The automobile first emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century and quickly spread to the United States. By the first part of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of small companies manufacturing automobiles. One of these companies was the Auburn Automobile Company located in Auburn, Indiana.
Like some of the other American automobile companies of the early twentieth century, Auburn’s roots were in the wagon building business. Charles Eckhart started as a wheelwright working for Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. In 1874, he left Studebaker and founded the Eckhart Carriage Company in Auburn, Indiana. Charles Eckhart retired in 1893 and his sons, Morris and Frank, took over the business. Sensing that automobiles might be in their future, the Eckhart brothers formed the Auburn Automobile Company and built the first Auburn automobile in 1900.
The first Auburn had a single cylinder engine, chain driven vehicle with solid rubber tires. It had tiller steering which was common on the automobiles of this time. The new car had a price tag of $800. The car was priced higher than other cars and it was expensive to produce. At best they sold only a few models and some reports indicate that they may not have sold any.
For the next two years, the Eckhart brothers tried a number of different designs and with the Chicago Automobile Show of 1903, they were ready for production. The 1903 model was chain driven and had air-filled tires. A tonneau top and touring options were also available. The 1904 Auburn touring car had a single cylinder engine in the center of the car and featured a two-speed transmission. The engine produced 10 horsepower. The car sold for $1,000.
By 1905 they were offering a two cylinder engine; by 1909 the Auburn had a four cylinder engine; and by 1912 it had a six cylinder engine.
Shown above: 1912 Auburn Touring Car. This car is on display at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon.
Auburn was modestly successful until World War I when shortage of materials forced the plant to close. With the company heading into receivership, in 1919, the Eckhart brothers sold out to a group of Chicago investors headed by Ralph Austin Bard. These investors, who included William Wrigley, wanted to get into the new and rapidly growing automobile business.
The re-organized company brought a new model, the Auburn Beauty Six, which offered a streamlined, fenderless body and many other improvements. The new car received good reviews, but competition was fierce and Auburn had to fight for position in the growing automobile market.
While the new owners revitalized the business, it did not produce the profits they had anticipated. One of the problems was the recession of 1921-1922. By 1924 production had slowed to only six cars per day. But even these were not selling and soon there were hundreds of unsold cars sitting behind the factory.
In 1924 they approached a successful automobile salesman, Erret Lobban Cord, with an offer to run the company. Cord had started as salesman with the Moon Automobile Company located in Chicago. Within five years he had become General Manager. In a counter offer, Cord suggested a leveraged buyout and the Chicago investors agreed.
When Cord took over Auburn, the company had 600-700 unsold cars. Cord, as a salesman, felt that the cars were a bit plain and boring and so he had them repainted in a bright two-tone color combination. In addition, he had the trim parts plated in nickel. When the cars had been repainted, he moved them to the town square and invited dealers to view the cars. He offered the dealers huge discounts and within a few months he had sold off his overstock.
In 1925, Cord arranged with the Lycoming Company to use their straight-eight cylinder motor. Chief Auburn engineer James Crawford supervised the process of taking the six cylinder engines out of the Auburns and replacing them with the straight eight.
Two new models, the 8-63 and the 8-88, were introduced. Sales of the Auburn cars doubled each year for the next three years. In 1926, Cord took a couple of the 8-88 Auburns to the Atlantic City Speedway, rented the entire track, and these fully equipped stock cars broke numerous speed records.
Under Cord’s management, Auburn became profitable by 1926 when he completed the purchase of the company. Under his leadership, Auburn employed designers such as Alen Leamy and Gordon Buehrig. He also partnered with the Duesenberg Company.
At this time, the Duesenberg brothers were building winning racing cars. Cord used the Duesenberg as the platform for a new line of performance oriented luxury cars. The first of these was the L-29 Cord which was the automobile industry’s first front wheel drive car. Soon Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs—collectively known as ACD—were well-known for their advanced styling, engineering, and performance. They were, however, expensive, and identified with the rich and famous.
In 1928, the Auburn 8-115 replaced the mechanical brakes with hydraulic brakes. At Daytona, the Auburn 8-115 set a speed record of 108.46 miles per hour.
The year 1929 was the best year for Auburn Automobile Company and dealers could not get the cars fast enough. The Auburn was offered for $1,195 to $1,395.
In 1932, Cord introduced a V-12 engine for the Auburn and priced it under $1,000. A fully loaded Auburn Twelve Speedster set a number of speed records at Muroc Dry Lake.
The Auburn 851, designed by Gorden Beurig, was a boat-tail speedster with a Lycoming straight eight engine and a Schwitzer-Cummins supercharger. The car was guaranteed to go 100 miles per hour. About 500 Auburn 851’s were built and sold for $2,245. The company lost money on the car as it was intended to get buyers into the showroom with the hope of selling them one of the cheaper Auburns. The sales increased by 20%.
With the Great Depression, the automobile market shrank and many auto manufacturers went out of business. In response to the poor economy and falling sales, Cord re-introduced a six-cylinder Auburn and lowered the price. Production of the V-12 and the straight eight was cut.
By 1932, the profits were falling. At this time, Cord was one of the richest men in the world, owning airlines, aircraft companies, communication companies, ship lines, and other businesses. He was also neglecting his car business.
While there were rumors of new models for 1937, including a diesel limousine, Auburn production stopped after 1936 and Cords were built in 1937. On August 7, 1937, the Auburn Automobile Company went out of business.