How Cord Cars Work

The engine of the 1931 Cord L-29 had more than 70 unique parts.

It's been said that one can avoid criticism only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. Errett Lobban Cord avoided those pitfalls and was criticized a lot.

He jumped from car salesman in 1924, to president and chief stockholder of Auburn in 1926. At age 31, he was the youngest president of an American automaker. By the early '30s he'd also acquired Duesenberg and many other enterprises.


His method was only too clear: dump large amounts of common stock until its value was so low that he could buy controlling shares for a song. Cord's empire included aviation, shipping, taxicabs, among other interests.

While distracted by these other ventures, Cord's auto companies suffered. Heavy losses forced Cord to sell his holdings in 1937. Auto production was the first to be shut down by the new owners. Some enthusiasts have never really forgiven him for that.

During 10 years of wheeler-dealer success, E.L. Cord was behind some of the most-magnificent cars ever built. In 1928, he ushered in the beautiful Auburn Speedster. The following year introduced the mighty Duesenberg Model J and the Cord L-29. The last proved less than hoped for, but it led to the 1936-37 Cord 810/812, one of the most-memorable and influential cars of all time.

The unbridled optimism of the late '20s prompted many new models and a few new makes to fill specific market niches. E.L. Cord decided to fill the price gap between his eight-cylinder Auburns and exotic Duesenbergs with a rakish new car bearing his own name and the then-novel feature of front-wheel drive.

The resulting L-29 was chiefly engineered by race-car builder Harry Miller and one Cornelius Van Ranst, both avid proponents of "horse-pulls-cart." Its powerplant began as the 298.6-cubic-inch Auburn straight eight, but ended up quite different.

For the Cord's front drive it had to be mounted backward so that clutch and transmission could face forward. The cylinder head was altered to put the water outlet up front, and the crankcase was modified for a rear engine mount. According to one Cord authority, the L-29 engine had over 70 unique parts. Advertised at 125 horsepower, its actual output was 115 until 1932 when a larger bore increased horsepower to a truthful 125.

Sending its power to the front wheels was a three-speed sliding-pinion gearbox mounted behind the differential as on a Miller-designed 1927 Indianapolis racer. Front brakes were mounted inboard, against the differential instead of on the wheels. This reduced unsprung weight for improved ride and handling. Quarter-elliptic leaf springs appeared fore, semielliptics aft, Houdaille-Hershey shock absorbers all around. Driveshafts employed premium Cardan constant-velocity universal joints.

This layout was not without problems. The main one was excessive drivetrain length that dictated a tremendous 137.5-inch wheelbase, yet put more than half of the car's weight over the rear wheels -- where it did nothing for traction on hills, icy roads, or gravel surfaces.

Worse, the U-joints couldn't stand braking, plus the pounding of wheels that drove as well as steered, and they wore out with merciless frequency. Though these problems could have been licked with time, Cord was adamant that the car debut before 1930 (which it did, though only by six months).

But, oh, what that layout did for looks. The super-long front allowed Auburn chief designer Al Leamy (with help from body engineer John Oswald) to craft a flowing hood/fenders ensemble that only accented that impressive length and the lowness conferred by front-wheel drive. Capping the front end was a sheetmetal grille completely enclosing the radiator -- an industry first.

In all, the L-29 looked sensational in its four "factory" body types: sedan, brougham, phaeton, and cabriolet, all supplied by subsidiary Cord companies. Numerous celebrities bought L-29s, and coachbuilders at home and abroad created stunning custom bodies. Standard models were fairly priced in the $3100-$3300 range, so the L-29 should have been a success.

It wasn't. Even without the poor traction and U-joint woes, front drive was an unproven commodity and thus a tough sell in the conservative $3000 market. And late 1929 was hardly the best time to launch any car, what with Wall Street types launching themselves out of windows.

Furthermore, compared to contemporary Packards, Lincolns, and Cadillacs, the L-29 was a slug. Its 0-60 time was around 25 seconds, top speed barely 75 mph. One writer euphemistically termed this "pleasant ­tepidity," and it was almost excusable given the brilliant styling.

But there was no way the L-29 could make money. It thus limped along through 1932 with virtually no changes. Total production came to 5010. By 1935, one used-car guide listed the cash value of the L-29 convertible at just $145. Although a failure in its time, the L-29 has since been widely appreciated -- including certification as a Classic by the Classic Car Club of America.

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1936 Cord 810, 1937 Cord 812

Westchester and Beverly sedans and a two-seat Cabriolet.
The 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton was one of four 812 models, which included

After three years in limbo, the Cord name returned in 1936 on a dashing and predictive new car, the 810. This model retained front-wheel drive, but with a big difference.

Where the L-29 had a long straight eight behind the transmission and mounted both far behind the front axle, the 810 used a V-8 that was half as long and could thus sit just aft of the axle; its differential/clutch assembly extended forward to the transmission, which was located slightly ahead of the axle. The results were much better weight distribution and traction than in the L-29, abetted by a trimmer 125-inch wheelbase.


Advanced features abounded in the 810. Front suspension, for instance, comprised independent trailing arms joined by a single transverse leaf spring. The transmission had four forward ratios instead of the usual three, plus Bendix "Electric Hand" preselector. With this, you first chose the desired gear via a switchlike lever on an extension of the steering column, then shifted by stabbing the clutch.

The 810 V-8 was a 288.6-cid unit made by Lycoming, another of Cord's companies. This packed 125 horsepower, which was good, but an available Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger (similar to late Auburns) swelled that to an eye-opening 170. The total was soon 190 via a higher-boost blower. Standard 810s would reach 90 mph and run 0-60 in 20 seconds. The super-charged version would do 110 mph and hit 60 in 11-13 seconds -- one of the fastest production cars in prewar America.

But performance seems almost secondary next to 810 styling, the work of Gordon Buehrig, assisted by Dale Cosper, Dick Robertson, and Paul Laurenzen. Initially conceived for a stillborn "baby Duesenberg," it was unforgettable: smoothly formed "coffin-nose" hood, striking wraparound horizontal louvers instead of a radiator, minimal trim, pontoon fenders, and, on blown models, racy exposed exhaust pipes.

Concealed headlamps flipped up when needed (via manual cranks) -- another industry first. Equally futuristic for the time were a unit-body construction, front-opening hood, separate license-plate light, full wheel covers, and concealed gas cap. Inside were a turned-metal dash awash in needle gauges and a ceiling-mounted radio speaker (sedans). Amazingly, Buehrig cobbled up many appearance items from proprietary bits and pieces, including some Auburn leftovers.

Like the L-29, the 810 bowed with four models: Westchester and Beverly sedans (upholstery patterns were the main difference) and two-seat Cabriolet and four-passenger Phaeton convertibles. Prices, however, were much lower: as little as $2000. Prices were hiked some $500 for 1937's little-changed 812 line, which added two long sedans on a 132-inch wheelbase, the Custom Beverly and Custom Berline, priced at $2,960-$3,575.

Sadly, the 810/812 had even more problems than the L-29. This reflected the fast-fading fortunes of the Cord Corporation that dictated a shoestring budget, cost-cutting engineering in places, and too much hand labor for consistent or even good build quality. Not that any of this mattered in the end. E.L. Cord's empire collapsed in 1937, and the Cord automobile followed Auburn and Duesenberg down the road to oblivion.

Though the L-29 was long ignored by collectors, the 810/812 began appreciating in value almost immediately after production ended (at 1629/1278 units). As with Duesenberg Js and Auburn Speedsters, peerless styling would be a motivation for several postwar revival attempts and shoddy replicas, but none would have even the original's modest success.

For more on defunct American cars, see: