by Angelo Van Bogart
Lee Harris likes Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs. His brother, Tommy Harris, is into military vehicles, heavy trucks, and one-off vehicles of that sort. Their father, Will Harris, is a collector of quirky Corbitt trucks. And yet, they were able to find one vehicle that fit all of their passions. That truck is probably the only one of its kind. Until the Harris brothers tracked it down and presented it to their dad for Father’s Day 2018, most people didn’t think the truck existed at all.
Will Harris grew up in Henderson, N.C., the home of Corbitt Motor Truck Co. The first vehicle he drove was fittingly a Corbitt truck built in his hometown. That first drive at the age of 13 left a lasting impression on him. He has since built a collection of Corbitt trucks housed near his present home in Virginia.
Will never expected his collection would include an elusive “Auburn Corbitt,” one of those Corbitt trucks built in the mid to late 1930s that used 1934 Auburn passenger car sheet metal. Sporting 1934 Auburn front fenders, hood, and radiator shell atop a Corbitt chassis, these trucks are especially striking in appearance. The driver sat in a cab built from a closed 1934 Auburn body and faced a metal 1934 Auburn instrument panel that had been slightly modified to accept fewer gauges.
“I’ve been a Corbitt collector all my life. I got my first Corbitt when I was 13 years old — and still have it, but this is the rarest of rare Corbitts,” Will Harris said of the Auburn-bodied Corbitt his sons recently gave to him.
CORBITT GETS CLASSY
Corbitt entered the transportation business in 1899 by building buggies and then it built passenger cars beginning in 1907, but only until 1913. From that point, Corbitt focused on building relatively small runs of trucks — big trucks — and so utilizing passenger car sheet metal on one of its heavy-duty truck chassis in the mid 1930s was a striking juxtaposition. That was especially true since the styling of Auburns was often considered to be beautiful. However, the beauty of the 1934 Auburn’s art deco styling has been questioned since the cars were new, at least within the Auburn Automobile Co. (AAC) itself.
Harold Ames, executive vice president of the AAC, was a vocal opponent of the 1934 Auburn styling that had been drawn up by Alan Leamy, one of the company’s in-house designers. Shortly after the 1934 Auburns made their debut, Ames ordered Gordon Buehrig, another Cord Corp. in-house designer, to dramatically alter the styling of Auburn models. Buehrig changed the fenders, hood panels and radiator shell for the 1935 Auburn models, but because of Auburn’s limited funds, kept the 1934 Auburn passenger compartment. This new 1935 styling debuted very early, during the regular 1934 selling season, and so Leamy’s 1934 Auburn design wasn’t given a full selling season to prove itself.
Compared to more mainline vehicles, relatively little is known about the Corbitt Motor Truck Co., how it obtained the Auburn bodies for its trucks and its production numbers of those trucks. In their book The Complete Encyclopedia of Commercial Vehicles, authors G.N. Georgano and G. Marshall Naul call 1946 Corbitt production of more than 600 trucks a “boom.”
Perhaps, because of the 1934 Auburn’s abbreviated production, Corbitt was able to obtain leftover Auburn sheet metal for its presumably small truck production. Since Corbitt had never built trucks at a scale anywhere near that of General Motors, Ford Motor Co., or Chrysler Corp., it probably expected the available 1934 Auburn sheet metal to be sufficient.
The lone known source for period information on the Auburn-bodied Corbitt trucks comes from a clipping headlined “New Corbitt Line Stylish” from a now-unknown publication. It states, “Five new truck models replace the previous series of trucks made by the Corbitt Co., Henderson, N.C. The new models known as 1146, 1148, 1348, 1148T, and 1348T, have an especially pleasing appearance.” It then goes on to gush about the truck’s styling features (though it does not credit Auburn) before providing details on the Corbitt’s mechanical features:
“The 1148T and the 1348T are tractor models. Both have aluminum cylinder heads and the 1348T has duplex downdraft carburetion. All other models have single downdraft carburetors. All but the 1146 have 8-cylinder engines.
“Four speed transmissions are standard on all models except the 1348T which has a five speed gear box with a direct drive in high. The horsepower of the 1146 which has a six cylinder engine with a bore of 3-1/16 in. and a stroke of 4-3/4 in. is 82 at 3500 r.p.m. and the torque is 160 lb. ft. The eight cylinder engine 3-1/16 x 4-3/4 in. used in all the other models developes [sic] 93 hp. at 3500 r.p.m. except when the aluminum head is fitted. The aluminum head raises the compression ratio from 5.3 to 1, to 6.2 to 1 with the result that the horsepower is raised to 110 at 3500 r.p.m. and the torque jumps from 183 lb. ft. to 210 lb. ft.”
