Cord 812S vs Auburn 851 Speedster – the American civility war

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Parked outside a stately Georgian residence, this brash supercharged duo couldn’t have looked more out of place in old England. The Auburn Speedster and Cord 812 could have been the 100mph steeds of Bertie Wooster’s caddish American chums cooling off after a dawn race home from a London party. With bold rounded forms, brazen outside exhausts and glitzy deco details, these two machines perfectly evoke the elitist, extrovert jazz age. But in execution they are as different as Harlow and Lombard. The high, flamboyant Auburn was a dazzling repackage of well-tried engineering ideas whereas the more discreet Cord was just too clever to survive. Both marques were lost before 1937 was out. 

The evolution of each model was very different, one a stopgap image booster using old parts; the other a bold, advanced design created too hastily for its own good. As with most American car manufacturers who’d survived the depression, Auburn was having a tough time in the mid-’30s. Its revamped range had been coolly received in the showrooms and Harold T Ames, the new executive vice president from the affiliated Duesenberg company, was given the challenge of boosting sales. Like William Lyons at SS cars, Ames’ policy was to dress fairly orthodox engineering with flashy looks, all put together on a tight budget. To inject that much-needed glamour, Ames brought in Duesenberg’s chief designer Gordon Buehrig and together, at his holiday retreat at Lake Wawasee in 1933, they drew up plans for a show-stopping two seater. As well as Ames’ insistence that the body should feature outside exhausts to underline its supercharged specification, Buehrig had the challenge of recycling 100 boat-tail bodies left over from the previous V12 speedster. Even old mascots were sectioned for use as body side ornaments.

But underneath its spectacular profile the new Speedster was pretty basic, though clever details included a lockable ‘Oakes-Hershey’ steering post, and a Startix, which automatically cranked over the engine in the event of stalling. Gone was the V12, replaced with a trusty Lycoming straight-eight flathead boosted by a Schwitzer-Cummins supercharger running at six times crankshaft speed through a combination of chain and planetary gears. Useful pressure kicked in at 2000rpm and power jumped to 150bhp. A special dash plaque signed by Auburn test driver Ab Jenkins guaranteed a 100mph top speed. 

To reduce revs and help cut fuel consumption on those long open highways, a Columbia 800 A-5 dual-ratio rear axle gave the option of six speeds with the Warner three-speed gearbox. The shift control is located on the steering wheel boss. At 60mph the Lycoming eight runs at a relaxed 2250rpm. The hefty cross-braced ladder chassis with semi-elliptic springs looked vintage, but the Lockheed drum brakes were as advanced as any car on US roads thanks to hydraulic actuation.

The glamorous new 851 Speedster proved a knockout at motor shows across the United States, particularly with a price a quarter of a Duesenberg SJ and, much to Ames’ delight, celebrities and sportsmen were immediately writing cheques for the deco-style dazzler. Its huge, fixed boat tail may have been impractical, but it did have the provision of a side door for golf clubs. 

The sensational Speedster only postponed the inevitable for Auburn, however. Dealers in 1935 didn’t want the model, and Auburn usually forced its biggest agents to take at least one Speedster for the showroom. Within one year, production stopped after around 180 and the promised new range it flagged up never arrived.

In contrast, the Cord 810/812 was a revolutionary design, much more than a continuation of the earlier front-wheel-drive L29. ‘We predict that the new Cord will exert a pronounced influence upon the future offerings of the entire automotive industry,’ proclaimed a 1936 ad for the bold new model. Other innovative features included undersealed, soundproofed bodies; flat-floor interior; retractable headlights; no running boards; concealed door hinges; variable-speed wipers; twin rear lights with built in reflectors, and independent front suspension. Had any other model had half these new features it would be a revelation, but the new Cord rushed them all through together and early teething problems virtually killed its chances of survival. Being different in the American market has rarely equalled success, more often meaning trouble and expense. Not surprisingly, rival manufacturers, suspicious of the radical Cord, soon fuelled stories of problems and unreliability. 

The man behind this design classic was Errett Lobban Cord, one of the greatest salesmen of his age, and whose reputation soon spread through the industry. The flagging Auburn marque enticed Cord to join, but in return he demanded shares at a knock-down price. By employing freelance artists to sketch exciting new models, Cord set about rebuilding with a range of ‘salesman’s cars’. By the late ’20s his empire had expanded with the acquisition of Duesenberg and the Checker cab company, plus lucrative interests in shipbuilding and aviation.

