Museum Classics: The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Part 1

Do you like cars? If you do, whether you live in Wheeling, West Virginia, Schenectady, New York, or Duluth, Minnesota, you must, someday, visit the Auburn Cord Duesenberg museum in Auburn, Indiana. It is a remarkable place. Even within the Midwest, with such other automotive showplaces as the Henry Ford and the Gilmore Museum, ACD stands apart. For one, the museum is within the walls of where ACD history was actually made–in the factory showroom and administration building built by E.L. Cord’s automotive concern in 1929 and opening in 1930.

Photo by Jessica Jackson. Note all the Curbsiders milling about!

Auburn has an interesting history. A history of which I have only recently been reading up on. It is fascinating. For instance, the stock market crash of 1929 did not hurt ACD; indeed, in 1930 they had their best sales year ever! That same year, this building opened its doors, with the factory showroom front and center on the first floor of the two-story building.

photo by Jessica Jackson

In 1992, my parents took us kids on a family vacation to Indiana Beach, IN. It was a great trip. We rented a cabin with a dock, rented a speedboat, and all in all had a great time. The nearby small town of Monticello had a real circa-1955 downtown vibe, and we went to see Sister Act at the vintage theater there. We also went to Auburn, for the Tucker Club of America was having their meet. So not only did I get to see three different Tuckers at once, we also got to visit the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum. It might well be my all-time favorite family vacation from my childhood.

photo by Jessica Jackson

What a remarkable building. After cars, architecture is a hobby of mine, especially older buildings from the early 20th century through the 1960s. Even if there were no cars in this building, it would still be remarkable.

Left to right: JP Cavanaugh, yours truly, Jason Shafer, PN and Ed Stembridge. Photo by Dave Klockau.

Plans for the second-annual CC Meet-Up had been brewing nearly since the time of the inaugural event in Iowa City.

The usual suspects, at House of Lords. With Mrs. PN and Mrs. JP. Photo by Dave Klockau.

As a matter of fact, I seem to recall discussing the next CC Event at dinner that evening, at the famous House of Lords Restaurant, housed in the basement of the Coralville Best Western. The ACD came up, as did the Studebaker Museum in South Bend.

But as much as I love Studebakers, the ACD is a whole other country! It has it all: Historic building, Classic-with-a-capital-C Classic cars, and even a second museum across the street! So Auburn it was. I drove up with my parents, and my brother and his fiancee came as well. We left bright and early at 6:00, arriving in Auburn right at lunchtime. We had a quick bite at Wendy’s, then headed straight for the museum, missing the other Curbsiders by minutes. Upon entering the hallowed halls of Classicdom, we were greeted by this lovely 1937 Cord Westchester.

Is it the most beautiful car ever? I think so. And while the Phaetons with their disappearing top are remarkable, my favorite is the sedan. It is so sleek, yet so classic, all at the same time.

I have to tell you, upon arriving at about 1PM and leaving at about 4:45, I was on total sensory overload. Each amazing car begat another amazing car, and another…and another…and another. I was bumbling around like Mr. Magoo, so snookered was I by all the amazing sheetmetal and chrome. It is a wonder I didn’t fall off a railing or trip over a Model J and knock myself out! Case in point: This 1931 Duesenberg Model J.

It was really, really hard to pick a favorite–like choosing Miss America difficult–but this one is mine. This is a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Murphy Convertible Coupe. Not only is it amazingly beautiful, but the classic colors of black and maroon, with maroon leather interior, was just perfect.

For those of you not up on your Classics, the Duesenberg factory in Indianapolis did not build complete cars. Instead, they built a complete running chassis, with sheetmetal up to the A-pillar. Said running chassis was $8,500 at a time when a Ford coupe could be had for about $450. After purchasing a chassis, you then selected a coachbuilder, such as Murphy, Willoughby or LeBaron–which would likely run you a similar amount as the cost of the chassis. Yes, there were no easy credit terms or leases for one of these!

Just look at that interior. Maroon leather, gauges aplenty, and solid mahogany door panels. And not a silly touchscreen in sight.

Can you imagine taking one of these for a spin, top down, on a summer evening? Wow, what an experience that would be.

As a Model J, this example does not have the supercharger, or the corresponding pipes snaking out of the hood. This one also has accessory driving lights that actually turned with the steering wheel. Pretty nifty!

Just look at those lines. The curves, the chrome, the lovely colors. Will anyone look at a 2014 Cadillac CTS or Lincoln MKS in a hundred years and say, “They sure don’t make them like this any more.” I don’t think so–and I like modern Caddys and Lincolns.

No, the Duesenberg was in a class of its own. Even against a Cadillac V-16, the Duesenberg stood head and shoulders above the GM product. Hence the term, “It’s a Duesy!”

I almost missed the Murphy coachbuilding plate, which was hiding behind the fender-mounted spare tire on the driver’s side.

Moving forward a few years was this 1936 Auburn. It originally sold for $945, at a time when a Chevrolet was about $500, and the average income was about $1100. So, this was definitely an uncommon sight when new! Even more so, as 1936 was the last year of the Auburn; in 1937 the only ACD product on offer was the Cord 810/812.

I love the front end on these 1935-36 Auburns, due in no small part to a Hot Wheels Auburn Speedster I had as a toddler. Even at age 5, I knew what an Auburn was! This cabriolet was a 654, with the “6” determining number of cylinders.

My brother’s fiancee, JJ, posing with the ACD Museum’s 851 Speedster. Photo by Andy Klockau.

