There's no better way to experience history than to be where history actually happened. For antique automobile enthusiasts, few places can bring the past to life like a visit to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind.
This isn't your typical car museum jammed full of gleaming, concours-worthy pieces. Although it has its fair share of majestic rolling treasures, this museum transcends that level of authenticity because it is housed in the actual corporate headquarters, design studios and engineering department of Auburn Automobile Co.
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"We're the only museum in the world located in the auto company's original buildings," said Laura Brinkman, director. "When you're here, you're climbing the same staircase CEO E.L. Cord and the designers and employees climbed. You're walking where they actually walked and worked."
The Auburn Automobile Co. was established in 1900 and later acquired Duesenberg Automobile and Motors Co. of Indianapolis. It also formed Cord Corp. in 1929, the same year the company built its stylish Auburn headquarters.
ACC occupied this space from 1930-1937 and at its height, its Auburn, Duesenberg and Cord brands dominated the luxury vehicle market. There were dealerships around the world, with stores in Paris, Berlin, London, Amsterdam and Baghdad.
The company was able to stay on top by having a strong commitment to innovation.
"They had a desire to make their cars more adjustable to the user," said Aaron Warkentin, curator of the museum. "A dial on the dashboard of select models could control the firmness or softness of the shock absorbers."
Ride quality was further enhanced by the use of an "X-frame" design, which stiffened up the chassis and allowed it to bear more weight with less flex, making for a more controlled ride. Other revolutionary features included supercharged engines, hidden headlights, front-wheel drive powertrains and one-piece hoods that opened from the front of the vehicles.
The three brands weren't limited to just comfort, but also speed. Duesenberg still retains the title of being the only American car company to win at the French Grand Prix, break a land speed record and win at the Indy 500, all with vehicles designed and built in the U.S.
The brands were also greatly aided by their visionary CEO, who sought publicity with top celebrity endorsements.
"Cord was a genius at marketing and wanted to make the statement that his world-class cars could provide performance and style," Warkentin said. "Clark Gable, Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart all owned one. It was an important part of the draw."
Other tactics involved owner and dealer feedback; bright, two-toned paint jobs; and national advertising campaigns. The strategy paid off. Upon the initial hit of the Great Depression in 1929, the company was one of the soundest financially in all of America and it even grew during the early years of the disaster.
However, as the Depression lingered on, its hand-built, boutique offerings weren't fit for the cash-strapped marketplace and the company's autos became seen as ancient relics of the Roaring Twenties.
Several major redesigns commenced in the early '30s but sales continued to plummet and in 1937, the company's doors were closed for good. Upon the bankruptcy, several other businesses occupied the brick buildings for the next several decades, before a group of local Auburn residents took action. After acquiring funds, the grass-roots movement purchased the historic structure and in 1974 the museum was formed. It opened with 24 vehicles.
"We've grown a lot since then. We've gone from a nice, fabulous collection to a true museum," Brinkman said.
Currently, 120 vehicles are available for viewing, with several rotating displays ensuring return visitors will always see something new. Throughout the majestic art deco-themed halls, the finest from all three brands are parked.
"We're very proud that our museum was named a National Historic Landmark and the reason is the very cars themselves. They are handcrafted and represent the best of American craftsmanship," Brinkman said.