Even at $253,000, this car is still less than half the price of some Packard V12 Cabriolets


This 1934 Auburn 1250 Salon Cabriolet was driven by James Cagney in the 1930s film "The Mayor of Hell." It was restored over 20 years ago, and it's been certified by the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club, which means it has its original chassis, engine, and drivetrain.

The Salon model was the top of the line. It's powered by a 391-ci 160-hp Lycoming V12 and equipped with a 3-speed transmission, power hydraulic brakes, shocks adjustable by the driver, and a unique and desirable dashboard-controlled Dual Ratio rear axle.

The Dual Ratio provides good acceleration and an overdrive for today's freeways. With less than 350 miles since the 1986 restoration, it still has a nicely detailed undercarriage. According to the ACD, from 1934 to 1941, it was owned by Warner Brothers Studio, which produced "The Mayor of Hell." It was then sold and ended up at the Cars of the Stars Museum from 1959 to 1976.

After its restoration, it won multiple awards, scoring 100 points at the 1987 Dearborn CCCA Grand Classic, and a 1st at the 1987 Meadow Brook Concours. This is one of two 1934 Auburn V12 Cabriolets certified by the ACD.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1934 Auburn 1250 Salon
Number Produced:4 (1934 Cabriolets)
Original List Price:$1,635; ($26,000 in 2009 dollars)
Tune Up Cost:$2,500, includes valve adjustment
Distributor Caps:$800
Chassis Number Location:Plate under floor mat on outer side of passenger compartment
Engine Number Location:On above plate and on brass plate, left side of engine above crankcase
Club Info:Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club 536 McClean Ave. Staten Island, NY 10305-3644
Alternatives:1934 Packard V12 coupe-roadster,1934 Cadillac 355D convertible coupe, 1934 Lincoln KB Brunn convertible coupe
Investment Grade:B

This 1934 Auburn 1250 Salon Cabriolet sold for $253,000, including buyer’s premium, at the Barrett-Jackson Palm Beach, Florida, auction held April 9-11, 2009.

With a beautiful 100-point restoration done by ACD expert Brian Joseph in 1987, it sold at fair market price. Over the last two years, it had been offered for sale at around $500,000. It was a no-sale at Worldwide’s Auburn Auction in August 2008, where the estimate was $400,000-$600,000. The value with this Auburn resides in the V12 engine and the implied rarity of the cabriolet, so let’s examine the story behind the story, which revolves around E.L. Cord.

And what a story it is. If you think the Chrysler bankruptcy is something new, follow the ups and downs of Auburn in the 1930s.

In the early 1920s, Auburn almost went bankrupt; in fact, from 1920-24, only 15,717 cars were sold. By 1924, the company’s storage lots were crammed with unsold cars.

Cord knew that Auburns needed sizzle

Hotshot 29-year-old salesman E.L. Cord thought he knew what to do. The company hired him as a top-level manager, but he set the employment conditions. He demanded that if he succeeded, he’d get 20% of the profits and complete control of the company. He also won the option to buy the company once it recovered. The partners, on the verge of bankruptcy, took the deal.

Cord knew that his cars needed sizzle. When he took over in 1924, sales had fallen to a critical level, so he gave the 700 cars piling up in Auburn’s storage yards stylish paint schemes and extra nickel plating. It worked, and he moved the iron. Cord became VP and General Manager, and under his guidance, Auburn concentrated on style. As a result, 1925 sales increased fifteen-fold.

With designs appropriate to the Roaring ’20s, 1929 was Auburn’s best year, but then the Great Depression hit and 1930 sales were off 35%. But 1931’s all-new styling by the talented designer Al Leamy was well received, and with attractive pricing the company reported a 159% increase over 1930. Not bad in a year when industry sales were down by half.

By 1932, the company needed something new to stimulate demand. The multi-cylinder wars of the early 1930s saw many companies struggling to keep up with changing technology. Auburn answered this by adopting Lycoming’s monstrous V12 engine, which featured a 45-degree vee configuration and twin carburetors. The engine weighed 1,096 lb but its 160 hp matched the output of the larger Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and Franklin V12s and easily bested the 135-hp and 125-hp Cadillac and Lincoln V12s.

Still the cheapest 12-cylinder car ever

As a kicker, Columbia Axle contributed a superb Dual Ratio rear axle with 4.54 low and 3.00 high ratios, allowing both great acceleration and low-rpm fast cruising. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes and adjustable shocks were included, and the technology was offered at an incredibly low price-under $1,000 for a sedan. It remains the cheapest 12-cylinder car ever produced. Comparable Packards and Cadillacs cost over $3,500.

Despite these brilliant innovations, there was little demand. Sales for 1932 were down to 11,000, from 32,000 in 1931-a 66% drop. But 1933 was even worse, falling to 4,814 cars, and the V12 was dropped for ’34. However, about 225 V12s were assembled, using leftover 1933 engines and bodies.

In an attempt to revive sales, the 8-cylinder cars got Auburn’s first all-steel bodies and all-new styling in ’34. The styling was controversial; many dealers hated the new cars and the public stayed away. But the 1934 V12s were identical to the 1933s, with conventional wood and steel construction. For some extra jazz, the 1934 V12s were only produced with Salon trim, which had been a $350 option on the Custom of 1933.

While the 1934 V12 cabriolets are undeniably rare, all four built have survived. However, the same body style is available in other years and with engine choices; about 38 V12 cabs were made in 1933 and between 20 and 30 in 1932. So the cabriolet V12 style is not as rare as the catalog implied.

Still, in two and a half years, only about 2,250 V12 Auburns were produced in all six body styles, and survival has not been outstanding. At the last two ACD Festivals in Auburn, Indiana, there were only 24 V12s of all body styles, with only two 1933 and one 1934 V12 cabriolets among 214 cars judged. So, if you fall in love with the 1934 Auburn Cabriolet body style but don’t want to pay the price, there are nearly identical predecessors for lesser amounts.

With great acceleration for the period, smooth power from the V12, and capability to keep up with modern traffic, these are desirable Full Classics. Stan Gilliland, the ACD Club historian, who has been restoring Cords and Auburns for many years, believes the Auburn’s are greatly underrated, considering their technology.

The magic of the V12 makes the difference

Gilliland estimates the V12 engines may have put out as much as 200 hp, and after he installs a blueprinted and balanced V12 with newer parts like Carrillo rods and Arias pistons, the cars have a top speed close to 100 mph. The same cabriolet body style with the smooth and relatively powerful straight-8 in the same condition as this car normally sells for $80,000-$100,000, so it’s the magic of the V12 that commands this price.

At $253,000, the price was perhaps on the high side. In 2007, a 1933 12 cabriolet that was ACD-certified and had won its share of trophies was advertised in the club newsletter for $210,000 (another good reason to join the club of marques you are interested in).

Even at $253,000, this 1934 Auburn 1250 Salon Cabriolet is still less than half the price of some Packard V12 cabriolets. And V12 Auburns are likely to appreciate; Gilliland had a chance to buy this car in Lancaster, California, in 1976 but turned it down. It was rough and the asking price was only $16,000-though the market was perhaps half that. But then, how many times have we all done exactly the same thing-passed on a car for what seemed like too much money back then, only to see it explode in value later?

Even if not a bargain, the relative rarity, drivability, and mechanical uniqueness of this Salon Cabriolet make it a significant addition to any collection.

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