While working for E.L. Cord, Alan H. Leamy created some of the most memorable designs of the late 20's and early 30's. Completely self-taught, he was one of a handful of Classic-era designers who got by on the strength of their portfolios. In addition to his brilliant work for Cord (L-29 and '31-'34 Auburn Speedster) he is also credited with styling the Duesenberg Model J. His promising career was cut short in mid-1935 after he became septic following a routine Diptheria vaccination required by General Motors Art & Colour, passing away just one week after his 33rd birthday.
Alan Huet Leamy Jr. was born in Arlington, Baltimore County, Maryland, on June 4th, 1902 to Alan (b. May, 1872 in Maryland – d. May 20, 1959 in Pensacola, Florida) and Margaret (Huet - b. Jan 1874 in New Jersey) Leamy. His father was a manager with the Baltimore sales branch of the Welsbach Co., a Gloucester, New Jersey based firm that held the rights to manufacture incandescent gas goods (mantels, chimneys, etc.) patented by Austrian chemist and inventor Carl Auer Freiherr von Welsbach.
In 1905 his father took a new management position with Welsbach, requiring the family to move to Columbus Ohio. The family’s new home was located at 1153 Fairview Ave, Grandview Heights, (suburb of Columbus), Franklin Township, Franklin County, Ohio.
Coincident with the move to Ohio Alan Jr. was stricken with spinal polio (Poliomyelitis aka infantile paralysis – an acute viral infection that causes permanent asymmetric muscle damage to the legs), and was forced to use a cane and wear a brace on his debilitated left leg for the rest of his life. He attended Grandview Schools until his junior year during which time he developed a keen interest in cars, engineering and architecture.
The 1911 Columbus directory lists the senior Leamy as manager of the Welsbach Co.’s satellite factory and wholesale sales depot, 116-122 E. Chestnut St, Columbus, Ohio. The 1910 and 1920 US Census lists a sister, Margaret (b. 1904 in Pennsylvania) Leamy. A brother-in-law, Frank Huet, was a Welsbach Co. supervisor and stayed in the Leamy household for a number of years.
Despite his significant handicap, young Leamy was a go-getter and after graduation enrolled in an architecture correspondence school (most likely with the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pa.) and upon completion of his course of study was offered a potion with Samuel Bader, a real estate developer located in Ventnor City, New Jersey.
Leamy compensated for his disability through his 'fine sense of sartorial style' and 'meticulous attention to detail'. He was a life-long automobile enthusiast, and learned to drive through an unusual driving technique whereby his debilitated left leg controlled the clutch using his left arm, so adeptly that some passengers were unaware of his impairment.
During his 18-months of employment with Bader he assisted in the design and construction of a row house project in Atlantic City (where Bader’s cousin Edward L. Bader served as Mayor) and became engaged to a Jersey girl named Agnes Iveagh Garrett (b. May 8, 1905 in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Penn. - d. Nov. 1985), the daughter of Sylvester Sharpless and Margaret (Maginnis) Garrett - her father being a partner in the Garrett-Buchanan Paper Co., a large paper products distributor headquarter in Philadelphia, Penn. The young couple was married on August 7, 1925 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In early 1927 his father called in a favor with an old colleague who had subsequently become chief engineer of the Marmon Motor Co. The man was Thomas J. Litle, Jr., the former chief engineer of the Welsbach Co., who had recently served as chief engineer with both the Cadillac and Lincoln Motor Co.’s. He was well-known in the industry and served as president of the SAE in 1926, the November 26, 1926 edition of P.W. Williams syndicated column announced his appointment to Marmon:
“Thomas J. Litle, president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, has been appointed chief engineer of the Marmon Motor Company of Indianapolis. Until quite recently Mr. Litle was chief engineer of the Lincoln Motor Company.”
The senior Leamy wrote to Litle outlining his son’s numerous talents and love for automobile design, asking that he be considered for an entry-level position in Marmon’s body design and engineering department. Litle responded:
George Freers was Marmon’s assistant chief engineer and E.C. Blaine had recently been hired as chief body engineer, the department’s designers being filled out by Paul Bastian and Leamy, who was hired in March of 1927.
However the work Leamy was presented with as an entry-level stylist/draughtsman did not excite him and he found his supervisors were disinterested in his forward-thinking designs, so he began searching for a new position that better suited his talents.
