1933 Auburn 12-161A Custom Speedster
Chassis no. 160 1146E
Engine no. BB1025
391ci Lycoming Side-Valve V-12 Engine
Single Stromberg Carburetor
160bhp at 3,500rpm
3-Speed Manual Transmission with Columbia Dual-Ratio Rear Axle
Front and Rear Leaf Spring Suspension
4-Wheel Mechanical Drum Brakes
*The prewar American driving experience at its most stylish
*One of just three 12-161A Speedsters constructed in '33
*Single family ownership for over 60 years
*Documented back to the mid-1940s
*An exceptionally rare opportunity to acquire a genuine Auburn Speedster
The 12-160 Speedster
Charles Eckhart was a carriage builder. In 1874, he established the Eckhart Carriage Company in Auburn, Indiana. In 1900, his sons Frank and Morris built their first solid-tired, tiller-steered runabout and organized the Auburn Automobile Company to build it. Twin-cylinder models were available in 1905, a four-in 1909 and a six-by 1912. Success was modest at best, so the Eckharts sold out to a group of Chicago investors, who included chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., in 1919.
The new management introduced the Auburn Beauty Six that year, a restyled and more attractive automobile, but the post-World War I recession hindered sales. Large inventories of unsold cars greeted Errett Lobban Cord when he signed on as general manager in 1923. Cord had the stockpiled Auburns repainted in attractive bright colors and quickly cleared out the inventory. He also bought some eight-cylinder engines from Lycoming Manufacturing Company, and in 1925 introduced the Auburn 8-63 and 8-88 with prices starting at $1,895quite a bargain for an eight-cylinder car.
In mid-1928, Auburn introduced a new top-of-the-line model, the 8-115. Its big, 299-cubic-inch Lycoming straight eight developed 115 brake horsepower, and the company boasted of the highest power in an American production car. An ideal partner for the new engine was a sylphlike boat-tail speedster with a racy, slanted-vee windshield. The design was by Alan Leamy, a young designer Cord had hired away from Marmon. Leamy's first job was the Cord L-29, the new front-drive car then under development. He then turned his talents to the speedster body. Capable of 100mph, the car sold for $2,195, a relative bargain for so dramatic a car.
Four speedsters were shipped to Europe: two to Rome for a 1,000-mile race at Milan, a third to Sweden for road racing, and the fourth to Switzerland. Another went to Malcolm Campbell, the London distributor, who campaigned it in other contests. Speedsters performed well in Greece and Argentina, also setting records in speed and endurance contests at Atlantic City. On Labor Day, Wade Morton set a new mark of 84.7354mph at Pike's Peak.
It was this enormous value that kept Auburn riding the crest of the wave as the onset of the Great Depression overcame most automakers. Although Auburn sales ebbed in 1930, they more than doubled for 1931 and profits again reached 1929's record levels.
For 1931, Leamy redesigned the entire Auburn line. Using some of the cues from the low-slung Cord, he applied them to dramatic effect on the taller Auburn chassis. A new Speedster was added to the line in the autumn, with 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 V-12. 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 160bhp 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. 1934 was poorer still, with barely 4,000 produced, despite the re-introduction of a six-cylinder engine. For 1935, the twelve was dropped, and performance hopes were pinned on a supercharged eight, making a big splash in a newly-designed speedster. This Gordon-Buehrig masterpiece was handsome, but it had lost the sophisticated beauty of Leamy's 1931-34 boat-tail.
The Motorcar Offered
Offered as Eights or Twelves in three trim linesStandard, Custom, and Salonthe Speedster model found few buyers in 1933 with only about 20 examples being ordered. Rarer still, only three 12-161A Custom Speedsters were completed in 1933two in January and a final example in April. This car is one of those three original Custom Speedsters.
Records for this Auburn go back to 1946 when the car belonged to Mrs. Ruby A. Hofer of Los Angeles. A California Automobile Registration Card from Valentine's Day, 1946 indicate that the car was first sold on September 11th, 1933. Furthermore, the serial number is listed as 1146E, the 'E' indicating it to be an original Speedster, and the body type is listed quite matter-of-factly as 'Speedster'.
Prior to coming to California, the 1146E was registered in Floridaa reasonable proposition given the lack of weather protection offered by the Speedster body. Likely an original, untouched car when Mrs. Hofer bought it, in 1949 she decided to give it a 'Salon' model look. Contacting the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Co. in Auburn, Indiana, an order was placed for a selection of Salon parts including a radiator shell, chrome strips for the hood louvers and running boards, chrome hubcaps, and lock cylinders for the side mount spares. It is noted on the February 4, 1949 invoice that the parts were from a '34 Salon Twelve.
The parts were delivered to Arthur E. Peterson of Daly City, California. He, along with Glen Sheppard, went about bringing the car from Custom to Salon specification. It is very likely that, at this time, a number of other more modern parts were added and some restoration work was done. The bumpers from a '34 Auburn Model 1250 were fitted, a later 'banjo' style steering wheel was installed, a pair of non-original taillights were put on, and the entire car was repainted. Under the hood, the big Lycoming built V-12 was slightly modernized with the addition of some newer parts such as a modern fuel pump, distributor, and the removal of the Stratix (a relatively common modification). Inside, the interior was retrimmed but the unavailability of a complete interior kit meant that a map pocket-less set of door panels and some simpler footwell trim was installed.
Mrs. Hofer and her husband Albert would enjoy the Speedster for a few more years before selling it to New Jersey collector Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Cox, Jr. Dr. Cox was amassing a collection of cars at the time and displayed his cars and aircraft at his hanger/museum at the Cape May County Airport. The Speedster was displayed in the museum from its acquisition in the mid-1950s until the 1960s when the public display of the collection was suspended. The car would remain in Dr. Cox's collection until his death in the late-1990s but has continued to remain in the family to this day.
Besides a few updates made in the 1990s, including the replacement of the headlights with a correct pair sourced from Glen Pray and a modern water temperature and amp gauge, the car shows very much as it did when Mrs. Hofer sold it to Dr. Cox. On public display in The Museum of Automobiles in Morrilton, Arkansas for many years, this Auburn presents an exceptionally rare opportunity to buy a genuine Twelve Speedster. With a restoration that returns the car to its original specifications, there will be little doubt as to whether Concours trophies will come its way in the future.
- Please note that this vehicle is titled under its engine number.