Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum — A Classic, with Classics

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 02/2013
  • posted in: Great Garages

By the early 1970s, the former Auburn Automobile Company headquarters in Auburn, Ind., was driving toward demolition, but a group of men, many of them Auburn natives, responded to preserve a part of the city’s great automotive heritage.

Two of these, Delmar Johnson and John Martin Smith, led the campaign to create a museum in the former company headquarters. They believed that the museum and its many visitors would be a great community asset.

Four decades later, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, 1600 S. Wayne St., is a National Historic Landmark focusing on three of America’s iconic cars of the ‘20s and ‘30s as well as other classic vehicles.

Auburn hand built distinctively-styled and technically advanced cars as an independent manufacturer through the Great Depression. The car business began in 1903, evolving from the Eckhart Carriage Co. of Auburn.

With his partners, William Wrigley Jr., who built his famous mansion in Phoenix and owned the Arizona Biltmore, acquired the family company, soon calling in entrepreneur and marketing star, Errett Lobban Cord, to move it to success. Cord eventually acquired Auburn, Duesenberg, engine maker, Lycoming, and other transportation businesses as well as founded his eponymous holding company.

The Depression eventually took out the empire in the making, but the classic vehicles, and this building, thankfully, remain.

The museum debuted July 6, 1974, in the Art-Deco building constructed in 1929 and opened in the fall of 1930 as the Auburn Automobile Company, remaining a functioning company until 1937.

“It’s a masterpiece, although I am a little biased,” says Kendra Klink, J.D., the museum’s operations director. “If it were not for this group of passionate citizens of Auburn, Ind., the museum would not be here today.”

The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum is the only automobile museum in the world in the original headquarters of the company whose story it tells. Building construction cost the Auburn Automobile Company approximately $200,000 in 1930; today that would be $2.4 million. The cost of fixtures, furnishings, and equipment was $450,000 then; today’s price: approximately $5.4 million.

“The 66,000-sq.-ft. building features 22 Italian Art Deco chandeliers and 72 wall sconces in its main showroom accented by geometric Art Deco terrazzo floors,” Klink explains. “Throughout the two-story building, guests are mesmerized by the walnut partitions, mahogany woodwork and craftsmanship that went into creating the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum’s largest artifact: the building.

“The museum has come a long way from being a collection of cars arranged parking lot-style to a full museum which exhibits not only the mechanical marvels of the cars but also the human story which created them,” she explains.

Currently, about 120 cars are displayed — 80 percent owned by the museum. Although it focusses on Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs, other Indiana-built cars and vehicles built in Auburn, Ind., in particular, are also part of the collection.

The earliest vehicle is a circa-1894 Black, the newest a 2002 Ford Thunderbird — a collection spanning three centuries. Other rare and notable vehicles include a 1937 Cord supercharged sedan that once belonged to E.L. Cord, a 1913 IMP Cyclecar, a 1929 Auburn Cabin Speedster Concept car and a 1926 Duesenberg Indianapolis racecar.

The museum is open every day, closing only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. The hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Last admission is taken one hour before closing.

Kendra, Jon Bill, the director of education and archives, and Aaron Warkentin, museum curator, welcomed us recently. They chose seven cars, all donated, to discuss:

1932 Duesenberg Torpedo Convertible Coupe — Donated to the museum in 1981, this car has a distinguished list of former owners: playboy Cliff Durant, son of William Durant, founder of GM and Chevrolet; John Paul Getty, the oil tycoon; and John O’Hara, the author and journalist. Its donor, Don Carr, was a well-known member of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club. “With its boattail and aluminum body styled by Franklin Hershey, it cuts a striking figure. There was nothing more imposing in the Classic age of motor cars than a Duesenberg Model J with its 420-cubic-inch ‘Straight 8,’” Warkentin says.

1932 Auburn 12-160 Sedan — An original and unrestored V-12 Auburn, it shows just 9,000 miles on the odometer — a time capsule of the hand-built low-production automobile. Its technical features — an x-braced frame, dual-ratio differential and vacuum-boosted hydraulic brakes — constituted a strong, fuel-efficient (for the 1930s) and safe automobile. In addition, it was the cheapest V-12 then available in America — a low $1,200.

1931 Cord Speedster Re-creation — This Cord is a re-creation of the New York Auto Show and Paris, France, show car built by Auburn Automobile Company. “The original, long since lost, was the inspiration to build this exacting re-creation. With a liquor cabinet and a cigar humidor built into the doors, it is from a different time,” Bill says.

1899 Waverley — Potentially the oldest original electric car in existence, it demonstrates alternative fuel technology at the starting line. The entire vehicle, including the electric motor, is painted and pin-striped, echoing the style of its time.

1948 TASCO — A one-of-a-kind sports car prototype, the TASCO was conceptualized by members of The Sports Car Club of America, from whose initials the car is named. Styling is by the great Gordon Buehrig. Its sleek aluminum body and gauge-filled dashboard give it the feel of an airplane. It also has the first “T-top,” which was invented by Buehrig and was later made popular in Corvette styling.

Lent to the museum since 1989, the TASCO was donated in 2003 and is showcased near the Gordon Buehrig Gallery of Design, where the process of design is illustrated through examples of automobiles and components using original materials from the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum’s archives. This gallery interprets both the practice and the evolution of automotive design.

1904 Auburn — It was in 1903 that the Auburn had been introduced at the Chicago Auto Show. Possibly the oldest existing Auburn, this 1904 Auburn features a two-cylinder engine bolted to the underside of the vehicle and produces around 10 horsepower. Its rear entrance for the passenger compartment is another unique feature. This car is not very far removed from the horse-drawn carriage and represents a great example of the transition from horse to machine.

1937 Cord Coupe — One of only three factory-built Cord coupes, this was delivered to the president of the Champion Spark Plug Company, Richard Stranahan. It features the Auburn mascot, headlamps and LaSalle hood vents. Equipped with front-wheel drive and a supercharger, it was a technical marvel in 1937. Found in derelict condition, it received a multi-year restoration. Seven decades-plus later, it remains striking from any angle.

For more information on the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, visit or call 260.925.1444.

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