There was a large buzz in the industry regarding the new front-wheel-drive car currently under development by Errett Lobban Cord using Harry Miller’s designs and in early April of 1928 Leamy wrote to E.L. Cord directly, expressing his interest in the project. In mid-April he received the following response:
Leamy brought his portfolio to the meeting and van Ranst forwarded them to Cord who like what he saw, and shortly thereafter Leamy was offered a position as an Auburn designer. Leamy subsequently resigned from Marmon and at the beginning of August, 1928 he and his wife Agnes moved to Auburn, Indiana where his first assignment was to update the 1929 Auburn sedan, giving it bigger doors and other features to increase passenger comfort. John Oswald was Auburn’s body engineer and both he and Leamy worked on the project which marked Auburn’s first use of full-sized clay models.
Leamy taught a group of Auburn draftsmen and pattern makers how to make a full-sized wooden styling buck which would be plastered with clay then sculpted into a 1:1 representation of the vehicle under development using templates which transferred the curves of the full-sized body drafts to the clay. Once the exterior shape was finalized it could be painted and outfitted with wheels, windows and other accessories, allowing E.L. Cord to get a good impression of the finished product. Auburn draftsman A.E. Williams recounted:
(*Alan H. Leamy)
Leamy’s next project was to design the front end components (grill, radiator shell, hood, cowl, fenders, bumpers, lights etc.) of the new front-wheel-drive chassis which had been engineered and constructed by racecar builder Harry A. Miller (1875-1943) in his Los Angeles plant.
Upon its arrival in Auburn Leamy set about working on the L-29’s component design after which John Oswald created a full-sized body draft which was presented to E.L. Cord in October who gave chief engineer van Ranst the go-ahead to construct a prototype.
Auburn’s body engineer John Oswald recalled the subsequent process of building the L-29 prototype in Dan Post’s ‘Cord—Without Tribute to Tradition: the L-29 Front Drive Legend’. A provisional radiator shell was rejected by Cord, causing Leamy to come up with a Model J-style surround that covered up the transaxle. Again Cord protested saying he wanted a design which would emphasize, not hide, the final drive housing - after which Leamy came up with a design that flowed down and around the housing, with an exposed convex plate serving as the functional cover of the final drive. Leamy also eliminated the cross-bar, cleverly supporting the headlights on a short strut running between the radiator shell and front fenders, making them appear to float when viewed from the front, each fender flowing in a downward arc that highlighted the beautifully engineered front end at its center. Cord heartily approved, and Leamy’s front end became the most distinctive feature of the production L-29.
The L-29’s debut in New York was preceded by an article Leamy wrote for the July, 1929 issue of Autobody entitled ‘Cord Front-Drive Car Offers New Opportunities in Body Designing’, a few excerpts of which follow:
Closed coachwork for the L-29 was designed by Leamy and Auburn’s John Oswald while the designs for the cabriolet and phaeton were supplied by one of Walter M. Murphy’s in-house designers, most likely Franklin Q. Hershey.
Murphy had previously designed some of Auburn’s convertibles and they also constructed a few custom-bodied L-29s. Murphy’s Philip O. Wright is specifically credited with the L-29 town cars that Murphy built for film stars Delores Del Rio, Lola Montez and John Barrymore, plus several other L-29 Cords; a Dual Cowl Phaeton for actress Toby Wing and a blind quarter sports sedan whose doors opened part way into the roof. Hershey came up with a flamboyant 3-toned L-29 dual cowl phaeton of which three examples were constructed, two of them for W.A. Clark III, president of Pilot Ray Corp., and the third for the King Carol II, of Romania. One of them was exhibited by Murphy at the 1930 Salons, the November 1930 issue of Autobody reporting:
On a trip to Detroit Philip O. 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.
Another Wright was an enthusiastic fan of the L-29, stating in his 1943 ‘An Autobiography’:
Frank Lloyd Wright (b.1869-d.1959) purchased his grey L-29 Phaeton Sedan when new using it into the late 1930s when it was discarded, his 1943 ‘An Autobiography’ stating that: “The Cord is gone.” In the same work he accurately predicts the almost universal adoption of front-wheel-drive just over a half century later:
Visitors to the first floor of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn are treated to a beautiful orange L-29 Cabriolet that placards relate was once owned by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. However, the car on display it is not the gray four-door Phaeton Sedan that Frank Lloyd Wright owned and drove during the 1930s, pictures of which can be seen to the right. The occasion was not a happy one as Wright had just collided with a floral delivery truck. The event was covered in the November 13, 1933 issue of the Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin):
The damage was repaired and Wright continued to own this car up until his death. The L-29 Cabriolet on display at the museum has no direct connection with Wright and in fact was purchased by Wright's son-in-law William Wesley Peters as a used car in the 1950s.
Some Duesenberg Model J accounts credit Leamy with the design of the front end of the prototype Model J chassis, one supporting account being included in George Philip & Stacey Pankiw Hanley’s ‘Marmon Heritage’ (pp.451 – pub.1985):
Author Dan Burger in his 1983 Automobile Quarterly article on Leamy also raises the question of Leamy’s involvement citing certain statements made after the fact by automobile designer / instructor Strother MacMinn as evidence.
In his book on E.L. Cord, historian Griffith Borgeson theorizes:
The fact that both cars were introduced almost simultaneously is sometimes referenced as evidence of Leamy’s involvement; however that merely proves coincidence and not fact. In his book ‘The Duesenberg’ J. Herbert Newport, Jr., Duesenberg’s chief body designer from 1934-36, is noticeably silent about who designed the front end.
In his book ‘Rolling Sculpture’ designer Gordon Buehrig, who didn’t come to work for Duesenberg until June of 1929, when the appearance of the Model J was already set in stone, clearly states that Harold Ames and E.L. Cord were responsible for the design of the car:
Although Leamy was never directly credited with the front end of the Duesenberg Model J, it’s certainly possible he was consulted by E.L. Cord regarding the matter and a comparison between the front end of the Cord L-29 and Duesenberg Model J reveals some similarities.
A drawing uncovered by Duesenberg expert and restorer Randy Ema shows a side and front view of the Model J’s fenders, providing their exact dimensions and distances between the various anchoring points commonly used by body engineers to create the master drafts used to creating the body dies needed to create sheet metal stampings. It’s signed by Leamy and marked ‘OK’ by Fred Duesenberg who dated it Aug. 20, 1928.
In Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, Lee Beck states that the drawing is the proof that Leamy designed the Model J stating:
It’s clearly proof that Leamy produced a side view of the Model J’s fenders for the firm’s body engineers to use in the sheet metal stamping process, however the drawing, which can be seen at the right, concerns itself with the fenders only, the front end of the car only being included for reference.
In his Automobile Quarterly article, 'Chariots of the Gods: The Grandeur of the Model J Duesenberg', Randy Ema states conclusively that:
The above statments and references prove that Leamy was certainly involved in the body engineering of the car, a fact already acknowledged by all, however crediting him with the entire design of the Model J is an entirely different matter and is still open to debate.
As a historian I would like to see some 'concrete evidence', albeit orthographic or photographic, backing up Randy Ema's statements as he provides none in his AQ article. However, his reputation is such that it's now accepted as fact that Leamy styled the Model J. I don't dispute his statement, but based on what I've discovered, I can't verify it either.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that while E.L. Cord had Leamy apply for design patents on the L-29 Cord, and 1931 Auburns, no design patents were taken out on the Model J. Correspondence donated by his widow Agnes to the ACD (Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg) Museum include a letter to the S.A.E. Employment Service, dated September 28th, 1933, where Leamy lists his accomplishments:
No mention was made of the Model J Duesenberg, nor of the Auburn Cabin Speedster, another A-C-D project he is often credited with. Factory literature states the 1929 Auburn Cabin Speedster (a modern take on Harry Miller’s Golden Submarine – built for Barney Oldfield in 1917) and constructed for the 1929 New York Automobile Show, was designed by ex-Duesenberg racer Wade Morton.
In a November 1955 letter to Road & Track magazine, former Auburn draftsman R.H. Dick Robinson claimed he had designed the Cabin Speedster. Randy Ema later uncovered the original full-scale body drafts of the car, however they are unsigned, leaving the identity of their delineator unknown - although it’s likely Robinson or John Oswald, Auburn’s body engineer, created them. Leamy did design an updated Cabin Speedster in 1933 (image to the right), but as he always signed his work, it’s doubtful he was involved with the 1929 Cabin Speedster.
