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The 1936-1937 Cord


A 1937 812 Cord in Museum specifications

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"It didn't look like an automobile. Somehow it looked like a beautiful thing that had been born and just grew up on the highway."

These words were used by someone seeing a Cord for the first time. The Cord 810/812 models of 1936 and 1937 were some of the most visually striking cars of all time, and were the most mechanically advanced of their day. They were also the last products of an underfunded company scrambling to survive the Great Depression. It was an effort doomed to fail. Only 1174 of the 1936 model, called the 810, were produced. For 1937 the model name was changed to 812, and production actually declined to 1146. In the end stunning design and innovative engineering could not overcome production delays, mechanical bugs, and the declining market for cars in the Cord's price range. Auburn Automobile Company, the Cord's parent, filed for bankruptcy in December 1937, leaving behind 2320 cars to be coveted by future collectors and enthusiasts.

In the brief history of the 810/812 Cords two names stand out--Errett Lobban Cord and Gordon Buehrig. E.L. Cord was first and foremost a salesman, both of products and of himself. In 1924, after achieving great success as an automobile distributor, Cord sold the board of the Auburn Automobile Company on the idea that he was just the man to revive their slumbering enterprise. He delivered on his promises. By 1929 Auburn sales had increased fifteen-fold and E.L. was the head of an empire. His Cord Corporation owned Lycoming Mfg. Co. (engines), Limousine Body Co. and Central Mfg. Co. (auto bodies), Century Airlines, and Duesenberg, among others. Cord's philosophy of automobile design (and salesmanship) might be summed up in two words: Novelty Sells. His Auburns were mechanically ordinary, but outstanding styling and clever paint combinations made them hot sellers. In 1929 he oversaw the introduction of the fabulous Model J Duesenberg, a car whose combination of size, cost, performance, and style was and is unmatched in American automotive history. The same year also saw E.L.'s most novel car yet, the Cord L-29. It was the first American production car to feature front-wheel drive. This allowed the car to be much lower than other cars of the era. That, coupled with a very long hood, made the L-29 one of the most rakish, visually striking cars on the market. But 1929 saw the stockmarket crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. The market for cars like the L-29 came to an end. Production was phased out in 1932.

Mr. Buehrig at his drafting table in 1984. Gordon Buehrig crossed paths with E.L. Cord in the summer of 1929 when Buehrig was hired as chief stylist at Duesenberg. Only 25 years old at the time, he had accumulated design and coachbuilding experience at a variety of body and auto companies, including Harley Earl's newly-created Art & Colour Section at General Motors. Between 1929 and 1933 Buehrig created many of the striking body designs for which Duesenberg became famous. In 1933, with the Depression taking its toll on super luxury cars like Duesenberg, Buehrig returned to General Motors. Here he participated in one of the design competitions Harley Earl periodically held to stimulate the creativity of his stylists. Far different from the standard look of the time, Buehrig's design had a coffin-shaped nose and horizontal hood louvers that contrasted sharply with the upright grilles that were then typical. The hood, coupled with flowing pontoon fenders and hidden headlights, put the car on the cutting edge of the streamlined look. Buehrig's fellow stylists thought his design the winner, but Earl and the other GM executives placed Buehrig's radical car last. Later in 1933 Duesenberg president Harold Ames invited Buehrig back to style a "baby Duesenberg" intended to fill the price gap between the awesomely expensive Model J Duesenberg and the middle-priced Auburn. Buehrig's GM design contest entry became the basis of the "baby Duesenberg" design.

The running prototype of the new Duesenberg was finished by April of 1934. But in July, the parameters changed. The new car would not be a Duesenberg but a Cord. In keeping with the legacy of the L-29 it would be front wheel drive and powered by a newly designed V8 engine from Lycoming. Working furiously, Buehrig's small team completed the design by December. The next six months would demonstrate just how close to disaster the Cord Corporation actually was. Lack of money caused the new car to be shelved again, but by July of 1935 the sale of kitchen cabinets made by one of Cord Corporation's divisions provided just enough cash flow to revive the project. The bad news was that E.L. Cord wanted the car introduced at the New York Auto Show on November 2, 1935. Buehrig himself later summed up the consequences of this decision:

"This left three months and 26 days to pick up the Cord program where it had been stopped the first of January and to build and test a prototype, complete tooling and have production cars ready for the show. It was an impossible task, and although it was accomplished (after a fashion) it was not done well and the results were so financially crippling that it eventually put the company out of business." (Special Interest Autos April 1989)

cord crest The cars that went to the auto show were hand-built but not drivable because the tooling for the new four-speed transmissions was not ready. Nevertheless, the stunning styling was the hit of the show, and Cord salesmen took numerous orders. Alas, the factory was not ready to fill them. New Cords did not come off the line until February 15, 1936, and even these had numerous bugs. Transmissions unexpectedly popped out of gear; engines overheated; front universal joints were excessively noisy. Eventually these problems were worked out, but the damage had been done. The fabulous Cord never made a profit, and production ended in August 1937. Auburn itself filed for bankruptcy in December, and it was all over.

In the end the everything conspired against the success of the Cord. The long delay between introduction and production, the early mechanical problems, the precarious financial state of Auburn itself all made potential buyers leery. The Cord's price further reduced the pool of potential customers. A good $500 more than Cadillac's most popular series, and it was in the vicinity of Packard's Super 8. But even that market was shrinking. Buehrig's Cord could not save E.L.'s empire, but automotive enthusiasts would come to regard it as one of the great classics of all time.

About our Car: This car was donated to Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in April, 1957 by Lawrence Lowell Reeve of Manchester, Massachusetts. The car is a Phaeton, one of two convertible models available in 1937. The other was the Cabriolet, a two-passenger version also called the Sportsman.

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