If you grew up in the muscle car era, cars such as GTOs, Camaros, Mustangs, 'Cudas, or Cobras were the cars you either owned or wished you did. These high performance vehicles, which burst on the scene in the 1960s, set the automotive industry on fire, with the consumer's increasing demand for big engines in sporty bodies. Of course, power was no stranger to the American car manufactures, since they had already been producing V8s, and even V16s, decades before. However, to many, particularly Baby Boomers, these earlier cars were viewed as either family sedans or luxury limousines. Certainly, few would consider cars prior to the 1940s as being high performance. But, if you take a closer look, you'll find some real car gems that were produced in the mid-to-late 1930s. One of these special finds is the 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster, a two-seater convertible. It was in production for only two years, but in that short time, it made quite a splash.
Auburn Automotive Company
In the 1930s, the Auburn Automotive Company was the parent company for three of America's premier luxury car marques - Cord, Duesenberg, and Auburn.
The 1936 and 1937 Cord, with its distinctive hood, was often referred to as the "Coffin Nose" Cord. It had front-wheel drive and hideaway headlights, making it a car well ahead of its time.
The Duesenberg, the top-of-the-line luxury car of the time, set the standard for all motorcars that followed. Even today, it is one of the most coveted classic cars of all time. Fittingly, the phrase, "It's a real Duesy," which means that something is exceptional, originated from this automotive legend.
The third marque, the Auburn, was also a luxury brand, but emphasis was placed on making it appeal to those with an eye for a sportier look. This Auburn body style reached its high point when legendary designer, Gordon Buehrig, completed work on his 1935 Auburn Speedster masterpiece.
Auburn Boattail Speedster Body Style
There's a good chance you've seen an Auburn Boattail Speedster, or a second generation model that closely resembles it, but you may have thought it was a customized '40s-something hot rod. Like other timeless cars, such as Cobras, Willys, and Ford GT40s, there is still a strong market for this special Auburn, keeping independent builders busy turning out reproductions. Its art deco body style, with a low stance, long-powerful-looking hood, raked-back grill and windshield, and flowing fenders, make it a uniquely beautiful car. Then, with the V-shaped rear end and plenty of chrome, including chromed flexible exhaust pipes exiting the engine compartment, the cool factor of this car is off the charts. All you have to do is drop the top on this convertible, and you have a classic that will be welcome at any car event, except, perhaps, by those competing against you for Best in Show.
Auburn Speedster Power
The original Speedster was appropriately named, since it was powered by a 4.6 liter straight 8 engine that, when supercharged, produced 150 horsepower. Keep in mind, this Auburn was produced almost 80 years ago, when horse power ratings higher than 100 were rare. As part of the marketing strategy, a series of speed runs and endurance records, of the day, were challenged by the Speedster. When completed, the Auburn had set 70 new records, including a high speed run of 104 mph. Interestingly, each new car produced by the manufacturer had a plaque installed on the dash that certified the Speedster had been tested to 100 mph.
Auburn Speedster Cost
In 1935, the price for a Boattail Speedster was $2,245, which was higher priced than any other Auburn model of that year, and considerably more expensive than the average Ford or Chevy of the time. Even so, the company admitted that it lost money on each car sold as a loss leader . Today, an original Speedster could top $500,000, with a well-built reproduction running as high as $100,000. Despite the cost, however, if you're in the market for a unique collector car, with loads of style, you can't go wrong with the Auburn Boattail Speedster . For a good look at an original Speedster, as well as other beautifully restored cars of this period, visit the Auburn, Cord, Dusenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana.
An Owner's Perspective
Roger Learmonth provided his unique perspective of owning an Auburn Boattail Speedster. With his permission, we are posting it here to provide additional insight into this flamboyant and unique roadster. Special thanks to Roger for sharing his knowledge and experience.
