The 1936-1937 Cord 810/812 had every hallmark of success: advanced engineering, innovative styling, exciting performance. Yet all were squandered in an ill-fated rush to production. Long hailed as one of the most influential cars of the 1930s -- perhaps of all time -- it nevertheless stands as a classic example of how greatness so often goes awry.

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1937 Cord 812 Custom Beverly
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This is a pristine example of the long-wheelbase 1937 Cord 812 Custom Beverly, part of Cord's final model year. See more classic car pictures.

To understand the 810/812, you have to go back to its forebear, the Cord L-29. The marque, of course, refers to Errett Lobban Cord, the whirlwind Los Angeles used-car salesman who rose to become president and chief stockholder of Auburn Automobile Company in just six short years. Cord moved swiftly to revive the flagging firm, envisioning it as the foundation for a diverse industrial empire to rival Ford or General Motors.

In characteristic style, he pursued this dream with a vengeance, acquiring Duesenberg in 1926, followed by a host of other enterprises, including enginemaker Lycoming.

Cord wanted a car to fill the price gap between his rejuvenated Auburn Eights and the awe-inspiring, custom-built Duesenberg Model J. And he was just egotistical enough to want his own name on it. Naturally, it would have to stand apart from his other cars, so mechanical innovation and sensational styling were assumed from the start.

1937 Cord Sportsman
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This rare 1937 Sportsman has a custom hard top.

The L-29 had a healthy helping of both. Introduced in 1929, a year behind the mighty J, it was engineered by Cornelius Van Ranst along principles patented by famed race-car designer Harry Miller. Both were exponents of the "horse-pulls-cart" principle, so the L-29 had front-wheel drive, then in its infancy but necessary for the long, low appearance Cord craved.

Lycoming's 298.6-cubic-inch straight eight was plucked from the largest Auburns, given a new cylinder head and crankcase, and installed back-to-front. Clutch, three-speed sliding-pinion gearbox, and differential were strung out ahead of it (and in that order).

This layout dictated a lengthy wheelbase, which ended up at an imposing 137.5 inches. Matching it was the proverbial mile-long hood, to which stylist Alan Leamy added a graceful, Duesenberg-style radiator. The result was rakish, graceful, and ground-hugging, with classic proportions enhanced by long, artfully shaped "clamshell" fenders.

Body styles comprised four-door sedan, brougham, and convertible phaeton, plus two-door rumble-seat cabriolet. One other notable feature was the brakes: inboard-mounted Lockheed drums with hydraulic actuation. Suspension was by quarter-elliptic leaf springs in front and semi-elliptics at the rear, with Houdaille-Hershey shock absorbers all-round.

Beautiful though it was, the L-29 was seriously flawed. With only 125 horsepower to pull 2½ tons, it was a marginal performer at best: 0-60 mph took over 30 seconds, and top speed was barely 75 mph. Worse, the peculiar drivetrain arrangement resulted in an extreme rearward weight bias that left the front wheels scrabbling for traction on slippery uphill grades. Handling was twitchy, and the Cardan constant-velocity front U-joints wore out with merciless frequency, the latter reflecting E.L. Cord's production push and a consequent lack of development.

But the real problem was price. At $3,095-$3,295 depending on model, the L-29 was much costlier than faster, more refined rivals from the respected ranks of Cadillac, Lincoln and, especially, Packard. Moreover, the conservative buyers in this price class were wary of new ideas like front drive.

An ill-timed introduction -- virtually on the eve of the Depression -- hardly helped. After an $800 price cut failed to spark sales in 1931, the L-29 limped along through early 1932, then disappeared after a mere 4,429 had been built. With that, the Cord marque went into limbo.

See the next page to read about the development of the 1936 Cord 810.

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