The Auburn 851 Speedster: The First American Sports Car?

David McNeese ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

David McNeese/RM Sotheby’s

There was a time when classic cars weren’t the multi-billion dollar industry they are today. A time when you couldn’t gauge fluctuations in the Ferrari market like the price of gold, and vintage iron didn’t double or triple its value seemingly every year. It was once a niche pastime, made up of of grizzled old diehards who worked to keep the past alive in dusty garages and in swap meets all across the country. These pioneers (if you could call them that) were pushing back against the march of Automotive progress, and preserved countless cars that otherwise would’ve been lost to history. And even in those early days, few American cars looked at as reverently as the Auburn 851 Speedster, also known simply as the Boattail.

It was a beacon of light for those who remembered the darkest days of the Great Depression. Back then, the Boattail appeared seemingly out of nowhere, highlighting the engineering potential of American automakers years before the entire industry kicked into overdrive to aid the war effort. But mirroring the Depression itself, beneath its gorgeous good looks lay old technology that was brilliantly repurposed to create what could be America’s first true sports car. And in just two years, it was gone.

David McNeese ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

David McNeese/RM Sotheby’s

Detroit may be still home to the Big Three, but through the 1930s, the auto industry spread well south, down into Indiana. Not only that, but Indiana featured some of the most formidable names in the business. There was Studebaker in South Bend, Stutz and Duesenberg in Indianapolis, and in tiny Auburn, both Cord and the Auburn Automobile Company. Auburn had some success building cars until World War I, when they faltered in the postwar economy. In 1925, the company was sold to E.L. Cord, who quickly merged the company with Duesenberg, and later, started building cars under his name as well.

By 1929, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg were building some of the most formidable cars in the world. Aside from competitors Packard and Pierce Arrow, the small company was building machines at a caliber that easily rivaled offerings from Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, and Isotta Fraschini from across the pond. They built land speed record holders, and they built impossibly expensive tourers favored by barons of industry and Hollywood’s first generation of movie stars. And then the Depression hit, and suddenly Cord’s company was in a lot of trouble.

David McNeese ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

David McNeese/RM Sotheby’s

By 1932, the company ceased production on the Cord, but not before its L29 became the first American front-wheel drive production car. Duesenberg was still courting the Hollywood set, but it was now building fewer than 100 cars a year. Auburn was fading too, but managed to keep the lights on thanks to its popular two-seat Speedsters, which dated back to 1925, and better days for the company. In 1930, the 115 debuted, with a dramatic boattail design and a front end that bore resemblance to its Duesenberg stablemates. Despite a long, flowing rear deck, there was no trunk save for a small locker on the right side of the car conveniently sized to hold a set of golf clubs, setting it miles apart from the dowdy, practical American sedans that ruled the era.

In 1934, Auburn turned to designer Gordon Buehrig to update the car on the cheap, and the result was nothing short of a masterpiece. Rechristened the 851 in 1935, it was virtually identical to all the other Boattails that came before it underneath, but its new lines from the cowl forward captured the public’s imagination. That, and its speed – a 250-cubic-inch supercharged V8 ensured the car was blisteringly fast for its day — became one of its major selling points. On the dashboard of every 851, a commemorative plaque was mounted declaring that each car was tested at over 100 miles per hour before delivery, signed by factory race driver Ab Jenkins.

David McNeese ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

David McNeese/RM Sotheby’s

Unlike most American cars of the era, the Boattail was purely a driver’s car. It was one of the first American cars to have a standard tachometer. The transmission was a three-speed, but it featured a novel Columbia dual-ratio rear axle, which allowed each gear to have its own low and high gear, available through a selector on the steering wheel hub. The car went from zero to 60 in about 15 seconds, and despite the astronomical asking price – the Speedsters cost $2,245 when the average car cost around $580 – Auburn still ended up losing money on each car.

David McNeese ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

David McNeese/RM Sotheby’s

Even though it seemed like nobody could afford one, public response was tremendous. The Boattail became a darling of the auto show circuit, and before long, it began popping up as part of the scenery in ads that depicted the good life. This was the height of the Art Deco era, and while the majority of Americans couldn’t buy into it, the Boattail was the rolling embodiment of it all. It was fast, expensive, beautiful, and impractical – all things that American Depression-era cars weren’t. And while a generation of young gearheads someday dreamed of owning one, it didn’t appear likely to ever happen.

But then, improbably, it did. In 1937, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg collapsed and shut its doors for good, and the public barely noticed. By the end of World War II, as America was looking to a brighter, technologically-advanced future, prewar iron – even from the most luxurious marques – could be had for a few hundred dollars apiece. A small group of enthusiasts began snapping up and restoring the cars; starting clubs, swap meets, reaching out to old factory employees for blueprints, photos, old parts, anything they could to keep these nearly-forgotten brands alive.

David McNeese ©2015 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

David McNeese/RM Sotheby’s

By the 1960s, car magazines regularly ran features on “the classics,” and while Cords and Duesenbergs were mentioned frequently, few other prewar American cars summed up images of that unobtainable Art Deco lifestyle that few experienced the first time around quite like the 851 Speedster. It was the rolling embodiment of The Great Gatsby – albeit built 10 years after the party ended. As the collector car market grew through the ’70s and ’80s, so did the Boattail’s legend. It became so popular, in fact, that its classic lines inspired the now iconic 1972 Buick Riviera, and companies began to spring up to build replica cars on Corvette mechanicals.

Thankfully, the replica market has since gone bust, but the desire for Boattails is still alive and well. The car pictured here was just sold by RM Sotheby’s at Monterey Car Week for $770,000. By this time next year, that may seem like a bargain.

While the last generation who could’ve seen an Auburn new has all but disappeared, the Boattail remains as popular as ever. Its driver-centric layout, streamlined, beautiful design, and impressive straight line speed speak to gearheads from across a span of 80 years, and its call is still as loud as it ever was. If you’re looking for America’s first sports car, forget about the Corvette. It’s hard to find a better starting point than the Auburn 851.

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