Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Automobiles as Works of Art…Metal Sculptures

Laurie and I had visited the Auburn – Cord – Duesenberg Museum in Auburn Indiana many, many years ago.  Although many beautiful and/or interesting automobiles were built in the U.S.A., Canada and overseas, we believe that this grouping of early (pre-1940) U.S. built cars are truly works of art.  In our minds, this is an art museum, with many of these cars representing fine art or at the very least, extraordinary examples of functional industrial design…  

The photos show the exterior of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum and the main display gallery on the first floor of this automotive art sanctuary.

Opened in 1974, the museum occupies the former administration building of the Auburn Automobile Company.  The Art Deco style structure was built in 1930.  The display gallery shown above was where automobiles and other products produced by Auburn were once displayed.  The structure is a National Historic Landmark and it is recognized as one of the U.S.A.’s best-preserved examples of an independent automobile manufacturer’s facilities.  After Auburn stopped producing cars, until 1960 this building was home to a business that sold original and reproduction parts for several discontinued automobile manufacturers.

The Auburn Automobile Company had its origins with the Eckhart Carriage Company that was founded in Auburn Indiana in 1824.  The founder’s sons got into the automobile business in the early 1900’s and were moderately successful until materials shortages during WWI forced them to stop production.  In 1924, Errett Lobban Cord was approached with an offer to run the company… He countered with what amounted to a leveraged buyout.  After the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression which followed, Auburn’s expensive autos, along with its very expensive sister marque autos, Duesenberg and Cord, suffered critical sales downturns. 

Around 1935, Auburn began producing a line of kitchen cabinets and sinks to keep the company afloat.  All vehicle production was halted in 1937.  After a 1940 bankruptcy reorganization, the former Auburn Automobile Company merged with the Central Manufacturing Company into the Auburn Central Manufacturing Corporation.  That company received large contracts for WWII production work.  Among their most notable WWII contributions was the manufacturing of about half a million of the World War II Willys and Ford 1/4-ton jeep bodies.

This 1904 automobile is probably the earliest Auburn still in existence.  Total production for the Auburn Automobile Company in 1904 was about 50 vehicles.  Auburn had debuted its cars at the 1903 Auto Show in Chicago but at this point, Auburns were only being sold in a few Midwestern states.  This auto was powered by a two-cylinder engine that produced 10 HP.  Power was transferred to the rear wheels by a chain.  The price of this car was originally $1,250.

This is a 1910 Auburn Model S Roadster, part of the largest line of autos that Auburn produced in 1910.  This racy-looking Auburn was typical of the vehicles upon which the company was building its reputation.  This 3-passenger roadster featured a ‘mother-in-law seat, it weighed 2,400 pounds and the motor produced 40 HP.  Original cost = $1,650.

Note: In 1910, U.S. auto production totaled 181,000 vehicles.  1,365 of them were built by Auburn.  Given the large number of auto manufacturers in 1910, Auburn was doing pretty well...

This brass beauty is a 1912 Auburn 30L Runabout Speedster.  It cost $1,100 and it featured 5 carbide headlamps lit with acetylene gas, a horn and a tool kit.  The motor was built by the Rutenber Motor Company of Chicago.  This was one of four models produced by Auburn in 1912… Total production that year came to just over 1,600 autos.

Note: In 1898, Edwin Rutenber built the first 4-cylinder engine to be manufactured in the U.S.A.  His engines were used in a wide variety of early automotive models for various companies.  They were also used in trucks, airplanes, tractors and in many more applications.

This is a 1919 Auburn Beauty-Six Roadster.  Love the Rolls-Royce Blue with black fenders.  Only a few of these cars have survived.  They were powered by a 6-cylinder motor that produced 43 HP.  Its weight had increased to 2,885 pounds.  A new Beauty-Six cost $1,595 new.  

By 1919 the Auburn Automobile Company had new owners, a group of Chicago investors that included chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.    For the first time the company’s autos were marketed nationwide.  This was a record year for sales, with more than 6,000 Auburns being sold.

This is a 1927 Duesenberg Model X Phaeton… Only 13 chassis were built and only 5 of them actually received a finished automotive body.  The Phaeton coachwork was completed by Locke and Company in New York City.  That company also built auto bodies for Chrysler and Lincoln.  In any case, it is thought that only 2 of these Phaeton model Duesenberg’s were ever built.  This one was part of famous automotive collector and casino owner Bill Harrah’s collection and he had it completely restored.  This auto weighs 4,000 pounds and it was powered by an 8-cylinder engine that produced 100 HP.  I found that one of these cars sold in the not too distant past for a ‘mere’ $527,500. 

