The 1936-1937 Cord 810/812 had every hallmark of success: advanced
engineering, innovative styling, and exciting performance. Yet all were
squandered in an ill-fated rush to production. Long hailed as one of the
most influential cars of the 1930s -- perhaps of all time -- it
nevertheless stands as a classic example of how greatness so often goes
To understand the 810/812, you have to go back to its forebear, the Cord
L-29. The marque, of course, refers to Errett Lobban Cord, the whirlwind
Los Angeles used-car salesman who rose to become president and chief
stockholder of Auburn Automobile Company in just six short years. Cord
moved swiftly to revive the flagging firm, envisioning it as the
foundation for a diverse industrial empire to rival Ford or General
In characteristic style, he pursued this dream with a vengeance,
acquiring Duesenberg in 1926, followed by a host of other enterprises,
including engine maker Lycoming.
Cord wanted a car to fill the price gap between his rejuvenated Auburn
Eights and the awe-inspiring, custom-built Duesenberg Model J. And he
was just egotistical enough to want his own name on it. Naturally, it
would have to stand apart from his other cars, so mechanical innovation
and sensational styling's were assumed from the start.
The L-29 had a healthy helping of both. Introduced in 1929, a year
behind the mighty J, it was engineered by Cornelius Van Ranst along
principles patented by famed race-car designer Harry Miller. Both were
exponents of the "horse-pulls-cart" principle, so the L-29 had
front-wheel drive, then in its infancy but necessary for the long, low
appearance Cord craved.
Lycoming's 298.6-cubic-inch straight eight was plucked from the largest
Auburns, given a new cylinder head and crankcase, and installed
back-to-front. Clutch, three-speed sliding-pinion gearbox, and
differential were strung out ahead of it (and in that order).
This layout dictated a lengthy wheelbase, which ended up at an imposing
137.5 inches. Matching it was the proverbial mile-long hood, to which
stylist Alan Leamy added a graceful, Duesenberg-style radiator. The
result was rakish, graceful, and ground-hugging, with classic
proportions enhanced by long, artfully shaped "clamshell" fenders.
Body styles comprised four-door sedan, brougham, and convertible
phaeton, plus two-door rumble-seat cabriolet. One other notable feature
was the brakes: inboard-mounted Lockheed drums with hydraulic actuation.
Suspension was by quarter-elliptic leaf springs in front and
semi-elliptic at the rear, with Houdaille-Hershey shock absorbers
Beautiful though it was, the L-29 was seriously flawed. With only 125
horsepower to pull 2½ tons, it was a marginal performer at best: 0-60
mph took over 30 seconds, and top speed was barely 75 mph. worse, the
peculiar drivetrain arrangement resulted in an extreme rearward weight
bias that left the front wheels scrabbling for traction on slippery
uphill grades. Handling was twitchy, and the Cardan constant-velocity
front U-joints wore out with merciless frequency, the latter reflecting
E.L. Cord's production push and a consequent lack of development.
But the real problem was price. At $3,095-$3,295 depending on model, the
L-29 was much costlier than faster, more refined rivals from the
respected ranks of Cadillac, Lincoln and, especially, Packard. Moreover,
the conservative buyers in this price class were wary of new ideas like
An ill-timed introduction -- virtually on the eve of the Depression --
hardly helped. After an $800 price cut failed to spark sales in 1931,
the L-29 limped along through early 1932, and then disappeared after a
mere 4,429 had been built. With that, the Cord marque went into limbo.
Development of the 1936 Cord 810
Development of the 1936 Cord 810 happened in a rather roundabout
fashion. In the late summer of 1933, Duesenberg president Harold T. Ames
called designer Gordon Buehrig to discuss his ideas for a new "junior"
What Ames had in mind was a lower-cost companion to bridge the yawning
chasm between the relatively affordable Auburn Twelve and the
frightfully expensive Model J. Existing Auburn components, including a
reworked chassis, would be used wherever possible, clothed in
eye-catching new bodywork.
Then just 29, but already a designer of considerable talent, Buehrig had
resigned as head of Duesenberg's styling department in early 1933,
joining Harley Earl's Art & Colour Section at General Motors in the face
of a luxury-car market decimated by the Depression. Now, with Ames's
assurance of carte blanche authority, he returned to spearhead this new
Providing able assistance were Phil Derham and August Duesenberg, the
latter the brilliant engineer of the Model J and brother of company
cofounder Fred. The trio was duly assigned a small work area in a corner
of the firm's sprawling Indianapolis plant.
