Vintage Motor Cars At Meadow Brook Hall
4 August 2007
1932 Marmon HCM V12 Sedan
To be auctioned on Saturday, August 4, 2007
Sold for $891,000
- Chassis no. DD609
151bhp, 368 cu. in. overhead valve aluminum V12 engine, three-speed manual transmission, sliding pillar independent coil spring front suspension, transverse leaf spring independent rear suspension, four-wheel mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 134
The winter of 1930-31 was a bittersweet time for Howard Marmon. His piece de resistance, the Marmon Sixteen, had debuted to great acclaim at the Chicago Auto Salon in November and the following month he received a medal for outstanding achievement from the Society of Automotive Engineers, awarded for the Sixteen’s magnificent engine. Although a second shift was added to the assembly line when full production began in April, there was trouble at the Marmon Motor Car Company. As with other luxury car makers, its profits had turned to deficits as the Depression deepened, and two rounds of pay cuts were followed by layoffs of most engineering staff. Into this milieu strode Mr. Marmon, attempting a bold move that he hoped would push his company back into the black.
Howard Carpenter Marmon was the son of an Indianapolis manufacturer of milling machinery. With an engineering degree from the University of California, he joined the family firm, becoming vice president and chief engineer within three years. Enamored of all types of machinery, he built a car of his own design, completed in 1902. Remarkable for its use of full pressure lubrication, it had an air-cooled power train with no universal joints, made possible by mounting the running gear on a separate subframe. He built six cars in 1904, unusual in their use of aluminum castings in their bodies, and sold them to neighbors.
By 1909, Marmon was in full production of water-cooled cars, the Model 32 that would be built for seven years. A Model 32, called the “Wasp,” won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The Marmon 34 of 1916 made even greater use of aluminum, but teething problems with its design and Marmon’s lack of business acumen hindered sales. Marmons became more conventional during the 1920s, and the car operation was spun off from Nordyke and Marmon, the machinery firm. Although well built, Marmons were nearly indistinguishable from other prestige cars of the decade, and sales were mediocre.
In 1926, Howard Marmon began work on his masterpiece, a sixteen-cylinder luxury car. At the heart of the new model was a compact, even-firing 45-degree V16 of 491 cubic inches. Overhead valves were pushrod-operated, and the aluminum block had wet cylinder liners. It developed 200 horsepower, rode a chassis of 145-inch wheelbase and was clothed in an attractive Art Deco body. Magnificent though it was, the Marmon Sixteen was not ready for production until early in 1931, by which time Cadillac’s V16 had been on the market for over a year. The Depression was intensifying and sales were tepid. If Marmon was to survive, drastic action was necessary – and a revolutionary new Marmon was conceived.
The new car originated as a sketch created by Howard Marmon after meetings with Fred Moscovics, Marmon’s former vice president and general manager who had moved on to Stutz, and chief engineer George Freers. The new design was to have a tubular backbone chassis, in the manner of the Czech-built Tatra, to which both body and suspension would be mounted. The name HCM, derived from Howard Marmon’s initials, was applied some time late in the car’s development.
It was to have four-wheel independent suspension, using transverse leaf springs front and rear. Two parallel front springs connected to sliding pillars, a concept initiated by Lancia in 1921, which were anchored to outriggers from the narrow center chassis. At the rear, four springs, two forward and two aft, mounted to the differential housing which formed the center of the chassis. The outer ends of the springs supported the wheel hubs. Drive was by swing axles. The result was very low unsprung weight. The ride quality, however, left something to be desired, so the front springs were changed to coils, mounted on the pillars above the steering knuckle as in the Lancia design.
The transmission was a three-speed unit mounted rigidly to the tubular backbone, through which the driveshaft ran. Behind the transmission was an epicyclic overdrive, which was in turn rigidly bolted to the differential housing. Problems with lubrication and shifting linkage caused this arrangement to be abandoned, replaced by a standard Marmon Sixteen transmission directly behind the engine.
Howard Marmon had decided on a V12 engine, more powerful than an eight but much more economical than the V16 of his flagship car. Its engineering was expeditious: four cylinders were taken from the center of a V16, the rear section moved forward and welded to the front. It retained the V16’s bore, stroke and 45-degree angle between banks, as well as the wet-liner aluminum construction. Although 45 degrees is not the optimum angle for smoothness in a V12, the modified engine worked well. It developed 151 bhp at 3,700 rpm, just three quarters of the V16’s output from an engine three quarters its size. Initial tests were run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July 1932. The car accelerated from 10 to 50 mph in a then remarkable 12.77 seconds, and a maximum speed of 113 mph was clocked with racing driver Wilbur Shaw at the wheel.
