Frank and Morris Eckhart, and with funding from their father, the Auburn Automobile Company was established in 1900. As with many vehicles produced at that time, it was an assembled car built with parts from an array of companies. Production and sales were anemic.
In 1903 the brothers displayed the first Auburn designed and built inhouse at the Chicago Auto Show. Flooded with orders the company was forced to expand production facilities. By 1909 the company was an industry powerhouse that merged with two local automobile manufacturers to expand the capacity for manufacturing.
Success continued until the post WWI shortage of materials and economic recession curbed sales. These issues were compounded by dated styling, a limited dealer network and quality control issues.
In 1919, on the cusp of bankruptcy, Auburn was sold to a group of Chicago investors that included William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum mogul. But the influx of capital failed to resolve primary issues and by 1924 only six cars a day were rolling from the factory. Even that anemic production was more than enough to meet demand and soon there was a surplus of unsold cars.
To salvage a portion of their investment the board of directors retained the services of E.L. Cord. Cord had developed a reputation in the industry when he transformed the St. Louis based moribund Moon Automobile Company into a profitable entity.
After evaluating the operation Cord accepted the position of General Manager at Auburn in exchange for a modest salary, stock options, and the option of buying controlling interest in the company. He immediately repainted unsold stock, added stylish nickel-plated trim, cut the wholesale price, created an options list, and hosted an auto show for national dealers on the town square.
Within a few months he had profitably sold the overstocked and outdated inventory. Then in 1925 he contracted with Lycoming for powerful eight-cylinder engines that were then installed in the six-cylinder Auburn chassis. He also approved mild styling changes that presented a more modern streamlined appearance and added two-tone paint options. Sales soared.
By 1926, Auburn was a profitable company counted among the top twenty manufacturers in the country. Currently there were literally dozens of automobile manufacturers competing for a limited market.
Cord then hired Alen Leamy and Gordon Buehrig, cutting edge young automotive designers, and entered a limited partnership with the Duesenberg Company that had been producing prestigious high-performance automobiles. An extensive nationwide dealer network with a focus on select cities was also created.
With acquisition of controlling interest in Duesenberg, Cord built a diverse industrial empire that included a new line of performance-oriented luxury cars. The Auburn became a primary competitor to Buick, Hudson, and similar mid-priced automobiles. He then incorporated features and components from both lines into the revolutionary L-29 Cord, the American automobile industry’s first successful front wheel drive car.
In 1928, the Auburn 8-115 was introduced with hydraulic rather than mechanical brakes. At Daytona that year the Auburn 8-115 was driven to a speed record of 108.46 miles per hour. The resultant media attention and a brilliant marketing strategy resulted in 1929 being the best year yet for the Auburn Automobile Company. Dealers clambered for cars and production was unable to meet demand even though manufacturing facilities were trebled.
Using Auburn to secure loans Cord began acquiring companies to streamline operations, diversify income streams, and lessen the company’s dependence on other manufacturers. He purchased or acquired controlling interest in Stinson Aircraft, Anstead Engine Company, Lycoming, Limousine Auto Body, and Columbia Axle Company. He also expanded into the commercial market by introducing the Auburn Saf-T-Cab, a car purpose built as a taxi. This led to a limited partnership with Checker Cab Manufacturing Company.
Even though automobile sales plummeted in 1932 with the onset of the Great Depression two new Auburns were introduced – the eight-cylinder Model 8-100 and the astounding Model 12 series with V-12 engines at an incredible price of just $975 for the coupe. And as an option, a Columbia dual ratio rear axle was available.
And at the end of 1932 the Auburn 851, a boat tail speedster designed by Gorden Beurig, with a Lycoming straight eight engine and a Schwitzer-Cummins supercharger was introduced. The car was sold with a written guarantee of 100 miles per hour and a plaque on the dash stating that the car had been tested to that speed by Indianapolis 500 driver Abe Jenkins. About 500 of these stunning Auburn’s were built and sold for $2,245.
Initially the scheme was a success. Sales of Auburn increased by twenty percent. But overall sales had declined by nearly sixty percent since 1929.
To stave off impending collapse a six-cylinder Auburn was introduced in 1935 in the hope of capturing a larger share of the declining market. Production of the V-12 and the straight eight models was suspended. But this merely postponed the inevitable and the last Auburns rolled from the factory in 1936 with little fanfare.
The Auburns that have survived into the modern era are treasured and revered. When equipped with the Columbia two speed axle, they blend modern road manners with classic car styling and luxury making them an ideal touring car for the modern enthusiast.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America