Million Dollar Baby

By John Lutsch

‘Johnny Risko in his prime’ photo courtesy

Occasionally, great classic cars are like comets; they burn brightly across the night sky, remain for a short time, then continue on their unseen and mysterious journey. Such is the case with our featured car, a 1929 Auburn 8-120 Speedster, originally owned by professional boxer Johnny Risko of Sheffield Lake, Ohio.


‘1929 Auburn Boattail Speedster arrives in Sheffield’ Photo by John Lutsch


‘Distinctive ‘boat-tail’ of the Johnny Risko Speedster’ Photo by John Lutsch

Risko, now largely forgotten, was a sports superstar in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, going toe-to-toe and sometimes beating boxing legends like Gene Tunney, Max Baer, and Max Schmelling. He became known as the ‘Rubber Man’ because of his ability to take a punch and keep coming forward. In approximately 140 fights, he was stopped only three times, and counted out only once, when he was 38 years old.

Because of his success, Risko could afford the finer things in life, one being the purchase of a new 1929 Auburn Speedster. When most cars of the period were capable of speeds in the 40 mph range, the Auburn could push nearly 100 mph. Risko, although a great boxer was an average driver, who promptly wrecked the car. Undaunted, he purchased another 1929 Speedster, drove more carefully, and kept the car until his death in 1953. From that point on, the Speedster became the proverbial comet, hidden from view in a Lodi, Ohio barn from 1956 until Auburn enthusiast Alan J. Atkinson of Houston, Texas recently discovered it while purchasing another Auburn from the the owner.

The Speedster was then sent to Doug Pray of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Co. in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma for a complete restoration. 3000 man-hours later, the Auburn was ready for the show circuit. On September 4th  the Speedster gained top honors at the prestigious Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival, and on October 9th, took a top award at the AACA Hershey Fall Meet. Immediately afterward, Mr. Atkinson transported the car to a gathering of Johnny Risko’s remaining relatives in Sheffield Lake, where the Speedster became the instant center of attention. Family members were encouraged to sit in the car for photographs, and October 10th was named ‘Johnny Risko Day’ by Sheffield Lake’s mayor.

The 8-120 Speedster is a true work of art in the automobile world. The steeply raked windscreen and unmistakable ‘boat-tail’ bodywork distinguish it clearly from its contemporaries. The silver-over-blue paint scheme fits the car perfectly, and the subtle bordeaux-rust paintwork on the wheels provides a subtle counterpoint. In a word, the car is stunning. A dove gray leather interior complements the styling beautifully. In later developments of the Auburn Speedster, the ‘boat-tail’ is present, but the fenders are faired more completely into the surrounding bodywork. The early versions, like the Risko car, are certainly more distinctive, and arguably more dramatic.

So, is this 1929 Auburn Speedster a true ‘Million Dollar Baby’? Perhaps not quite yet, but it certainly is within spitting distance of that seven figure number. It was, for a brief moment in October, a blazing comet that burned its way into our collective memory as an incredible automobile, and a living testament to the life and career of a local sports legend.

*Special thanks to Crawford volunteer Stan Kohn for making us aware of the Auburn’s appearance in Northeast Ohio.

‘Painting by Ed Tillrock of Madison Square Garden, March 24, 1930, With Johnny and his Speedster’