A little background… Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Company, Inc. was founded in Indianapolis Indiana by brothers Fred and August Duesenberg in 1920.  This American racing and luxury automobile manufacturer is known for popularizing the straight-eight engine and 4-wheel hydraulic brakes.  Duesenberg autos won the Indianapolis 500 in 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1927 as well as the French Grand Prix in 1921.  The company struggled financially and entered receivership in 1924.  Duesenberg was purchased by Errett Lobban Cord in 1926.

This is a fine re-creation of the original 1929 Auburn Cabin Speedster.  Only 1 of these cars was ever built.  The company intended it as an example of forward thinking and design for display at auto shows.  One was on display at the 1929 Los Angeles Auto Show but it was destroyed when a fire broke out in the huge tent erected for the event.  In 30 minutes, both the tent and the 320 autos on display were completely destroyed. 

For 54 years, the only memories of this one-off automobile were in photos and toy cars.  In 1983, a doctor in La Porte Indiana began the process to recreate the Cabin Speedster.  This faithfully executed rebuild used an Auburn chassis and aluminum over an ash frame.

These 1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet automobiles are just stunning to look at… With the success of race car builder Harry Miller’s front-wheel drive race car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1925, E.L. Cord approached Miller with the idea of incorporating front-wheel drive into passenger cars.  Introduced in 1929, these automobiles were the first successful mass-produced front-wheel drive automobiles.  The elimination of the long drive train needed previously, allowed for an 11 inch reduction in the height of these cars.  The 1920 Cord L-29 Cabriolet sported an 8 cylinder engine that developed 125 HP.  They weighed 4,300 pounds and retailed for $3,195. 

The 1931 Duesenberg Model J Beverly Sedan is one of Duesenberg’s most recognized body styles.  The auto’s low silhouette and slanted windshield create a stylish and nicely proportioned body design…which is further accentuated by the long wheelbase chassis.  The interior has an armchair rear seat, elegant cabinetry and passenger instrumentation.  A radio and even a women’s Tiffany silver makeup set is included in the highly appointed interior.

This auto’s Beverly body was built by the Walter M. Murphy Company of Pasadena California.  This company was a frequent coachbuilder used by Duesenberg.  This Model J Beverly Sedan is two-tone brown with a tan and wood interior.  It is powered by a straight 8 cylinder motor that produces 265 HP.  The vehicle weighs approximately 5,500 pounds…just 5oo pounds short of 3 tons…and it would have cost $16,500 when new.  The weight sounds like a lot…but today a large SUV weighs in at an average of 5,600 pounds.

Note: In January of 2022, a Duesenberg Model J Tourister sold for $3,415,000.

Both of the autos pictured above are 1932 Auburn 12 – 160As.  The difference is that the first photo is of a Speedster model.  The 1932 Auburn Speedster was owned by Sam Collier, who named this car “Beelzebub”.  Collier was one of the persons who helped form the Automobile Racing Club of America.  The car was modified for racing by adding the small windshields, a big tachometer, additional lamps and a copper cooling coil.  With its V-12 engine producing 60 HP, this auto raced in Europe and Memphis Tennessee, where it won top honors for its class.  In 1937, it also came in second in the Climb to the Clouds Race held at Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.

The second 1932 Auburn 12 – 16oA pictured above is the sedan version of this car.  It too has a V-12 engine…but it produces 160 HP.  This automobile was purchased in 1932 by Robert Heinemann of Hamilton Ohio.  Amazingly, this fully original Auburn has only been driven 8,800 miles since it was purchased.  It was stored and maintained by the original owner for several decades…and still even has instruction tags in place for the 2-speed rear axle and the free-wheeling device.  This auto is often used as a template for persons who are restoring a similar car.

This stunning and attention grabbing automobile is a 1934 Duesenberg Model J Dual Cowl Phaeton.  Note the dual windshields mounted on the cowlings.  That rear windshield would be raised to protect the passengers in the back seat when the top was down.  Look closely and you can see that it is folded down with the car’s top up.  This particular model Duesenberg featured a Straight 8 engine that developed 265 HP.  Weighing in a 5,500 pounds, it cost $14,750 new.  In today’s dollars, it is the equivalent of $326,698!

When E.L. Cord took control of Duesenberg, he had the brothers come up with a new model that would top all other American cars.  The Duesenberg Model J and its various iterations was the answer.  This luxury auto with its 265 HP engine paired with auto bodies and cabins custom-built by coachbuilders was the result of this request.  Prices matched the design and luxury with Model J’s ranging from $14,000 to $20,000 at the time.  They’ve been referred to as America’s version of the Rolls-Royce.  Duesenberg Model J’s were very popular with movie stars, royalty and other wealthy individuals...

The two cars shown above are both 1935 Auburn Speedsters.  They were equipped with supercharged Lycoming 8-cylinder motors producing 150 HP and they have a 3-speed manual transmission.  Original cost was $2,245.