Background on Roger’s Boattail:
Roger owns one of the rare right-hand drive Speedsters, of which only 8 were made. The Boattail he now owns was initially exported directly from the factory in Auburn, Indiana to a wealthy plantation owner in the Philippines. The car was hidden from the Japanese during the war, and remained in the Philippines for fifty years. It was bought by a Hong Kong resident in 1986, and was sent to England for some much-needed refurbishment (as can be seen by the below Before Photo). Roger subsequently purchased the car in 2011, and began a further restoration, which is nearing completion. This is a very low mileage car with only 17,000 miles on the clock. To assemble the car's history, Roger has spoken to every past owner or owner's offspring.
The following is what he had to say about owning a Boattail, in his own words.
I suppose it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. All sorts of production numbers are bandied around but the most authoritative voices tell us there were just 143, 1935/36 Auburn Speedsters made. There are of course many more replicas or second generation cars. For the uninitiated, the quickest ways to spot a recreation are the V8 engines which tend to have exhausts coming out of both sides of the bonnet. The original cars were straight eights with exhausts only on the left side of the engine. Original cars had bolt on wire wheels very much in the pre-war style most often with Ace type wheel discs. Replicas tend to sport all manner of exotic alloys, usually 15”. The original cars have 16” wheels. Replica headlamps are often body colour (not always) while the 35/6 cars had chrome plated Corcoran- Brown bullet lamps.
Even if flamboyant design is what floats your boat, you might still be all at sea with the 1935/36 series Auburn Speedster. Total impracticality, huge pontoon wings and massive boat tail are packaged up with a blown, straight eight engine. With only two fairly cramped seats and virtually no luggage space it’s a daft concept but that's its charm. In its day it attracted movie star patrons The richest women in the world, Woolworth millionairess Barbara Hutton, even bought one for an umpteenth husband. It’s mad but glorious.
Built only in the years 1935 and ’36, they were a last gasp attempt to save the terminally ill Auburn Automobile Company by putting a bit of eye candy into the showrooms. The initial plan of Harold Ames, Auburn vice president, was to use leftover 1933 Speedster bodies, originally designed by Al Leamy, to make up four show cars. Engineering by the legendry Augie Duesenberg and hastily designed by Gordon Beuhrig of Duesenberg and Cord fame (he designed the 1937 coffin nose) the car was an amalgam of ostentatious styling and parts bin engineering.
The four show cars pulled in orders so the firm continued using up the old ’33 shells. For the first cars (under 100), using the mid sections of Union City Body Speedsters, the cash strapped company employed a combination of blowtorch and fabrication to have the Union City firm construct an outrageous two-seater. Dealer were presided to pop a car into their showrooms to pull in the punters who would then buy one of the firm’s more conventional offerings. The cars sold quickly enough and production was moved to Auburn’s own facility where they progressed to making another batch, managing incidentally, to lose their shirts on each one. Early body numbers begin with the prefix ‘U’, later cars carry ‘A’.
The engine was a rather pedestrian 279 cubic inch Lycoming flat head straight eight. The company was part of the massive E L Cord empire that included Cord, Duesenberg and Lycoming. The huge and heavy car (3770 lbs) looked wonderful but would have performed rather poorly with a meagre 115 or so horsepower so a Kurt Beier designed Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal blower was added.
The supercharger hiked power to a reputed 150 bhp at 4000 rpm. Still no racing car, the leviathan now at least had respectable performance. As an added publicity boost, racing driver and speed record ace Ab Jenkins is reputed to have driven each car until 100 miles an hour came up on the clock. Every car has an individual dash plaque engraved with the exact speed reached by that particular vehicle and signed by Ab. History tells us this was bunkum, the plaques came out of a box and were randomly screwed on by assembly workers although Mr Jenkins did drive some cars.
