Simanaitis Says

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WHEELS INSTEAD OF WINGS

E.L. CORD, of Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg fame, exhibited a special-bodied, aerodynamic Auburn Cabin Speedster at the 1929 Los Angeles Auto Show. Inspiration came from Charles Lindbergh who set more than a record in his 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris; he set an air-travel precedent as well. Unlike stereotype aviators braving open cockpits in goggles, scarves, and leather outfits, Lucky Lindy wore a business suit in the closed cabin of his Spirit of St. Louis. It was, in a sense, a civilizing of aviation.

The Auburn Cabin Speedster. This and following images from “Road Plane Flies Again,” by Peter C. Kesling, Automobile Quarterly Vol. 25 No. 3. Photos by Roy D. Query; cutaway by David Kimble.

A Conflagration in Los Angeles. On March 5, 1929, the Auburn Cabin Roadster and some 320 other cars at the Los Angeles Auto Show were destroyed by fire. As Peter C. Kesling wrote, “The show was held in huge tents, and after the canvas was ignited by faulty wiring, the wind swept the flames down from above, devouring the entire show in less than half an hour.”

No lives were lost, but the Auburn Cabin Speedster was one of many casualties in the 1929 Los Angeles Auto Show fire. Photo by “Dick” Whittington.

More than five decades later, the Auburn Cabin Speedster arose phoenix-like from ashes of the auto-show conflagration. Here are tidbits gleaned from Kesling’s article and my usual Internet sleuthing.

The Original. The Cabin Speedster began life as a modified 1929 Cord Model 8-120, the nomenclature suggesting horsepower of its Lycoming eight-cylinder engine. Through clever engineering of its chassis, the car was less than 5 ft. high: Rear halves of two 8-120 frames were employed, the new rear inverted to give underslung mounting of its axle.

Cutaway by artist extraordinaire David Kimble.

A Road Plane with Wings. Attention to aerodynamic details was evident. Door hinges of the Cabin Speedster were recessed, unlike standard practice of the era. Running boards were eschewed. Merely as styling fillips, the front shocks were tapered at their rear and the hood vents were shaped like airfoils.

Kesling cited Cord’s goal of making “a road plane with wheels instead of wings!” The interior of the Cabin Speedster continued this theme, even to incorporating an altimeter and compass among its instruments. Wrote Kesling, “The seats were modified (lowered) versions of the wicker basket-type used on E.L. Cord’s personal plane.”


The aerodynamic shape had its drawbacks, among them extremely limited rear vision through what the company called a periscope. “The tiny window,” Kesling wrote, “nestled in a tubular tunnel where it afforded a field of view too narrow to be of any use whatsoever.”

A Recreated Cabin Speedster. Kesling would know about the lack of rear vision because in 1983 he undertook the task of recreating the Cabin Speedster. The project based on Auburn bits and pieces took extensive research and artful fabrication. Like the original, the new car has two 8-120 chassis halves, the rear one inverted. Its bodywork is aluminum over an ash framework, typical of the era (not to say of Morgans today).

Detective work proved helpful too: Scrutiny of a post-conflagration photo showed that the Cabin Speedster’s body had melted, but its fenders had not, thus confirming their being fabricated of steel.

An Elusive Image. The recreation also confirmed why no more than one Cabin Speedster was built, even though Auburn priced it originally at $3000, later at $2495. After driving the recreated Cabin Speedster, Kesling wrote, “As beautiful as it looks, it is not a practical means of transportation—not even remotely.” The car’s lowering gives it an extremely stiff ride, only exacerbated by its lightweight wicker seating. The cabin, 39 in. high and 40 in. wide, is cramped in all directions and an ergonomic nightmare.

“So,” Kesling concluded, “it remains forever an elusive image, less obtainable and in some ways more exotic than the exciting aircraft that inspired it.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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