Diamond in the Very Rough: A Straight-8 Engine Emerges

An Auburn straight-8 engine proves great finds still possible

Auburn Speedster

This is the second of two Auburn Speedsters built from factory blueprints.

Photo courtesy of Hemmings Classic Car

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Old time farmers rarely went to the trouble to do away with obsolete equipment or equipment that was no longer used. In almost every instance the unwanted mechanical objects were left parked where they were last used or drug out to the back of the farm machinery lot and forgotten.

That is understandable if you realize that when some implement was replaced with a newer and better item, the discarded one had absolutely no value to anyone. That was especially true when a farmer bought used equipment, whether he had failed to keep up with the times or simply couldn’t afford anything newer. By the time a piece of equipment was no longer needed, its value had declined to zero. The piece was left sitting, often for decades, partially or totally covered with weeds and bird droppings.

When those of us who like old iron stumble onto an undisturbed farmstead dating to the early 20th century, we are often amazed at all the interesting “stuff” sitting around. Most of what we find has little value beyond the current price paid for scrap metal. The simplicity of old field implements and the ravages of time mean that most things have little appeal beyond the visual. However, as Farm Collector readers know, great finds sometimes lurk among the junk.

Straight-8 engine in a barnyard?

The farmyard I was walking through had been a viable operation through the late 1950s. Since then, the two bachelor brothers who ran it had passed away and the closest relative was a nephew who lived half a state away. Although the parcel of land is too small to make a living on today, the nephew decided to move there and farm part-time while continuing his work as a state utility inspector. The first thing he had to do was clean up the place. The only scrap metal operation near enough to be interested in all the old stuff offered just $5 a ton. The new owner gave me a chance to salvage anything I wanted because whatever I took would have little impact on his payment.

Over by a tumble-down shed was a large object covered by what looked like a side-opening hood from a really old car. It sat so low to the ground that it was difficult to see in the tall weeds. I removed the hood and discovered it covered a flathead straight-8 engine. It looked complete. I had never seen an engine like it, but since it had eight cylinders it had to have come out of a large (read: expensive) 1920s-era automobile. I told the owner it might be valuable. His response was, “Go ahead and take it and if you can sell it we’ll split whatever you get, OK? I’ll pick it up with my John Deere loader and put it into your outfit.” Fifteen minutes later it was sitting in the back of my pickup. Further exploration uncovered body parts of a large sedan apparently once powered by the engine.

Roaring back to life

When I got home, I set the straight-8 engine between a couple of vehicles in my shop. It was built by Lycoming, which was part of E.L. Cord’s automotive empire. After cleaning off the identification plate riveted to the side, I was able to determine that it was the larger of two straight-8 engines used in Auburn automobiles. Casting marks indicated it was built in 1928.

The more I looked at it, the more convinced I was that perhaps it might be possible to get it to run. It was “free” in that it could be turned over by hand and all accessories were present. The major obvious problem was a badly broken distributor cap. Fortunately the locating tab was still intact, so careful work with black electrical tape resulted in what looked like a cap that might distribute the spark properly. Ancient engine oil was drained and new oil poured in the sump. At the same time oil was injected into each cylinder. An auxiliary oil pressure gauge was fastened to an outlet on the block. Then a 6-volt battery was connected to the starter and the engine turned over numerous times to get the oil circulated. Pressure came up nicely.

If the engine started, I wanted it to run for a reasonable period of time. That meant coolant was necessary, so an old army truck radiator was hooked up with surplus radiator hose. A small tank from a lawn mower was used to provide gravity feed gasoline to the updraft carburetor, which was left untouched. The ignition was “hot wired.” Then the moment of truth arrived. I almost had to be a contortionist to hook the battery to the starter on one side and run the choke and throttle on the other. A couple of attempts were necessary before the procedure was perfected, but on the third try the engine fired and came to life.

As far as I was concerned a miracle had taken place. I later learned the bachelor farmers had bought an old Auburn car just before World War II to get the engine to run a sawmill. The mill project never materialized. That meant that the Auburn engine sat on the ground for more than 40 years. There it was, sitting in my shop, running like it was last started yesterday. The roar that emanated from the open exhaust manifold when the throttle was blipped was unbelievable.

Auburn engine put to good use

The rest of the story is equally unbelievable. I advertised a “good running Auburn straight-8 engine.” A couple of people who responded to the ad thought I was probably a country bumpkin and tried to con me into selling it for a meager sum. That just convinced me the engine really did have considerable value.

Eventually a well-known collector from the Midwest contacted me and offered a sizable amount of money. He told me he was recreating the 1929 Auburn Cabin Speedster that was destroyed in the 1929 Los Angeles Car Show fire. Obtaining a suitable engine was almost impossible because Auburns of that era were rare in the first place and because they were so expensive, parts vehicles don’t exist. Any Auburn that was even partially intact was a candidate for a full restoration. You just don’t find an Auburn engine separate from a car.

A deal was made and the engine was shipped halfway across the U.S. A couple years later I visited the man who bought the engine. He is an outstanding individual and graciously showed me his automotive collection. In his restoration shop was the partially complete Speedster he was creating from scratch. Years earlier he had obtained the factory blueprints for the one-off Auburn. My engine was to power the rarest Auburn automobile ever built. He told me professional mechanics had examined the engine and determined that it didn’t even need to be overhauled. Today that original completed vehicle is on display in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind. A second copy (see photo in Image Gallery) was built from the same plans but painted tan instead of the green of the Los Angeles show car.

An engine found sitting in the weeds in rural Idaho found fame in the rarefied world of super expensive exotic automobiles. When I went to give the original owner his share of the sale price he was flabbergasted. He expected maybe a hundred dollars. He got more than a thousand for that straight-8 engine. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind that you’re calling in Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.