1937 Cord 812 Sportsman
1937 Cord 812 Sportsman. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Cord car was built by Errett Lobban Cord’s Auburn Automobile Company of Auburn, Indiana, from only 1929 to 1936, and with a hiatus at that. But it left a mark out of all proportion to its short production life. While Cords had advanced engineering features, they are remembered more for their style than for their technology.

E.L. Cord was born in 1894 in Warrensburg, Missouri, when the automobile industry in North America was just about to emerge, and he would come of age when it was starting to blossom. By the early 1920s, the ambitious and flamboyant young E.L., as he was popularly known, was selling Moon cars so successfully in Chicago that he was reputed to have an annual income of $30,000.

Cord was more ambitious, however, and with the opportunity for a principal position with Auburn, he left Moon in 1824 to join the troubled Auburn Automobile Company. The company had an unsold inventory of some 500 cars in its storage lot.

Recognizing the importance of style, Cord had the cars repainted in bright, appealing colours, and quickly sold the whole batch. His initial success in moving the Auburn inventory soon earned Cord control of the company, which he proceeded to turn around. He then began assembling an empire, which would become the Cord Corp. Among other enterprises, he acquired the Duesenberg Motor Company, an Indianapolis-based maker of large luxury cars, in 1926.

Cord wanted to produce a car bearing his name to fill the huge price gap between the moderate Auburn and the expensive Duesenberg. The result was the 1929 Cord L-29.

To keep its contours low, Cord stipulated that the L-29 have front-wheel-drive. He engaged Cornelius Van Ranst, one of the leading FWD engineers, to design it.

The L-29 became the first American front-driver to go into series production. The sleek silhouette and long hood attracted many coachbuilders, and the L-29 won several awards, including the 1930 Monaco Concours d’Elegance. It also became popular with Hollywood celebrities.

The Depression caused the L-29 to be discontinued in December 1931. The Cord Corp., in addition to Auburn and Duesenberg, now included Lycoming Engine Co., Columbia Axle Co., Checker Cab Manufacturing, and Century Airlines. But E.L. Cord wanted a new car to enhance its image.

Following months of rumours, E.L. announced in January 1934 that Cord would produce a new car “of radically advanced design, engineering and performance.”

Cord finally set his engineers and stylist Gordon Buehrig to work on the new car early in 1935, and with an all-out effort they had a prototype built by August. E.L. was delighted with it. While originally it was to be a Duesenberg, he decided that it would be a Cord instead, and ordered that production models be ready for the 1935 fall motor shows, a mere 15 weeks away.

It was an extremely short deadline, and the dedicated staff all but “banged together” the cars, as one exhausted worker recalled. Although the American Automobile Manufacturers Association required at least 100 cars to be built to qualify for display as a production model, E.L. blithely ignored the stipulation. The number of Cords ready was estimated to be as low as eleven.

The Cord 810, as it was called, was a sensation. Buehrig’s stunningly styled body incorporated all of the best contemporary features, and some daring new ones. The long hood had an unadorned yet elegant shape that somewhat resembled a coffin, earning the Cord its “coffin nose” nickname. The simple but effective grille was comprised of seven horizontal bars running completely around the front end from door to door.

The voluptuously rounded pontoon fenders housed industry-leading hidden pop-up headlamps. Door hinges were concealed, there were no running boards, and the interior featured a step-down design. A fastback rear end finished off the car.

The Cord carried some unusual engineering features. The Lycoming side-valve, 4.7-litre (289 cu. in.) 125 hp V-8 drove the front wheels through a four-speed pre-selector transmission. Unit construction was used from the cowl back, and the wheelbase was a generous 3,175 mm (125 in.).

The Cord 810 was hailed by the public, and although buyers were promised cars by Christmas, it was April 1936 before restive customers began getting them.

When they did arrive, the results of the rushed development became evident. There were engine overheating problems, and the transmission often didn’t stay in gear. This, plus a high price, resulted in the sale of only 1,174 1936 Cords.

Supercharging was optional for the 1937 Cord 812, which raised horsepower to a reputed 170. Despite the addition of two new models, only 1,146 of the ’37s found buyers. Production ceased at that time, and the body dies were later used for equally ill-fated Hupmobiles and Grahams.

E.L. Cord, who went on to other endeavours, died in 1974, but his legacy lives on in the beautiful cars he produced. They have a cherished place in history, and are valuable collectibles.

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