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Lot 115: Auburn 851 Supercharged Speedster

Automobiles of London, RM Auctions (27 October 2010)

150 bhp, 279.9 cu. in. eight-cylinder inline side-valve engine, three-speed manual gearbox, solid front axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, two-speed live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 127"

- From the Hooper Corporate Collection - Iconic Gordon Buehrig design - Stunning supercharged speedster - 100 mph performance

Had it not been for Errett Lobban Cord, Auburn might have remained unremarkable, just one of 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 organised 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.

Stutz was then making a name for itself on America's racing circuits, and Auburn took up the challenge. Auburn's answer to Stutz was a handsome boat-tailed speedster. Introduced in the second series for 1928, the 8-115 speedster was said to have been styled by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, the Russian count who had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s to work at Auburn. The company embarked on a competition foray, sending speedsters to Europe and South America, one of them campaigned by Malcolm Campbell, the London distributor. In the United States, driver Wade Morton clocked 108.46 mph with a speedster on a measured mile at Daytona Beach and covered 2,033 miles in 24 hours for a record 84.7 mph average at Atlantic City. He also set a new record at Pike's Peak. The results were satisfying, the publicity wonderful. More to the point, the Stutz cost nearly $5,000, the Auburn just $2,195. 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 was 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 speedster was added to the line in the autumn, with raked windshield and boat-tail, one of the handsomest Auburns of all time.

For 1932, Cord and his Auburn team had another ace up their sleeves, a V-12. Designed by Auburn's chief engineer George Kublin, it utilised a narrow, 45-degree vee and an unusual combustion chamber, set at an angle to the cylinders. More efficient than either Packard or Lincoln V-12s, it 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 V-12 line was kept alive in upscale Salon trim, but using the old bodies. At year's end, the twelve was history, but Auburn had one more arrow in its quiver. The company pulled out all the stops for what would be the final speedster.

The 1935 Auburn styling was the work of Gordon Buehrig, who had designed the immortal Model J Duesenberg. Making the 1934 theme more upright yet more graceful, Buehrig also lowered the speedster's tail, making it smoother and more aerodynamic. With the V-12 gone, a more powerful eight was called for, so Auburn turned to August Duesenberg to adapt the Model J's centrifugal concept to the side-valve engine. With 6.5 to 1 compression, the supercharged Model 851 developed 150 bhp at 4,000 rpm. On the Bonneville salt flats, company driver Abner Ab Jenkins, a former Indy 500 driver of note, set 70 new unlimited and American speed records for stock cars. Each new speedster was delivered with a dashboard plaque certifying that the car had been driven by Jenkins to more than 100 mph.

The excitement was short-lived. The Auburn line continued unchanged into 1936, but sales were dismal. For 1937, the only cars produced by the Auburn Automobile Company were a second flight of front-drive Cords.

Restored in archetypal red by Coronal SA of Montevideo, Uruguay, this Supercharged 851 speedster has a beige leather interior and brown cockpit carpet. It is clean throughout and presents very well, with good gloss to the paintwork and excellent brightwork. For the last 20 years, the car has been on display at the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany, a showcase of air and land transport technology. It has since been recommissioned by the vendor.

Lot Details
Auction Automobiles of London
RM Auctions, Battersea Evolution London, United Kingdom
Lot Number115
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price-
Hammer Price (inc premium)£140000
Condition rating0
Registration number
Chassis number33177E
Engine number
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors