Hollywood A-Lister The tragic Auburn 851 Speedster that inspired hot-rods Having experienced everything from tragedy to pioneering greatness, this customised Auburn 851 Speedster’s life makes for an incredible story. But it doesn’t end there – you could write its next chapter, if you’re lucky. Words Sam Dawson. Photography Si Gray.
On the road in the tragic heiress’ Auburn Speedster that wowed Hollywood
Glamming it up in an heiress’ Auburn
Is it possible to improve on perfection? Obviously the definition of what’s perfect lies in the eye of the beholder, but by anyone’s measure Gordon Buehrig’s Auburn 851 Speedster design must be a high-watermark of the art-deco era. It successfully treads a fine line between the creeping-ivy art-nouveau hangover of the French deco interpretation and the bolder, more Egyptian-influenced American take, avoiding both fiddly intricacy and heavy brashness alike. Everything – grille, wings, tail, headlights, windscreen – swells and tapers with beautifully judged precision. Look at one and it’s hard to imagine how any potential alteration could be considered an improvement.
‘It’s a car built for a world with nothing coming the other way’
And yet, consider this one. At first glance, unusual Woodlite headlights aside, it’s Buehrig business as usual, all raked-back and boat-tailed. Look closer though, perhaps with a photo of a standard-bodied Speedster to hand for comparison, and something altogether more sublime coalesces before you. Four chromed pipes sprout from the left-hand side of the engine bay and plunge into the inside-edge of the front wing through teardrop-shaped channels. Those wings are longer, carrying an even more pleasing sense of flow back towards the doors. The trailing edges of the bonnet have been reprofiled on each side to mirror the curvaceous leading-edge of the suicide-doors. The clunky-looking external hinges are gone, as is that club door usually sullying the flanks of an Auburn Speedster.
‘It lived two lives in the Gershwin-soundtracked limelight of Thirties New York and Hollywood’
But it’s at the rear where the differences are most pronounced, albeit subtly. Again, the teardrop-shaped wings are longer, making the standard car’s seem dumpy by comparison. But the chrome furniture adorning the rear deck is all gone. The heavy fuel-filler cap has been resited beneath an internally-hinged flap, echoing the shape of the wing it sits upon. The brake lights are no longer standalone items but are smoothed into the bodywork. On the left-hand side, the lamp has two lenses – a red brake light to the rear and a frosted white one above to illuminate the numberplate, with all glass sitting seamlessly flush with the surrounding metal. It’s all done so subtly that you’d barely notice unless you study it very carefully, but this car is also a bit wider than a standard 851.
The way this car looks, you could be convinced that this Speedster was Buehrig’s first attempt, an early prototype straight from his drawing board before the realities of engineering Auburn’s 1934 comeback-car for mass-production – the whole point of the 851 being to produce a glamorous luxury roadster in the aftermath of the Great Depression that was actually relatively cheap to build, thus maximising profits – took all the handbuilt touches off. But the reality is that this car began life like any other production-line 851, only to live two incredible lives in the Gershwin-soundtracked limelight of Thirties New York and Hollywood. And Buehrig had absolutely nothing to do with the way it evolved.
Its early life is mired in tragedy. Its original buyer – as a standard Buehrig-bodied 851 Speedster finished in maroon – was New York banker ‘Prince’ Alexis Mdivani, bought as part of an infamous postnuptial spending spree. The urbane, Cambridge-educated Alexis was part of the clan of so-called ‘Marrying Mdivanis’, a wealthy Georgian family of self-styled pseudo-royals, in reality the children of Georgian military General Zakhari Mdivani, who fled the country after the Soviet Union annexed it, inveigling themselves with European and American high society and tactically marrying into some of the world’s richest families. Initially married to Louise Astor van Alen in 1931, Alexis divorced after just two years in order to marry one of the world’s richest women, Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton, following a somewhat cynically engineered meeting in Spain courtesy of Alexis’ sister Roussie. Lavishly wed in June 1933 in St Alexander Nevsky Church in Paris the ersatz Prince suddenly had access to a $1m dowry provided by company founder Frank Woolworth.
This Auburn was one of the last items to be bought by Alexis Mdivani before the pair divorced in March 1935. He barely had time to drive it – Barbara Woolworth Hutton kept custody of the car as she began the ill-fated and abusive relationship with the Danish Count Haugwitz-Reventlow that would ultimately produce her son – Scarab founder and racing driver Lance Reventlow. That summer, while staying with his siblings in Palamos, Spain, Alexis Mdivani was killed in a road accident behind the wheel of his Rolls-Royce Phantom II – a wedding gift from Barbara.
