My Cords

Josh Malks's


Q.What was so special about the Cord, anyway?
A. What the maker called "The New Cord Front Drive" was the only front wheel drive car built in America in that era. (An earlier Cord was manufactured from 1929 to 1932.) Today, front drive has triumphed as the preferred method of propulsion the world over. In a 1936 model, it was a curiosity.

What made the Cord 810 immortal, though, was it's stunning styling. To appreciate the impact, you must see it next to other 1936 American cars . The Cord stood nearly a foot lower than the rest. It had (and needed) no running boards. It's headlights were concealed in the front fenders. It had no radiator-like grille --- just continuous louvers around the front and side of the hood. That hood opened from the front. There were few protuberances and almost no chrome on the exterior. Its twin taillights were flush with the body, and its gas filler was covered by a lid. The horn blew by touching a ring, and the engine-turned dash panel included a tachometer. Interiors were done in rich broadcloth and leather, in colors contrasting with the paint.

Sure, those features all became commonplace on American cars over the following decades --- but the Cord was first. And, still one of the beautiful integrated body designs ever to grace a production car!

Q.What company built the Cord?
A. The 1936 and 1937 Cords, like the 1929-32 models that preceded them, were manufactured by the Auburn Automobile Company. The company had offices and manufacturing facilities in Auburn and Connersville IN.

Auburn was a subsidiary of the Cord Corporation, established by 33-year-old Errett Lobban Cord in 1929 as a holding company for his many transportation enterprises. Some of those company names are still well-known today. Airplane enthusiasts will recognize Lycoming, engine-builder for all of the corporation's cars. Hot rodders know Columbia Axle. Checker Cab was a corporate division. So were New York Shipbuilding, Duesenberg, Incorporated, and many others. (Cord's Century Airlines was his stepping stone to the creation and control of American Airways, today known as American Airlines.)

Q. Most of the Cords I've seen are convertibles. Did they make many sedans?
A. Actually, over three quarters of all the 810-812 Cords built were sedans! About 50% of these were the 'fastback' Westchester sedan, considered by many (especially stylist Gordon Buehrig) to be the best of the Cords artistically. (The Beverly sedan for 1936 was a fastback design too. For 1937 Beverlys, a 'bustle' trunk was welded over the deck lid opening, to provide more luggage space.)

When the collector car boom began in the 1970s, sedans of every make were often cannibalized for parts for the higher-priced open cars. As a result, Cord (and other) sedans became relatively rarer than original production figures would indicate.

Q. What's the purpose of the pipes coming out of the hoods of some Cords?
A. Those are actually functioning exhaust pipes. (If you're standing next to a running Cord, don't idly lean on the pipes!) Nearly all of the supercharged cars shipped in 1937 had these external exhaust pipes . Their practical function was supposed to be the lowering of underhood temperatures by getting the hot pipes outdoors. Their real purpose was to serve as an identifying mark for the supercharged cars. (All the Cord Corporation's cars did this, including the supercharged Auburn 851s and 852s, and the Duesenberg SJ.)

Q. I've read that the Cord 810 is such a brilliant design because it was designed by an invidual, not by a committee. Is this so?
A. It is true that the Cord was produced exactly as the stylists created it, without the interference of management or sales people. It's also true that the design was the product of the talented sculpting hands of stylist Gordon Miller Buehrig, then 30 years of age. His original style was for a small Duesenberg-to-be, but only a prototype was built. Transferred to Auburn, another division of the Cord Corporation, Buehrig used the same germ of an idea to create a 1/4th scale clay model for a new front wheel drive car. Buehrig did have the help of a skilled design team, as he freely acknowledged. (One of these was Vincent Edward Gardner, an awesome talent even at the age of 22.) But it was Buehrig's concept, and his brilliant integration of the design, that created the Cord's timeless lines.