These autos were designed to maximize speed and to make a social statement.  Every car was tested by a renowned race car driver to over 100 miles per hour. Actually, in an effort to spur sagging sales and to gain publicity for the Auburn 851 Speedsters, Auburn attempted to set speed and endurance records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  They used a stock 1935 851 Speedster model in their efforts.  The whole thing was sanctioned by the AAA Motor Club.  The Auburn Speedster set 70 new American and International Stock Car records.  A “Flying Mile” record was set at 103 miles per hour and the 1,000 mile mark was realized at 103 miles per hour.

The auto pictured above is a 1936 Auburn 852 Phaeton.  In the final years of production, Auburn Automotive Company’s exports to countries around the world were close to 20% of the company’s total business.  The first owner of this Phaeton lived in Cyprus.  It retailed for $1,795 plus shipping.  He had plans to use it for a road trip from Italy to Berlin Germany for the 1936 Olympic Games.  During WWII, this vehicle was used by the British military…but when they saw how much gas it used with its Lycoming supercharged engine, the military put it in storage.  After the war, the auto was brought back to the U.S.A. by a car loving serviceman…

Lycoming was originally a sewing machine company.  When that became unprofitable, the company was restructured and it shifted its focus on automobile engine manufacturing.  By 1920, Lycoming was producing 60,000 engines a year and the company employed 2,000 workers.  In 1927, E.L. Cord bought Lycoming and placed it under his Auburn Manufacturing umbrella grouping...

This is a 1937 Cord 812 2-door, Convertible Phaeton Sedan.  It was equipped with an 8-cylinder, 125 HP engine and a 4-speed vacuum electric transmission.  I love the ‘Cigarette Cream’ color which was complemented by the tan leather interior.  About 3,000 1936 and 1937 Cords were produced before E.L. Cord closed down his operations.  Note the hidden headlights...

Production of the Auburn had stopped in 1936 and the Cord was seen as the last hope to keep the business alive.  The Cord automobiles were re-named the 812 and new options, such as supercharged engines and custom bodies for more head and leg room, were offered to customers.

The company also accepted requests from individual customers who desired custom modifications on their Cord.  One such modification was the dual side-mounted spare tires, rather than the standard placement inside the trunk.  That change allowed for extra trunk space as well as mounting space for side view mirrors.  Only 2 Cord automobiles were built with dual side-mounts...

To learn more about E.L. Cord (1894 – 1974) just go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Errett_Lobban_Cord.  The Cord Corporation was a holding company that controlled over 150 companies…including the company that evolved into American Airlines.  Later in life, he was heavily involved in radio and television. 

There will be one more post regarding the Auburn – Cord – Duesenberg Museum…this time it will cover a portion of the ‘other’ autos on display throughout the building.  To check out the museum in advance, just go to https://automobilemuseum.org/.

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. They are truly work of art! That orange one is my favourite.

  2. It's amazing how many early car makers there were and didn't survive.

  3. This is a thoroughly researched post. What beautiful mechanical objects of art! Historical details to go with these incredibal vehicles makes this a post worthy of an encyclopedia.

  4. Thus is certainly a beautiful museum, Dave, but those Duisenberg autos are the real treasures! What beautiful vehicles and it was hard to single out a favorite. If we are even in Auburn, a visit here would be on out must-see list.

  5. Well Dave you certainly give a load of great information. These cars are truly eye candy. Hard for me to decide which one I’d like (if I ever could!) but I could see driving the last one, the 1937 Cord 812 2-door convertible – that’s a cool one. You may remember that my first car was the one my mum gave me, a 1936 Simca-Fiat coupe, but nothing like those gems. Yesterday while going through another pile of papers I found the newspaper ad that showed one of the cars I bought in Atlanta. It was a 1974 LTD 4 dr. Brougham with only 46,000 original miles. I bought it in 1982 for about $2200. It was dark green and run real smooth. My daughters called it the “land yacht” as it was so big. I kept it a few years but gave it away to NPR.
    I could not see my friend who has my old Ford pick-up because, of all crazy thing, I forgot my cell phone in Nashville, so am incommunicado for now until next week.

  6. I saw your footnote on my blog about your stamp collection. I also have many French and previous French colonies as well. I started my stamp collection when I was a kid, in the 1950s. I just found my original album yesterday on a top shelf in a closet. I have many stamps from England and their colonies, India, Malta, etc., with King George VI. I also saw some German stamps of during the Deutsches Reich with Herr Leader on it. Saw him as well (Hitler) on some Ukrainian stamps. Also saw some Russian stamps with the Tsar, Nicholas II on them. I wonder if any are valuable. I was going to give them away, but now am not sure. Don’t know what to do with them, really. I had not looked at them in decades.