The HCM’s body was a similarly radical departure. It had as its genesis a wooden model made by a college student “for the fun of it.” In creating the Marmon Sixteen, Howard Marmon had contracted its body design to Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, in New York. The firm, which took its name from its founder and principal designer, was responsible for such icons as Kodak’s Brownie camera, Steuben glassware and Texaco gas stations, and since 1946 has designed interiors for all generations of Boeing airliners. Mr. Teague, however, did not like automobiles, did not even drive, and assigned the Marmon project to his car-crazy son, Walter Dorwin, Jr., then a student at M.I.T. The Marmon Sixteen design came together when Teague Jr., known as Dorwin, came home from Boston for working weekends. Thoroughly advanced in comparison to most cars of its time, particularly the competing Cadillac V16, the Marmon Sixteen was, in the words of the late historian Griffith Borgeson, “more modern than the moment and perfectly in tune with it.” The car’s form fit perfectly with its slogan: “The World’s Most Advanced Motor Car.”
After his designing experience with the Sixteen, Dorwin Teague had built a model of, as he described it, “what a car really should look like.” His influences were an evocative Renault ad in a French magazine and the enclosed fenders on Frank Lockhart’s 1928 Stutz Blackhawk speed record car. The 1/10-scale model, with its long hood, aft-mounted cabin and truncated luggage compartment, was in the Teague design office when Howard Marmon came to discuss the project. Marmon was captivated by it. Once back in Indianapolis, he sent Teague a set of chassis drawings to get things started.
The HCM’s form followed Dorwin’s model, but with several refinements. The cabin moved slightly forward, and the trunk became more of a bustle. In place of the model’s free-standing headlamps, he integrated a pair of the stylish narrow Woodlites into the edge of the grille shell. Like the model, a four-passenger coupe, its doors were reversed to become front opening. Dorwin visited Indianapolis and found a mockup of the car to his liking. After returning to New York, however, he received a new set of drawings that set his hair on edge. The car had gained a hood ornament, which he had purposely omitted, but what really caused upset was the headlamps, now set into the fenders, Pierce-Arrow fashion.
Mounting of the body was novel. With the engine and driveline forming the chassis, noise, vibration and harshness would be manifest. Instead of mounting engine and gear box on insulating mounts, the body was insulated from the chassis. Two thick rubber mounts at the rear and one beneath the firewall provided the necessary barriers for quiet, comfortable motoring.
Built in a special shop in a corner of the Marmon plant, the HCM was entirely Howard Marmon’s baby. The company couldn’t afford the expense, so Marmon paid for the project himself, at a cost, it is estimated, of $160,000. By the time it was finished, however, in the fall of 1933, Marmon Motor Car Company was in receivership. With no prospect of his moribund company building it, Howard Marmon, with George Freers, took it on tour of the nation’s auto manufacturers to see if someone else would. None of the Big Three was interested, nor any of the independents. They even tried to romance Morris Markin of Checker, to no avail. In the end, Marmon took the car home to his estate in North Carolina and wrapped it in cellophane.
There it remained until his death in 1943. Prominent car collector James Melton, the operatic tenor, tried to buy it, but Marmon’s widow wouldn’t sell. Instead she gave the car to Fred Moscovics, then working for A.O. Smith, manufacturer of automobile frames and other industrial products, in New York. Moscovics in turn traded it to Allan Floyd of Milwaukee, son of an A.O. Smith vice president, for a Stutz with which the teenager had been tinkering. Floyd enjoyed working on the HCM, by then in need of some TLC, until he departed for college, after which the car got little use. Several collectors of the time declined to buy it because it was “too new”; in the early 1950s, real collector cars were prewar -World War One. Designer Brooks Stevens, a friend of Floyd’s father, was starting the collection that eventually became a museum in suburban Milwaukee. Floyd stored the car there for a time, eventually giving it to Stevens for the museum collection. Stevens painted it dark blue, but otherwise left it largely untouched – and unused.
The present owner purchased the car from the Stevens Museum in 1999, after Stevens’ death. Initially interested in some other cars from the Stevens collection, he decided to purchase the HCM after researching its history – becoming, in his words, “the only one of five owners to pay for the car.” All previous transfers had been gifts or trades. His first priority was to return it to the original color; the impetus for a complete restoration came from Dorwin Teague, who, despite his deep involvement, had never actually seen the car. It was entrusted to George Kovanda of Chicago Restorations, who completely disassembled and rebuilt it, finishing with the correct shade of light tan. Completed in 2001, it was reunited with its designer in an emotional moment at the year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, compounded by the car’s achieving a perfect score and winning Best in Class.
Since then the HCM has appeared at Amelia Island, where it received a special award in 2002, and at Cranbrook, where it took Best in Class in 2004. It was also judged a 100-point car in national CCCA Grand Classic competition and has achieved Senior status. Dorwin Teague died in 2004 at age 94. His reunion with the HCM must have ranked among the high points of a career that had included design of the National cash register, Ford auto show exhibits, the Marmon Sixteen and operating his own industrial design firm. The Marmon HCM is one of the most significant – and underappreciated – prototype cars ever built. Rarer than rare, it represents a singular opportunity to acquire a car of exceptional historic importance with celebrity provenance.
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