The 1930 US Census reveals that Leamy and his wife, Agnes, were living in an apartment building located at 315 E. Seventh Street, Auburn, De Kalb County, Indiana; his given occupation being body designer, at an auto factory.
At that time Leamy was busy putting the finishing touches on the all-new 1931 Auburn Model 8-98 lineup which grew to include an all-new boat-tail speedster which joined the 8-98 lineup in the fall of 1931 (only offered on the Auburn 8- & 12-cylinder chassis). In addition to the 8-98’s styling Leamy was awarded patents on the mechanical components of the cars’ steering and front suspension.
The Auburn 8-98 was re-christened the 8-100 for the 1932 model year, but remained nearly identical save for the addition of a new 12-cylinder model, the model 12-160. The Auburn V-12 was the most affordable V-12 of its day, with the entry-level coupe priced at $975 with comparable 12-cylidners priced from three (Pierce- Arrow at $3,450 – Cadillac at $3,495) to four times (Lincoln at $4,700) as much. The V-12 featured the same styling as the 6 and 8-cylinder Auburns save for an 8” stretch of the chassis, hood and running boards.
For 1933 the re-christened Model 8-101 and 12-161 series retained styling introduced in 1931 save for small embellishments that helped keep the Auburn fresh, which included a concealed radiator cap and convex-headlight and sidelight lenses. The rear section of the convertible cars was also redesigned to increase rearward visibility when the tops were lowered.
During the early 30s automobile styling was changing at an exponential rate and the classic-era styling introduced on the Auburn 8-98 looked dated by 1933 and an entirely new Leamy-design made its debut on the 1934 Model 6-52 and 8-50 Auburns. Although the car’s raked windscreen and skirted fenders were well received, Leamy’s shovel-nosed grill was not successful and the 1934 Auburn’s nose was panned by a number of influential automobile critics upon its debut at the 1934 New York Automobile Show.
Harold Ames, who disliked the design from the moment it was introduced, blamed Leamy for what he saw as the commercial failure of the 1934 Auburn. ‘Dealers would not buy it,’ he told Griffith Borgeson, explaining that on their rail journey home from its debut at the 1934 New York Automobile Show, Auburn’s vice-president Lucius B. Manning agreed that the '34 Auburn would never sell and that a new design was crucial to the firm’s survival.
Ames enlisted Duesenberg’s body designer, Gordon Buehrig, to facelift the car, providing him with a $50,000 budget (including retooling) to get the job done in time for the 1935 Auburn’s accelerated reveal which took place in September of 1934.
The face-lift consisted of giving’s Leamy body a new hood and a significantly more imposing radiator shell and grill which eliminated Leamy’s unpopular waterfall treatment. Buehrig was also given the task of creating a new boat-tail speedster that would serve as the centerpiece of Auburn’s 1935 auto show exhibits. Although he deserves credit for the bulk of the design, the central portion of the speedster body - from the cowl to the portion above the rear axle centerline - was not his, as he was forced to use up the remaining inventory of Leamy-designed ’32-’34 speedster bodies – of which 60 to 100 remained (accounts vary). Buehrig grafted a new tail onto the existing coachwork, creating a body similar to his Duesenberg Model J boat-tail speedster.
Unfortunately Leamy served as the scapegoat for the poor sales of the 1934 Auburn line and his widow infers that he was asked to resign, telling ACD Museum director Skip Marketti that he was ‘relieved of his duties’. Apparently the dismissal came as no surprise to Leamy as a letter to the SAE Employment Service dated September 28th, 1933 reveals he was already looking for a new job. In fact he had been sending out sketches of interiors and exteriors to several manufacturers, including Graham and Packard during his final years at Auburn. His widow Agnes recalled:
He was also indirectly involved in Vincent Bendix’ front-wheel-drive S.W.C. prototype, which was constructed by his friend Alfred Ney for the Steel Wheel Corp., the skunkworks Bendix subsidiary used to construct the car. Leamy supported Ney’s ambition to construct the car’s monocoque framework using Duramold, the same phenolic resin and birch plywood used to create Howard Hughes H-4 Hercules (aka ‘Spruce Goose’). Although Leamy had hoped to design the body, it was designed and constructed by a laid-off Fisher Body craftsman named William F. Ortwig who fitted it with the grill and headlight buckets from an Airflow DeSoto to save on time and money. The car, which ended up looking like a cross between an Airflow and Toyota Toyopet was never seriously considered for production, and served to highlight emerging technology for the Bendix Co. Soon after its construction Bendix was acquired by General Motors and the car was forgotten, although it miraculously survived and can be seen at the Studebaker Naional Museum in South Bend, Indiana.
