BUILDING A FUTURE WITHIN AUBURN’S HISTORIC STRUCTURES
National Auto & Truck Museum
On July 6, 1974, a vast piece of Indiana’s automotive history, restored and saved for posterity, marked its opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. This was the culmination of extensive planning, fundraising, and negotiations by residents and business owners that kept the iconic Art Deco edifice of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg showroom and corporate offices from becoming a demolished footnote—a history we conveyed in HCC #181. But while the showroom-turned-renowned museum glistened once again on the southern outskirts of Auburn, the remaining pair of corporate buildings standing on the A-C-D property continued to lay dormant.
Constructed in 1923, the Service and New Parts Department building—the oldest of the trio, with a barrel-designed roof—originally housed both the company’s distribution center and new parts inventory on the basement level, while the ground floor was utilized by engineers and mechanics for the construction and testing of experimental vehicles. To its immediate south, the L-29 Building was erected in 1928, its construction coinciding with the front-wheel-drive Cord’s development and introduction to the 1929 market. Its ground floor was designed to manage the final preparation and shipment of Cord’s new L-29s, while the basement served as additional workspace for experimental vehicle development. Auburn had purchased Duesenberg during 1926, so its engineers were also seen conducting tests on the same level after the building’s completion.
It’s easy to understand why the structures were widely considered equally important to Auburn’s automotive legacy. Unfortunately, in the years following the opening of the museum, the condition of these buildings continued to deteriorate at an accelerated rate, particularly the roofs. With their structural integrity coming into question, there was renewed talk of demolition, a fate that many within the community desperately wanted to avoid. Spearheaded by individuals from within the Auburn Automotive Heritage Inc. organization, a new fundraising campaign was launched to save the two troubled buildings, bolstered by the prospect of a new proposed museum that would occupy the space: The National Auto & Truck Museum, or NATMUS.
According to NATMUS executive director, Dave Yarde, “The idea behind its founding was that this would be a museum that would complement the existing Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum. While the ACD would focus primarily on the facility’s namesake automobiles and history, NATMUS would focus on other models of transportation from both Indiana’s rich heritage and around the world, including a permanent display dedicated to trucks. Through the efforts of the AAH, new roofs were installed, allowing the structures to be stabilized and repaired where needed. In 1988, the museum officially opened to the public.” Dave went on to say: “We currently have about 175 vehicles on display that are divided into several different galleries throughout the two buildings. Among them is a muscle car gallery, which includes Hemi ‘Cuda number one, as well as the only surviving ‘Ball Stud’ Hemi engine, which is still in the 1969 Plymouth Barracuda once owned by Sox & Martin and Tom Hoover. Our brass car gallery features the fourth-oldest Ford in existence: a 1903 Model A, which also happens to be the first one built with a back seat. Visitors can also see the rotary-engine Mustang that Ford was trying to develop in 1965, the 1988 Buick Reatta prototype, and the very De Lorean that served as a test mule for PPG, painted red. PPG spent two years developing a formula that would enable paint to adhere to stainless steel. Unfortunately, when it finally perfected the paint, De Lorean was just about bankrupt, and I think only 43 cars ended up being painted.”
To help demonstrate the diversity of the collection within NATMUS, Dave stated that there’s a gallery dedicated to other Indiana makes, such as Studebaker and Elcar, with another populated strictly with a variety of vehicles from the storied International Harvester Company, which had a plant in nearby Fort Wayne. The fully restored Futurliner #10—one of the most iconic vehicles from GM’s Parade of Progress— has also been shown within the institution. Among the largest displays, however, is the gallery of the American Truck Driver.
“This display takes guests through the earliest modes of truck transportation right up to the latest semis. We want to tell the story of how difficult it was to be a truck driver from the Twenties to the Fifties,” Dave reported. “There were no creature comforts. Seats were bolted flat to the floor so most of the drivers wound up with severe back problems. There was no air conditioning, so they hung their left arm and left side of their face out the window. Many were later diagnosed with skin cancer. The trucks didn’t have insulation or soundproofing, so a lot of them lost their hearing. Fumes came back through the floorboards, and a lot of them ended up with respiratory diseases. Headlamps were basically like two Bic lighters strapped to the front of the truck; the brakes were poor. This is the story we’re telling here, and we want to let people experience the cabs—climb into a couple of the early models so they can see what it was really like to be a truck driver during this stage of the trucking industry.”
There’s more to NATMUS than static and hands-on vehicle displays. A slice of car culture is also present, including a full-scale vintage gas station. A collection of roadside cabins that predate the advent of motor lodges, are on the grounds, and tucked within the facility is a diner originally built in 1948. In addition, NATMUS and the ACD Club will be recreating a new Auburn dealership—the first in 85 years.
“We have so much going on here at the museum, including a driving experience starting this spring, and a youth program,” Dave was proud to say. “The latter is a hands-on education program for kids—ages 13 to 18—held on Wednesday nights from 6:00 to 8:00. It’s limited to nine students, and we assign mentors with them. We teach them a variety of trade basics, such as woodworking skills. We work with them to make templates and shape new wood for our 1934 Auburn sedan, a process that includes bending spars and cutting finger joints. The museum has a 1949 Chevrolet Canopy Express under restoration, so we have the kids working on sheetmetal skills—bending metal, welding, and how to use an English wheel. Another group is tackling electrical wiring within a vehicle, and we even teach the basics of servicing and maintenance. The last 15 minutes of each night is set aside for journal writing.
“Through this program, we also enhance their communication skills. One of the key things we do is get the kids off the phone, and they learn how to talk and communicate with adults eye-to-eye, and verbalize, rather than type. Our board of directors meets once a month, so the kids elect a representative from amongst themselves to attend the board meeting and present project updates. We’ve found that they take pride in their involvement and they look forward to the presentations. They get a chance to do different things, and develop a variety of life skills. We’re not out to make the next great generation of mechanics, just expose the students to different aspects of the hobby, with the hope some of that translates to a lifetime involvement. If the kids stay with the program for two years, we gift scholarships, and these can be used for two- or four-year educations, junior college, or even a trade school,” explained Dave.
“We are working hard to make NATMUS, and the ACD Museum, a destination, not just a stop. We’re celebrating more than just the car and truck. We’ve got a campus experience that allows people to walk back through the early stages of automotive development and motoring. Our attendance is increasing, particularly with the number of young people—most of them interested in vintage trucks—who are actively engaged, and that is a big plus for the hobby, right there.”
National Auto & Truck Museum
1000 Gordon M. Buehrig Place
Auburn, Indiana 46706