A Duesy of a Museum

Exhibits showcase glamour and elegance of auto heritage

Story & photographs by Jeff Zehr

Tucked in the northeastern corner of Indiana, surrounded by miles of flat farmland, the small town of Auburn can claim an improbable heritage of building some of the world’s finest, most innovative and expensive automobiles ever created.

Auburn was home to Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobile company during its turbulent 37-year history that launched in 1900.

Each make earned a special reputation: Auburns were powerful and generally more affordable, Cords were innovative with front wheel drive and styling that included retractable headlamps, while Duesenbergs were custom-built trophies for Hollywood stars, sports celebrities and business tycoons that cost $16,000 or more in the 1930s. It also helped that Duesenberg’s racing pedigree was legendary and those performance capabilities were brought to these luxury cars. In fact, “It’s a Duesy,” a phrase coined to say something is very special and grand, is derived from Duesenberg.

Today, the art deco building that housed the company headquarters is designated as a National Historic Landmark and serves as the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.

But you don’t have to be a motor head to appreciate the museum. Step into the grand showroom where soft ragtime and jazz music transports you back to an era when going for a drive meant dressing for the occasion.

Clearly, the elegant styling of these classics can best be described as rolling sculptures. The Cord was even honored by the New York Museum of Modern Art. The long sweeping body lines, splashes of chrome, and form that matches its function all combine to create these showpieces.

“All Duesenbergs were custom built. No two were alike,” said Jon Bill, curator of the museum. “Just about every car has its own special story.”

One such story, according to Bill, was an eccentric multimillionaire named George Whittell Jr., who had a pet lion that went everywhere he went. When Whittell ordered the leather interior for his Duesenberg, he insisted on matching leather booties for the lion so its paws wouldn’t tear up the interior.

The cars have an astounding survival rate. For one Duesenberg model, only 481 cars were made, 375 are known to exist still, and most have been restored to drive, Bill said.

Each Labor Day week, thousands of visitors descend on Auburn for the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival and a large reunion of ACDs to their birthplace. Dan Aykroyd and Jay Leno are just two famous car buffs who have visited the museum.

About 120 cars are on display in the museum’s seven galleries at any given time and are rotated to create special exhibits, although only 45 percent of the cars are ACDs. Others include rare models such as a Tucker, foreign and American sports cars and Packards, to name a few.

This 1937 Cord cost only $2,595 when new.

For more information, visit automobilemuseum.org.

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