Augie Duesenberg adapted the Schwitzer-Cummins blower to the Lycoming engine A feature is its high-speed operation. Revolving at nearly six times engine speed, one imagines the potential for messy failures if bits of the mechanism should ever become loose or unbalanced. It is however a tidy and unobtrusive installation sitting neatly below what seems a rather tiny, downdraft Solex. Compact size notwithstanding the installation still necessitated the inclusion of four, massive, chrome bound, three-inch exhausts popping through the bonnet in time-honoured fashion. Fred Duesenberg had first collared the idea from Mercedes in order to keep things cool under the bonnet. If anyone should fail to notice them, both sides of the bonnet carry the legend “Super-Charged” in prominent script.
Auburn used a Warner Gears three-speed gearbox but achieved a combination of acceptable acceleration and high speed cruising by adding a vacuum operated, Columbia built, (yes, another Cord company) two-speed axle. By twiddling a knob on the steering wheel and depressing the clutch the driver can engage, through an epicyclic drive in the axle case, either a stump pulling 5.1 or a more comfortable 3.47 ratio for cruising.
The design of the car makes no concession to practicality except for the inclusion of a golf door on the passenger’s side. Strictly a two seater and a none too generous one at that, there is no provision for easy access to a luggage compartment. I suppose it was expected that well healed customers would only be using the car to cruise Hollywood boulevards in fine weather. It’s commonly reputed to take two strong men half an hour or so to erect the peek-a-boo hood [convertible top] but I haven’t found it a problem when you acquire the knack although it does need two pairs of hands. When erected however, it is one of the more bizarre pieces of automotive design.
If one were ever to experience a puncture in the rain it might be best to dispose of the car there and then. Removing the heavy spare, hidden away in the depths of the boat tail, from its position behind a cross-member and dragging it through a tiny opening behind the seat and via the cockpit to the ground, is not for the faint hearted.
With around 150 horsepower on tap, positive steering and hydraulic brakes I could claim she’s a dream to drive but it isn’t so. The proportions from the ground puts one in mind of a steam train. I’m short so the bonnet comes up to my chest. She’s just over seventeen feet long and a prodigious 6’2” wide. There are two modes of progress; you either engage the 5:1 axle ratio or the 3.5:1. You can change while on the move but it’s not a seamless swap. The three-speed box isn’t transformed into a smooth six speeder. The sheer size of the beast is against it on narrow and crowded British roads but the Speedster comes into its own particularly above eighty on the open highway. It is however a bit of a struggle to drive well and somehow all the more rewarding for it. As luck would have it the wheels are sixteen-inch diameter so radials are an option.
Although the cars were produced in a somewhat haphazard manner with quite a few signs of expedient build they still exude quality; basic but strong and durable. Like a lot of American cars of the period they were made with very high-grade steel of a thickness rarely found in their European counterparts. When we took the paint off mine, we found that lots of lead had been used to achieve the body shape and lines. Because they are coach built they are prone to the problems of worm and wood rot but the overall construction is decidedly sturdy, even the timbers are thick and substantial. If you wanted to, you could mount a gun and retake France. Most of the chrome trim, like the splashguards on the rear wings, are almost a quarter of an inch thick.
I suspect that no two cars are quite the same as, certainly on the early variants, nearly everything was made by hand. One can image the craftsmen forming pieces of front wing on wheeling machines, welding them together and then using copious amounts of lead to get the shapes right. The inside of the rear splash-guards show signs of vigorous hammering to make them fit the wing contours. Each guard carries a number (mine are number 23) so that after chroming they could be reunited with the appropriate car. Everything is massive and, what today, would be called over-engineered.
As a piece of kit for getting from A to B because you really want to, the Auburn is not really a contender; well, it is, but only just. You can’t deny however the ‘jaw-dropping’ potential for other road users as you cruise by. It is without doubt a wonderful piece of outrageous automotive art from a by-gone age and the world would be poorer without it.
Here are the before and after photos of Roger's Boattail.
To learn more about Roger Learmonth's extensive collection of classic cars, visit his website.