Buehrig came up with a novelty right off the bat: a "hermetically
sealed" engine compartment with dual external radiators. Sketches of
this highly advanced concept were shown to Ames in November. Then came a
clay scale model, a four-door sedan with the radiators located
outrigger-fashion between the hood-sides and unusual "pontoon" front
Overall, this design looked more like a spaceship from a mid-1930s Flash
Gordon serial than even the most modern of contemporary passenger cars.
After careful study, Ames approved building a single full-size
prototype, but nixed the sealed-hood idea as impractical.
The "baby Duesenberg" emerged with envelope-style steel sedan coachwork
by the Weymann Body Company, with Phil Derham working out a myriad of
small details. In the interim, Augie Duesenberg modified an Auburn Eight
chassis to suit, and also engineered twin belt-driven fans for the
Completed in just four months, the prototype was a model of functional
beauty. Then came Auburn's 1934 sales disaster. Ames dispatched Buehrig
and Augie up to Auburn with a modest $50,000 budget for a hasty
makeover, and the junior Duesenberg was forgotten.
-But just temporarily. In the early summer of 1934 came belated approval
from the Cord Corporation board for construction of a pre-production
"baby" prototype -- only the final version would be called a Cord, and
Auburn would build it, not Duesenberg. What's more, it would have front
instead of rear drive, and a yet-to-be-designed V-8.
For Buehrig, who would have overall responsibility for the styling
package, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Such a situation would be
unheard of today, when designers are routinely assigned to develop
individual components but seldom an entire car.
Changes for the 1936 Cord 810
Well aware of the L-29's shortcomings, Gordon Buehrig resolved to avoid
them with changes for the 1936 Cord 810. As with Russell E. Gardner's
largely experimental front-drive car and the short-lived Ruxton, the
L-29 was hampered by excessive overall length, dictated in part by its
overly long inline engine.
But Buehrig was blessed with a more compact power unit engineered
specifically for revised front-drive mechanicals that also required less
space. He thus settled on 125-inch wheelbase, making the new Cord far
more manageable than its forebear. The powertrain ended up fully two
feet further forward than before, resulting in spacious, comfortable
five-passenger seating despite the 12 fewer inches between wheel
Also unlike the L-29, the new Cord would employ unit construction, with
a massive U-shaped front sub-frame to support the powerplant, secured to
a rigid, self-contained four-door sedan body. This welded, reinforced
all-steel structure would not only be much stronger and safer than the
awkward old body-on-frame arrangement, but would improve engine
accessibility, lower the center of gravity, and substantially reduce
unsprung weight, the last two benefiting dynamic balance.
Finally, to enhance both balance and interior room, there would be a
recessed or "step-down" passenger compartment floor, predating Hudson's
highly publicized "first" by more than a decade.
These were exciting times for Buehrig and his team, who were soon
working at Auburn. And work they did, buoyed by their own enthusiasm,
toiling long hours through the summer and fall of 1934 to create a
totally new car for a new age. Soon they'd prepared a clay scale model,
and studied every line for ways to reduce wind resistance before
applying their conclusions to a full-size mockup.
The end product not only reflected their attention to detail but managed
to be both strikingly futuristic and timelessly handsome. Door hinges,
gas filler, and even the headlamps were all concealed. Running boards
were discarded as old-fashioned, and "Venetian blind" hoodside louvers
wrapped all the way around the front to stand in for the traditional
A distinctive, one-piece "coffin-nose" hood was hinged at the rear,
"alligator" style, while the rear deck was artfully tapered and
taillamps flush-mounted. By mid-1930s standards, the second-generation
Cord was straight from the 21st century.
Meanwhile, Lycoming chief engineer Forrest Baxter was busy laying out
the new V-8. Because compactness was paramount, it would be a 90-degree
unit, with a relatively large, 3.5-inch bore for maximum power. A long,
3.75-inch stroke yielded a total 288.6 cubic inches. Under test, the
production-approved engine churned out 125 horsepower at 3,500 rpm --
the same horsepower as the L-29's larger straight eight -- or one
horsepower for every 2.33 cubic inches.
