Car of the Week: 1934 Auburn Salon Speedster

Story By Angelo Van Bogart; photos by Zefrey Throwell

After decades of restoring cars to concours quality for customers, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg expert Randy Ema finally has a Number 1 condition car of his own. And he’s not quite sure what to do with it.

“You know, it is so fragile that I haven’t taken it out since we did the photographs (in February),” Ema said of his freshly restored 1933 Auburn 12-165 Salon Speedster. “If I were a multi-multi-millionaire, it wouldn’t phase me, but I know what it took to get here and what it takes to fix it.

“What I like to do is go in and drive them, but [my other cars] are all kind of beat-up old things and if I get a chip or a scratch or someone steps on the running board it’s no big deal, but if someone breathes on this thing, it will be upsetting.”

The 12-165 Salon Speedster isn’t just special to Ema because he finally has a restored showpiece of his own, but because it’s one of just five authentic 1933 12-165 Salon Speedsters and more than anything else, Ema purchased it from a dear friend.

“I first saw it in 1965 when I went to visit Millard Wilkerson in San Diego to purchase a 1931 Auburn Brougham and it was in his garage, but all apart.”

Ema soon learned that Millard was a character who loved Auburns — especially Speedsters — about as much as he loved women. It’s not known how many women Millard loved, but Ema knows Millard owned eight Speedsters in his time: an Essex Speedster; an eight-cylinder 1931 Auburn Speedster; five different 1935 Auburn 851 Speedsters; and the 1933 12-165 Auburn Salon Speedster featured here.

Millard had purchased his first Auburn Speedster, a 1935 851 model, in 1937 (page 26). He had been born on Aug. 8, 1919, and at the time of his first Speedster purchase, he wasn’t quite old enough to register it himself so he had to take his mom with him.

Just three years later, in 1940, Millard purchased the 1933 Auburn Salon Speedster from the original owner, someone by the name of Wagner who owned a meat packing and retail business in Baltimore. Ema has what is probably the largest archive of original Auburn Automobile Co. records, and his records include a shipping record for a Carmine (metallic maroon) and silver 1933 Auburn 12-165 Salon Speedster with six chromed wire wheels and spare tire covers delivered to the Auburn Automobile Co.’s New York City showroom. Since Auburn built only 14 Speedsters in the 12-165 Salon series, Ema believes that car from the shipping records is this car.

Auburn gets sporty

By 1933, the Auburn Speedster was at the end of its second generation of production. Auburn had introduced its first-generation Speedster models in 1928 within the 88 series on a 125-inch wheelbase and the 115 series on a 130-inch wheelbase. The design of the first Auburn Speedster was actually borrowed from a unique 1927 Duesenberg Model X Speedster built by coachbuilder McFarlan of Connersville, Ind. Since the Auburn Automobile Co. owned the majority of Duesenberg stock, and the company had a factory in Connersville, the transition of the Speedster design from a Duesenberg to an Auburn could be facilitated with relative ease.

The first generation of Speedster took advantage of many improvements to the Auburn brand after E.L. Cord became president in 1925. With the sporting tapered-tail roadster coachwork, the production Speedsters were capable of 100 mph, and their mettle began to be tested by renowned race car drivers of the day, including Eddie Miller and Wade Morton. These drivers proved the Speedster’s performance prowess by setting multiple speed records and nipping on the back bumper of Stutz in closed-course races. Auburn promoted its second-place finish to a Stutz on an Atlantic City board track because although it didn’t win, it was a close second in performance to the Stutz at about half the price.

After halting Speedster production in 1930 amid the uncertain start of the Great Depression, Auburn began the second generation of the Speedster in late 1931 with beautiful and new styling by Alan Leamy, a very talented in-house designer. While the first generation of Auburn Speedsters featured modifications to the chassis and engine in order to make them perform as good as they looked, the company’s 1931-1934 Speedsters were all about looks. These second-generation Speedsters shared their chassis and engines with the rest of the Auburn line, save for some tweaks to accommodate the body. And what a body. Leamy gave the entire Auburn line new, open clamshell-type fenders in the latest fashion and in a more novel move, designed the radiator shell to be painted to match the body for a more integrated design. Leamy also found a way to incorporate the trademark Auburn body line that began at the radiator and streamed down the hood and into the beltline. Headlamps were also split to match the vertically divided grille. Although Leamy redesigned the entire Auburn line with new bodies, the 1931 Speedster kept a very similar profile to the heralded 1928 and ’29 models.

The only engine available in a 1931 Auburn was a newly engineered eight-cylinder but in 1932, Auburn added a Twelve and the Speedster could be had with either engine. Likewise in 1932, Auburn also added Dual Ratio, a system that featured low and high ratios in the rear axle that could be controlled by the driver via a lever on the instrument panel.

Upon their release, the 1931 Auburns were put to the test on speed courses such as Bonneville and again, Speedsters began to set performance records. Perhaps the most notable was former race car driver Eddie Miller’s 1932 run on Muroc Dry Lake in California where he broke 12 open stock car records, recorded a 100-mph-plus run over one mile and averaged 88.953 mph over a stretch of 500 miles in an Auburn Twelve Speedster with Dual Ratio.

Auburns had been available in the standard or better-trimmed custom series during 1931 and 1932, but for 1933, the company topped them both with the Salon series, a third line available with an eight or twelve. Of the Salon Twelve, Auburn said, “While the chassis of the standard and custom models is substantially the same as used last year, the chassis of the Salon models is entirely new.

“Quality is the keynote of the 12-cylinder Salon models. Aside from such engineering advancements as Dual Ratio, ‘X-plus-A’ type chassis frame construction, improved L.G.S. free wheeling, silent and constant mesh transmission gears, custom-type bodies and numerous other engineering and design features, eye appeal and fine construction set the cars apart. Detail has been worked out most exactingly, producing a car of pronounced luxuriousness, comfort and efficiency.

