The Central Manufacturing Co. of Connersville, Indiana is remembered today as one of Errett Lobban Cord’s in-house coachbuilders who created closed bodies for Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg.
Although Cord is the individual who's commonly associated with Central Manufacturing, in reality he had very little to do with the firm other than heading the holding company that owned it. Credit for the long-term success of the firm should be given to its founder. E.W. Ansted (1852-1917).
Edward Willard Ansted was born on January 24, 1852 in the village of Clayton, Jefferson County, New York. His father was the northern New York community’s blacksmith and at the age of 18, Ansted was apprenticed to the Gananoque Spring & Axle Co. of Gananoque, Ontario, Canada. Gananoque was a small city located 15 miles to the north of Clayton, just across the St Lawrence Seaway, the natural border that divides the United States and Canada. During his two years at Gananoque, Ansted was schooled in all aspects of wagon spring and axle design and manufacture and became close friends with another apprentice named Michael Higgins.
When their apprenticeship was completed, the pair moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan where two journeyman positions awaited them at the Kalamazoo Spring & Axle Co. After five years Higgins left to take a position as a foreman at Bridgeport, Connecticut Axle factory, while Ansted stayed at the Kalamazoo works, eventually becoming one of the plant’s foremen.
In 1882, Ansted left Kalamazoo to become the plant manager of the Wisconsin Hinged Spring Co. of Racine, Wisconsin. When that firm failed in 1884, Ansted and Higgins purchased some of its assets and organized the Ansted & Higgins Spring Company.
The leased a plant at Racine Junction, and began manufacturing their own patented line of wagon and carriage springs. The marketplace eagerly accepted their new products and the firm experienced a sustained period of growth.
In 1889 Ansted & Higgins won a large contract to supply springs for the Parry Manufacturing Company, who at that time was the world’s largest manufacturer of spring wagons and buggies. The contract necessitated the establishment of a branch factory in Indianapolis and Ansted moved to Indiana to oversee its operation.
Two years later Anted & Higgins’ Indianapolis plant was relocated to John B. McFarlan’s industrial park in Connersville, Indiana, a mid-sized carriage building community located halfway between Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio.
In 1893, the two longtime friends dissolved their partnership, with Higgins retaining the Racine, Wisconsin plant and Ansted the new facility in Connersville. Higgins’ Wisconsin firm was reorganized as the Higgins Spring & Axle Company and Ansted named his concern the Ansted Spring and Axle Company.
The Ansted Spring and Axle Company plant was located along Columbia Ave just north of W. Mount St. where it supplied its patented Swan Loop Springs and axles to the Rex, McFarlan and Connersville Buggy Companies. Ansted Spring’s most poplar product, the Swan Loop Buggy Spring, proved popular with many of the nations buggy manufacturers. The firm shipped 1,200 tons of springs per year and held a number of patents on springs and spring manufacturing devices. A 1913 article in the Indianapolis Sunday Star announced that the firm purchased $105,000 of new equipment in that year alone.
Another E.W. Ansted-controlled firm, the Indiana Lamp Company was built next door to Ansted Spring & Axle in 1904. Indiana Lamp supplied carriage lamps to the regions coachbuilders and automobile manufacturers.
On April 7, 1898, just three years after his arrival in Connersville, Ansted organized the Central Manufacturing Company to manufacture millwork, wooden bodies and seating for the city’s numerous carriage and buggy manufacturers. Automobile body production started in 1903 and by 1904 Central was supplying automobile bodies in-the-white to Cadillac, Packard and Studebaker. One of their most popular early automobile bodies was the rear entrance tonneau, a body style introduced on the 1903-1904 single cylinder Cadillac Model A.
Another Central innovation, the seamless metal seat, found favor with the regions many buggy and automobile manufacturers, and they soon applied the technology to their metal clad, wooden-framed automobile bodies, which debuted in 1905.
Ansted toyed with the idea of manufacturing his own automobile, and a prototype was built in the latter half of 1905. On October 27, 1905, a $100,000 fire ravaged the 123 West Seventh St. plant of the Central Mfg. Co., destroying the prototype. Plans for the vehicle were shelved and the firm relocated to a new 620’x 60’ building located eleven blocks to the north in the 700 block of West 18th Street.
From 1905 to 1906, Central manufactured mostly all-wooden automobile bodies, but starting in 1907 production became focused on metal-clad, wooden-framed bodies and the firm’s all-wooden bodies were quickly phased out. A new 142’ x 76’ structure was built during 1907 to accommodate the firm’s growing metal body business.
Sales increased and in 1908 a 236’ x 76’ addition was built just to the north of the 1907 structure. In 1910, a 240’ x 76’ addition was built to the south of the 1907 construction and in 1912, a 192’ x 76’ addition was added to it, creating a 810’ x 76’ building that closely matched the original x 620’ x 60’ building constructed in 1906.
By 1913, Central was supplying coachwork to as many as 25 automobile manufacturers, 17 of them based in Indiana. During the year Central built a 150’ x 40’ structure to house the firm’s blacksmith shop and a separate 240’ x 60’ structure to house the firm’s new metal stamping presses.
The additional construction gave the firm a total of 150,000 sq.ft. of floor space and the Central Manufacturing complex now occupied the entire parcel of land on the north side of West 18th St. west of N. Illinois Ave. A pair of railroad sidings - one for each branch of the factory - entered the plant from the east, and connected to a spur of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad. In 1910, the Lexington Automobile Company was lured from its home in Lexington, Kentucky by the Connersville Commercial Club who promised them a new factory, free water, and a 5-year moratorium on local taxation. The Lexington plant was built on the west side of Columbia Ave, on the north side of W 18th St. just west of Central Manufacturing in Connersville’s McFarlan Industrial Park.