High-compression (6.5:1) aluminum cylinder heads were specified, as were
aluminum pistons with Invar struts. Carburetion was by a Stromberg
dual-downdraft instrument on a precision-engineered intake manifold,
assuring even fuel distribution at any speed. Full-length water jackets,
"silent chain" camshaft drive, and extra-wide main bearings also aided
efficiency in this L-head.
Features of the 1936 Cord 810
The rest of the features of the 1936 Cord 810's more compact power
package comprised differential, clutch, and four-speed transmission
within a single reinforced housing. Unlike the L-29, this was located
ahead of the front axle centerline, with the engine just behind,
providing more even fore/aft weight distribution and thus far better
traction. Lower engine weight also helped, the V-8 being only half as
heavy as the old straight eight.
A full-pressure oil pump was built into the driveline case to assure
constant gear lubrication. Unlike rear-drive cars, where
engine/transmission misalignment often caused undue noise and wear, the
Cord gearbox was rigidly attached to the engine, at the front. Driving
torque was taken to each front wheel through a splined shaft with an
angular constant-velocity universal joint at each end.
Front suspension was independent, with dual trailing "swing arms" acting
on a transverse leaf spring, and made for an unusually smooth ride.
Center-point steering made for easy operation. Replacing the normal
stalk-like gearshift was the Bendix "Electric Hand," an electrically
controlled vacuum servo that allowed the driver to preselect gears via a
toggle on a stubby steering column extension. After moving to the gear
desired, you simply stabbed the clutch to shift. Everything else was
No less innovative was the interior, actually an updated version of
Buehrig's 1930 Duesenberg Beverly motif. Adorned with a chrome
engine-turned appliqué, the instrument panel bristled with fingertip
levers and a full complement of easy-to-read dials that included clock,
tachometer, and engine-oil-level indicator.
Headlamps were raised and lowered manually by small, chrome-plated
handcranks at the underdash extremities. (On the pilot model featured in
early Cord advertising, the lamps were mounted inboard on the front
fenders; production cars had them on the leading edges.) Instead of the
usual button, you sounded the horn by pressing on a large chrome ring
within the steering wheel, the first American car ever to have one.
Finally, a pistol-grip handbrake hung from the dash at the far left,
leaving a completely unobstructed front floor for full three-abreast
By the end of 1934, the new Cord's basic design was locked up and
production dies finished. Then, just when all seemed ready, the program
was put on hold once more. Why? - Lack of money. Cord Corporation was in
trouble, particularly linchpin Auburn, which had yet to reverse its
steep sales decline of the past several years.
Lacking sufficient development funds for a completely new Auburn line,
the board briefly considered several strange compromises. One mated the
would-be Cord's front-end sheetmetal with the existing Auburn sedan
body, and looked quite ungainly for it.
Another was a rakish two-place convertible called the "Gentleman's
Roadster." Intended as an inexpensive Duesenberg, it was really an
upscale Auburn, with the V-12 in the six-cylinder chassis -- just the
sort of car Ames had originally suggested. Only one was built. (It now
resides at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana.)
By July 1935, the board was again ready to proceed -- pending approval
from the company's reclusive president. That meant taking the sole
prototype to E.L. Cord's Los Angeles estate for a demonstration.
Although several problems surfaced, notably overheating and a
transmission that habitually slipped out of gear, the boss loved it.
Debut of the 1936 Cord 810
On the 10th of August 1935, just 15 weeks before the first of the big
national auto shows and the debut of the 1936 Cord 810, E.L. Cord
inexplicably announced that production of his new namesake would get
underway immediately at Auburn's Connersville, Indiana facility. Initial
funds would come from one of his corporation's few profitable divisions,
a maker of metal kitchen cabinets.
What followed was near total bedlam as workers, factory managers,
tool-and-die makers, and parts and materials suppliers scrambled. Worse,
the firm had to complete at least 100 of the new models before it could
exhibit even one, clearly an impossible task.
Under heavy pressure from E.L. Cord, show officials decided to accept a
lesser number, and 11 cars were finished in time. Even this was a minor
miracle, as they were literally hand-built, with most sheetmetal
hammered out on the spot. Because transmission tooling couldn't be had
on such short notice, none of the show cars was drivable.