“Powered with a 160 horsepower 12-cylinder Lycoming engine on a 133 inch wheelbase chassis, these, big, luxurious Salon models have been designed primarily for the owner who desires an automobile that is faster, smoother, more flexible and more richly finished and who wants a certain individuality in his motor car.”

The individuality of the Salon models was outlined by Auburn, which noted the Salon “radiator shell is of a new distinctive design with a grid treatment consisting of stainless steel horizontal fins and vertical bars in the background.” This radiator shell was also shorter than the standard Auburn shell, which had vertical bars that cascaded down the front of the car, through the front splash pan. As a result, the Salon had a unique splash pan to accommodate the shorter radiator shell and the Salon’s more elegantly sweeping front fenders. The Salon model was also fitted with thin “propeller type” bumpers that more gracefully dipped in the center when compared to standard and custom Auburn bumpers. Salon models also featured a different instrument panel with glass faces instead of steel and unique headlamps with special convex headlamp lenses.

In addition, the Salon models were given an “A” member in the frame to lower the engine along with air cushioned rubber engine mounting. A different carburetor linkage was required to accommodate the 12-cylinder’s dual carburetors, and all 1933 Auburns received a new brace from the firewall to the frame to further reduce cowl movement.

“A most unusual and distinctive automobile,” said Auburn of its 1933 12-165 Salon Speedster. “Powered with 12-cylinder 160-horsepower Lycoming engine, similar to the world famous engine which broke all speed records at Muroc Dry Lake from one to 500 miles recently. This distinctive car is built on a 133-inch wheelbase…Note the distinctive treatment of this car throughout… Chrome plays an important part in the eye appeal of the car, being lavishly used throughout. Bodies are custom type, retaining the Auburn identity, yet individual in design. Speed in excess of any stock car.”

Production of Speedsters was never great and for 1933 — a low point in the Depression — only 20 were built altogether, according to Ema. Three Speedsters were eight-cylinder Salon models (8-105); three more were 12-cylinder custom models (12-161A); and 14 were 12-cylinder Salon models (12-165). None were built in the eight-cylinder standard series (8-101) or custom series (8-101A). Due to the poor national economy, some of these completed Speedsters were leftover and not sold until the 1934 model year, when Auburn had come out with an entirely new body. Despite the fact Auburn was still selling leftover 1933 Speedsters into 1934, which probably looked archaic compared to the redesigned 1934 Auburn sedans and convertibles, the company came out with a third-generation Speedster in 1935. The first of these 1935 851 Speedsters were based upon heavily modified leftover 1933 Speedster bodies fitted with new components of the 1935 design.

Reviving a Salon Speedster

The original owner of the featured 1933 12-165 Salon Speedster had also purchased one of the new 1935 Auburn 851 Speedsters and perhaps to make his 1933 appear as modern as his 1935 Speedster, he modified its body. The 1933 Speedster’s antiquated cowl lamps were removed, 1940 Chevrolet headlamps were fared into the front fenders, 1939 Ford tail lamps were added to otherwise altered rear fenders and the running boards were bobbed. Twin exhaust pipes were also made to exit through the sides of the pointed rear tail.

When Millard moved from Baltimore to San Diego after the war, the 1933 Auburn Speedster was among the possessions that he took with him. Around 1955, Millard sandblasted the engine to detail it and then lost oil pressure. He realized that the Speedster was in need of restoration so he removed the body and engine, but other than tracking down some original parts for the car — original Auburn Twelve Salon headlamps, tail lamps and cowl lamps — the work remained at a standstill.

By the early 1980s, Millard entrusted Ema with restoring the car back to its original glory down to the metallic Carmine paint with silver accents. Work progressed slowly as Millard’s budget allowed and Ema worked on other jobs for elite concours events such as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Around the time Millard passed away in 2008 at the age of 88, Ema purchased the car from his friend.

Over the last 10 years, Ema has restored the car between customer cars. His only slow time seems to be after the Pebble Beach concours, so work on the Speedster has been slow but steady. It’s allowed him to fully research and authentically restore the car down to the correct Carmine color on top and bottom.

“That color is also the color on the frame, and they painted it that way before the body was fitted [to a Salon chassis],” Ema said. “They painted chassis in four different colors: a sand, a blue, off-white and this color — all metallics — and a chassis black on a black car.”

Although Ema has restored scores of cars, many of them Auburns, this Auburn project presented some challenges even though it was nearly complete. In particular, he said fitting the slim Auburn 12-cylinder chrome trim on the edge of the fenders was “a nightmare.” He also has yet to install that 12-cylinder trim on the hood louvers.

Some of this fender and louver trim was present, but it all had to be made new. Ema also bought new mufflers and built some other odds and ends. He also made sure to remove any trace of the modifications that had been made prior to 1955.

“I meant to restore this car for my friend,” Ema said. “I did it exactly as it was, for my friend, so everything is exactly as it was built.

“It’s his car, it is still his car, it will always be his car. I actually call it ‘Millard.’”
Although Ema only has yet to install the hood louver trim, he’s still not sure how he’ll use the car once it’s completely done. One thing is certain, though: He won’t be putting it under a judge’s scrutiny.

“I have no plans to have it judged,” he said. “That is what I do for a living, that isn’t what I enjoy doing. I am competitive for my client base and I think our record is self-sustaining in that respect, but it isn’t what I like to do.”

Aside from Ema himself, the ultimate judge of the finished 1933 Auburn Salon Speedster could only be Millard, and how could he be anything but thrilled with how his Speedster looks today?

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