Published Jul/Aug 2006

Explore Indiana’s rich automotive heritage at these three museums.
Story and Photos By Tom Reed

Indiana once rivaled Michigan as an automobile manufacturer. More than 400 makes were produced in the state at one time or another, ranging from obscure short-lived brands to classic nameplates like Studebaker, Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Stutz and Marmon.

Those companies are long gone, but the state’s automotive heritage is kept alive in museums in South Bend, Auburn and Indianapolis.

Studebaker National Museum

The Studebaker National Museum (201 S. Chapin St.) moved into a magnificent new building in South Bend in late 2005, its collection of 130 vehicles having outgrown its former quarters in an old automobile showroom.

Studebaker was the longest surviving “made in Indiana” brand. The company closed its South Bend assembly line in 1963, although it struggled on for three more years in Canada.

Long before the automobile age, Studebaker became the world’s largest maker of horse-drawn equipment. Among the carriages on display are four built for U. S. presidents. The most notable of these, the one used by Abraham Lincoln, was not built by Studebaker, but was acquired later for the company’s collection.

You’ll see the company’s first horseless carriage (a 1902 electric vehicle), its first gasoline-powered car (1904) and several cars from the 1920s and 1930s. One of them, a yellow 1935 Commander Roadster, was used in the 1985 film, “The Color Purple.”

In 1947, Studebaker came out with a new design, claiming to be “first by far with a postwar car.” Some of these are grouped around a re-created drive-in restaurant of the 1950s.

An eye-catching display window, visible from the outside, showcases a bright red “bullet nose” 1950 Champion convertible on a revolving turntable. Thanks to the innovative styling, 1950 became the peak year for Studebaker sales. But it was downhill after that, although the company made a big splash with the introduction of the 1963 Avanti.

The end of production in 1963 took a personal toll on people like Ron DeWinter, whose father worked at Studebaker for 35 years.

“I only saw my father cry twice,” he said. One of those times was when the plant closed. DeWinter, a member of the museum board, said the museum counterbalances the Studebaker community’s memory of the painful plant closing and subsequent loss of jobs.

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum

The Auburn Automobile Company grew out of the Eckhart Carriage Company. How it evolved into the producer of three classic nameplates is the story told at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum (1600 South Wayne St.) in the northeast Indiana town of Auburn.

The museum displays about 120 cars on two floors of the company’s former headquarters and factory showroom.

The Auburn line is represented by several cars that date back to the oldest surviving model, built in 1904. Perhaps the most visually stunning is the boat tail Speedster of the mid-1930s.

The company was sold to Chicago investors in 1921, and new owners brought in a dynamic young sales executive named E. L. Cord to turn things around. He did so in a big way. Finding 700 unsold black cars in stock, he ordered them painted bright colors and slashed prices to move them off the lot. In short order, he gained control of the company, acquired the Duesenberg Company of Indianapolis and inaugurated a completely new line called the Cord.

You’ll see several models of the innovative Cord. The L-29, introduced in 1929, was America’s first front-wheel drive production car. Car lovers fondly remember the futuristic Cord 810 from 1936, though it was not a commercial success.

In the 1930s, the Duesenberg Model J was considered the ultimate luxury car, inspiring the phrase “It’s a Duesy” as a synonym for top of the line. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Duesenbergs on display to the public.

The museum’s Timothy S. Durham Gallery of Classics tells the story of the cars that were competitors to the Duesenberg. Another gallery showcases important cars that came later, including the Lincoln Zephyr, the Corvette, the Thunderbird and the 1957 Chevy. The newly redesigned Lincoln Financial Group Foundation “Cars of Indiana” Gallery features 16 Hoosier nameplates, including Duesenberg, Studebaker and Marmon.

Over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31–Sept. 4, the 50th anniversary of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival will take place in Auburn. Activities include a car show, auction and tours. The Parade of Classics will be at 12:45 p.m. on Sept. 2 through downtown Auburn. After the parade, the cars will be parked along Courthouse Square for viewing. For a full schedule, contact the festival office at (260) 925-3600, or visit online a www.acd festival.org.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall
of Fame Museum

Indianapolis was home to 38 manufacturers, including important makes such as Cole, Duesenberg and Stutz.

Automobile manufacturing, not racing, gave birth to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the early part of the last century, manufacturers used the open roads to test their cars, but as automobiles became more complex and speedier, the unpaved roads of the era were simply not adequate. So a group of investors built the track in 1909.

Donald Davidson, track historian, said races were held there occasionally, “but it wasn’t built as a racetrack per se. It was built as a testing facility.”

The museum (4790 W. 16th St.), located on the Speedway grounds, is primarily devoted to racecars, including more than 30 Indy 500 winners. But several Indiana-built passenger cars are among the 75 vehicles on display, including a 1927 Duesenberg Model-A that belonged to Augie Duesenberg, one of the founding brothers.

Topping the museum’s list is the Marmon Wasp that Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first 500-mile race in 1911. Harroun was the first to drive in a major event without the assistance of a riding mechanic. When other drivers objected that he might not be aware of cars overtaking him, he installed what is believed to be the first rearview mirror on any car.

To get a better feel for the rich history of the Indianapolis 500, watch the 20-minute highlight film in the museum’s 48-seat theater.

And allow time to take a spin around the track. Sorry, you can’t drive your own car. But you can take an optional bus tour operating daily–except Christmas–weather and racing or testing schedules permitting.

Tom Reed is a contributor from North Olmsted, Ohio.

Above: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum is on the grounds of the famous racetrack.

Right: The bullet nose of 1950 became Studebaker’s most iconic design element.

Before You Go
For more information contact:

• Studebaker National Museum, 1-888-391-5600, or www.studebakermuseum.org. AAA members receive 10 percent off $8 admission.

• Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, (260) 925-1444, or www.acdmuseum.org. AAA members receive $2 off $8 admission.

• Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, (317) 492-6784, or www.indianapolismotor

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