Despite favorable reviews and notable appearances at the 1912 Glidden Tour and Indianapolis 500, by the end of the year sales and financing difficulties arose and the creditors were called in. Ansted’s Farmers and Merchants Trust Co. held the mortgage on the firm’s factory, so a re-organization was initiated and Ansted’s 26-year old son Frank B. Ansted put in charge.
Following his graduation from high school in 1904 Frank B. Ansted entered the law department of the University of Michigan and following his graduation in 1907 went to work for Farmers and Merchants Trust Company as its vice-president and counsel. In 1911 he took control of the Indiana Lamp Co. as its manager and vice-president. While working for his father’s bank, Frank dabbled in automotive sales, establishing a small firm that grew to become Connersville’s largest automobile dealer, the Inland Motor Sales Corp.
Just a few months earlier Ansted had negotiated a deal with a Chicago distributor named Howard who was interested in producing his own assembled 6-cylinder automobile. The vehicle, which was called the Howard Six, was to be built in a portion of the Lexington factory by a new Ansted-controlled firm, the Central Car Company.
However, the impending bankruptcy of the Lexington concern resulted in a slight change of plans and the Central Car Company was scrapped and reorganized as the Lexington-Howard Company in January of 1914. Capitalized at $150,000, the new firm would manufacture both the Lexington Four and the Howard Six. Edward W. Ansted, was president and Frank B. Ansted, vice-president and manager.
Distribution for the Howard Six ended in 1915 and the Lexington-Howard Co. was reorganized as the Lexington Motor car Company. The Howard Six became the all-new Lexington Minute-Man Six, and was immediately accepted by the auto buying public.
Following the sudden death of Edward W. Ansted in 1917, his sons assumed control of his various operations. William B. Ansted took over Central Manufacturing, Frank B. Ansted became president of Lexington , George W. Ansted, Lexington’s vice-president and Arthur A Ansted, president of Indiana Lamp Co.
In the first two decades of the 20th century Edward W. Ansted had either created or reorganized some of Connersville’s largest businesses, including: the Ansted Spring and Axle Company; the Central Manufacturing Company; the Lexington-Howard Company; the Indiana Lamp Company; the Connersville Wheel Company; the Dan Patch Novelty Co.; the Rex Buggy Company; the Hoosier Castings Company and the Hoosier General Construction Co.
Ansted also held a controlling interest in the Ansted & Burk Milling Company, of Springfield, Ohio, and was president of the Farmers and Merchants Trust Company of Connersville, a member of the board of directors of the Fayette National Bank (West Virginia & Kentucky) and president of the Glenwood State Bank (Iowa).
After enumerating the various concerns with which Mr. Ansted is connected in his book, Hundred Point Men, Elbert Hubbard commented, "When you want things done, call on a busy man - the other kind has no time."
Lexington built GMC trucks for the Army during the World War I with Central Manufacturing supplying the bodywork. Central also manufactured US Army cartridge storage cases during the War and following the end of hostilities was back producing auto bodies for Apperson, Auburn, Cole, Davis, Durant, Elcar, Empire, Gardner, Greenville, Haynes, H.C.S., Lexington, Moon, National, Overland, Paige, Premier, Stutz, Wescott, and many others.
During the teens Ansted Spring and Axle turned to the manufacture of leaf springs for the automobile industry. Ansted Vehicle Springs were distributed nationwide through the Standard Parts Co. of Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1916, Indiana Lamp Co. relocated to a new 70,000 sq. ft. factory at 2000 Illinois Avenue, just north of Central Manufacturing Co. In 1917, Central Manufacturing Co. experienced another fire that partially destroyed a portion of one leg of the factory, but the firm had the plant rebuilt in a few short weeks.
In 1918 the Ansted Engineering Company was formed to acquire the Teetor-Hartley Motor Corp. (founded 1895) of Hagerstown, Indiana. In 1919, a new 85,000 sq. ft. building was erected just north of the Lexington plant to house the Ansted Engine Company.
In 1920, Frank B. Ansted reorganized a number of the family’s businesses under one holding company, the Untied States Automobile Corporation with a capitalization of $10 million. The new firm included the Lexington Motor Car Company, the Ansted Engineering Company, the Connersville Foundry Corp. and the Teetor-Hartley Motor Corp.
Central Manufacturing remained independent, as the bulk of its business was unrelated to Lexington.
In December of 1921 Ansted Engineering received an order for 30,000 6-cylinder engines from Durant’s Muncie, Indiana plant. Durant was elected to board and ended up with a controlling interest in the firm. At the same time Ansted was experiencing some bad publicity due to a lawsuit filed by Alanson P Brush, of Brush Runabout fame (1907-1913), who was now a consulting engineer to General Motors. Burch alleged that Ansted Engineering’s products were infringing on a number of his patents.
The post-war recession was causing problems across the entire automotive industry and sales of the Lexington automobile fell dramatically in 1922. According to the 1922 Fitch Bond Book, on March 1, 1922 Lexington floated a $1,500,000 bond whose purpose was to “…make available for capital the money owed the Lexington Motor Car Company by Ansted Engineering Co. and to provide additional funds for general corporate purposes.”
Not surprisingly, the sale was unsuccessful and April of 1923 both Ansted Engineering and Lexington entered into receivership. Shares in the firm’s parent company, the United States Automotive Corporation, capitalized at $10 million just three years earlier, became worthless overnight.
