1920-1929: THE ROARING 20s

Auburn-made cars were height of fashion

Auburn-made auto
Auburn-made auto
Movie star Clark Gable owned a 1935 Duesenberg. The luxury Duesenbergs were designed in Auburn. Photo courtesy of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum.
By DUANE SCHUMAN of The News-Sentinel

In 1929, more Auburn automobiles were sold than Cadillacs. That same year, technically-advanced Cord automobiles began rolling out of the same factory in Auburn. And Auburn-designed luxury Duesenbergs were being handcrafted in Indianapolis.

"It was very incongruous for these cars to be made," said Gregg Buttermore, publicist for the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum located in the former Auburn Automobile Company headquarters on Auburn's south side. "Auburn was a town of about 5,000 that was very agrarian, and that just happened to have an auto manufacturing plant making high-end automobiles."

The Auburn Automobile Co. had been making cars in Auburn since 1903. But it was not until enterprising Chicago car salesman E.L. Cord began running Auburn in the mid-1920s that sales took off.

Cord hired innovative young designers like Alan Leamy and Gordon Buehrig to create designs like Auburn's boat-tail speedsters. Their racy styles turned heads and created the illusions of speed and motion.

"It looked rich (and) would do 80 mph," Time magazine enthused in a 1932 article on the Auburn. "It answered the need of many a man who had lost his shirt, but hoped his friends did not know it. It made many another man who never had it to lose, feel like a million dollars."

Cord didn't seek to compete with Henry Ford, who was churning out more than a million models a year up in Detroit. Instead, he sought the checkbook of a consumer driven toward quality.

"Be different if you can't be biggest," Cord liked to say. "There will always be a market for the product that is distinctive . . . that appeals to the man who wants something that isn't exactly like the products owned by all his neighbors."

Of all the cars that Cord produced, the one with the greatest acclaim was the 1929 Duesenberg Model J.

Cord had purchased Indianapolis' Duesenberg factory in 1926. He took orders for the long, sleek luxury car with the custom-made coach, turning out just five a month. Many of his models came without a trunk -- only a compartment for golf clubs, as well as a place for cigars and liquor.

"It's a Doozy!" -- an expression that lasted for several decades -- was coined because of the Duesenberg's exquisite styling and royal price. King Alfonso of Spain owned a Duesenberg, as did movie stars Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

Duesenbergs now bring some of the highest prices at collectible car auctions, with one formerly owned by actress Greta Garbo selling for $1.4 million in 1987 at Auburn. Comedian Jay Leno owns five,Buttermore said.

In 1929, Cord had begun making a model named after himself. The Cord automobile introduced front-wheel drive to American car buyers, but never found great popularity during its first few years.

After a four-year hiatus, production on a new model Cord began in 1935. The 810 prototype was taken for a secret test drive to California in July of that year, drawing much attention as it made its way along U.S. Route 30.

In their 1996 book "Auburn & Cord," authors Lee Beck and Josh B. Malks include the words of a telegram sent by the drivers on that trip.

"Every effort to avoid public eye is futile," it read. "They trail us up side streets, country wayside filling stations and literally stampede the car. They gaze in wonderment at this sleek, low creation. We tell them it's a special, foreign make."

The 812 model carried such a futuristic look, with hidden headlights and gleaming chrome, it was exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art 14 years later. Made in both Auburn and Connersville, Cords were owned by the Marx Brothers and by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who created Tarzan.

While most Detroit automobiles came in basic black, Cord's models were often painted orange, yellow, green and red. Sometimes three or four colors were combined on the same car. Sales surged when weekly, full-page advertisements appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

The city of Auburn had about 5,000 people at the time. More than one in ten worked at the Auburn Automobile Company. Lester See and Howard Bates both worked there in the early 1930s.

"(The Auburn) was a good car, a lot different than Chevrolet or Ford," said See, now 89 and still living in Auburn. Auburns sold for around $1,500, at a time when Fords and Chevrolets could be had for under $500.

Cords went for around $2,000, and the custom-made Duesenbergs commanded $15,000 -- the price of two houses.

"If you picked out a model you wanted, they'd paint it any color," the 88-year-old Bates said of Cords and Auburns. "And they had an excellent finish on them -- 15 to 17 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer."

Auburn production peaked in 1931, with 33,300 Auburns sold. That ranked the car company 13th -- ahead of Packard, Cadillac and DeSoto. Time magazine placed E.L. Cord on its cover twice, detailing the surprising young mogul's success during the tough business times of the Depression.

"Brains are the most important ingredient in a motor," said Cord, in an axiom Beck and Malks include in their book.

During those days, there were 11 buildings on a 23-acre campus on South Wayne Street in Auburn. The administrative building's first floor had a showroom with art-deco styling and Italian chandeliers. That look has been preserved in the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum.

But by 1937, all production had stopped. As poor economic times continued, too few Americans could afford the high-priced cars, and the Auburn Automobile Company went bankrupt.

At that time, Cord and his second wife, Virginia, shuttled between their Chicago penthouse and a 62-room Beverly Hills mansion. The new Mrs. Cord was an aristocrat who refused to reside in Indiana. Cord's reputation sank in Auburn as a stock scandal further hurt DeKalb County workers struggling during the Depression.

"A lot of people lost all they had," See said. "He didn't dare show his face in Auburn, or someone would've clobbered him good."

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