The troubled, grieving Barbara Woolworth Hutton didn’t use the car much, and let it languish. But at some point between 1935 and 1937, Alan Gordon found out about it. Gordon was the proprietor of Gordon Enterprises, large-scale supplier of film cameras, lenses and viewfinders to the Hollywood movie industry, and correspondingly well-connected, a friend of several film stars. Gordon bought the Auburn as a glamorous way of ferrying film stars around Hollywood; but stunning though the standard coachwork was, the alternative-universe of movie-making demanded something more unique and eye-catching. This was the dawn of the custom-car era, and following a tip from his friend Cary Grant, who’d just starred alongside a customised Buick in Topper, Gordon sent the Auburn to the car’s coachbuilders, Bohman & Schwartz of Pasadena, California, in late 1937.
Originally making their names on coachbuilt Lincolns at Murphy in the Twenties, Swede Christian Bohman and Austrian Maurice Schwartz aimed their successor firm squarely at the increasingly flamboyant, movie-fuelled West Coast market, bringing with them such pioneering techniques as the lowered rooflines and bold colour schemes that would mark the dawn of US customising and influence the nascent homespun hot-rodding movement.
Gordon’s instructions to Bohman & Schwartz resulted in something even more outrageous than the car you see here. The extra width, longer wings, cleaner flanks, reprofiled shutlines, reworked exhaust and supercharger pipes and frenched-in rear lights all remain. However, Bohmann & Schwartz’s original design also included a rather corny-looking love-heart-shaped radiator grille, flanked by low-set frenched-in headlights.
Those headlights, complete with their Corcoran Brown art-deco glass lenses, still exist with this car and are so rare as to have been valued at £25,000 alone, but the owner who eventually bought the car from Gordon found the heart-grille a modification too far, returning the grille to Buehrig-style standard, and fitted the car with a set of streamlined art-deco Woodlite narrow beam headlights, and a set of even rarer Woodlite sidelights. A commercial failure, but a classic of streamlined art-deco design, William G Woods’ headlight design wasn’t just designed to be aerodynamic, but also to prioritise distance of light throw over beam width – something they achieved, but not a factor that impressed the American motoring public at the time.
I’m slightly intimidated as I approach the Speedster for a drive. Everything seems to require an extra layer of thought and care, all connected to its precious, unique nature. Although the concealed door hinges look great, you can’t fully open the featherlight aluminium doors or they’ll crunch against the bodywork. I clamber aboard, on to a bench seat knowing full well that the likes of Lana Turner and Cary Grant contributed to creating the wear in its fragile-looking leather.
The supercharged 4.6-litre Lycoming straight-eight fires on the flip of a metal switch attached to a bright-red steering column that adds an unexpected flash of colour to an otherwise monochromatic cockpit. The deep springing of the seat and plentiful legroom makes the car feel comfortable, but both price tag and dimensions are vast and I’m painfully aware of how much respect this car demands of its driver as I gently slot home doglegfirst gear, trying not to think about how this near-two-tonne behemoth relies upon drum brakes to stop it.
I release the clutch gradually, and don’t even think about adding an inch of throttle until it starts to bite. Get it wrong and the Auburn’s getaway will be accompanied either with an uncouth roar or an unseemly judder. There’s plenty of transmission whine at low speeds but beyond 1500rpm, especially when double-declutched up into second gear, working around the lack of synchromesh, a Bentley-like smoothness reveals itself. The engine note lessens into a torquey thrum overlaid with quietly potent supercharger whine, and the ride on the bumpy roads of leafy mid-Cheshire is impressively damped for a car mounted on leaf springs all-round, with no threat of jiggle or ongoing rebound.
But I feel I have to work with the Auburn to maintain its sense of decorum, imagining Alan Gordon honing his techniques on the throttle, gears and brakes for maximum smoothness ahead of chauffeuring the latest in a cavalcade of Hollywood starlets to a film premiere. The steering is truly impressive for a worm-and-peg set-up in an era before power steering. Although there’s a bit of dead-ahead slack and play, there’s a smooth action to it when negotiating tight bends; and it’s unexpectedly wieldy with fewer than four turns lock-to-lock. In fact, bearing the level of satisfying driver involvement in mind amid the refinement, and with that Ab Jenkins-signed dashboard plaque reminding me that at least once in its life it was taken to 100.1mph, it’s safe to say that the Auburn has all the elusive hallmarks of a proper grand tourer.
That said, it’s still a car built for a world with nothing coming the other way. Although the drum brakes are good for their era, they’re only just up to the job of stopping such a heavy car, demanding so much thinking time and distance that any traffic caught behind me soon gets frustrated. The bonnet is getting on for the length of an entire supermini, so pulling out of oblique junctions is as tricky in this car – with its uninterrupted all-round visibility – as in a vision-obscuring Lamborghini Countach. I edge the priceless Woodlite-wearing nose almost blindly into the unknown fray of the A537, with its rumbling HGVs and distracted SUV drivers, my left foot trembling on the delicate clutch, anticipating a cacophony of horns and screeching tyres that thankfully never happens.
