When locked in a life-and-death struggle, you don’t act like it’s business as usual, do you? Or “phone-it-in” when wrestling the force or entity trying to kill you? Of course not. The same has often been true of car companies fighting for survival in the marketplace. And during the Great Depression of the 1930s, nearly all of America’s automakers – particularly builders of luxury cars – found themselves treading water in a seemingly infinite ocean of economic malaise.
One company that found itself aboard the S.S. Wall Street when it started taking on water was Marmon. Founded in Indianapolis by Howard Marmon in 1902, the company quickly garnered a reputation as a builder of fast, high quality cars. Marmon’s victory in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911 – with Ray Harroun driving the Wasp, which was based on the production Model 32 – garnered the brand even more respect and notoriety. But some bad timing and grandiose product planning would end up bringing the firm to its knees.
Marmon expanded down-market in 1929 by introducing the Roosevelt sub-brand, the first sub-$1,000 straight-eight-powered car on the market. It sold pretty well initially, but pretty soon the effects of the Depression would start to take hold. As the 1930s dawned, Marmon sales were free falling, and the 1931 introduction of the Sixteen (which, in fairness, had entered development in 1927, two years before the stock market crash) wasn’t helping matters. Very few people could afford any ultra-luxury car, let alone one that was powered by a V16 featuring a high-tech-for-the-time aluminum block and pushrod-actuated overhead valves (rather than the far more popular valve-in-block or “flathead” configuration).
By 1932, it was clear that Marmon Motor Car Company was down for the count. No lending institution would touch it, and its lack of a model that Joe Sixpack (of Ginger Ale; Prohibition was still in effect, remember) could afford was choking sales like Isadora Duncan’s scarf. But Howard Marmon wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet; in fact, he reckoned he might be able to woo new investors with a truly groundbreaking car that, while not as lavish as the Sixteen, was still unmistakably Marmon.
Unsurprisingly for a man who made his and his company’s name on the back of cutting edge engineering, Mr. Marmon decided that his company’s last chance to stagger up off the mat would have to be a radical departure from the norm from the frame up…literally. Rather than riding on a conventional ladder-style chassis, with two outer framerails running more or less straight front to back and tied together by crossmembers, the car that would come to be known as the HCM V12 (for its maker’s initials, Howard Carpenter Marmon) would use a backbone chassis. This type of frame is characterized by its thick, centralized spine (hence the name), with the framerails at each end splayed outward to allow mounting of the suspension and powertrain. The HCM wasn’t the first car to use a backbone chassis (the Czech Tatra T11 of 1923 holds that distinction), but it was still muy exótico.
But that wasn’t the only bang-up-to-date feature of the HCM’s undercarriage. In an era when most of the world’s automakers were just starting to analyze the pros and cons of independent front suspensions, Mr. Marmon and his team fitted the HCM with four-wheel independent suspension. As you can imagine, this gave the HCM handling characteristics that were, by Hoover Era standards, otherworldly. In a private test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, test drivers were reportedly able to hug the inside wall through the turns (It was right against the inside edge of the track in those days.) at a speed of 95 mph. What’s more, the ride quality was exquisite. And if you’re still not impressed with this chassis (which also utilized inboard rear brakes, a torque tube rather than a conventional driveshaft, and magnesium wheels), consider this: The first production car we can think of that combines a backbone chassis and fully-independent suspension is the original Lotus Elan. The Elan was introduced in 1962, 30 years after the HCM was completed. The first American production car with fully-independent suspension came one year after that in the form of the second generation Corvette, and even then it had a more-or-less normal chassis.
The O.G. Elan and Sting Ray ‘Vette also had cast iron engine blocks, whereas the HCM’s engine was, like the Sixteen’s, aluminum. In fact, the HCM’s 368 cubic-inch (6.0L) OHV V12 was made from a Sixteen’s V16 which had had the third- and second-from-the-rear cylinders in each bank removed (The banks themselves were separated at a 45° angle.) and the resulting V10 and V-twin were welded together. Peak output was 151hp and 262 lb.-ft of torque, which would be dreadful for such a big mill in 2013, but in the early 1930s, that was a huge amount of power for a 6.0L engine. For the sake of comparison, Ford’s new-for-’32 221 cubic-inch (3.6L) Flathead V8 produced 65hp. Power was transferred to a 3-speed manual transmission, which Marmon had originally planned to mount just ahead of the rear differential before moving it to the conventional location behind the engine, and the whole powertrain helped propel the HCM to a top speed of 113 mph.
Of course, at 113 mph, bystanders wouldn’t have much time to take in the HCM’s distinctive shape. The two-door sedan body was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague Jr., but as with the Sixteen, the credit officially went to his father, Walter Sr. The pontoon fenders, steeply raked windshield and integral trunk were just some of the departures from the norm, and wouldn’t become common on mass produced mainstream cars for another half-decade or so. But Teague’s original design was even more striking, with compact Woodlite headlights faired into the grille shell and no running boards at all; Marmon engineers, however, fitted conventional headlights (albeit faired into the fenders like on a Pierce-Arrow) and small steps under the doors. It might not be classically beautiful, but it’s a neat preview of trends that would emerge from the industry later.
The cabin, on the other hand, was fairly traditional. Plush leather on the seats, wood trim galore, and pull-down sunshades on the rear windows are just some of the creature comforts inside. Yes, getting into the back seat required squeezing between the B-pillars and the fold-forward front seatbacks, but a current BMW 6 Series or Mercedes-Benz CL has the same issue.
And speaking of issues, Marmon’s were mounting throughout the HCM’s development process. By the time the HCM was completed in the latter half of 1933, the company was in receivership…but not because of the HCM; Howard Marmon had spent an estimated $160,000 of his own money on developing the HCM, independently of the firm’s day-to-day operation with the aid of his best engineers and designers. When it became clear that the Marmon Motor Car Company would not be able to put the HCM in production, Howard Marmon and George H. Freers (the company’s final chief engineer) shopped the car around to other American automakers.
Sadly, every manufacturer to which they pitched the HCM rejected it. Some were probably concerned about tooling and manufacturing costs, and some were gun-shy about launching a new premium car (particularly one with radically advanced styling and engineering) in the midst of a Depression that would soon earn the title of Great, but most car companies probably passed on it because they were suffering from NIH: Not Invented Here.
Thus a bitter, broken Howard Marmon admitted defeat. With the company that bore his name evaporated, he withdrew to his estate in North Carolina, taking the lone HCM prototype with him, wrapping it in plastic, and parking it in his garage. Mr. Marmon died in 1943, and in the 70 years that have passed since, it has passed through a handful of subsequent owners. And hopefully, in a few weeks’ time, it will be going to its next owner. RM Auctions is offering the HCM V12 at its sale held in conjunction with the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida on Saturday, March 9. RM estimates the HCM will bring between $400,000 and $600,000, considerably less than the $891,000 the car’s previous caretaker, the late John O’Quinn, shelled out for it in 2007. And we think that’s just messed up, mang. An automobile like this – which was not only years (and, in some respects, decades) ahead of its time in terms of design and engineering, but also represented the last, defiant gasp of a dying marque and the brilliant, determined man running it – should be appreciating, not depreciating. But regardless of what “the market” thinks it’s worth, the Marmon HCM V12 will always have a spot in the Sub5Zero Fantasy Collection.