Things were not going well at the cornerstone of the Ansted family’s Connersville business empire either, and on November 1, 1924, the Ansted Spring & Axle Co. was sold to Robert W. Doepke of Cincinnati, Ohio. Doepke reorganized it as the Connersville Steel Products Company on September 10, 1926. Deokpe went out of business during the Depression and the plant was taken over by the Better Connersville Association and sold to the Stant Manufacturing Co. in 1941.
Lexington continued to produce a small number of vehicles between 1924 and 1926 but when the firms’ receivers were unable to show any profit both firm’s properties and assets were sold in November 1926 to a civic group called the Bigger & Better Connersville Committee. A few leftover Lexingtons were face-lifted with new radiator emblems and hubcaps and marketed as Ansteds and Ansted-Lexingtons.
Central Manufacturing Co. might have experienced a similar fate if not for a March 1925 order from the Auburn Automobile Company. Auburn had its origins in the Eckhart Carriage Co. which was formed in 1874 by Charles Eckhart (1841–1915). In 1900 his two sons, Frank and Morris Eckhart, began experimenting with hand-built cars and selling them around Auburn, Indiana. The pair entering the automobile business in earnest during 1903, the year in which the Auburn Automobile Company was established, and after absorbing two other local carmakers, they moved into a larger plant in 1909.
Charles Eckhart passed away in 1915 and the his family elected to liquidate the Eckhart Carriage Co. Due to wartime shortages of materials and declining sales, Morris Eckhart, Auburn’s president and chief shareholder, wanted out of the automobile business and sold his share in the business to a Chicago investment house.
On June 25, 1919, F. B. Hitchcock and Company, a Chicago investment-banking firm organized the Auburn Automobile Company with a capital stock consisting of 10,000 shares of preferred stock valued at $1 million and 30,000 shares of common stock valued at $750,000. The Chicago investors included chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. and Ralph Austin Bard, who later worked for FDR and Harry S Truman as Under Secretary of the Navy.
By 1922, the post war depression was seriously affecting sales so the new owners hired super salesman Roy Faulkner of Cincinnati, Ohio’s Frank Santry Motor Company as Auburn’s sales manager. Despite Faulkner’s innovative advertising, the conservative Auburns stayed firmly planed on the lots of their small network of dealers.
In a last ditch attempt to save their investment, the Hitchcock group brought Chicago’s most accomplished automobile salesman, Errett Lobban Cord to Auburn to see if the operation could be salvaged. Cord, the star salesman at John Quinlan’s Chicago Moon Auto Agency, took his first look at the Auburn plant in June of 1924 and devised a clever plan to turn the firm around.
Cord proposed the following deal whereby he would acquire a controlling interest in Auburn if he could return the firm to profitability. He demanded complete control over the automaker, 20% of the profits and an option to buy out the Hitchcock group’s holdings once the firm became profitable. Following a board meeting in Chicago, the Hitchcock group reluctantly agreed to Cord’s proposal.
In August, 1924, Cord became Auburn’s vice president and general manager. He had Auburn’s unsold inventory repainted in snappy colors and corresponding trim which was highlighted by the addition of a few accessories. Within a few short weeks, the firm’s 1924 inventory was gone and Cord began work overhauling its 1925 lineup.
Cord introduced a new higher-priced line of straight-eight Auburns that would debut later in the year, but soon discovered that Auburn’s antiquated body shop couldn’t supply him with enough bodies for the 1925 model year. In March of 1925 he sent out an inquiry to Central Manufacturing’s William B. Ansted who agreed to supply Auburn with 100 bodies on credit. Although Connersville was located 145 miles to the south of Auburn, a branch line of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad connected the two factories.
Auburn paid Central as promised, and the two firms negotiated an eighteen-month, $1.5 million dollar contract to supply sedan bodies for Auburn’s stylish new 8-88 and 6-66 which debuted in 1925. Both sedans were available with Auburn’s optional ‘Wanderer’ front and rear seats that folded flat providing comfortable accommodations for ‘overnight touring’.
Sales of the Auburns were strong and by November 1, 1925 the Auburn Automobile Company was out of debt and on February 2, 1926 Errett Lobban Cord was elected president of the Auburn Automobile Company at its annual stockholders meeting.
Later that month Automobile Topics reported that:
Under Cord’s guidance, Auburn sales increased by 1,300% during the late twenties and production quickly exceeded the capacity of Auburn’s antiquated facilities in Auburn, Indiana. Cord’s business proposals had been well-received in Connersville, so on August 26, 1926, Auburn purchased the now-idle Ansted Engineering facility from the Bigger and Better Connersville committee. In November Auburn acquired the 135,000 sq.ft. plant of the Lexington Motor Car Company from the same organization.
On October 18, 1926, Time Magazine announced Cord’s acquisition of the Duesenberg Motors Co. Cord explained the Duesenberg takeover to the Indianapolis Star:
Business picked up at Central Manufacturing in direct correlation to Auburn’s increasing sales and by 1927 contracts for Auburn had the plant running at full capacity.
On September, 7, 1927 the Associated Press announced the formation of a $14 million ‘Combine Of Autos’:
The Limousine Body Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, had been building bodies for Auburn since the early 20s and along with the Union City Body Co. of Union City Indiana, supplied Auburn with all of their open bodywork. Limousine did not abandon its business with other manufacturers following the takeover, and in November 1927 started work on a 500 body order for the Gardner Motor Car Co. of St. Louis, Missouri.
In the middle of May, 1928, Cord acquired a controlling interest in Central Manufacturing from the Ansted family and by the end of the year two new additions totaling 110,000 sq.ft. were constructed, creating a 260,000 sq.ft. plant with a production capacity of 400 closed bodies per day.
During 1928 and 1928 Cord spent $2 million renovating Auburn’s Connersville complex and on January 15, 1929, the very first Connersville-built Auburn rolled out of the former Lexington Motor Company plant.
Increasing Auburn sales required more room for storage and on April 1, 1929 Cord bought the vacant McFarlan Motor Co plant, which was conveniently located five blocks south of the Central-Lexington complex. The McFarlan plant was initially used to store upholstery and hardware for Central, but once Auburn manufacturing moved to Connersville, it was used as a storage facility for unsold Auburns and Cords.
On June 14, 1929, Errett Lobban Cord formed the Cord Corporation, a holding company capitalized with $125 million. The Cord Corporation controlled the following subsidiaries: Auburn Automobile, Lycoming Engine, Duesenberg Motors, Central Manufacturing, Limousine Body Co., Saf-T-Cab, Expando and Spencer Heater.
On June 14 1929 the Cord Corporation was organized with capital of $125 million as a holding company to centralize growing activities. Two months later (August 1929), Cord’s self-titled automotive masterpiece, the Cord L-29, started rolling off Cord’s new Auburn, Indiana assembly line.
Credit for the outstanding design of the L-29 is shared by Auburn’s body engineer, John Oswald, and the firm’s new chief designer, Alan Leamy. Oswald designed the L-29’s flowing hood and fenders and Leamy came up with the sloping Duesenberg Model J-influenced radiator housing.
The L-29’s closed bodies were designed by Oswald while Leamy and George McQuerry Jr. of the Walter M. Murphy Co. of Pasadena, California are credited with the design and engineering of the L-29’s open vehicles. 3 closed prototypes were constructed at Central Manufacturing, a close-coupled 4-window, 2-door sedan; a 6-window, 4-door sedan and a 4-window, 4-door brougham that was based on the 6-window body with blanked-in rear quarters. Unfortunately Oswald’s 2-door sedan was axed before production began.
The Limousine Body Co built the two Murphy & Co.-designed prototypes, a spectacular 4-door convertible sedan (phaeton-sedan or 4-door convertible) and the equally impressive convertible coupe (cabriolet or convertible). The phaeton-sedan in particular, looked very much like a Hibbard & Darrin Convertible Sedan that had been exhibited at the previous winter’s New York Auto Salon.
When production began in the fall, only four factory L-29 styles were offered, a six-window sedan, four-window brougham, phaeton-sedan (four-door convertible) and cabriolet (convertible coupe). Oswald’s close-coupled 2-door sedan was axed before production began. Central Manufacturing produced the closed bodies and the Auburn-controlled Limousine Body Co. built the cabriolets and phaeton-sedans.
The most famous L-29 was a one-off built by the Hayes Body Corp. of Grand Rapids, Michigan for its art director, Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. Following a short stint at Vanden Plas in Belgium, deSakhnoffsky emigrated to the United States and was hired by Hayes as their art director in 1929. He like the L-29, but hated the factory body styles, so he designed a striking coupe for his own personal use that won him the Gran Prix at Monaco’s 1929 Concours d'Elegance and the Grand Prix d'Hommeur at the 1929 Beaulieu Concours.
A total of 43 L-29 chassis were bodied by custom coachbuilders. The most memorable L-29 was a beautiful Convertible Victoria that was built by Voll & Ruhrbeck, a Berlin-based coachbuilder who built mainly on Mercedes-Benz, Horch, Maybach and Bugatti chassis. Three custom L-29 Town Cars were built by Walter M. Murphy Co., and a fourth town car by Brunn & Co. of Buffalo, New York.
Murphy’s Philip O. Wright is credited with the designs of the three L-29 town cars that Murphy built for film stars Delores Del Rio, Lola Montez and John Barrymore, plus an L-29 Dual Cowl Phaeton for actress Toby Wing and a blind quarter L-29 sports sedan whose doors opened part way into the roof, as well as a number of Model J Duesenbergs. On a trip to Detroit, Wright had a chance meeting with Cord’s president, Roy Faulkner, who persuaded him to join the automaker’s design staff. The culmination of their chance meeting was Wright’s Cord L-29 speedster, the star of the 1932 auto shows.
The following roster of custom Cord L-29 bodies was prepared for the 1987 Pebble Beach Concours de Elegance:
While working at Hayes, Count Alexis de Sahknoffsky designed the original boat-tailed Auburn Model 8-88 Speedster, which debuted in 1928. Alan Leamy redesigned the body during 1931 and his Model 8-98 Speedster debuted in October, 1931. Auburn’s speedster bodies were built in-the-white by the Union City Body Co in Union City, Indiana and painted and trimmed at Auburn’s Auburn, Indiana plant.
In 1930 Cord went on another buying spree acquiring Columbia Axle Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, Aviation Manufacturing Company of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the Stinson Aircraft Co. of Wayne, Michigan.
In January 1932, Cord formed the Airplane Development Corporation in Burbank, California with Gerard F. Vultee former chief engineer of Lockheed. Following a labor contract dispute, Airplane Development was taken over by Aviation Corp. (AVCO) which was taken over by Cord late in the year.
Despite the fact that the country was in the early days of the Depression, Auburn sales remained strong into 1931, and Central Manufacturing was forced to add a night shift to keep up with demand which increased slightly the following year with the arrival of the new 12-cylinder Auburn Model 180.
The Ansted family sold Indiana Lamp to the Corcoran-Brown Lamp Company of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1931, and the Connersville plant was shuttered the following year. The dust hadn’t yet settled when the plant was purchased by the Steel Kitchens Corporation of Waukegan, Illinois on September 18, 1933. Steel Kitchens relocated to Connersville and manufactured stamped steel sinks, kitchen cabinets and refrigerators cases for a number of national hardware chains and appliance manufacturers.
