Confessions of a Cord addict
The first Cord I ever saw was standing forlornly on a used car lot in The Bronx. I was 12 and so was the Cord. I had been on my way to school. By the time I was able to stop gazing and tear myself away, I had earned a good deal of detention time.
It was worth it. I have not been able to tear myself away from Cords since.
The car that captured my eye and my heart was the timeless 1936 Model 810 Westchester sedan. I remember it clearly. I have since found that nearly every Cord enthusiast can tell you the place and time of his or her first encounter with a Cord and even what the weather was like.
Makings of a legend
To understand this singular passion, you need to know something about the car that inspired it. The Cord story actually began with an earlier model. Entrepreneur Errett Lobban Cord, who by the late 1920s had turned the sinking Auburn Automobile Company into a money machine, acquired dozens of well-known transportation firms during a three-year buying spree. Duesenberg, Columbia Axle, Lycoming Motors, Checker Cab, New York Shipbuilding, American Airlines and more were to eventually come under Cord’s control. “Across the United States,” gushed Time magazine in the first of two cover stories, “stretches the Kingdom of Cord.”
In 1928 the king would be all of 34 years old. Now he wanted a car with his own name on it. It would be built by Auburn and would be America’s first production front-wheel-drive car. The Cord Front Drive, since dubbed “L-29” by fans, was announced just a few weeks before the onset of the Great Depression. Its ultra-low chassis inspired coachbuilders worldwide. Stock and custom-bodied Cords won prizes and medals all over Europe and the United States. About 5,000 production L-29s were built during the following three years.
It is the second iteration of the Cord, the Model 810 of 1936 and Model 812 of 1937, that means “Cord” to most car fans. With a budget of less than $2 million dollars and with a time span of fewer than 12 months from prototype to production, the little Auburn Automobile Company ignited sparks that light the automotive world to this day.
Different by design
Arguably no other American production car introduced or popularized so many mechanical and decorative features. And no car ever combined such innovation with breathtaking styling that still seems modern 70 years later.
Like its predecessor, the new Cord was front-wheel drive. Commonplace today, but exotic then. Headlights that were concealed during the day and opened at night were a first in the world. Every other 1936 American car had running boards, but the Cord was so low it didn’t need them. And you stepped down into a Cord; Hudson Motor Car Co. made a big deal out of this 12 years later!
Other auto makes in 1936 featured mousy-brown “mohair” interiors, usually quickly concealed under seat covers by the new owner. Cord interiors, in English wool broadcloth or quality leather, came in luxurious color combinations that complemented the exterior paint.
The Cord’s engine-turned-instrument panel told the driver everything he or she needed to know, including engine rpms and the level of oil in the engine sump. The four-speed transmission – other American cars had three speeds – was shifted electrically with a fingertip. The 1937 Model 812 offered an optional supercharger, with added flashy external exhausts. This Cord set AAA-supervised American stock car speed records that stood for 17 years.
Mechanical innovations and details aside, what rendered the Cord timeless was its styling. In 1996, Forbes’ American Heritage magazine, celebrating the centennial of the American automobile, called the Cord 810 Westchester “the single most beautiful American car.” The photograph they used was of my very own Cord. (Just think -- “the single most beautiful American car” sits in my garage!)
So why did the Cord fail? No, it was not because it was “ahead of its time.” Like most business failures, it was a matter of dollars and cents. At $2,000 for the basic sedan, a Cord cost as much as two Oldsmobiles. Younger families who loved the striking design couldn’t afford it. Conservative older folks who could, preferred traditional Packards and Cadillacs.
Still, Auburn received over 7,000 requests for more information at the 1936 model shows. But the car was still months away from production, and disappointed buyers went elsewhere. As sales faltered, Auburn dealers defected to other makes. Fewer dealers meant even fewer sales. The downward spiral was fatal. Just 3,000 Cords had been built when production ended in September 1937.
A lifelong passion
Six years after my first encounter with that car in The Bronx, I bought my first of five Cords I would eventually own. It was also my first car. Cords were to be my everyday transportation through my college years and beyond. One of them never started on the starter in the entire year that I owned it. I would get into the driver’s seat and my friends would push. I would pop the clutch, all jumped in, and off we went.
Another caught fire under the hood on a wintry New York day, and was kept from total immolation by many hands throwing snow on the engine. Love, however, is blind. And I learned to be a tolerably good Cord mechanic along the way.
I bought my present pride and joy, which my wife Betty and I call “Moonshadow”, in 1984. While it had been repainted and had some mechanical work done, it was a well-preserved car. Nearly entirely stock, it still wears much of its original upholstery. It does have a few subtle modifications to help it deal with the modern world. Outside mirrors and directional signals have been added for safety. Radial tires, too.
I have no interest in a vehicle that cannot be driven. So I drive my Cord everywhere. I have personally driven Moonshadow 83,000 miles of its lifetime mileage of 124,000. It is arguably the most traveled Cord in the world. We have visited 30 American states and nine countries on three continents. With friends and with Betty we have crossed most of the United States several times.
We’ve gotten our kicks on Route 66, driven across the Mohave Desert and visited Mount Rushmore. We’ve admired the brilliant colors of a New England autumn. We’ve blasted the underside of the Cord with salt on the Bonneville Salt Flats, where a 1937 Cord set speed records that stood for sixteen years. And we’ve climbed Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest highway in the United States.
A classic - and a globetrotter
In 1998 we toured Europe in the Cord from London to Athens, then ferried to Israel via Cyprus and Rhodes. Monshadow conquered the Alps, and visited the famed casino in Monte Carlo. When we arrived in Greece the only Cord in that country was waiting at the dock to greet us. The elderly son of Auburn’s Switzerland dealer brought his Cord to Lausanne to visit. We followed world-famous Grand Prix racing driver Sir Stirling Moss on a few quick laps of the Monaco Grand Prix course. We sojourned at the lowest point on the planet Earth, the Dead Sea in Israel, and stood before the gates of the ancient city of Jerusalem.
And we have met the most interesting people. Whenever we stop for lunch at diners in the American Midwest the restaurant empties and folks tell us of the experiences of their parents and relatives with Cords. Our all-time favorite encounter was with a young Italian truck driver who fell on his knees in front of the Cord and said in passable English, “This is my favorite car in the whole world. I never thought I would see a real one. Now I can die happy!”
Keeping an elderly vehicle running reliably requires regular attention. Cords are known for their mechanical idiosyncrasies, and Moonshadow is no different. I do much of the maintenance and repair myself. There have indeed been times, lying on my back under the Cord with oil dripping on my safety goggles, when I have briefly wondered, "What am I doing here?" But only briefly. Every time I stand back and admire those magnificent body lines, or watch the stunning dash instruments come alive at twilight on a country road, I remember the answer.
About the author:
Josh Malks has written seven books on automotive subjects, three of them on the subject of the Cord automobile. His latest is “Cord Complete", a massive volume that may be purchased at www.cordcomplete.com. To learn about the Cord online, check out his website, CordNet, at www.automaven.com. Malks is a member of several classic car clubs, the Society of Automotive Historians, and American Mensa.
The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.
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