Q.Why did the company go out of business?
A. Well, technically, it didn't. In September 1937 E.L. Cord sold his interests in the Cord Corporation to a group of financiers headed by Victor Emmanuel. They began selling off unprofitable subsidiaries, and changing the product 'mix' of others. (That's not unlike what goes on today.) They ordered the Auburn Automobile Company to cease its unprofitable automobile production, and placed the company in receivership. Since the only car Auburn was still building was the Cord 812, that was the end of the Cord as a production car.

Auburn continued as a manufacturer through World War II and into the 1950s, changing names as it went along. Kitchen cabinets, outsourced stampings for GM trucks, wings and fuselage parts for bombers, and bodies and trailers for most of the jeeps that fought around the world rolled from the same Connersville IN assembly lines that once produced Cords. (Howard Darrin rented space to build his Packard Darrins there, too.)

Q. Weren't Graham Hollywoods and Hupp Skylarks built from the same body dies as the Cord?
A. When Auburn went into receivership, its automotive assets were sold to various parties. One Norman Devaux bought the body dies and the many stampings that had been completed but never used. He struck a deal with the dying Hupp Motor Corporation to use the dies to produce a low-priced car. Graham Motors entered the picture in a last-ditch attempt to save both car companies: similar bodies with different drive trains would be produced on the same (Graham) assembly line. The concept was too complicated, too little, and too late. Fewer Skylarks and Hollywoods were built than Cords!

Q. Did the public reject the Cord because it was too far ahead of its time?
A. Nope. Actually, the public embraced the Cord in numbers unanticipated even by Auburn! The company simply couldn't produce a reliable car fast enough, and the original customer base evaporated. The Cord was the sensation of the auto shows in November 1935. Over 7000 requests for information were received. Salespeople took deposits for hundreds of cars at the shows.

Alas, the untested Cord was rushed into production. The first cars came off the line less than 90 days after the shows. The transmission slipped out of gear under load, and vapor lock reared its ugly head as warmer weather arrived. Potential buyers deserted in droves, although the factory received rave letters from some satisfied owners. The transmission problem was cured a few months later. Vapor lock remained a problem.

Q. The Cord was probably the first production car with disappearing headlights. How were they operated --- electric? vacuum?
A. None of the above. A little crank on each side of the dash opens and closes each headlight individually. A flexible cable --- like a thick speedometer cable --- transmits the drive to a worm and sector gear in the headlamp housing. It's been written that this drive was used because Auburn didn't have time to develop a motorized system. Not so. Dale Cosper, of Auburn's styling team, said that they tried several electric motor and vacuum arrangements. The crank version was chosen because it was the most reliable!

Q. The front-wheel drive Model 810 Cord was a rather revolutionary car. How much testing did it get before it went to market?
A. Actually, aside from some frantic drives around Indiana roads, the only road test of the Cord 810 prototype was a 3 1/2 day dash to Los Angeles for E.L. Cord's inspection, and an equally rapid return. Considering, the fact that the Cord turned out as well as it did is a tribute to those Auburn engineers!          

Q. The supercharged Cord held some stock car speed records at over 100 mph. I understand that this engine was rated at 170hp. Seems like it would have taken a lot more than that to propel a 4000+ pound car to that speed. Were those Cords really stock?
A. Those records were set by a supercharged Beverly sedan in September 1937 at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The were clocked by the Contest Board of AAA, which also meticulously inspected and certified the cars as stock. Among other records this Cord did the flying mile at 107.66mph, and 24 hours at an average of 101.22mph.

It's the advertised horsepower rating that causes the misunderstanding. The first couple of test supercharged engines showed 175bhp on Lycoming's dynamometer. Cam grind and timing were then tweaked a bit, and Lycoming charts show that production engines pulled 186-195bhp. (For some reason, Auburn always used the 170hp figure in ads.) The great Augie Duesenberg headed the Cord racing crew. It's not unreasonable to expect that a stock engine, carefully 'blueprinted' by Augie, could produce well over 200hp.

E-mail your questions --- more FAQs will be posted regularly