Cord 810: ahead of its time

| 11 Nov 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

In the 1930s, film-star owners such as Johnny Weissmuller, Al Jolson and Clark Gable were drawn to the ‘coffin-nosed’ Cords.

The tycoon Howard Hughes was doubtless fascinated by the new technology they embodied.

Early horse-opera star Tom Mix had a gun holster fitted to his yellow supercharged Phaeton – he was killed in the car in 1940 after he swerved to avoid roadworks in the Arizona desert.

By 1951, 15 years after its production, the 810 was being honoured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as ‘an outstanding American contribution to automobile design’.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

In the ’50s and ’60s the myth refused to fade: a new enthusiast magazine called Road & Track celebrated the Cord in its regular salon feature, revelling in the stability and cornering power of a near 20-year-old car that was far more roadable than most of its modern compatriots.

In wider culture, Ian Fleming was an admirer and equipped 007’s American colleague Felix Leiter with a Cord in Live and Let Die.

British author James Leasor famously owned a supercharged convertible and made sure his fictional hero, Dr Jason Love, drove the same car in print and on screen in his 1966 film outing Where the Spies Are. By then the marque had also inspired the first of at least two replica versions.

Cord 810s and 812s were being collected and cherished long before ‘classic’ had become such a debased adjective as applied to automobiles. Never had a failure been so widely celebrated.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

The 810 and 812, the latter a slightly improved ’37 model, were built for 19 months between January 1936 and August ’37 to the tune of just 2320 examples.

Most were the Westchester and the more upmarket Beverly sedans, which had pleated seat trim and armrests.

Inevitably the Phaetons and two-seat sportsman convertibles are the most coveted, particularly the supercharged cars with their trademark chrome-plated exhaust headers.

Somehow, it is four-door closed-roof Cords that seem most faithful to the original concept of a beautiful saloon, an all-American ‘road car’ that was almost eerily ahead of its time.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Designer Gordon Buehrig was a fan of architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) and his form-follows-function ethos, which was the reasoning behind the 810’s Venetian blind wraparound grille and lack of running boards.

The nose design was a hangover from Buehrig’s plan to give the car side-mounted radiators.

That idea was overruled, but he got his rear-hinged one-piece bonnet, another unique feature on an American car and, on the open versions, a hood that lived underneath a metal cover to keep the side profile clean.

Here was a glamorous vision of the future: manually retractable headlamps (landing lights from the Cord Corporation’s Stinson aeroplane) in its sleekly domed wings, hidden door hinges and a flap to cover the petrol filler – all features that were completely new in the mid-’30s.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Inside, the radio was standard (again, unheard of) and there was an aeronautical theme to the eight-gauge dashboard with its engine-turned finish.

Variable-speed wipers and rheostat-controlled instrument lighting were other firsts. Cord had already pioneered front-wheel drive on the American car with its 1929-’32 L-29 and it seemed natural to revive the concept, in much-improved form, for the 810.

Inspired by the new Citroën Traction Avant, ‘Project E306’ and the production 810 would learn the lessons of the L-29 by having 55% of its weight over the front wheels for better traction and a shorter wheelbase.

It also gained refinements including Rzeppa CV joints for its driveshafts as the technology of front-wheel drive improved.

Trailing-arm independent front suspension was new on a front-drive car and those distinctive deeply dished wheels, with holes for cooling, got the brakes well outboard.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

It is tempting to suggest that a more conventional concept, with the same looks, would have sold in sufficient numbers to keep the firm solvent, but that sort of compromise was not part of the genetics of a car that came from the same stable as the mighty Duesenberg and Auburn.

The 810 was conceived as a ‘baby’ Duesenberg and was almost launched as an Auburn before coming to fruition as a belated replacement for the troubled Cord L-29.

Its futuristic styling went hand in hand with an ambitious specification, which included a Bendix electric gearchange and that independent front suspension.

The ‘Electric hand’, also used on the Hudson Terraplane, was really a variation on the preselector theme but electrically controlled by a switch in a miniature gate on the steering column that operated a series of electromagnets and vacuum diaphragms.