By 1929 Cord was a multi-millionaire and celebrated his wealth with the launch of the first model to bear his name, the Cord L29, so called because of its L-shape combustion chambers and year of manufacture. With Lycoming 4.8-litre straight-eight reversed to drive the front wheels via a three-speed gearbox and hypoid differential, this unconventional design lost money on every one of the 5600 built before production stopped in 1932. They looked fabulous, but the complex fwd layout wasn’t much fun to drive due to heavy steering and awkward gearchange, giving the L29 a reputation for struggling up hills. 

The L29’s failure discouraged Cord as his automotive empire sank deeper and deeper into the red during the depression but, in 1934, he started planning a new front-wheel-drive model initially as a baby Duesenberg. Planned to sell for around $2000, the new car needed a fresh look. Enter Gordon Buehrig, who’d revamped the Auburn range and just happened to have in his portfolio a radical design dismissed by Harley Earl at GM’s Art & Color Section. 

This 1933 six-window saloon concept with pontoon front wings, side radiators, retractable headlights and streamlined wraparound nose became the genesis of the new model. By 1934 the director had decided to call it a Cord and the pressure was on to get the design ready for the 1935 New York Motor Show on 1 November. As if this development deadline wasn’t tough enough, the organisers denied prototypes on display and ruled a 100 of each exhibit had to be finished. 

As Buehrig reworked his original styling proposal, Cord’s engineers set to work refining the front-wheel drive and, after inspecting a Citroën, designed a unitary body, with a separate subframe at the front to carry engine, suspension, steering and pedals. Another division of Cord’s empire, aeroplane manufacturer Lycoming, produced a new 4.7-litre flathead V8. For the top- of-the-range 812 it fitted a Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger driven by gears from the back of the camshaft. The four-speed gearbox was as radical as the Cord’s styling, with an electro-vacuum pre-selector operated by a tiny lever and gate on the steering column. Other than an occasional habit of selecting two gears at once, the design enabled rapid changes resulting in impressive acceleration.

To produce the pre-show requirement of 100 cars, the already overstretched company had to hand-build the first examples. Roofs were made of several pieces and welded up as if in an LA custom shop, while door production was limited to two dies, one for each side. Door and window fittings were sourced from bankrupt companies, while Buehrig made one of the most elegant dash panels from a jumble of parts-bin dials and switches. With etched glass, engine-turned finish and green illumination, it dazzled ‘like a box of jade splinters’, observed novelist and Cord owner James Leasor: ‘Out of improvisation, beauty was born.’

For the New York Show the Cords had to be pushed on to display because of wooden gearboxes but that didn’t discourage a flood of orders. Cord promised delivery by New Year’s Day but overheating engines and transmission problems delayed the first cars. A desktop 1:32 bronze model was offered as compensation for the first 100 customers but, when the early 810s finally left the factory, development continued in private hands, a fact greatly exaggerated by rival dealers. 

Not even the arrival of the supercharged 812 in 1937, with boosted 190bhp power, and a long-wheelbase custom model, could stem the inevitable and, after just 3000 cars in two years, Cord admitted defeat and moved on to build a second fortune in television and property. 

This supercharged pair couldn’t feel more different to drive. The flamboyant Auburn is a carry-over from the vintage era while the more discreet Cord feels more modern than many post-war machines. The Auburn is initially the easier and, despite its heavy weight, the performance lives up to its extravagant looks. Climb up into the short cockpit and you immediately feel snug and protected from the elements, thanks to the swept back V screen and high door sides. The broad, flat seats offer little support and, without a passenger, the driver is soon sliding across the leather as the Auburn leans out of left turns. The long, crooked-back gearstick may look antique but the change, with synchro on second and third, is slick and positive, while the steering, although not particularly direct, is light and smooth. With a 40ft turning circle you’ll drive a long way on English B-roads to find space to retrace your route.

With such a long wheelbase the ride is impressive and, even over rough surfaces, there’s little kickback at the wheel. With 230lb ft of torque peaking at 2750rpm, its straight-eight is strong and flexible, pulling from low revs even in top gear, though its supercharger is disappointingly subdued with just a subtle whistle at higher speeds. Although only a two seater, the Auburn always feels a big car particularly when you start to gain confidence. The chassis starts to wander and needs constant correction. Through corners it feels more speedboat than Speedster as it leans over and the rear tyres chatter. This dreamboat is a style statement created for wide-open western highways where you can settle in the cockpit and not worry about brake fade or tight bends. 

