Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

1935 Auburn 851 Phaeton was powered by a 115 hp, inline, eight-cylinder, and side-valve engine with three-speed gearbox.
1935 Auburn 851 Phaeton was powered by a 115 hp, inline, eight-cylinder, and side-valve engine with three-speed gearbox.

Car Enthusiasts

Voluptuous Depression-era luxury Add to ...

Blenus Wright was a year-old toddler in Tweed, Ont., when his 1935 Auburn 851 Phaeton rolled out of the Auburn Automobile Company's Indiana factory gate and into the hands of an American who would have paid about $1,275 for the privilege of owning one of the most glamorous and prestigious, yet surprisingly value oriented, luxury cars of the Depression era.

More Related to this Story

The Auburn's first owner obviously wasn't short of cash - the average wage that year was $1,600, the average new car went for $625 and a new house $3,500. But we'll never know whether fiscal considerations played a part in the purchase: A similar Cadillac convertible went for $2,755, a Packard convertible Victoria for $3,100 and a Lincoln LeBaron convertible for a princely $5,000. Or he may simply have been smitten by the voluptuous new front end created by Duesenberg stylist Gordon Buehrig that graced Auburns that year.

Seven decades were to pass before Wright - now 75, residing in Toronto and this past summer retired after serving as an Ontario Superior Court Judge - saw the car at the Labor Day Auburn Cord Duesenberg (ACD) club gathering in Auburn five years ago. It was being lovingly burnished by its long-time custodian and Wright asked if he'd consider passing the polishing rag on to a new owner. The answer he got was "Maybe" and phone numbers were exchanged.

Wright waited an impatient month before calling, to discover his number had been lost and the car was up for sale, advertised in the ACD newsletter. When the next issue arrived there was the previous owner's ad but with "SOLD, across it in big bold letters," says an obviously still-pleased Wright, as the car was by then in his garage. Financial and styling considerations had framed Wright's purchase decision, he says. "I couldn't afford a Duesenberg and I don't like Cords, but I did like Auburn's four-door Phaeton," he says. He likely paid a few dollars more than the original owner for this example of one of North America's most cherished automotive brands, though.

The Auburn Automobile Company was created in 1903 when the buggy-building Eckhart brothers Frank and Morris decided to ride the swelling automotive wave with a car of their own. They did this with modest success - their creations based on off-the-shelf components - until 1919, when they sold the just-about-busted company to a Chicago group champing to get into the business, lead by bubble-gum magnate William K. Wrigley Jr. A new model, the Auburn Beauty Six, was created, but the early-'20s recession idled sales to the point the company was stalling again by 1924. Enter Errett Lobban Cord: racer, mechanic, boy-wonder entrepreneur and super-salesman. Hired as Auburn's general manager, he promptly turned things around - for Auburn and himself. By 1926 he was president and major stockholder and Auburn had built a reputation for producing elegant and high-performance vehicles, with remarkably low price tags.

Then came that little financial traffic accident on Wall Street in 1929 which resulted in a production decline of about 50 per cent (to 11,357 units) in 1930. But proving just how fast on his feet he really was, Cord re-jigged the lineup and by 1931 Auburn product soared to 32,000.

Cord had by this time purchased Duesenberg, was building the Cord L-29 and owned Lycoming engines, Checker Cab and upwards of 150 other companies. His boardroom two-step was fast becoming a lively jitterbug, though, particularly after Auburn production dropped to the 11,000 range again in 1932 - despite the introduction of one of the great halo cars of all time, the V-12 engined Boattail Speedster - and to 5,000 a year later. By 1934 the ever agile Cord had skipped to exile in England to avoid all the fiscal fuss his empire building had created. He returned to face the music, but, though he personally managed to keep on dancing, the last Auburns were built in 1936.

The range had been restyled for 1934, but the "shovel front" styling didn't captivate too many potential buyers and Auburn tried again in 1935, handing the task to Duesenberg's Buehrig, who basically gave the existing body a completely new grille, hood and flowingly sculpted semi-pontoon fenders. The result is seen in Wright's handsome four-door Phaeton 851, which is powered by a 115 hp, inline, eight-cylinder, and side-valve engine with three-speed gearbox. Wright says his interest in cars goes back to his earliest years when he'd stand in the passenger seat of his father's car and helpfully point out to him oncoming traffic with a "Car, daddy, car, daddy, car, daddy."

As a teen he owned 1940 and 1948 Chevrolets and a 1949 Plymouth and, after being hired for his first job at 17 with a Tweed dairy, purchased a new 1952 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop, financing it over four years, to his mother's horror - particularly after he was fired, following "the darnedest water fight" involving high-pressure hoses with a fellow employee on a hot summer's day.

After spotting an ad placed by Hall's Pure Milk Dairy in the Toronto Telegram, he didn't bother to call; he just packed a bag, threw it in the Plymouth and set out for the big city at 3:30 one morning. He was waiting in the dairy's parking lot when the boss arrived and after flashing his dairy certificate from Guelph Agricultural College, was hired.

He moved on to sell farm insurance and then acquired a business administration degree from Abilene Christian College in Texas. While studying there he became "mesmerized" by business law, which led him to Osgood Hall Law School. He was called to the bar in 1968 and worked for the Ontario Attorney General's Office, before being appointed to the Ontario Superior Court in 1991.

He bought his first collector car in the late 1970s, a 1931 Ford Model A Coupe, and went on to own a'65 Mustang, a '57 Chev, then '21, '31, '41, '51 and '61 Chevs, the latter a Corvette. He now owns a '31 Ford Model A Roadster, a 1982 Lincoln Continental, the 1965 Chrysler New Yorker "his three girls grew up in," a mint '78 Suburban and, currently under restoration, a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country.

"As any car collector will tell you, it's a disease, an addiction, and you never get over it," Wright says.


Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Drive

In the know

Most popular video »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories