The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, a National Historic Landmark, has welcomed nearly two million visitors from all 50 states and from over 40 foreign countries since the museum opened its doors at Noon on Saturday, July 6, 1974. With the opening of the museum, then known as the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, this was the first time that an automobile museum inhabited a former automobile company’s national headquarters building. This day was the culmination of many hours of work by many dedicated individuals.
The initial steps to creating the museum began on July 28, 1969. On that date the first incorporation of Auburn Automotive Heritage, Inc. was approved and filed by the Indiana Secretary of State. The three individuals responsible for the initial incorporating of the legal entity that would eventually operate the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum were Burtis Dickman, Kurt Hahn and Fred Brown, all of Auburn.
The next step was to create a board of directors and the founding members were all Auburn residents as well; DelMar Johnson; Donald Allison; John Martin Smith; Burtis Dickman; Kurt Hahn; Fred Brown; and Herman Collins.
Among the stated purposes for the new group as written in the articles of incorporation were, “to discover, procure, and preserve whatever may relate to the history of the automotive industry in the City of Auburn and County of DeKalb, Indiana.” The initial officers for the new not-for-profit were Burtis Dickman, President; Kurt Hahn, Vice President; Fred Brown, Treasurer; and John Martin Smith, Secretary. Early newspaper accounts listed the group’s ultimate goal to be “a museum in which at least one of each of Auburn’s automobiles can be displayed and preserved for future generations.” This goal helped pave the way to the over 120 cars on display, featuring the world’s largest public display of Duesenberg automobiles, and the greatest collection of Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobiles anywhere.
The Board of Directors at the opening consisted of Terence Adderley, Donald Allison, Larry Barnhart, Kern Butler, Pat Clark, Mary Jean Felton, John Foley, Joseph Garceau, Al Gengnagel, Richard Greene, Harry Hoham, DelMar Johnson, Tilson King, Dennis Kruse, Joyce McIntyre, Victor Mormon, Leo Oser, John Randinelli, Mahlon Rieke, Everet Rogers, John Martin Smith, Michael Wagner, Theo Webb, Raymond Wolff and Kathryn Woodcox.
On May 24, 1973, a fire broke out in the lower section of the museum building, causing some fire and smoke damage. In January 1974, the building was purchased from Sam Jacobs of Ohio at a cost of $105,000, and following fundraising efforts to purchase the building and repair the damages caused by the fire, the group was able to raise $108,000 to do so.
On July 6, 1974, when the museum doors opened to the public, the first visitors were welcomed by 24 automobiles that were on loan to the museum. This was the first time the general public had seen the Company Showroom, restored to its original grandeur. Visitors were charged $1.50 per person to view this amazing example of Art Deco tucked away in northeast Indiana. The building, its history and charm were once again available for everyone to see. Much of the building was still closed off to the public, but growth would soon come within the next few years for the young museum.
The museum received its first automobile donation in August 1974 from Irene Bisel, the wife of A. Mearl Bisel of Auburn . Mrs. Bisel donated a rare 1908 Zimmerman to the museum that was originally built in Auburn. That donation has spurned many collectors and automotive enthusiasts to do the same.
By 1976 development of the museum was underway, and more of the museum would become accessible to the general public. Cars were put on display on Level III where the engineering department was located when Auburn Automobile Company owned and operated the building. By 1980, much of the remaining 80,000 square feet was restored and used for exhibits and galleries.
The museum’s popular banquet and conference center has grown from setting and resetting the Company Showroom to its own separate facility located within the museum. The banquet and conference center still flourishes and provides much needed funding to help maintain and operate the museum programs. The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum Banquet & Conference Center hosts over 250 affordable events each year such as weddings, receptions, banquets, reunions, corporate parties, daytime meetings and other evening events.
The museum building was placed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 21, 1978 and was designated an Indiana Historic Site on May 7, 1992.
In 1997, The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum earned the highest recognition for a museum, accreditation by the American Association of Museums (AAM) and has continually retained that status. Accreditation is a national seal of approval from the museum field that recognizes a museum for its commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement. It also signifies that a museum fulfills its obligations to the public as set forth in its mission. Accreditation strengthens individual museums and the entire museum field by promoting ethical and professional practices. Of the nation’s nearly 17,500 museums about 775 (4.4%) are currently accredited. The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum is one of only 20 museums accredited in Indiana.
On April 8, 2005 the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Facility was designated a National Historic Landmark by Secretary of the Interior, Gale A. Norton. It is the highest designation in the country.
In 2007, the museum was named by MSNBC News as “One of the Top Ten Gearhead Destinations in the United States.”
Much has happened from the time the museum doors first opened, but one thing that has not changed has been the museum’s dedication to promoting Auburn’s legendary automotive heritage on a national level. Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobiles are Full Classics TM, and can be found in the “City of Classics” seven days a week, year round.