'Labor Day at Auburn' is back on classic car calendar

AUBURN, Ind. — Once upon a time, if you had any interest in classic cars, in seeing them and especially in buying or selling them, this northeastern Indiana town was the place to be each Labor Day weekend. In town, there was the annual Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Festival, a celebration of Indiana’s — and three of America’s — most iconic marques. Just a mile or two south of the city, there was the big Kruse classic car auction and swap meet.

The collapse of Kruse sort of put the kibosh on things for a while. but then RM Auctions and its then-new Auctions American division bought and renovated the Auburn Auction Park, and brought in Carlisle Events to manage the swap meet. And now, Auburn’s own Worldwide Auctioneers has found what appears to be the perfect venue for its local sale and “Labor Day at Auburn” is back on everyone’s classic car calendar.

For its fifth annual Auburn Auction, Worldwide moved its sale into the National Auto & Truck Museum of the United States right in downtown Auburn. The NATMUS, as it is known, is tucked in just behind the historic Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg headquarters building that now serves as the A-C-D Museum. The NATMUS building is just as historic; once upon a time was the building where L29 Cords were built and, like the A-C-D Museum, is a federally recognized National Historic Landmark.

And, thanks to the results of the Worldwide auction, the organization that owns and operates the museum can pay off its mortgage.

Rod Egan, a co-founder of Worldwide Auctioneers in 2001, said that several vehicles in the auction were donated specifically to raise money for the museum. Their sale generated $345,000 “and now NATMUS is mortgage free,” Egan said. “That was a big part of our plan.”

From the beginning, Egan said, Worldwide’s mission was to help boost Auburn’s year-around attraction to automobile enthusiasts. He and his partner, John Kruse, both worked for John’s uncle, Dean Kruse (Egan was brought in as general manager when on-line auction giant eBay bought Kruse’s company), and they saw the need and opportunity for small company that dealt in higher-end vehicles.

“We aren’t exclusive to half-a-million-dollar-or-more vehicles,” Egan said. “We want diversity, but for us that means offering the best examples of each marque.”

Egan is from Texas and Worldwide held its first sale in Houston. It stages three major events each year — in Atlantic City, Houston and Auburn — in addition to a couple of smaller events to disburse private collections.

Egan said that while big auctions usually are staged on massive stage-style auction blocks with the cars being paraded in front of bidders, the sales of private collections usually are held in the owner’s warehouse-like garages with the cars parked around the bidders seating area.

A similar format was used for the sale at NATMUS. The cars were parked throughout the building — with a few spilling over on the lawn outside. Rows of chairs were set up in front of the auction podium. Instead of watching as each car paraded past, bidders watched detailed videos that had been shot of each vehicle.

The auction included some 125 vehicles and was spread over two days. The first day “All Ford Friday” with part of the proceeds benefiting another Auburn-based institution, the Early Ford Foundation & Museum, and featuring cars and automobilia from the collection of the Burr Joslin Estate.

As a teenager, Joslin, a Detroit native, was the voice of Freddie the Talking Tractor in the Ford Motor Co. Rotunda. After serving in Korea and earning a degree in business from the University of Michigan, he joined Ford’s purchasing department, at first procuring upholster and tires. After writing a book about automotive purchasing, he served as Ford’s recruiter on Midwestern college campuses.

“If we would have had 300 or 400 cars, you couldn’t have kept the interest up for 10 to 12 hours a day,” Egan said. “But it’s easy to do that in a four-hour auction when everyone knows everything is quality and the cars are sitting right there next to them, not out in a tent. It actually gives it more atmosphere. We didn’t lose a thing.”

Overall, 70 percent of the vehicles sold, and for $5.1 million. The high-dollar sale was $473,000 for a 1934 Auburn 12 Salon cabriolet. A 1934 Packard Twelve dual cowl sport phaeton brought $319,000, a 1931 Cadillac Series 370-A V12 convertible coupe went for $217,250, the 2004 Ford GT “factory test mule” sold for $217,250 and a 1966 Shelby GT350 Mustang brought $187,000.

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.