TRACKING A FATHER’S DAY GIFT
The Harris family isn’t quite sure of the model year of their Corbitt, but they know the truck is powered by a six-cylinder Waukesha, making it a Corbitt Model 1146. A Waukesha engine plaque on the firewall states the powerplant was built in March 1935. It’s just one of many mysteries they have yet to solve now that the biggest mystery is behind them: Actually finding the truck.
“Well, we initially found the Corbitt through a photo that a friend had sent me,” said Lee Harris. “Over dinner, he showed me [a recent] photo of what he thinks is possibly an ‘Auburn Corbitt.’ I asked him where he found it and he said he found it on the internet.
“I went home and did a Google search for this image...I eventually tracked down this specific photo, but I couldn’t’ find out when it was taken or where it was taken.”
Lee Harris eventually joined truck-focused online forums in order to find the source of the image. When he finally was able to find and contact the photographer of that modern photo of the Auburn-bodied Corbitt, the photographer only remembered that he had taken it somewhere in Maine.
“From there, I went onto Google Earth, and I searched and searched [online] until I found an area that looks like the area this picture was taken in,” Lee said. “I was able to figure it out from looking at some buildings in the background. It took me several nights of searching Google Earth.”
As luck would have it, Lee’s brother, Tommy, was going to tour truck collections in Maine the next week.Lee asked him to search for the truck in the location that he had pinpointed on the internet. Before he left, Tommy hooked a trailer onto the back of his truck. Once in Maine, he made a side trip to the town where his brother thought the Corbitt was parked. Sure enough, it was parked along the main two-lane road through town, right where Lee said it might be!
Finding the truck may have been a difficult task, but getting the owner to part with it proved nearly as insurmountable. The Harrises learned that a few Corbitt truck and Auburn collectors already knew about the truck, but they wouldn’t share or didn’t know its exact location. They did share their unsuccessful experiences in trying to buy it, along with the rumor that the owner said he would run it over with a bulldozer before he would ever sell it.
As Tommy Harris approached the Corbitt from his truck, he saw the owner walking through the yard and realized that his timing was perfect. He approached the owner and inquired about the truck with full knowledge of earlier would-be purchasers’ experiences.
“It sounded like he wasn’t going to sell it, and he told me that he didn’t take those offers from others,” Tommy Harris said. “He told me what those offers were, and I didn’t think I could come anywhere close to competing with them ... I left discouraged. I didn’t even throw out an offer when I was there.”
While visiting with the Corbitt’s owner, Tommy told the man about his family and their passion for such vehicles. Perhaps that’s why when he called the Corbitt owner shortly after leaving, the owner quickly returned his call and Tommy made a U-turn.
“Based on my encounter with the guy, I thought he might end up keeping it until it rotted into the ground.” Tommy said. “After I left, I got agitated with myself for not throwing out an offer. Even though the truck was really rough, my father has passion for Corbitts ... Out of love for him, I called the guy back, but I didn’t get him. I wasn’t expecting him to return the call, but he did. I threw a number out, and he accepted it.”
Lee says he thinks Tommy spent every dollar he had in his wallet to buy the Corbitt and didn’t leave himself enough money to buy lunch on the way home. But the brothers finally had the truck. Now they just needed to figure out how to present it to their father.
“He brought it back and we kept it secret for over a week,” Lee said. “We just parked the trailer where my dad wasn’t going to find it and debated on whether to keep the thing for a year and give it to him for Christmas. Father’s Day was around the corner, so we decided we would unveil it then.”
“Both of them were very diligent in putting it together, and I was just spellbound when I saw it in the yard — it was just amazing,” said Will Harris.
“The truck is in pretty rough shape, but it’s remarkably complete considering it was sitting outside,” Will continued. “We are pretty excited. We kind of had talked about this [truck] for years and never had any idea we would have an opportunity to acquire it ... or that it would show up in my backyard.”
The Harris men believe the truck was first used by the U.S. Navy. Indeed, Corbitt often supplied trucks to the armed forces beginning in 1933. Instead of the Auburn front bumper found on the few surviving “Auburn Corbitt” images, this truck has a heavy-duty front push bumper. It also had canvas side curtains instead of roll-up windows, and “U.S. Navy” can still be faintly read on the doors, along with an almost illegible military registration number.
Will Harris said that he has several Corbitt trucks that could use attention, but this truck has moved to the front of the line for restoration. He expects he and his sons will each have a role in returning it to new condition.
“We made a pact that we’re going to get this one done pretty quick,” he said. “We’re actually having a great debate on how we’re going to fix it up (military or civilian). It was originally painted [U.S. Navy] gray. We are kind of leaning toward that gray.
“We are just very excited to have it. The man who sold it didn’t have to sell it to [Tommy], but he did. He appreciated it having a good home.”