Auburn 851SC Roadster

It is sadly ironic that E.L. Cord’s Auburn marque produced what many consider its ultimate masterpiece in 1935, just as the end was near: the 851SC Speedster. As such, it remains a testament to the fighting spirit of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Company and to the talent of one of the era’s greatest designers.

Auburn had invested heavily in the Al Leamy-designed 1934 models. Although they sold better than the 1933s had, they were not the salvation the company needed. Worse still, Harold Ames, E.L. Cord’s right hand, hated their styling. As a result, Ames’ boss, Manning, decided he was just the man to solve the problem and sent him to Auburn, putting him in charge of the company.

A new look was desperately needed, but with little money available, a completely new car was out of the question. Once again, Ames called upon Gordon Buehrig to pull the figurative “rabbit out of the hat.” Once again he delivered. Buehrig redesigned the front end of the cars with a new grille and hood line. Auburn’s signature new feature for 1935 was supercharging on the top-of-the-line models, so Buehrig incorporated the external exhaust, which the American public had come to identify with supercharged engines, largely because of the mighty Duesenberg SJ.

Although the new 851 (and the next year’s 852) models were certainly flashy, the “new” was more than skin deep. The chassis was mostly carried over, although some updates were made. A Lycoming-built straight-eight engine was added, equipped with a new supercharger designed by Kurt Beier from Schwitzer-Cummins. In addition, a Columbia two-speed rear axle was fitted, allowing low gearing for quicker acceleration, combined with a higher final drive ratio for improved top speed.

Taking a page from the company playbook, and knowing that Central Body Company still had about 50 bodies-in-white left over from the 1933/4 speedster program, Ames decided that a new speedster would be the perfect attention-getter for the new line.

Ames tapped Gordon Buehrig once again to design the new speedster. Buehrig decided to base the new design on a Duesenberg speedster he had designed for Weymann, the “tapertail.” The top, doors, windshield and cowl could be used as-is, but a new tail would have to be made, and the cowl would require modification to blend with the new 1935 front end. Finally, he added a stunning new set of pontoon fenders.

The result was breathtaking, with the new car soon seen everywhere from auto shows to newspapers to spark plug ads. To a Depression-weary public, the new Auburn Speedster was automotive hope personified. Here was a car everyone could identify with, dream about and wish for. It became, in many ways, a rolling icon of the Classic Era.

Oddly enough, it was not a big seller, and dealers resisted taking the speedsters. While they proved to be excellent for public relations and marketing purposes, in a sense they did their job too well, as the customers who were drawn to the showroom bought the more practical and lower-priced sedans or convertibles.

Auburn 851 Speedsters did not just look fast, they were fast. To prove it, Ab Jenkins drove a stock 851SC Speedster and became the first American to set a 100-mph average for a 12-hour period. As a result, each Speedster built carried a dash plaque attesting to its over-100 mph capabilities, bearing Jenkins’ signature. Priced at $2,245 when new, estimates peg Auburn’s loss at about $300 for every car built. Consequently, very few were built, making them highly prized today.

150 bhp, 280 cu. in. side-valve inline eight-cylinder engine, Schwitzer-Cummins supercharger, three-speed manual transmission, Columbia two-speed rear axle, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 127"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

Gallery: Auburn 851SC Roadster