In the final week of 1930, Cord announced the formation of Century Air Lines, Inc. an air-mail and cargo carrier based out of Chicago. Simultaneously, Stinson Aircraft announced the $3 million sale of 100 Lycoming-powered airliners to Century.
In early 1932, Aviation Corp., (AVCO) the parent company of American Airways, launched a hostile takeover of Cord’s Century Airlines by creating a labor dispute with Century’s pilots. Cord was not amused and spent the next few months secretly purchasing large chunks of Aviation Corp. stock.
At AVCO's fall board meeting, its directors were unpleasantly surprised to learn that Cord was now Aviation Corp’s majority stockholder (34%), which effectively gave him control over Century and American. On August 3, 1933 Cord purchased the New York Shipbuilding Corp. of Camden, New Jersey, and two weeks later purchased a controlling interest in the Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Checker Cab Co.
Although the majority of Cord L-29 bodies were built in Connersville, all L-29s were assembled in Auburn. However, the majority of Auburn production now took place in their Connersville, factory. By 1934 all Auburn production moved to Connersville except for the production of the Speedsters, which were painted, trimmed and assembled in Auburn.
Against the wishes of Limousine Body Co.’s founder, James Bobb (1873-1968), in December of 1933 Cord relocated the firm’s equipment from Kalamazoo to an unused portion of the Central Manufacturing Co. plant in Connersville. The firm’s key employees were invited to move to Connersville, but many of them stayed in Kalamazoo and continued to work for Bobb who started manufacturing furniture in the former blanket plant of the Michigan Buggy Co.
During the mid-thirties Central Manufacturing played a small part in Duesenberg’s in-house LaGrande coach building program and are only credited with three bodies, a pair of SWB SSJ roadster bodies and a leftover boat-tailed L-29 body that was mounted on an SJ chassis. The Union City Body Co. of Union City, Indiana built most of the LaGrande bodies with a further seven furnished by the A.H Walker Co. of Indianapolis, Indiana.
A.H. Walker played a role in the development of the Cord 810-812, which at this time was known as the baby Duesenberg. Walker’s highly skilled craftsmen and low-key operation were well suited to prototype development and it was in the Walker factory that the body for the prototype Cord 810 (Cord E-1) was built using an experimental chassis designed by August Duesenberg.
The coachwork was designed by Gordon Buehrig, who had recently been re-hired by Duesenberg’s Harold Ames to help design a ‘baby Duesenberg’ using components sourced from the Auburn parts bin. The stunning 4-door sedan was completed in ten weeks during the spring of 1934, but was set aside for a number of months while Ames and Buehrig tended to more important matters such as face-lifting the 1935 Auburns.
1935-1937 Auburns continued to roll out of the Connersville factory, but the most valuable body style, the 1935 Model 8-851 and 1936 Model 8-852 (Supercharged) Boat-Tailed Speedsters, continued to be assembled in Auburn using bodies built by the Union City Body Co.
Despite a totally re-designed lineup, things took a turn for the worse in 1935 and Auburn sales fell 30%. However Central Manufacturing kept busy producing stamped steel sinks and kitchen cabinets for the Chicago retailer, Montgomery Ward and during 1935 Central received a number of contracts totaling $1 million.
The Baby Duesenberg project of 1934 was revived during the summer of 1935 as the all-new Cord. Gordon M Buehrig revised the original design for the automobile and Auburn’s body engineers worked overtime producing the drawings needed to produce the dies needed for the 100 prototypes that Cord required for that winter’s (1935-1936) auto shows. At that time, the Automobile Manufacturer's Association required that a manufacturer have at least 100 examples of a vehicle in order to include it in AMA-sanctioned auto shows.
Deep-draw metal stamping was in its infancy and Cord did not have the resources nor the technology to produce the 810s intricate body panels in large single stampings. Consequently, the body engineers created a multitude of small stampings that needed to be soldered together by hand to produce the vehicle’s bodywork.
In order to keep the 100 convertible show cars’ doors in alignment, the prototypes had long braces running underneath the bodywork that kept the cowl securely fastened to the chassis and rear quarters.
Cord and Lycoming’s engineers were also ill-prepared to have the car’s complex FWD V-8 drivetrain sorted out in time for the November shows, so it was decided to exhibit the cars with a “dummy” transaxle. When the cars were shipped to the nation’s various auto shows that winter, they were pushed in and out of the exhibit halls by Union laborers.
The new Cord debuted on November 22, 1935 at the New York Auto Show, and within two weeks over 7500 mailed-in requests for information had been received at the firm’s Auburn headquarters.
For a great many reasons, the 100 convertible show cars were unsalable, so many were salvaged when they returned to Connersville. The paint was stripped off and the several hundred pounds of lead used on each body melted down for reuse. Connersville historian Henry Blommel believed that the remains of some of the prototype bodies were used in a flood control project at the back of Connersville’s Roberts Park. The drivetrains of the remaining vehicles got their drivetrains sorted out and were sold in-house to Auburn executives and employees.
Body engineers eventually worked out most of the problems with the 810’s bodywork and production commenced on the 4-door sedans in early 1936. The convertible sedans and roadsters had vibration and door alignment problems and weren’t ready until later in the year.
Surprisingly, retail sales of the Cord 810 never took off, and during the summer of 1936, Lycoming’s engineers perfected the supercharged Cord V-8 engine and the 1937 Cord 812 debuted in the fall with an optional supercharger. By the time of the 812’s debut most of Auburn’s engineering and design talent had already left to find work elsewhere. Even the 810/812’s namesake and Auburn’s largest shareholder, Errett Lobban Cord, quietly unloaded all of his Auburn stock.