Your required ratio in the four-speed Borg-Warner transmission was engaged by operating the clutch. With synchromesh on second, third and top it was lovely when it worked; but delight too often turned to frustration and the gearbox was probably the Cord’s commercial downfall.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time
Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

It sat well forward, Citroën-style, in an all-steel body formed as an integral structure with its chassis frame, enabling Buehrig to give the car a low-slung stance that was unique among its contemporaries.

The shape had its origins in a car Buehrig had designed for a competition while working for GM’s Art and Color division.

His entry came last and Buehrig, not yet 30, left to rejoin Duesenberg. This greatest of all American marques had been part of the Errett Lobban Cord industrial empire since 1926 alongside Auburn, Lycoming, Checker Cabs, and 150 transport and engineering companies.

From its debut at the 1935 New York Auto Show the Cord exerted a magic spell on the public, which stood five deep to get a look at the new car.

Thousands placed orders and were promised delivery by Christmas, little knowing that the 810s on display, all handbuilt, had no gearbox innards, or that fewer than 30 examples existed. These pre-production cars would all be sold off cheaply to employees.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Production of 1000 cars a week was talked of but body tooling was never fully resolved, which is why the roof panel of the saloon is made up of several smaller pressings.

All initial buyers got that Christmas was a bronze scale model of their new car as engineers struggled to get the hastily developed 810 into production in Connersville, Indiana, on lines adjacent to Auburn’s.

Deliveries began in January.

Only 1174 were sold in 1936 as word got around about the new wonder car’s teething problems.

Chief among these was that gearbox, which initially had an unnerving habit of seizing up at high speed when the oil began to ‘foam’.

Bottom gear wasn’t the strongest and there were also issues with wheel bearings and engine cooling, although the ‘square’ 125bhp Lycoming V8, with alloy heads and nearly horizontal side valves, was rugged and powerful, even more so when a supercharged option was offered for ’37.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

The engine, the only V8 Lycoming ever made, had been designed to accommodate the Schwitzer-Cummins centrifugal blower.

Driven by bevel gears from the middle of the camshaft it increased the horsepower from 125 to 170 on 4½psi boost and made the Cord a 100mph-plus car, ‘loafing’ (as the brochure put it) in a 27mph per 1000rpm overdriven top gear.

EL Cord, a young entrepreneur already twice featured on the front cover of Time, had given the project his blessing in the face of objections from his board.

But by 1936 he was beginning to lose his enthusiasm for car-making altogether. The officers of the Securities and Exchange Commission were after him for certain share-dealing irregularities, and the former used-car salesman had, in any case, sold most of his holdings in the Cord Corporation in readiness for a move to California where he would shortly begin a new business life in radio and television.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Meanwhile the 810 had become the 812 for the 1937 model year, with 150 leftover 1936 cars simply renumbered as 812s.

As well as the supercharging option there were new 136in-wheelbase versions of the sedans, the Custom Beverly and Custom Berline, with enhanced rear legroom and an extended bootlid ‘bustle’.

It wasn’t enough to save the Cord, and neither was a series of successful reliability and speed trials at Indianapolis and Bonneville: the American stock-car record of 101mph for 24 hours set by a Cord would stand for 17 years.

The new owners shut down all the loss making car-producing activities at the Auburn factory and sold off the remaining 812s cheaply to a dwindling number of Cord dealers.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

When the Auburn factory went over to producing kitchen cabinets, the body tooling for the Cord was sold.

Graham and Hupmobile joined forces to build their own interpretation of the late, lamented Cord; Hupmobile acquired the rights to the body dies but didn’t have the funds to start production, so a deal was struck whereby Graham built the bodies and at the same time could build its own version of the car.

In both cases the engineering was traditional, with rear-wheel drive and a straight-six.

Both the Hupmobile Skylark and the Graham Hollywood had exposed headlamps and more conventional grilles than the original.

There was considerable interest but, again, they proved difficult to build in the volumes needed to make money and both canned the idea after a year.