The narrow cockpit also plays tricks, making me forget how widely the rear wings flare outwards just outside of my peripheral vision. There are no mirrors besides the tiny, vibrating rear-view one, so to avoid snagging the wings I have to remember to look down at them when taking some of the tighter bends round here, bordered as they are by moss-concealed slabs of stone lurking beneath fronds of bracken and pine.
Despite Barbara Hutton and Alexis Mdivani living in New York City at the time this Auburn was ordered, it doesn’t feel like it would be comfortable shuffling along the streets of the Big Apple, stuck nose-to-tail with squealing trolleybuses and impatient salesmen in battered Ford Model Bs. It needs an open road to make sense. It’s more than just a tool for posturing on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a car for touring the Pacific Highway in; or perhaps spearing across the desert in search of its top speed, shimmering like a mirage as onlookers in one-horse towns stare at it, convinced the woman in the passenger seat with the headscarf and sunglasses was the same person they saw on the big screen at the drive-in last month.
But even the dreamy imagery of Thirties Hollywood somehow sells this car short. Perhaps the most significant parts of its history lie in the curves, lines and precision-finished flush glazing of Christian Bohman and Maurice Schwartz. Frenched lights, streamlining, roof-chops, extreme-angled windscreens and concealed hinges may have begun life as aspects of Hollywood flash, but it was the way they were taken to heart by starstruck home-fettling petrolheads that truly demonstrates the contribution of American custom-coachbuilt cars of this era to car culture at large. You can draw a direct line between this high-society Auburn with its tale of heiresses, European nobility and millionaires, via the likes of George Barris and the idea of a car as the star of a film on near-equal billing with the actors, right through to the blackened lines on tatty downtown dragstrips laid down by thrill-seekers in homemade hot-rods. A potent strand of mass-consumption car-culture began within this Auburn’s intoxicatingly rarefied atmosphere.
Thanks to: Bonhams. This car will be offered for sale at its Bond Street auction on 7 December. Go to bonhams.com to register to bid
Rare and unusual Woodlite headlights replaced a set of even rarer Corcoran Brown units, now valued at £25k. Bohman & Schwartz reworking involved increasing the number of pipes entering the front wing. Steering is surprisingly quick and precise for a large Thirties luxury car. Front end was returned to standard by a later owner who found the heart-shaped grille a modification too far. Auburn is most at home on wide, fast boulevards – with nothing in your way. Looks standard at first glance, but Bohman & Schwartz’s Auburn took each curve to a more elegant conclusion. Cockpit unexpectedly utilitarian; controls need a gentle touch for a smooth drive. Frenched lights and teardrop filler flap are details that would influence hot-rodders.
1935 Auburn 851 Speedster
Engine 4575cc in-line side-valve eight-cylinder, Stromberg downdraught carburettor, Schweitzer- Cummins supercharger
Max power 150bhp @ 4000rpm
Max torque 230lb ft @ 2750rpm
Transmission Three-speed manual with switchable low ratios via Columbia dual-ratio rear axle
Front: semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic dampers
Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic dampers
Brakes Hydraulically-assisted drums front and rear
Top speed: 100mph
Fuel consumption 10mpg
Cost new $2245 (standard coachwork)
Value now £1.2m
OWNING THE BOHMAN & SCHWARTZ AUBURN SPEEDSTER
‘I bought this car on my 28th birthday, in 1989, from Denver, Colorado,’ says the Auburn’s long-term owner, Lawrence Cookson. ‘I’d been over to buy a Ferrari Testarossa and a Lamborghini Countach – both nearly new at the time. The vendor, Steven Connolly, said the owner selling them had a private museum of very special cars, and invited me to a country club to discuss selling some of them. He offered me a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing W198, a 1956 Cadillac and this Auburn.
‘When I was a kid, I had that book A History Of The Motor Car, and knew immediately from my memories of it not only what it was, but also by its design details that it was a one-off. It was serendipity, really. I had never intended to buy it – my focus was on supercars at the time. And yet it’s ended up in my garage for 30 years, such is its appeal. It grows on you.
‘Seven years ago, it had been left in my garage for quite a while, so I decided to get it restored, with Lamborghini High Wycombe handling the bodywork and Nicholson McLaren – a world renowned Lycoming specialist – doing the engine. But the interior was untouched. That leather seat is the same one Lana Turner sat on, so it’d be wrong to lose that. It’s been reliable too – I’ve driven it down to Monaco and in the Alps with no problems at all.’