On January 8, 1937, Ab Jenkins announced he was personally supervising the creation of the Mormon Meteor II at the Connersville Auburn factory. The car was originally supposed to have a 200” wheelbase and 2 Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror 12-cylinder engines. However the twin-engine design proved unfeasible and Jenkins built the Mormon II using the chassis and bodywork of the original Jenkins Mormon Meteor I. Assisted by August Duesenberg, Jenkins installed a 700 horsepower Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror 12-cylinder engine in place of the Meteor I’s Duesenberg 8, and ran it at Bonneville in July, 1937. Jenkins was not happy with the car and started production on the all-new Mormon Meteor III in August Duesenberg’s Indianapolis workshop in 1938.
Silver screen cowboy Tom Mix made a much publicized visit to the Connersville Auburn factory in his 1937 Cord 812 convertible on April 22, 1937 where he discussed upcoming projects with Auburn’s president, Roy Faulkner. On October 12, 1940 Mix met his maker in the very same vehicle while driving home from an appearance in Tucson, Arizona.
Of the estimated 3000 Cord 810/812’s produced between November 1935 and August 1937, close to 60% survive today. Only the Duesenberg Model J has a larger survival rate. The beautiful Cord 810/812 proved to be Cord’s swan song, as his automotive empire fell apart midway through 1937.
The Air Mail Act of 1934 prohibited any air mail contractor from holding an interest in any other aviation enterprise, which prompted the restructuring of Cord’s aero empire. Aviation Corp. (AVCO) was required to divest itself of American Airways, which was reorganized as American Airlines, and the Airplane Development Corp became a subsidiary of the Aviation Manufacturing Company, which was a subsidiary of Aviation Corp.
E.L. Cord was noticeably absent from his automotive and aviation empire during 1934 and 1935 as he and his family fled to Great Britain in March of 1934 following a kidnap scare at their Beverly Hills home. He returned to the county early in 1936 to face charges of charges of stock manipulation which were triggered when he sold back his controlling interest in Checker Cab Co. to Morris Markin, which attracted the interest of the Securities & Exchange Commission.
In April of 1937 Cord was admitted to a Chicago, hospital for exhaustion and a few months later Cord sold 342,000 of his 500,000 shares in the Cord Corporation to Victor Emanuel & Co. and Schroder, Rockefeller & Co. Inc two New York investment houses. The remaining 148,000 shares were sold to his friend, Lucius B. Manning, the president of Aviation Corp.
Time Magazine reported on Cord’s SEC difficulties and the breakup of the Cord Corporation in an article called “Cord Out of Cord” which appeared in the Aug. 16, 1937 issue.
The bankers subsequently liquidated all of the firm’s automotive assets and reorganized its aviation subsidiaries as the Aviation and Transportation Corp.(ATCO). In the next few years Victor Emanuel & Co. rebuilt ATCO and AVCO into a money-making organization which delivered it first dividends in 1941.
Although a few Auburn subsidiaries such as Central Manufacturing and Columbia Axle, were still profitable, its parent company suffered major losses during 1935, 1936 and 1937 and Auburn Automobile Co. filed for bankruptcy protection on December, 11, 1937 in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
On June 15, 1938, Detroit’s salvage king, Dallas E. Winslow Inc. purchased the firm’s equipment and remaining parts & inventory from Auburn’s receiver for $85,000. At one time or another, Winslow handled the OEM parts business of Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Franklin, Graham, Hupmobile, Pierce-Arrow and many other defunct auto manufacturers. Winslow also acquired Auburn’s administration building for $25,000 and relocated his operations to Auburn, Indiana. All of the remaining property in Auburn was sold to the Warner Automotive Parts Division of Borg-Warner Corp.
Winslow created the Auburn, Cord Duesenberg Co. in 1938 to provide parts and service to the marques former customers. Large numbers of both Cord and Duesenberg vehicles survived the war and by in the early 1950s, a restoration/repair service was instituted in a portion of the old Auburn factory. In 1960, Glen Pray acquired the business and began the manufacture of “authorized” Auburn Speedster and Cord 810 replicas which continued into the mid 70s.
Auburn’s Connersville holdings met with a different fate. No buyers were forthcoming, so in January, 1938, Federal Judge Thomas D. Slick ordered that Lycoming and the various Connersville divisions retain their properties and reorganize under section 77B of the Federal Bankruptcy Act.
Auburn’s Central Manufacturing Co. division remained profitable during the entire bankruptcy proceedings and continued to produce sheet metal washing machine cabinets, kitchen cabinets and pressed steel sinks for Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck.
Later that year Auburn management purchased the trade name and tooling for the Stutz Package Car from the bankrupt Indianapolis automaker and formed a new subsidiary, the PAC-AGE-CAR Corporation on August 25, 1938 in order to build it. Stutz had filed for bankruptcy on Sept 29, 1937, a few short weeks before Auburn’s filing.
The Package Car was a small urban delivery vehicle that Stutz had introduced in 1937 as an alternative to the much larger milk and bread vans offered by traditional truck manufacturers. Available in a 90” and 116” wheelbase, the clever trucks featured an all-steel unibody and an easily removable rear drivetrain module that could be exchanged in under an hour.
Most of the Connersville factory’s Pac-age-car output was re-branded and sold by Diamond T dealers as the Diamond t Package Car. During its short life (1939-1941) several hundred Package Cars found buyers and at least one 1939 Diamond T is known to exist.