Rumour has it the dies found their way to Japan and still existed in the ’60s, if only because the owners didn’t have the heart to scrap them.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Today, two-thirds of the production run is still thought to exist, which is a good indication of how quickly people realised these were cars worth hanging on to.

A few came to Britain in period, where the supercharged version retailed for a surprisingly modest £995.

Today you need to think in terms of £250,000 and upwards for a blown two-seater Sportsman convertible.

As ever the value for money is to be found among the four-doors; somehow the £69,950 required to part Danny Donovan of DD Classics from his ’37 810 Beverly sedan seems far from unreasonable given that it’s the number-one attention grabber in a showroom awash with exotica.

Beautifully restored in New Zealand, it still commands attention. Substantial in size, without being huge or intimidating, there is something slightly sinister about its ‘blind’ front end, blunt nose and hunched roofline.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Through suicide front doors you step down, not up, into a tasteful blue cloth interior.

Like the spectacular dashboard there is something about the twin sofas, with their fat armrests, that suggests the early days of luxury air travel.

Likewise the split ’screens, which wind open on each side for ventilation and give a slightly beetle-browed view of the world. Fat pillars and the tiny cathedral rear windows are not conducive to all-round vision, either.

The wheel features the industry’s first horn ring, and the various controls for lights in the centre of the dash continue the aviation influence.

The winders for the headlamps live under the dash at each end; turning them anticlockwise raises the pods in about five seconds.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

With the ignition on the engine is fired by pressing the clutch to the floor and you can then pull away in first (below reverse) and go straight to second, which engages when you next pump the clutch.

It cannot be rushed, and should never be left in gear in lieu of the handbrake, but it works well as long as you don’t overthink things.

The Cord pulls assertively in these gears with a subdued rumble from the V8, which is not an especially pretty engine but smooth and flexible.

You can leave it in third and keep the overdriven top strictly for open-road cruising, for which there were few opportunities in pre-war Britain.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

What must the drivers of Austin Sevens and Morris 8s have made of this gleaming, low-slung glimpse of the future as it flashed past them on the Great North Road?

Even in North America the concreted Interstate system was still in its infancy, but there the Cord can only have excelled, inhabiting a world of stability and sure-footedness that was unknown to most drivers.

The firm ride, somewhat made up for by the lavish seat cushioning, feels natural in a car that has all the instincts of a what we now call a ‘sports saloon’.

It pulls itself neatly and undramatically around corners with little roll, at its best being driven through under power as the firm, positive steering castors back through your fingers.

Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Wonderful as it is, there’s no mystery as to why the Cord failed. It was simply an advanced but underdeveloped product built for what was already the least forgiving market in the world.

A market where people expected expensive cars to be much larger than the 810/812, and where no amount of beauty, charisma or technical finesse could mend a poor reputation for reliability.

Had the Cord been given time to mature it might have succeeded in a limited way but, against the inexorable rise of the increasingly homogenous American automobiles of the 1940s and ’50s, I doubt it would have lasted for very long without severely compromising the values that made it so special.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to DD Classics


Classic & Sports Car – Cord 810: ahead of its time

Cord 810 Beverly

  • Sold/number built 1935-’37/1174 (plus 1146 supercharged 812s)
  • Construction unitary steel body with front subframe
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-heads, ohv 4729cc Lycoming 90º V8, Stromberg downdraught carburettor
  • Max power 125bhp @ 3500rpm
  • Max torque 223lb ft @ 1700rpm
  • Transmission four-speed semiautomatic, no synchromesh on first, FWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by trailing arms, transverse leaf springs rear beam axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs; Lovejoy hydraulic dampers f/r
  • Steering worm and roller
  • Brakes hydraulic drums
  • Length 16ft 3in (4953mm)
  • Width 5ft 11in (1803mm)
  • Height 5ft (1524mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft 5in (3175mm)
  • Weight 3715lb (1685kg)
  • 0-60mph 20.1 secs
  • Top speed 98mph
  • Mpg 15
  • Price new $2545 (1937)
  • Price now £70,000*

*Price correct at date of original publication


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