The Cord automobile, in its two forms, was one of the most innovative and wildly different motorcars of its time, a suitable namesake for equally innovative transportation industrialist E.L. Cord. It was Cord’s leadership that brought the Auburn Automobile Company to its most inventive peak.
Cord came to Auburn, Indiana in 1924 at age 30 to rescue the floundering Auburn Automobile Company, then owned by a group of Chicago investors which included chewing gum mogul William K. Wrigley, Jr. Cord had captured their attention as a dynamic salesman for the Moon Motorcar Company in Chicago, where his sales had accounted for 60 percent of all Moons sold. Instead of a salary, Cord struck a deal with the investors that included 20 percent of the profits, options to buy all common stock, and total decision-making control. In the next five years, Cord would turn the Auburn Automobile Company around. As Auburn sales soared, Cord realized he could not compete with the giants of automaking: Ford; General Motors; and Chrysler; so he looked for the right niche for his company. He was quoted as saying, “If you can’t be the biggest, it pays to be different.” Such a philosophy helped to spawn two renowned classics, the Cord L-29 and the Cord 810/812.
Cord was profoundly influenced by the 1925 Indianapolis 500 race, where a front-wheel-drive car, produced by Harry Miller, came in second to a powerful Duesenberg. Thoughts of a revolutionary new passenger car, utilizing front-wheel drive, danced in Cord’s head. The advantages were obvious – a lower height in the absence of a drive shaft, less wind resistance in the frontal area, and better handling - especially on the corners, with a lower center of gravity. Besides the technological advantages, the car’s low-slung appearance was fabulous – spectacular styling could be achieved.
Auburn’s success made Cord look to expand the company’s product line and he was soon looking at Duesenberg Motors in Indianapolis. He obtained the financially struggling company by an exchange of stock and got the engineering genius of Fred Duesenberg in the bargain.
Cord bought the passenger car patent and manufacturing rights to the front-wheel-drive designs of Harry Miller in the fall of 1926. Auburn Automobile Company paid Miller $1,000 per month for five years, plus a royalty on every front-wheel-drive car sold. Miller was to build the prototype and provide consulting services.
Miller had the foresight to bring in Cornelius W. VanRanst on the project. VanRanst was a gifted engineer and former Indianapolis 500 driver, and he solved many of the problems associated with the new front-wheel-drive car. The prototype was finished in November 1927 in California, and Cord flew there to test-drive the car. The prototype, powered by a Lycoming straight-eight engine and styled with a modified Auburn sedan body, had several problems during the testing. Cord and VanRanst took the prototype to the Duesenberg building in Indianapolis where Duesenberg’s personnel, along with Auburn chief engineer Herb Snow, worked out the kinks.
Cord also knew that his namesake creation must have stunning good looks to match the mechanical innovations. He turned to Alan H. Leamy to create the body for the new car. Leamy, described as a brilliant artist by both his peers and automotive historians, wanted to create the car as a single unit with the exterior, interior and mechanics all working together as a harmonious entity. Leamy was given an environment conducive to fresh thinking and experimentation and the result was a masterpiece of automotive grace and proportion.
An advertising firm created the Cord family crest as a logo to crown the finished car, available as a sedan, cabriolet, phaeton and brougham. The line was introduced in June 1929, making the Cord L-29 the first American front-wheel-drive production car available to the public. The price ranged from $3,095 to $3,295, putting the L-29 in the same class as Cadillac, Packard and the Chrysler Imperial. Sales were brisk as summer faded into fall.
Things would change practically overnight. The stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929, and overnight most of the potential buyers of the sensational Cord L-29 were financially obliterated. Anyone left with wealth was leery of buying an expensive car, let alone one that was unproven, unusual and sensational in appearance. Despite price cuts of as much as $700, sales never took off, and L-29 production in Auburn, Indiana, came to a halt in December 1931. A manufacturing span of 31 months produced a total run of barely more than 5,000 cars.
The year 1931 proved to be a pivotal year for the Auburn Automobile Company. After a banner sales year, the company lost almost $1 million in 1932. Company executives were desperate to stem the tide of red ink and considered the introduction of a “baby Duesenberg” to appeal to a wider audience. Body designer Gordon Buehrig, formerly of Duesenberg, was enticed from General Motors to work on a prototype.
The prototype was to be a conventional rear-wheel-drive car with a straight-eight engine, but in the work process, it evolved into a technically advanced car with a V-8 engine, front-wheel drive and independent front suspension. Buehrig created a unique and timeless body shape to envelope the avant-garde mechanics, and the Cord Model 810 was born. Customers could choose from three body styles: four-door sedan, phaeton or convertible coupe, each with a 125-inch wheelbase.
The Cord 810 might not have ever touched the road without a bit of luck. The nearly bankrupt Auburn Automobile Company hit financial paydirt when it landed a contract with Montgomery Ward to build kitchen cabinets in its Connersville, Indiana plant. Such luck provided the half-million dollars needed to develop the Cord 810.
The company was desperate to introduce the new car at the New York Auto Show in November 1935. Every employee in engineering and design worked long hours to meet the deadline, even as the Auburn car was facing extinction.
The breathtaking Cord 810 was a colossal hit at the New York show, with its unique styling and advanced technology. Crowds of people stood on the running boards of other show entries just to get a look at the Cord. Orders poured in, and the company promised delivery by Christmas 1935. The cars would be built at the Connersville, Indiana factory.
However, the car and its assembly had numerous problems, delaying production until the middle of February 1936. Many impatient customers withdrew their orders, and the ones who waited received a car with problems. In the rush to meet production schedules, Cord engineers didn’t have the time to correct the car’s flaws, such as engine overheating, noisy U-joints and a recalcitrant transmission shifting mechanism. The Cord 810 quickly achieved a reputation as a troublesome car.
Fewer than 1,600 Cord 810s were built in the 1936 model year, and only 1,100 of them sold. Leftover 810s would be rebadged as 812s and sold as 1937 models.
Customers were offered a supercharged engine and a long wheelbase Custom series in 1937. The Switzer-Cummins Company of Indianapolis provided the optional supercharger, which greatly enhanced the Cord’s Lycoming V-8 in acceleration and top speed capabilities. The supercharged Cords could be identified by the external exhaust pipes protruding from the sides of the hood and running through the fenders. The Custom series was an attempt to address customer demands for more head room and rear seat room in the sedan models, with the wheelbase lengthened to 132 inches.
However, the end was near for Cord Corporation. Sales plummeted despite new models, additional options and continued improvements. The last car manufactured by Cord Corporation rolled off the assembly line in August 1937. Production of the Cord 810/812 reached a total of about 3,000 cars.