In August of 1938, the Hupp Motor Car Co’s general manager, Norman DeVaux, made inquiries to the Victor Emanuel Co. as to the availability of the Cord 810/812 body dies. On February 8, 1939, Hupmobile took out a $900,000 mortgage with the Lafayette County branch of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (a federal government agency that loaned money to struggling firms during the Depression) and took possession of the 810/812’s body dies and sheet-metal stampings.
DeVaux hired John Tjaarda to re-style the front end of Cord so the body could be fitted on a Hupmobile Senior Six chassis. The repackaged Cord 810/812 emerged as the new Hupmobile Skylark, and four prototypes were built for display at the upcoming fall 1939 automobile shows. The program was approved by Hupp’s board of directors the Cord dies were brought to Hayes’ Grand Rapids plant where they stamped out a trial run of thirty Skylark sedans. The cars were assembled at Hupmobile’s Detroit factory as was a single Skylark Corsair Convertible.
Due to their precarious financial situation, Hupmobile was unable to build any more Skylarks, however DeVaux made a deal with Graham-Paige offering them the dies providing they built them some Skylarks in return. Graham-Paige went for the deal, and in 1940 built 350 Skylark sedans for Hupmobile and 1450 Graham Hollywoods for themselves. Once again, the sheet-metal was produced at Hayes’ Grand Rapids plant using the original Cord stampings which by the end of the run were no longer usable. Unfortunately, neither firm made any money out of their short-term partnership and were both out of the automobile business within the year.
In addition to Package Car production, Central Manufacturing was busy producing a short run of bodies for Howard Darrin. He had recently been awarded a contract to supply Packard with roadster bodies for the new Packard-Darrin Model 1906 convertible. A handful of cars had been built at Darrin’s ‘Darrin of Paris’ shop in Hollywood, California, but he needed a much larger facility to produce the numbers needed by Packard. Darrin’s wooden body dies were shipped to Connersville and production commenced on the Packard-Darrin in early 1939. When Central was awarded the Jeep body contract in May of 1941, production of the Packard-Darrin moved to Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, Ohio. Only a handful of Packard-Darrins were built in Cincinnati before the war prematurely ended the project.
During 1939 Auburn’s attorneys and directors worked fervently to come up with a feasible reorganization plan and on April 20, 1940 Federal Judge Thomas D. Slick approved the plan which was supported by a 57% of Auburn’s 3,500 stockholders. The plan called for Auburn and Central Manufacturing to merge their assets, and the resulting firm, the Auburn Central Manufacturing Corporation was organized on May 14, 1940. Shareholders would receive one share of Auburn-Central stock for every 10 shares of Auburn they held.
Harry Woodhead, the president of Aviation Manufacturing and chairman of the Vultee Aircraft Company, was elected president of Auburn-Central Manufacturing in December of 1940, and the following February, they began building wing assemblies for the Vultee A-31 Vengeance, an early World War II dive bomber originally developed for the RAF.
On March 10, 1941, Auburn-Central was awarded a contract to produce 1,600 Jeep bodies for Willys Overland Motors, and by the end of April, Auburn-Central built Jeep body tubs were used in Willys’ Toledo, Ohio assembly plant. Auburn-Central’s president, Harry Woodhead, was replaced by Gaunders P. Jones on June 23, 1941 and the firm continued its preparations to gear up for wartime production.
On August, 4, 1941, Willys-Overland ordered another 16,000 Jeep bodies from Auburn-Central, which was followed up in November by another order for 11,000 units. Auburn-Central’s board of directors made a patriotic gesture on March 30, 1942 when they renamed the firm the American-Central Manufacturing Co. Production of all consumer-destined steel products was halted and the firm devoted itself to military products.
For the remainder of hostilities, American Central manufactured Jeep bodies, ¼ ton Bantam trailers, and wing assemblies, bomb bay doors, gun turret decks, collector rings, and carburetor air ducts for the Consolidated-Vultee B-24 Liberator Bomber, a product of the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, commonly known as Convair, which resulted from a 1943 merger between Vultee and Consolidated Aircraft. Over 18,000 B-24 Liberators were built during the war, making it the most popular bomber of World War II.
From the fall of 1943, when they started supplying Jeep tubs to Ford, through 1948, Central Manufacturing was the sole producer of Jeep bodies. A composite Jeep tub that combined the best features of the Ford and Willys-Overland tubs began production in January of 1944.
As the 325,000th Jeep body was mounted to a waiting Willys chassis, the employees of American Central were awarded with the coveted Army-Navy “E” Award in a special ceremony that took place on July 22, 1944. The plant’s other accomplishments included the completion of 200,000 Bantam ¼-ton trailer bodies and the countless wing sub-assemblies that had been produced for the B-24 Liberator and Vultee A-31 Vengeance.
In a sign of good faith, Willys-Overland ordered 25,000 post-war Jeep bodies from Central on August 23, 1944.
The employees of American-Central received their second Army-Navy “E” award on January 16, 1945. The E-award was the Army-Navy Award for Excellence in War Production and was normally awarded when a firm completed a large order for the US War effort or filled an order in a short period of time.
At the ceremony, the employees would be given an enameled pin mounted on a card certifying their contribution to the war effort with a message from the president. The employer would be presented with an “E’ flag and banner and outstanding employees would be presented with a special certificate.
When the war started, another Connersville firm, Steel Kitchens Corp., formed SKC Aviation and began producing military aircraft parts and subassemblies. They were awarded with an Army-Navy “E” Award on November 26, 1943. The Steel Kitchens plant was located directly to the North of the American-Central factory and originally housed the Indiana Lamp Co. a firm that shared its ancestry with American-Central.
On February 27, 1945, the American Central Manufacturing Co purchased the SKC Aircraft/Steel Kitchens plant from its owners, Sam and Ira Block. American Central converted the plant back to the manufacture of stamped-metal appliances and began manufacturing refrigerators for the Admiral Corporation of Chicago, Illinois.
