There can be no argument that the Auburn 851 Speedster is one of the most beautiful American cars of all time. The sweeping lines were penned by Gordon Buehrig, a giant of pre-WWII automobile design, and the car had a top speed of over 100 mph (160 km/h).
The Auburn 851 Speedster was introduced for 1935, it was powered by a 150 bhp Lycoming straight-engine fitted with a Schweitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger. Despite its looks and performance just 143 would be sold, largely due to the ongoing Great Depression which had crippled the global economy.
Fast Facts – The Auburn Supercharged Speedster
- The Auburn Speedster was released over three primary generations starting in 1928 with the Auburn Eight-In-Line. This car was followed by the Speedster 160 in 1934, then in 1935 the most famous of the series was released – the Auburn Supercharged Speedster.
- The first two Auburn Speedsters in the series were designed by Alan Leamy, the third and final version was designed by Gordon Buehrig – interestingly the first Buehrig designed cars were built by modifying older Leamy-style bodies.
- The 1930s were an exceedingly difficult time for American automakers, particularly those who made high-end luxury cars. The Great Depression has caused widespread financial ruin, and many car companies didn’t survive.
- Born into this tumultuous time, the Auburn Supercharged Speedster managed to mark up approximately 143 sales over its brief production run including both the 851 and 852 models, though Auburn did succumb to bankruptcy in 1937.
The Origins Of The Auburn Speedster
The Auburn Automobile Company was founded in Auburn, Indiana, in 1900. The company had earlier produced carriages and buggies, but it moved with the times and soon shifted to making automobiles. Over the next few decades, Auburn produced a variety of cars, ranging from affordable sedans to high-end luxury vehicles.
In the mid-1920s, Auburn began to focus more on performance and style. The company hired designer Alan Leamy to create a new look for Auburn’s cars. Leamy came up with sleek, aerodynamic designs that emphasized speed and elegance. The most famous of these designs became known as the Speedster.
The first Auburn Speedster was introduced in 1925. It featured a low-slung body, a long hood, and a rakish windshield. The car was powered by a 4.5 liter side valve straight-eight Lycoming engine and was fast by the standards of the 1920s.
The Speedster was an instant hit, with those that could afford it of course, and it quickly became one of Auburn’s most popular high-end models. The model was continuously upgraded to stay competitive at the pointy end of the luxury car market, in 1926 the engine was upgraded from 4.5 to 4.8 liters, and by 1930s it was producing 115 bhp.
Over the next few years, Auburn continued to refine and improve the Speedster, in 1931 the new V12-powered model debuted to much fanfare as the Speedster 160. Unfortunately the Great Depression had a firm stranglehold on the economy by this time, and as such there was little disposable income for fancy cars – just 25 were sold.
Despite these low sales numbers the V12 engine design would go on to find a second life as the engine of choice for the American LaFrance Fire Engine Company, and it would power fire engines across America for decades.
The Auburn 851 Speedster
The true pièce de résistance of the Speedster model family was yet to come. The company needed a desirable, high-speed luxury car that was less expensive to produce than the V12 model – and so the model family returned to its roots with the Lycoming straight-eight.
The staggeringly beautiful Art Deco body was designed by Gordon Buehrig, it was essentially a clever update to the previous generation cars with new fenders and many other new body parts, but it could still be built using leftover bodies from the previous generation.
In order to get more speed out of the side valve Lycoming straight-eight two key upgrades were offered – an optional Schweitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger that boosted power output to 150 bhp at 4,000 rpm, and a Columbia dual-ratio rear axle that combined with the three-speed transmission to effectively offer six forwards gears and two for reverse.
This gearing arrangement meant that the new Auburn 851 Speedster could have a high and low speed final drive gear operated by a switch on the steering wheel, so that around town driving could be catered for whilst also offering the best possible top speed – after all the model was called the Speedster.
A maximum speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) was claimed by the company and it wasn’t just empty boasting, racing driver Ab Jenkins had driven a stock Speedster just over 100 mph at the Bonneville salt flats. Each Speedster that was delivered came with a plaque stating that that Ab Jenkins had driven their specific car to 100.1 mph – though this was just a marketing gimmick to give Speedster owners bragging rights.
The 851 Speedster debuted in 1935 in supercharged form, the styling of the car was immediately popular and despite the harsh economic realities on the ground the company still managed to sell 143 of them.
A year later in 1936 the 852 Speedster replaced the 851 in the model line however the only real difference was that it had the number 852 on its grille rather than 851.
The sad realities of the Great Depression finally caught up with Auburn in 1937, and the company ceased automobile manufacturing. The Auburn Speedster would remain the company’s crowning jewel, and good examples can now change hands for a million dollars or more.
The 1935 Auburn 851 Supercharged Speedster Shown Here
The car you see here is one of the first 50 Auburn 851 Speedsters that were made, a fact that’s notable as it means its body was repurposed from the earlier Speedster design which makes it slightly more collectible than the later cars.
It’s fitted with a correct supercharged engine producing 150 hp as well as the Columbia dual-ratio rear axle. This car was previously given a full concours-quality restoration, and it was awarded a CCCA First Prize winner with 99 points.
Though it doesn’t have its original engine as fitted by the factory it does have the correct engine type for the car, and after the restoration it achieved Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Category 1 certification.
The car is finished in gleaming black over a red interior, with a black top, black spoked wheels, and chrome hub caps.
If you’d like to read more about this car or register to bid you can visit the listing here on RM Sotheby’s. It’s due to roll across the auction block on the 4th of March with a price guide of $800,000 – $1,000,000 USD.
Images: Alex Stewart ©2022 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s
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