Notes from The Old School: Bling without Billet

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Classic, timeless, beautiful… missed.

Fear not, fellow hoonigans. This site’s creed shall always be firmly about the weird, the wacky, the wild, the wonderful, the wandering, the unloved, the plebeian, and the occasionally truly WTF (which usually hail from Canada it seems).
Nonetheless, you’re probably glancing at the picture above and wondering what a gilded classic luxo-cruiser has to do with any of that. For it’s certainly much… older and… fancier and… grey-pouponier than what we usually roll through here. And you’d be correct, since the picture was taken at a concours by yours truly. Whoa whoa whoa, a concours? Fer chrissakes, they just got started and they’re already gettin’ too big for their britches? Nay: I had to pay my own way as one of the unwashed with the audacity to mingle with the elite (turns out they do know how to fix a mean hoagie sausage, so they can’t be all bad). More importantly, we here at the ‘Verse simply believe in paying honorable credit where due, and this 1933 Auburn is no mere pretender to that honor. In fact, it should be enough to make even the most phat of faux-core ballers slink to their donkmobiles under cover of darkness, and head straight off to K-mart for a supply of their finest spray primer, because they simply are not worthy. Even us honest ‘hoons can sometimes learn from the Old School… and this is one of those times.

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Bling? I think not – that spare tire cover simply warps space and time.

The pre-WWII period is widely regarded as the zenith of “classic” American automobile design. The roaring 20’s forged deserving prominence for a select few automakers, leaving the others to carve their own market niches through whimsy, exclusivity and experimentation. Some would find near-term success, others would falter, others would reinvent themselves over again. It was a heady time of rapid innovation, rancorous competition, and blue-sky design. Sadly, most of them would not survive the Great Depression, which sparked many a last desperate grasp for survival and memorable greatness before the bell’s inevitable toll.
One consortium that exemplifies these tragedies is the ACD group: Auburn – Cord – Deusenberg, as owned by self-made 30-something transport mogul Errett Lobban “E.L.” Cord. Of his storied automotive trifecta, much has been written especially about Deusenbergs, so we’ll spare our time save the requisite mention that “Doozies” had both the panache and gobsmack pricing to gut-punch “Standard of the World” Cadillacs down more than a few rungs. The nascent Cord marque was created a bit downmarket from there, packing the style and refinement of Doozies into “E.L.’s” own artfully rendered, new-fangled front-wheel-drive conveyances… whose woeful unreliability proved the undoing of the whole enterprise.
So where did this leave Auburn – the original and oldest of the three? Sadly, with millions of dollars’ worth of paper wealth wiped out in the Great Depression, the demand for profit-churning Deusenbergs never had a chance of recovery. What was left of happier times was squandered on the Cord’s hopeful but ultimately disastrous introduction – a victim of timing as much as balky new technology. And as those two stumbled and fell, they dragged Auburn down with them, and that has long been mourned as one of the great tragedies in American Automotive History (if one casts an eye in GM’s direction, it seems history doth repeat itself). But why, of all the nameplates to sputter out in the depression, was Auburn’s demise so especially heart wrenching? Well you’d never guess by the prices certain models command today, but Auburns were widely lauded as an incredible value at an affordable price. With pricing in the $1,000 arena (give or take a couple of Bens), they competed against approachable upmarket brands such as Buick and DeSoto, handily winning renown as “baby Deusenbergs” for their gorgeous styling, impressive performance, and proven reliability.
Even their most exclusive models seem silly-cheap today: for example, a top-of-the-line 1932 Custom Speedster – of timeless boat tail beauty and “modern unobtanium” fame – was a mere $1,275. For a 12-cylinder sports car! Still not convinced? Chew on this: a workaday 1932 Ford Model B/18 V-8 Sedan Convertible was $650. In more modern terms, you could say that’s the price /value differential between a Fusion and a loaded Taurus SHO; the trouble is, when adjusted for inflation, the Auburn sports car would actually cost the same as a loaded Fusion. Funny thing, that inflation business. Maybe some things really were better in them thar olden times.
Which brings us back to our featured car. This 1933 Auburn 8-105-A Custom Coupe was no standard order; indeed, it was a rare bird even by Auburn’s own stubbornly meager sales and production totals. The Model 8-105-A obtained motivation from the proven carryover Lycoming 8, good for 105 horsepower (and 90mph) in 1933. The Custom Series (so designated by the –A in the model name) was Auburn’s most exclusive 8-cylinder car offering, with a starting price of $1240. That price was still considered a bargain when coupled to its style and performance. Nonetheless, only 192 of these gracefully understated coupes were built in 1933. And of that lot, just one was blessed with what doubtlessly stands as one of the most stunning factory options to grace an automobile before or since: A custom-fabricated (hand-made) chrome top hat and retractable roof. The 25% price premium in the Depression Era just might have had something to do with that one-off status, but oh, what a premium it bought!
Yes, it seems even in the new ostentatious school of bling, billet and custom can’t hold a candle to old-world craftsmanship and design.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so here’s a few from this year’s Second Annual Louisville Concours d’Elegance. Adjusted for inflation they might actually be worth more, but you’ll have to settle for my spare change in the captions. Sorry about that!

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  1. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    I now have a favorite roof.

  2. JeepyJayhawk Avatar

    That is the most beautiful expanse of chrome I have ever seen. So flawlessly hand made…
    Uh, I may need a few minutes here guys.

  3. P161911 Avatar

    Auburns used a STRAIGHT 8 not a V-8.
    Otherwise, great article and beautiful car. You just can't beat what the CCCA calls "Full Classics" for style and presence. 24" chrome wheels and neon lights can never say style and class the way one of these cars does. That's why when I got married I made sure that we had a suitable limo, no stretched Hummer or sad Town Car. I had a 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Town Car. It was probably the second most memorable part of the day and the best part that there are pictures of 🙂

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      You mean you didn't get pictures of the cake??

      1. P161911 Avatar

        Just the Groom's cake that actually was shaped like a car, specifically like this one:

    2. goingincirclez Avatar

      Thanks for that correction; once my editing privs are sorted out, I'll make the correction to the text. I had no idea researching Aurburns would become such a fascinating minefield, after spending hours cross-referencing and getting sidetracked to the other two marques I was bound to get crossed up somewhere. No excuse though, so I'm glad you enjoyed it otherwise 😉 And I commend your choice of Town Car (Rolls, not Lincoln faux-rolls) for your wedding!

  4. joshuman Avatar

    The clouds. The shine. The gorgeous.

  5. engineerd Avatar

    I love these cars. Pre-war and even the late '40s represent the pinnacle of automotive design to me. The car was still new, so design standards and trends were not driving factors. Government regulation was at a bare minimum, freeing the designers and engineers to break new ground. Plus, for the most part, the cars were built for the wealthy. People who could afford to pay a premium for the opulence.
    Very nice article, circlez. I applaud your subject choice.

  6. epic fail pictures Avatar

    Gaydon, Warwickshire – Land Rover has announced that it will introduce a 2WD option (in addition to the 4WD derivative) for the new compact Range Rover. On sale in 2011, the 2WD vehicle will emit less than 130 g/km of CO2 – making it the lightest, most fuel efficient Range Rover ever.