A Brief History of the Cord Automobile: The Coolest Car You Never Knew Existed

1937 812 Cabriolet

1937 Cord 812 Cabriolet

What if you learned that there was a car that debuted in the 1960s with front-wheel drive, a supercharged V-8, chrome-plated side-exhaust pipes, hidden headlights, and a disappearing convertible top?

And what if you then learned that this car in fact was introduced not in the 1960s, but a full three decades earlier, in the 1930s? We’re referring here to the revolutionary Cord. No, not a Ford—or an Accord—but a Cord: quite possibly the coolest car you’ve never heard of. And it all began 85 years ago, in the town of Auburn, Indiana, about 140 miles northeast of Indianapolis…

As 1929 approached, things were looking good for Errett Lobban Cord and the empire he had created. The portfolio of his Cord Corporation included flashy Auburn automobiles, Lycoming engines, Stinson aircraft, Checker taxicabs, and even the mighty Duesenberg among its offerings, but Cord was an auto manufacturer without a namesake marque.

He rectified the situation in June 1929 with the introduction of the Cord L-29—the first front-wheel-drive automobile sold in the American market—and one that offered dramatically different styling. A Lycoming straight-eight engine, modified to drive a front-mounted transaxle assembly, provided power. This radically different layout offered unprecedented lowness and a long hood, both of which enabled designer Alan H. Leamy to create one of the loveliest cars of the day.

1930 Cord L-29

1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet

The price for the L-29 was $3000 (about $42,000 in today’s dollars)—more expensive than pricing for the Auburn lineup but far less than the lofty Duesenberg J; the running chassis of the J alone (bodywork was sold separately) retailed for $8500 (about $118,250 today). The L-29 was available in four body styles: sedan, brougham (a formal sedan with a padded top, often driven by a chauffeur), convertible sedan, and convertible coupe.

Although praised for its handling qualities, the L-29’s engine was located so far behind the driven front wheels that it suffered from poor traction. In addition, it wasn’t all that fast: The Lycoming straight-eight produced 125 horsepower, but the top speed was in the vicinity of just 80 mph.

Initial sales were brisk as the summer of 1929 turned to fall, but in the end, timing played a cruel hand: The stock-market crash in late October poured cold water on sales of the sporty L-29; in all, Cord sold roughly 5000 examples before production ended on December 31, 1931. The numbers weren’t disastrous—especially for a pricey car launched on the eve of the Great Depression—but ultimately, sales volume was insufficient to justify keeping the L-29 in production.

1937 812 Cabriolet

1937 Cord 812 Cabriolet

About the same time that the L-29 saga was taking place, the next chapter of Cord’s history was germinating at General Motors. Gordon Buehrig had been the chief body designer for Duesenberg since 1929, but by 1933, declining sales caused him to move on to General Motors. There, for an internal design competition, he created a streamlined sedan featuring a blunt nose, externally mounted radiators, and concealed headlamps. The design placed last with styling boss Harley Earl and other GM executives but finished first among Buehrig’s fellow competing designers.

Soon after that, Duesenberg president Harold Ames lured Buehrig back to the company to have him develop a lower-priced companion to the Duesenberg J. In short order, however, the Duesenberg idea was out and Buehrig’s futuristic model became the Cord 810 of 1936, one of the truly outstanding classics of the era.

Long and low, the front-wheel-drive Cord 810 had a conventional radiator but retained Buehrig’s concealed headlamps and blunt “coffin nose” front end with wraparound vertical bars. Under the hood was a 125-horsepower Lycoming V-8 mated to a four-speed gearbox actuated by a Bendix Electric Hand shifter.

The interior of the 810 was equally as daring as its exterior, with an aircraft-inspired instrument panel that featured an engine-turned aluminum fascia and introduced edge-lit instrumentation, which used a luminous dye applied to the edges of the glass of the dials to illuminate them. There were cranks for the headlamps at each end of the instrument panel, with the Bendix electric gear selector located on the steering column.

1936 810 Westchester Sedan

1936 Cord 810 Westchester Sedan

Cord offered the 810 as a sedan as well as two- and four-place convertibles. As beautiful and innovative as the cars were, the company lacked the necessary capital to properly develop them and bring them to market; the goal of producing 1000 cars per month never materialized. The 1937 model, renamed the 812 but virtually identical to the 810, added two long-wheelbase sedans and an optional supercharger with chrome-plated side exhausts snaking out of the hood.

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While the design would prove timeless, time had run out for Cord. Some 3000 of the 810/812 series were made before production came to a halt in August 1937. By then, Cord himself had cashed out his ownership of the company and retired to California.

Before the end of December, the company was in bankruptcy and the revolutionary Cord automobile became a fascinating footnote in automotive history. The design and engineering would resonate and inspire for decades, however, and to this day Cord automobiles enjoy an enthusiastic following of both owners and admirers.

A Brief History of the Cord Automobile: The Coolest Car You Never Knew Existed

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