Thus, the Auburn 851 Speedster had a straight eight. All Speedsters featured a supercharger as well, and could certainly scoot: Every Speedster was tested to 100 mph by Auburn before delivery, with a plaque on the glovebox attesting to it.

The lovely hood line, with spare tire-mounted mirrors and that winged lady hood ornament. So sharp!

I also liked the sand-beige color with orange trim and wheels. Color was very important to E. L. Cord, and he made sure his products were as colorful and attractive as possible. It shows in every single product that came out of the Auburn and Connersville, Indiana plants.

Here’s the interior of that ’36 652 Cabriolet. Very cushy! Despite the Auburn being a middle-priced make, the luxury and style of big brothers Cord and Duesenberg certainly showed.

Here we have a 1936 Auburn phaeton. This was the second car I noticed after the blue Cord sedan. The red and white paint was certainly cheerful, and the red leather interior was great.

These cars have such detail. For instance, this lovely hood ornament.

But there was a surprise in store upon peering into the front seat: This is a factory right-hand-drive car!

Yes, among so many other things, E.L. Cord was a big believer in export sales, and Auburn had a presence overseas right up to the end of the marque in 1936.

This was an early Duesenberg Model A. Everyone remembers the Classic Model J and SJ, but those did not appear until after E. L. Cord bought the company from the Duesenberg brothers. I do not recall the year of this one, but the Model A was made between 1921 and 1927.

While the Model J and SJ get all the love, this Model A held its own in style and beauty. Just look at that chrome!

Although narrow compared to cars of a couple decades later, it was very luxurious and fitted to a very high standard. The steering wheel not only had a wood rim, but wood spokes. It reminded me of something you would have seen on a ’20s Hacker-Craft or Chris-Craft speedboat.

Here we have a 1933 Auburn Model 12-165, resplendent in yellow with coffee-colored fenders.

The instrument panel is no less impressive, with full gauges set in an attractive trim panel.

And the seats! Very comfortable. This was not your usual Dodge or Buick, and was priced accordingly.

The back seat was even better, with ample stretch out room. I can imagine some captain of industry riding in the back. “Cavendish! We’re out of gin! Please stop at the next liquor establishment for replenishments.” “Yes, sir.”

Out back, we can see the standard trunk rack bearing a–ta da!–trunk. Yes, when men were men, and trunks were trunks.

You honestly didn’t think I was going to show you just ONE Model J, did you? Perish the thought! This one is a 1932 Model J, again by Murphy.

Soft tan beige leather was the prominent interior material. One of the docents (all of them extremely knowledgeable, by the way) told my folks and I that the lights at the edge of the instrument panel served the auto-lubrication system. The top-left one illuminated red when it was time. At which point, the automatic system engaged. The light below lit up green, indicating the lube had been completed. Neat, huh?

I liked the wraparound effect of the front seat back, again reminding me of then-contemporary speedboats.

What an amazing car. What else is there do say?

Right next to the ’32 Duesy was this 1930 Cord L-29 convertible. This was the first front-wheel drive car made, and with no central driveshaft, the cars were remarkably low in their day. All the better to accentuate their lovely lines.

In the history book I picked up in the museum gift shop, I read that initially the designers wanted to cover up the front driveshaft cover, but E.L. Cord insisted it be made a prominent design feature. I think he made the right call.

Cord crest on top of the driveshaft cover. Beautiful.

Owing to the front wheel drive, the transmission was a slide-out affair sticking out of the instrument panel. If you open the hood of a Cord L-29, you will see the cable cruising over the top of the engine block and down to the transmission, way at the front of the car. As a result, the gear pattern was reversed, so you would select what would ordinarily be reverse for first gear, and so on.

Any Cord L-29 is beautiful, even a four door sedan. But this convertible in black and copper stopped me in my tracks–like so many other cars in the museum!

Ever seen a Cord hardtop? If you have, you’re lucky, as only three were made, and this one is a one-of-a-kind. It was originally custom built for the then-President and founder of Champion Spark Plugs, Robert A. Stranahan, Sr.

This car began as a Cord Phaeton, with a permanently fixed, padded leather top installed, LaSalle hood vents fitted to the hood, chrome Auburn headlights replacing the hidden units, and an Auburn hood ornament to finish things off.

The interior was very luxurious, with pleated leather. Note the preselector for the transmission on the right side of the steering column, common to all Cord 810/812s.

The hardtop used the same rear glass as the sedans, at least they appeared to be. Very sharp, but I do wonder why one of the defining features of these Cords–the hidden headlights–were removed at the owner’s request? Maybe he was worried about them freezing shut during the Midwestern winters.

Here we have what was the museum’s Automobile of the Month, a 1934 Auburn 652Y Phaeton. Auburns were totally redesigned for the year, with a streamlined nose, sweeping fenders and laid-back grille. The curved hood side panels were particularly fetching to your author, as were the chrome wheel spats and blackwall tires.

According to the information sheet, this car sold for $945 brand new. Sounds a bargain today, but back then, it was a very high-end car, well above the Low-Priced Three.

A look at the sweeping line of the convertible top, rear fenders and metal fairing for the spare tire. Very elegant.

To finish things off, here is a 1933 Auburn 8-105 Salon. I regret only getting one shot of this one, but I think this is a common lament of visitors to the ACD Museum. You see, there are so many amazing cars that some of them that would garner a crowd at a cruise night, are missed here, because of the sensory overload a car nut experiences when he or she walks into this Art Deco palace of Classics. And this was just the first floor! Stay tuned for Part 2, as we climb that grand staircase to the second floor, for even more Classic goodness. Until then, stay groovy, folks!