As if Gordon Buehrig didn't have enough headaches, E.L. Cord next
demanded not one, but two different convertibles to share the limelight
with his new sedan. Working from quarter-scale clay models, the designer
translated dimensions directly to full-size steel bodies right on the
assembly shop floor.
But he did it masterfully, and his two-seat Sportsman convertible coupe
emerged as one of the most beautiful open cars ever produced. Its
four-seat companion, euphemistically dubbed "Phaeton Sedan," was a
convertible club coupe with pivoting, crank-down rear quarter windows,
another U.S. production first.
Both had cloth tops that lowered into a well behind the cockpit, where
they were completely concealed by a close-fitting metal cover. Harley
Earl copped this idea for his 1938 Y-job and a number of General Motors'
early postwar show cars.
Limited funds dictated strict production economies and no little
improvisation, though, if anything, this only contributed to the new
Cord's uniqueness. For example, the four sedan doors were made with just
two dies; a smaller trim die was used to finish the rear ones. Items
like steering wheels, instruments, window cranks, and door handles were
purchased in bulk as manufacturer's surplus, thus eliminating their
tooling costs entirely.
In some areas, the simplest answers worked best. Take the hubcap, which
covered the entire wheel, an innovation that would later sweep the
industry. Though it was originally a solid stamping, repeated brake
failures due to heat buildup suggested punching 12 cooling holes around
its perimeter, an elegantly functional solution.
Equally clever -- but far more troublesome -- was the sedan's all-steel
roof. Though more advanced than contemporary fabric-insert types, it
comprised no fewer than seven separate pieces that had to be welded
together. -The reason? Auburn didn't have a press large enough to stamp
it as one panel.
As showtime approached, Cord Corporation announced that it would have
the largest display of any auto maker at the big New York exposition,
with the reborn Cord occupying center-stage amidst a bevy of 1936
Auburns and a smattering of Duesenbergs.
The 11 hand-built cars, four convertibles and seven sedans, left
Connersville by rail in the waning days of October, destined for shows
in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles beginning November 2. At his
Auburn, Indiana home, Gordon Buehrig anxiously awaited the people's
And unquestionably, the future of Auburn Automobile Company was riding
on those cars. Despite Buehrig's attractive 1935 restyle, Auburn was
still generally considered an also-ran, a make that might become an
orphan at almost any time. Few buyers cared to gamble on such cars in
the Depression years, and this more than anything had prevented Auburn
from improving its market position. With the company losing money at a
prodigious rate, the Cord was quite rightly seen as its salvation.
1936 Cord 810
Gordon Buehrig needn't have worried. His new 1936 Cord 810 was the star
of the seven-day New York show. Critics voted it the year's most
attractive car by a wide margin, and show-goers mobbed the Cord stand,
climbing all over each other just to get a glimpse of it.
Though demonstration drives weren't possible, company representatives
took numerous orders on the spot, optimistically promising delivery by
Christmas. Meantime, congratulatory telegrams poured into corporate
The 810 was the most talked-about car in years. Said one show reporter;
"This entirely new car is of greater interest than all the other
exhibits put together." Another went much further: "For sheer taste, for
functional correctness, and for beauty, the Cord is the best design the
American industry has ever produced."
This enthusiastic debut promised a new lease on life for moribund
Auburn. But a firm Auburn had hired to gauge public response sounded a
sobering note, warning that the 810's "success would seem to be assured,
provided the car in service lives up to its first impressions and
provided too long a time does not elapse between impressions made on
possible buyers and the time at which they have a chance to get
deliveries." Events were about to prove this an eerily accurate
Christmas came and went, -then New Year's, but not a single 810 emerged
from Connersville. One of the 11 show cars was made drivable and
delivered to an E.L. Cord crony. The others, overburdened with lead and
having served their purpose, were returned to the plant and stripped of
usable parts. Most were broken up for scrap.
Meanwhile, the company sent out 1/32-scale bronze models on marble bases
to placate increasingly impatient buyers, acknowledging their advance
deposits and assuring that real cars were on the way. But the first 810s
didn't start trickling off the line until February 15.
Predictably, there were problems, as there are with almost any all-new
car. The main ones were chronic overheating, excessively noisy U-joints,
and transmissions that shifted in and out of gear as if they had minds
of their own. These and other "bugs" were eventually exterminated, but
by then it was too late. For all its advances -- or maybe because of
them -- the second-generation Cord seemed as flawed as the first.
