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CCotW: Auburn Cabin Speedster (1929)

24 November 2017 | by Karl Smith

Concept Cars lead short, glamorous lives.

Most concepts are dismantled after their tour of a given year’s car shows. Occasionally, one will survive to tour for a second year, usually at second-tier shows. Others will end their lives in storage or a museum, or go to private buyers through auction houses.

Alas, a very few will meet untimely and violent ends. Think of the 2007 Mazda Furai, burnt down during a feature for Top Gear Magazine; the 1956 Chrysler Norseman, which sank with Andrea Doria; and this week’s concept car, the 1929 Auburn Cabin Speedster.


Auburn: an American classic marque for almost four decades

Auburn was an American premium automotive brand from 1900 until 1937, when it succumbed to the devastating economics of the Great Depression. A bit-lesser known than its more storied sibling brands Cord and Duesenberg, Auburn was known for its boat-tailed speedsters – open-topped cars with a sculptural tapering tail and distinctive colour graphics (see gallery).


The 1929 Auburn Speedster – a boat tail classic

The Cabin Speedster was a concept car developed by Auburn with Griswold Body works, a Detroit coachbuilder during the classic era. The design of the Cabin Speedster was an extreme version of Auburns boat-tail Speedster (pictured above), a classic convertible of the 1920s and 30s. Auburn literature trumpeted the car’s design as having “the speed of a racing car with the comfort of a closed car.”


The Cabin Speedster – note the exaggerated ‘Cab-Rearward’ architecture

The Cabin Speedster took the cabin and pushed it to the back of the car’s structure in an architecture that could be characterized as cab-rearward, to say the least. Aeronautical themes were prominent in the car which was designed in 1928, only a year or so after Charles Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight. Then, as now, the public was imagining the day when the automobile would evolve into a personal flying machine.


The cowl and windscreens made for an awkward transition into the roof

The windshield was a split and raked ‘V-shape’ that merged awkwardly into the cabin structure. The bonnet vents (screened, rather than louvered) had an aerofoil graphic hinting that this might be a place where wings could attach.

At the rear, the boat tail was raised and was flanked by horizontal steel fins, making look a bit like the stabilizer fins at the tail of an aeroplane. The interior featured two aeroplane-like wicker seats, an altimeter, and a compass.


Sinister Woodlite headlights flanked the Auburn radiator. Also note how far forward the wheels were placed

At the front, flanking and just ahead of the signature Auburn radiator, were the distinctive Woodlite headlights. Supposedly a revolutionary design that would focus and project a stronger beam of light forward to the road ahead, the Woodlites were elegant, mysterious, sculptural, and vaguely menacing.

They were highly desired on coachbuilt cars, and standard equipment on marques such as the stylish Ruxton. Unfortunately, their form was much greater than their function and they proved to be poor performers in night-time conditions.


The Cabin Speedster – perhaps at the New York Auto Show

Who actually designed the car is a mystery. It has been assumed that Auburn’s lead designer Alan Leamy penned the Cabin Speedster, but other designers such as his assistant Gordan Buehrig; R.H. Robinson (who claimed the design as his own in the 1950s); Robert Grimshaw, in-house designer at Griswold; even Wade Morton (a racing car driver whose name appears on the design patent) have been mentioned as the possible designer.

It’s most likely to have been a Robinson/Buehrig design, with modifications by the Griswold team as fabrication progressed.


The Los Angeles Auto Show, 1929. A disaster just waiting to happen

The Cabin Speedster was transported to the Los Angeles Auto Show, which was held in March, 1929. It was an outdoor show at that time, with automakers’ stands arranged under large tents. At some point during the show, either a cigarette or an electrical short ignited a fire, which quickly grew into a conflagration that engulfed all of the tents and vehicles.

Over 2500 show attendees escaped and there was no loss of life, but 320 cars (and a few airplanes and boats) were lost. The Auburn Cabin Speedster was one of the cars that perished.


Fire engulfed the tents and the vehicles within, but no lives were lost

The few surviving cars were gathered, along with cars from dealer lots, in the Shrine Auditorium, and the show gamely went on, miraculously reopening the day after the fire. The burned cars, including the Cabin Speedster, were scrapped by an auto body shop, which fortuitously abutted the show grounds, their value covered by the show’s insurance carrier.


A T-Top Cabin Speedster replica was built in the 1980s

While the loss of the Cabin Speedster was a blow to A-C-D, the plans for the car were still at Griswold, so a number of replicas were built over the years, including a faithful replica and a sister T-top in the 1980s. The former, the most faithful reproduction, can be found at Auburn-Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn Indiana, which coincidentally is currently displaying its signature boat-tail cars in a special exhibit that began earlier this month and will extend into 2018.


This later replica followed a more faithful recreation (see top image)

Looking back at the Cabin Speedster, it is hard not to fall in love with its exaggerated classic proportions and jaunty cab-rearward architecture. The green/cream colour scheme, while period appropriate, may not excite the contemporary enthusiast, but a little red and black paint could fix that problem.

Auburn Cabin Speedster Brochure.jpg

Cabin Speedster was a marketing success, despite its premature demise

The Cabin Speedster, despite its premature demise, did accomplish Auburn’s goals for marketing speedy aerodynamic cars – even if the ‘aero’ was a bit more about form than function – and the glamour and excitement of the period still can be felt in the design, even after nearly nine decades.

Not a bad legacy for a concept car which had its life measured in mere weeks before meeting a tragic end.