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Jousting With Giants

Written by Jim Hinckley

August 18, 2021

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The now legendary Cord, America’s first successful front wheel drive car, was another E.L. Cord venture.

For more than three quarters of a century the American automobile industry has been dominated by giants: namely Ford, GM and Chrysler. However, even in a land of giants there are those bold enough to challenge them for the throne, or at least a portion of the kingdom. In the automotive realm, these were known generally as the independents.

A few of these companies such as Hudson, Packard and Studebaker are rather well known, especially in the over fifty crowd. Others, however, such as Auburn, Stutz, or Pierce-Arrow are to a large degree forgotten except among automotive enthusiasts.

As a result, few are aware of the many contributions made by these companies. Even fewer are aware that the demise of the independent also marked the end for the dominance of the American industry for there was no longer any contribution to the big three except from foreign shores.

From its inception in 1900, the Auburn was a solid but average automobile with little to make it stand out from the hundreds of others produced during the same period. In1924 when E.L. Cord assumed the position of general manager this chapter closed, and another began.

At the time of his appointment to this position, the company was producing six vehicles a day and exceeding demand by at least three. His first managerial decision was to take several hundred unsold cars, add flashy nickel trim as well as two-tone paint and the cars began to sell. The following year he contracted with Lycoming for some eight-cylinder engines that were shoe horned into the old chassis and listed as new 8-63 and 8-88 models.

Promoting these cars through racing attracted attention, which in turn translated, into sales. For 1926, 7,138 vehicles were produced and in the year that followed this number almost doubled.

The influx of capital allowed Cord to transform the Auburn into a stylish performer. In 1927 alone, a stock Auburn was driven to new records in every class from five to five thousand miles. The following year hydraulic brakes became standard and the introduction of a stylish Auburn speedster captured the attention of automotive enthusiasts everywhere.

Another aspect of Auburn’s success was the transformation of the dealer network. Prior to Cord’s arrival the majority of Auburn dealers were simply garage owners who peddled a car or two on the side to enhance profits. Now there was an extensive network of dealers with well-stocked parts rooms and mechanics trained to repair Auburns.

With Auburn firmly established as a major automobile manufacturer Cord turned his talents and resources to expanding the company’s base as well as expanding the market share by introducing companion lines under the name Cord Corporation. By 1929, the Cord empire with Auburn as the foundation included Limousine Body, Anstead Engine, Lycoming Engine, Lexington Motor Car Company, and Duesenberg Motors. At the New York Auto Show that year the highlight was a trio of automobiles produced by Cord owned companies; the dynamically streamlined Auburn Cabin Speedster, the all-new front wheel drive Cord L-29 and the now legendary Duesenberg Model J.

Cord’s diversification worked well in the early days of the Great Depression. Even though sales initially dropped, by 1931 Auburn they had doubled over that of 1929. The fact that more than a thousand new dealers, many of whom abandoned the franchise of other marques, during this period speaks volumes on what Cord had accomplished with a near moribund company in less than a decade.

As the economic conditions worsened many manufacturers, including the Cord enterprises began to falter. Cord never flinched, instead he chose to reinvent Auburn as a mid price ranged vehicle that could not be ignored as value for the dollar, and the result was the 1932 Model 12.

Fortune magazine evaluated the vehicle and noted it was, “the biggest package in the world for the price.” Business Week similarly noted the new Auburn was, “more car for the money than the public has ever seen.” With a base price for a coupe at $975, this series was a true bargain.

Under the hood was an all-new, highly advanced Lycoming V12 engine. Ensuring performance as well as comparative economy of operation was two-speed Columbia rear axle. Interior appointments were equal to those found on those produced by companies such as Cadillac and Lincoln. Styling was also of equal par.

Even though these vehicles offered unequaled value for the dollar, the economic conditions were also unequaled. As an example, Hudson sales dropped from 290,000 in 1929 to a truly dismal 19,000 in 1932.

The diversification that had served Cord so well now became his downfall and the first casualty was Auburn. However, there was to be a final, glorious chapter – the 851 speedster.

Rakish, attention-grabbing styling was matched with performance in a nearly flawless package. A speed of one hundred miles per hour was guaranteed and with Abe Jenkins at the wheel, a new American stock car record of one hundred miles per hour for twelve hours was established.

In October of 1937 leading business publications were reporting production of Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg vehicles were about to be suspended. The reports were accurate, the final curtain was drawn, and Auburn began its slide into obscurity adding another paving stone in the eventual domination of the “Big Three” in the American auto industry.

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