The first Auburn car was introduced in 1900. It was
offered by the Auburn Automobile Company, also founded that same year.
The company was a spin off of the Eckhart Carriage Company. Charles
Eckhart was a wheelwright working for the Studebaker brothers in South
Bend, Indiana, building wagons. He left them, moved to Auburn and set up
his own wagon company in 1874. He retired after almost 20 years, in
1893, and transferred the business to his two sons, Morris and Frank. It
was the two brothers that built the first Auburn car.
Their first car was a single cylinder, chain driven,
with solid rubber tires, and tiller steering. The price tag was $800.
They did not sell many, if any, cars. So the brothers spent the next two
years trying different designs and models. It was the Chicago Automobile
Show of 1903 that caused the Eckhart brothers to launch a serious effort
at car production. That car was still chain driven but the tires were
now filled with air instead of being solid. A tonneau top and touring
options were offered. The 1905 model had a two cylinder engine. The 1909
version was a four cylinder. And the 1912 car was a six cylinder.
The company was selling cars and looked pretty
successful. World War I and after seemed to be good for the car business
and the Eckharts. But the company was not as successful as the Eckhart
brothers gave the impression, and in 1919, controlling interest in the
Eckhart Automobile Company was sold to a group of Chicago businessmen.
One of the owners was William Wrigley, Jr., part of the Wrigley family
that made the chewing gum and got a baseball stadium named after them.
The first car offered after the sale was the 1919
Auburn Beauty-SIX. It was an improvement over the earlier simple and
very basic Auburns. You could even say it was prettier. But a post World
War I recession hit, impacting the economy and sale of new cars. Only
15,717 Auburns were sold.
By 1924, the Auburn Automobile car company was
producing six cars a day. A nice rate of production, except the cars
were not selling. Hundreds of unsold Auburns set in the company parking
lots. One day a top car salesman from Chicago stopped in to have a
conversation with the company. The man's name was Erret Lobban Cord.
Cord worked at Quinlan Motor Car Company selling Moon cars. Among other
things in his past, Cord had made and lost a lot of money in the past,
but he did have a pocketful of cash looking for a place to invest it. He
bought an interest in the company and became its general manager. He
received a small salary, but was promised the opportunity to acquire
controlling interest in the company if he could make it profitable. His
first project was to get rid of the inventory in the lot. He repainted
the cars and added some nickel plating and started selling the cars. The
next year, 1925, Cord arranged with the Lycoming Company to use their
straight-eight cylinder motors in the Auburns. Chief Auburn engineer
James Crawford was given the task of pulling the six cylinder out of the
Auburns and replacing it with the straight eight. Two new models were
introduced with this motor called the 8-63 and the 8-88. These two
models were distinguished from the other Auburns with a two colour paint
job and a sweeping beltline that came over the top of the hood. This
styling was retained until 1930. Sales of the Auburn cars doubled for
three straight years. By the middle of 1926, the third year, Cord was
President of the Auburn Automobile Company.
Looking for bigger game to overcome, Cord set his
eyes on competing with the famous Stutz cars. Since the failure of the
Mercer Car Company, Stutz had no real car competition left. Cord took a
couple of 8-88 Auburns to The Atlantic City Speedway in New Jersey
during July of 1926. He had rented the entire track to see what his
straight eight cars could do. They broke all speed records for fully
equipped stock cars in the 5 to 5000 miles brackets.
The 1928 Auburn 8-115 introduced hydraulic brakes to
replace the mechanical brakes, a great improvement. Also added was Bijur
lubrication. Both these features were normally found only on more
expensive cars, not medium priced cars like the Auburns. Al Leamy
designed a boat tail speedster rear end directly targeting the Stutz
Bearcat. Wade Morton drove an Auburn 8-115 to a record speed at the
Daytona track in a measured mile. He hit 108.46 miles per hour. He also
drove one at Atlantic City for 2,033 miles and set a record speed of
84.7 mph. Morton also set a record at Pike's Peak. The Bearcat was a
little faster but it sold for $5,000 in 1928, the Auburn 8-115 went for
$2,000. The Auburn 8-120 was introduced in 1929, the 8-130 in 1930..
The 1929 year was the best one yet for Cord and his
car company. His dealer network couldn't get cars fast enough. Prior to
Cord taking over the company, the Auburns were sold through a small
number of mostly garages that may have had one car to demonstrate. Cord
set up a network of dealers with a systematic delivery of new cars. The
Auburn was a very hot selling car giving Cord the resources to start
building his auto empire. He purchased a number of other car related
companies including; the Arnstead Engine Company, the Lexington Motor
Car Company, Central Manufacturing, Lycoming of Williamsport, PA,
Limousine Body in Kalamazoo, MI, and the Duesenberg Motors in
Indianapolis. He combined all these car companies into one that he
called the Cord Corporation. His Auburn Cabin Speedster was the hit at
the New York Automobile Car Show. He offered a new Duesenberg Model J
and a front wheel drive car he called the Cord L-29. Sales of his cars
were so good he hardly noticed the stock market crash on Black Friday
that year. But the upcoming Depression cut sales considerably. But by
1931 sales were back up and exceeded the peak year 1929. Cord had a
network of over a 1,000 dealers, most sold other car makes and quit to
join Cord. Cord focused the Auburn on a "single straight eight motor,
the 8-98, built by Lycoming, the first centre X bracing on a rear wheel
drive car, Lovejoy hydraulic shocks, Bijur lubrication, semi-elliptical
suspension in the front and the rear, and a LGS Freewheeling Unit." The
Auburn was offered for $1,195-$1,395 ($945-$1,195 less the Freewheeling
Unit). Fortune magazine called the Auburn the "biggest package in the
world for the price." Business Week said it was "more car for the money
than the public has seen."
In 1932 Cord upped the ante even more. Lycoming built
a V-12 for the Auburn. This was the only twelve cylinder car ever sold
for under a $1,000. Cord acquired Columbia Axle Company to use their two
speed rear end. A fully loaded Auburn Twelve Speedster set numerous
speed records at the Muroc Dry Lake. Most of those records stood until
long after World War II ended.
But the World economy was not good, the Great
Depression hit the US as well. Sales of all cars fell including the
Auburn. Cord reacted with a re-introducing a six cylinder Auburn and
lowering its price, then cutting production on the V-12 and straight
eight. Cord was off into other interests. He has set up the Checker Cab
Company, he was building ships and was involved in aviation. Cord was
"neglecting the car company and it was in trouble."
Gordon Beuhrig, a designer at Duesenberg, put
together one last great car, the Auburn 851. The body was a boat tail
speedster powered by a Lycoming straight eight and it had a Schwitzer-Cummins
supercharger. The factory guaranteed the car would go 100 miles per
hour. In fact, Ab Jenkins drove an 851 at Bonneville over 100 mph for 12
hours setting a record for the first American stock car to do that.
Almost 500 Auburn 851's were built and sold for $2,245. The company lost
money on every one using it as a draw to get buyers into the showrooms.
Hopefully more cheaper priced cars would sell. Sales did increase 20%
but not enough to save the company. The 1936 car line-up was not changed
from the prior year. Rumours were new models would be introduced
including a diesel limousine. A new Cord 810 was offered but in 1937 no
Cords were available. By August 1937, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and
the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Cord's business
He sold his holdings and the Auburns were no more, the end of a great
era for automobiles.