How Cord Cars Work

1936 Cord 810, 1937 Cord 812

Westchester and Beverly sedans and a two-seat Cabriolet.
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: