Auburn Twelve Phaeton Sedan

Had it not been for Errett Lobban Cord, Auburn might have remained unremarkable among the 400 makes of automobiles built in Indiana before World War II. Entering the auto business after graduating from high school in Los Angeles, Cord operated a number of garages and built race cars that he drove on West Coast dirt tracks. By the early 1920s, he had moved to Chicago, where he became a top salesman for Moon cars. Having saved some money, he made a deal with the foundering Auburn Automobile Company of Auburn, Indiana.

The Auburn company had been organized in 1900 by Morris and Frank Eckhart, sons of a carriage builder, to manufacture an automobile they had designed. The business, however, remained fairly low key and the cars quite commonplace for the period. In 1919, the Ekharts sold a controlling interest to a group of Chicago businessmen, one of whom was William Wrigley, Jr., the chewing gum magnate. The new management redesigned the cars, but the economy soured in the aftermath of World War I and fewer than 16,000 Auburns were sold in four years.

Taking the job of general manager at Auburn in 1923, Cord obtained an agreement that if sales improved sufficiently he could buy into the firm. He then spruced up the accumulated inventory of unsold Auburns with bright paint jobs and nickel trim, and quickly sold them all. By 1926, Cord was president of the company and held a controlling interest. He readied new models, and positioned Auburn as a performance car at a low price, which further enhanced sales. Among these was a low-priced eight-cylinder car, good value at its $1,895 price tag in 1925 and even better at $1,395 two years later.

The onset of the Depression affected Auburn less than many other automakers, as its products continued to be very good value. Sales slumped in 1930, but rebounded to over 34,000 in 1931. Auburn’s prices ranged from an unbelievable $945 to a modest $1,395 in 1931, the latter for an impressive 136-inch wheelbase seven-passenger sedan.

The 1931 line had been redesigned by Alan Leamy, a young designer Cord had hired to work on his L-29 project. Leamy applied some of the Cord hallmarks to the Auburn body, adapting the L-29’s split grille shell as a focal point of the design. The late stylist and historian Strother MacMinn has described this as the “key to a fresh, modern look.” The 1931 cars became the best-selling Auburns ever. A new second generation speedster was added to the line in the autumn, with a raked windshield and boat-tail, one of the most handsome Auburns of all time.

For 1932, Cord and his Auburn team had another ace up their sleeves, a V12. Designed by Auburn’s chief engineer George Kublin, it utilized a narrow, 45-degree vee and an unusual combustion chamber, set at an angle to the cylinders. The valves were in the heads, but horizontal, operated by a single camshaft through rockers. Some call this a “horizontal overhead valve” configuration. It developed 160 bhp from 391 cubic inches, more efficient than either Packard or Lincoln, and was priced as low as $1,105. The engine was manufactured, as were all Auburn powerplants, by Cord’s Lycoming subsidiary.

The same year, a Columbia two-speed rear axle became available, enabling a choice of drive ratios, effectively six speeds ahead. Auburn hoped for a repeat of previous successes, continuing their campaign against the odds. It was not to be. The hefty profit of 1931 fell by 97 percent, and 1933 was worse: just 6,000 cars were sold.

For 1934, a six-cylinder car was re-introduced alongside a restyled eight. A diminished V12 line was kept alive in upscale Salon trim, but using the old bodies. At year’s end, the twelve was history, and the other cars would last much longer. It had been a roller-coaster ride, with its share of chills along with the thrills.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in January of 2009 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona.

160bhp, 391 cu. in. horizontal valve V12 engine, three-speed manual transmission and Columbia electric overdrive, suspension via front and rear semi-elliptic leaf springs, solid front axle, live two-speed rear axle, four-wheel vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes. Wheelbase: 133"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Simon Clay

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