Auburn 851 SC Speedster


This ’35 Auburn is one of only two American cars I own; to give it, its long title, an Auburn Supercharged, Boat Tailed Speedster. 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 patrons like well known movie stars and sportsmen. The richest women in the world, Woolworth millionairess Barbara Hutton, even bought one for an umpteenth husband. It’s mad but glorious.

Using old, unsold bodies left over from 1933, the cash strapped company employed a combination of blowtorch and fabrication to construct an outrageous two-seater with a massive boat tail, huge chromed side exhausts and a steeply raked V-screen. The engine was a rather pedestrian 279 cubic inch Lycoming flat head straight eight. The company was by then part of the huge E L Cord empire that included Cord, Duesenberg and Lycoming. The large and heavy car (3770 lbs) looked wonderful but would have performed rather poorly with a meagre 115 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.

A feature of the Schwitzer-Cummins 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, chromed, three-inch exhausts popping through the bonnet in time honoured fashion. 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, two-speed axle.  By twiddling a knob on the steering wheel and depressing the clutch the driver can engage, through an epicyclic drive, 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.


With around 150 horsepower on tap, positive steering and reasonable brakes I could claim she’s a dream to drive but it isn’t so. The proportions from the ground put 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 feet 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. In truth, most American cars made though the thirties and up to the Korean War have a certain porcine feel in comparison with quality European products but the Speedster isn’t too bad. It is however a bit of a struggle and somehow all the more rewarding for it. As luck would have it, the wheels are sixteen inch diameter so radials are an option but I’d hate to loose those period whitewalls.

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 however deny the ‘jaw-dropping’ potential for other road users as you cruise by. It is however a wonderful piece of outrageous automotive art from a by-gone age and the world would be poorer without it.

In September 2016 we took the Auburn on its first European foray with an entry on the Dieppe Retro. Which was a non-competitive touring assembly of about eighty cars ranging from a 1908 Renault to a 200cc Scootacar. There were vintage  and post vintage Bentleys, MGs  and Rolls-Royces together with a host of Citroens and Peugeots, even a diminutive Rosengart. More moderns included  Mustangs, Sunbeams and family saloons.  I think it fair to say that the French pubic loved the Auburn; she was the star of the show.

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Above: Kathleen and me on the Dieppe Retro with the Auburn September 2016.


Left: Unusual shot of the Speedster, taken from the Dieppe hotel balcony in the rain, showing the  pontoon wings