Although 1935-36 Auburns are significantly more popular and valuable in today’s collector car market, sales figures reveal that back in the day the ‘34s sold better than Buehrig’s face-lifted ‘35s, although neither approached the overwhelming sales success of Leamy’s landmark 1931 Auburn 8-98. Kimes & Clark report the following Auburn sales figures, starting with the 1931 model year: 1931-34,228 cars; 1932-11,145 cars; 1933-5,038 cars; 1934-7,770 cars; 1935-6,316 cars; 1936-1,263 cars).
Leamy wasn’t out of work long, accepting a position with the Fisher Body Co. that summer. Harley Earl was impressed by his work and on June 1, 1935 Leamy became a member of the LaSalle design studio at GM's Art & Colour division. 8 days later Leamy developed acute septicemia (bacteremia or blood poisoning) from a routine diphtheria vaccination he received as part of GM’s annual physical and four days later, June 12, 1935, he was dead at the age of 33.
Following Alan’s untimely passing, his widow, Agnes T. (Garrett) Leamy (b. 1906 in Penn.) remained in Detroit, where she worked as a stenographer until her retirement at which time she donated Leamy’s personal collection of memorabilia to the recently-opened Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana.
John Oswald, Auburn’s body engineer and Leamy’s co-worker, left Auburn for GM at about the same time. He received numerous patents while working for Ternstedt, Oldsmobile and after the second world war, Ford.
An occasional reference that Leamy served as a freelance consultant to Wills St. Claire has been made in various articles written in the 1980s.
An article on Harley Early in a 1985 issue of the Historical Society of Michigan’s Chronicle states:
A second article states:
However, I found no concrete nor anecdotal evidence of a connection, and believe the sources may be confusing Leamy with Gordon Buehrig who, prior to working for Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, worked as a body draftsman at Gotfredson Body Corp.'s Wayne, Michigan plant, serving under Walter L. Jones, Gotfredson's chief body engineer. During his 2 years with the firm Buehrig assisted Jones with shoring up closed body designs for Wills Ste. Claire, Jewett, Paige-Detroit and Peerless.
©2013 Mark Theobald for Coachbuilt.com
Appendix One, Leamy Patents:
US Pat. No. D82269 – Automobile body - Filed Jun 19, 1929 - Issued Oct 14, 1930 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Manning & Co., Chicago, Illinois
US Pat. No. D82428 – Automobile - Filed Jun 24, 1929 - Issued Nov 4, 1930 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Manning & Co., Chicago, Illinois
US Pat. No. D82437 – Automobile - Filed Jun 19, 1929 - Issued Nov 4, 1930 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Manning & Co., Chicago, Illinois
US Pat. No. D84484 – Automobile - Filed Apr 24, 1931 - Issued Jun 23, 1931 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Auburn Automobile Co., Auburn, Indiana
US Pat. No. D84529 - Automobile - Filed Apr 24, 1931 - Issued Jun 30, 1931 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Auburn Automobile Co., Auburn, Indiana
US Pat. No. 1828327 – Front drive automobile - Filed Jan 18, 1930 - Issued Oct 20, 1931 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Manning & Co., Chicago, Illinois
US Pat. No. D85532 – Automobile - Filed Apr 24, 1931 - Issued Nov 10, 1931 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Auburn Automobile Co., Auburn, Indiana
US Pat. No. 1834164 – Automobile Construction - Filed Oct 30, 1929 - Issued Dec 1, 1931 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Manning & Co., Chicago, Illinois
US Pat. No. 1896797 – Running board for automobiles - Filed Jul 24, 1929 - Issued Feb 7, 1933 to Alan H. Leamy, assigned to Manning & Co., Chicago, Illinois