Although the Cord is 300lb heavier, you’d never believe it behind the wheel, so modern are its character, low seating and controls. With such seductive styling and captivating details, you half-expect it to be an anti-climax to drive, but this sorted 812 was a revelation. Instantly it feels safer and better planted on the open road with none of the wandering character of its rear-drive stablemate. The contrast between the deep clutch, which requires the heavy pedal to almost touch the floor before it disengages, and the dinky action of the pre-selector lever to the right of the steering column takes some adjustment, but the speed of the change reveals the V8’s impressive lowdown delivery and urgent torque.

There’s none of the Auburn’s roll or wallow as the Cord hugs the apex, its light steering hinting at a touch of torque steer as you hustle ever faster through. No rear drive of the ’30s could match its neutral poise, or ride, and even rough surfaces fail to disturb its equilibrium. There’s minimal body roll although as speed builds it gets a little choppy over the bumps. The self-wrapping hydraulic brakes will lock up easily if you push as hard as the Auburn’s anchors demand, but with that surefooted front drive you need them less. 

Both the Auburn and the Cord are great cars, one for its overt extravagance, the other for its breathtaking advanced features. Few designs matched such fresh aesthetics with radical technical advancements. Best of all, the Cord drives as well as it looks, a rare combination for any American design. That something so brilliant came out of such a troubled, short development is even more remarkable.

GORDON BUEHRIG

Before Gordon Buehrig joined the employ of EL Cord and Harold T Ames, this talented body designer was already very experienced, having never stayed long with any one company. Le Baron, Packard, Harley Earl’s innovative Art & Color Section, and Stutz all enlisted his skills. When only 25, Buehrig became Duesenberg’s chief and sole body designer and, over the next four years, created some of the most dazzling American cars ever built, including the Weymann-bodied Speedster, the genesis of the Auburn’s bold new look in 1935.

In 1933 the dapper Buehrig was on the move again – returning to GM – but he clashed with boss Earl over an in-house design competition for the Century of Progress World Fair in Chicago. This debate led indirectly to the Cord’s signature ‘coffin’ nose. Earl insisted that the key to great car styling was the ‘face’, while Buehrig argued that it should be all about body shape. For his design proposal, Buehrig intentionally created a faceless car with coffin-type front on a sleek fastback saloon to prove his theory. Novel features included low, horizontal louvres, hidden headlights and pontoon wings, but, predictably, Earl voted the car last.

When Buehrig got word of plans in 1933 for a new small Duesenberg, he took his model and drawings to show his old employee Ames in Auburn, Indiana, who immediately commissioned Weymann to build a prototype on an Auburn chassis. This innovative 1934 design would evolve into the legendary Cord 810’s look. Before leaving Cord’s employment, Buehrig also refreshed the Auburn range. Alex Tremulis stepped in at A-C-D when Buehrig left in 1936 to join Budd where he created a compact VW Beetle-type concept called the Wowser. After WW2 he teamed up with Raymond Loewy to head the Studebaker design contract, working with Virgil Exner. Finally, in 1949, he joined Ford where he stayed until his retirement in the early ’60s. One of the last cars to get the Buehrig touch was the ’56 Continental MkII. Before moving back to Michigan, he became one of the most respected tutors at the Art Center College of Design in California. Buehrig died aged 86 in 1990 leaving a formidable design legacy, and a book appropriately titled Rolling Sculpture.

FACTFILES

CORD 812S

 Engine iron-block, alloy heads 4730cc sidevalve V8, single carburettor, Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger Max power 190bhp @ 4200rpm Max torque 272lb ft @ 3000rpm Transmission four-speed manual with Bendix ‘Electric Hand’ pre-selector Body/chassis steel, welded steel floorpan and side rails Suspension: front trailing arms, transverse semi-elliptic leaf spring, friction dampers rear beam axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and friction dampers Steering Gemmer centrepoint Brakes hydraulic drums Tyres 6.50x16in Length 16ft 31/2in Wheelbase 11ft Weight 4110lb 0-60mph 12 secs Top speed 115mph Produced/built 1937/688 Price new $2860 

AUBURN 851 SPEEDSTER

Engine iron-block, alloy head 4587cc sidevalve straight eight, Stromberg carburettor, Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger Max power 150bhp @ 4000rpm Max torque 230lb ft @ 2750rpm Transmission three-speed manual with two-speed Columbia axle Body/chassis steel box section ladder chassis Suspension: front beam axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, Delco hydraulic dampers  rear live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and Delco hydraulic dampers Steering worm and peg Brakes Lockheed hydraulic drums Tyres 6.50x16in Length 16ft 22/5in Wheelbase 10ft 7in Weight 3753lb 0-60mph 15 secs Top speed 108mph Produced/built 1935-’36/500 Price new $2245


This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: James Mann

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