Refrigerator manufacturing required an expensive porcelain-enameling system which American-Central installed in the former Ansted Engineering plant, which was located north of the Auburn/Cord assembly plant.
The first Admiral refrigerator rolled out of the former Steel Kitchens plant that fall and on October, 23, 1945 it was presented to the Governor, Ralph Gates, for use in the Indiana State House. By early 1946, a large portion of the American-Central plant had been converted over to the manufacture of porcelain enameled steel sinks and kitchen cabinets.
In an ironic twist of fate, on November, 26, 1946 the entire American-Central operation was purchased by Aviation Corp. (AVCO), the very firm that had purchased the Cord Corporation from Errett Lobban Cord 9 years earlier. All the former American-Central operations were re-christened the American Kitchens division of AVCO Manufacturing.
By 1948 American had long completed its wartime contracts for Jeep bodies, but received a new order for an additional 45,000 bodies on December, 14, 1948, bringing the total number of Military Jeep tubs produced in Connersville to 445,000.
Excerpted below is a portion of an American Central Visitor’s Brochure dated 1948:
In addition to Admiral Refrigerators, American Kitchens manufactured kitchen sinks, faucets, kitchen shelving, and modular kitchen base & wall cabinets. AVCO had purchased the Crosley Appliance Co. from its founded Powell Crosley Jr. in 1945. During the early 50s AVCO introduced their Crosley Kitchens line of metal kitchen cabinets and appliances in the early 50s. The Crosley kitchen cabinets were built alongside the firm’s American Kitchens products in Connersville.
In the early 50s AVCO Manufacturing introduced a line of prefabricated gasoline service stations that were built in the American Kitchens plant in Connersville, and Crosley Kitchens automatic dishwasher was added to the American Kitchens assembly line at about the same time.
In the mid-50s American Kitchens expanded their dishwasher business and began selling re-branded units to the Sears, Roebuck Co., Whirlpool and Westinghouse. However, competition from AVCO’s other appliance divisions hurt them in the marketplace, and they struggle to find new avenues of distribution. By the late 50s, AVCO Manufacturing’s dishwashers held a paltry 11% share of the market and Sears was being courted by Whirlpool, who had recently announced they were getting into the dishwasher business.
AVCO’s appliance division had also started losing money, and the Connersville facility was underutilized. AVCO quietly let it be known that the Connersville operation was for sale.
On January 1, 1959, Sam Regenstrief (1911-1988) purchased the bulk of AVCO’s Connersville operations for $2.6 million. He bought the former plants of the Central Manufacturing Co., Indiana Lamp Co. and Anstead Engineeering Co. Regenstrief down $500,0000 in cash and AVCO agreed to finance the rest.
Regenstrief was a marketing genius who had amassed a small fortune while serving as president of the Rex Manufacturing Co and vice-president of Philco. The opportunities that presented themselves in the poorly marketed American Kitchens line were too much to resist and he decided to purchase the company after taking a tour of he plant in 1958.
Regenstrief assumed the presidency of Connersville’s Rex Manufacturing Co. in 1939. Rex was still owned by members of the Ansted family and had progressed from manufacturing convertible tops to producing stamped steel refrigerator cabinets for Philco and Stewart Warner. He turned the floundering firm around and in 1944, it was taken over by Philco.
At Philco Regenstrief became vice-president of their refrigeration division, then later on senior vice-president of the entire appliance division. After being passed over as Philco’s president, he resigned when Philco announced their pending merger with the Ford Motor Co in 1958.
When he took over American Kitchens, it employed 2,500 and the plant consisted of 920,000 square feet of space spread across 93 acres. Regenstrief named his new firm the Design and Manufacturing Corporation (D&M).
The Architectural Products Division of the H.H. Robertson Company purchased the last remaining property, originally the Lexington Motor Car Co., on February 8, 1960.
D&M decided to concentrate on dishwashers and by the end of the decade, they were manufacturing re-branded portable and undercounter units for Sears, Philco, Admiral, Kelvinator, Hotpoint, Frigidaire, Chambers and Preway. By 1972, D&M controlled 25% of the nation’s dishwasher market.
D&M purchased the former Crosley appliance plant in Richmond, Indiana from AVCO in 1975. By the time of his death Sam Regenstrief had amassed a $50 million fortune which passed to the Regenstrief Foundation when he died in January of 1988. Design & Manufacturing’s assets were sold to White Consolidated Industries in 1987 and the firm was dissolved in 1990.
Today the Regenstrief Foundation funds the Regenstrief Institute, a 25-year old health research foundation located on the Indiana University School of Medicine campus that is dedicated to the study and improvement of health and health care delivery.
The Ansted family continued to be involved in the automobile business as late as the mid-1960s. William B. Ansted Jr. the son of Central Manufacturing Co.’s president, campaigned a Kurtis Kraft 500/Offy racecar called the Ansted Rotary Special at the Indianapolis 500 in the late 50s (1955-1963) and early 60s and co-owned A.J. Foyt’s Indy entries in the mid-to-late 60s (1965-1966) with Shirley Murphy.
Most of the Connersville buildings originally built by Edward W. Ansted survive today, however they’ve all been altered, many with unsightly corrugated metal siding and non-original roofs and additions. The only recognizable structure is the former Lexington/Auburn factory.
Thankfully, the Indiana Historical Society has saved the gorgeous art-deco Auburn Automobile headquarters in Auburn, Indiana. Today it’s the home of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, one of a handful of original American automobile manufacturing plants that exists in its original state.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com