High prices didn't help. Though nowhere near a 12-cylinder Pierce-Arrow,
Lincoln, or Packard, the 810 was far too costly for the
upper-medium-price field Cord had targeted. The Westchester four-door,
the lesser of the two sedans offered and cheapest of the four-model
lineup, came in at a hefty $1,995. Topping the line was the Phaeton
Sedan at $2,195. Thus, the Cord was in class by itself. Many saw it “as
neither fish nor fow”l -an uncomfortable position for any car in 1936.
Cord 810s were soon seen on America's highways, but not often: only 716
were built in the first five months. Technical complexity, the
overwhelming amount of hand labor required, and Auburn's dwindling
resources all precluded volume production, which in turn largely
accounted for the stiff prices. The early "teething" troubles and
Auburn's shaky public image did the rest.
So although the Cord was still widely admired for its design, the bloom
went off its rose quite quickly. What was supposed to be a much-needed
shot in the arm for failing Auburn division turned out to be a very
bitter pill instead.
1937 Cord 812
With losses mounting, Auburn slashed overhead to the bone, transferring
all engineering, manufacturing, sales, and administrative functions to
Connersville from its Auburn, Indiana home base. Yet even as the company
battened down, its engineers were putting the final touches on a new
wrinkle for the 1937 Cord 812 line, scheduled to bow in September.
Actually, it wasn't new at all. Auburn now simply resorted to the
image-booster it had been using on its own cars for the past few years,
albeit with mixed results. There thus arrived a new performance option
intended to attract well-heeled sporty types. It was, of course, a
centrifugal supercharger, blowing through a reworked intake manifold and
exhaling through flashy, flexible, chrome-plated exhaust pipes emanating
from both sides of the hood through chrome-mesh screens.
Built by Schwitzer-Cummins, the blower ran at 24,000 rpm to raise
maximum output by a full 45 horsepower to 170, a smashing 36 percent
gain. Autocar magazine in England timed a supercharged 812 sedan at just
13.2 seconds in the 0-60 mph test, a full seven seconds faster than it’s
normally aspirated counterpart.
"The acceleration of this machine is tremendous," said the editors. And
with a top speed near 110 mph, the blown Cord was one of America's
fastest prewar production cars bar none.
Besides the supercharger package, a $415 extra for all models, 1937
brought a brace of luxury sedans on a stretched, 132-inch wheelbase, a
gesture toward the declining "carriage trade." The four-passenger Custom
Beverly boasted armchair-style seats, while the limousine-like Custom
Berline came with a roll-down division window. Both were distinguished
by "bustleback" trunk styling, a higher roofline for extra headroom
inside, and special interiors.
At $3,575, the supercharged Berline was the most expensive 1937 Cord.
But curiously, Auburn raised prices by as much as $450 on other models,
apparently trying to impress those buyers who judged cars by cost alone.
Auburn declared in a November 1936 Cord advertisement: "Auburn knows
that the market for a distinctive, ahead-of-the-times type of car is
smaller than the market for ordinary cars”. Auburn dares to forsake
beaten paths -- dares to depart from the conventional -- dares to take
Brave words, but the company ultimately wasn't able to live up to its
The End of the Cord 810/812
In the face of that year's staggering $1.5 million loss, the end of the
Cord 810/812 was near. Despite rumors to the contrary, often started by
the company itself to bolster public confidence, there would be no 1937
Auburns. Instead, the firm would concentrate solely on Cord production.
From a financial standpoint, it needn't have bothered.
Never high to begin with, Cord sales tapered off through August 1937.
Then Auburn called it quits. In all, just 2,320 of the 810/812 models
were built. It was a sad end for what was heralded as "a totally new
interpretation of the function of the motorcar."
Auburn's waning months brought various schemes to stave off the
inevitable, but all came to naught. Buehrig, all too conscious of the
firm's terminal condition, had left in the summer of 1936. Taking his
place on the small design staff was Alex Tremulis, who would go on to
style the postwar Tucker.
Chiefly responsible for the 1937 long sedans and external exhaust setup,
Tremulis had the misfortune of working on the experimental
"Au-Du-Cords," horrible combinations of surplus body parts and Cord
mechanicals, cobbled up in the vain hope of an Auburn revival for 1938.
A Cord "814" was also in the works, basically the 810/812 with
outward-slanting hood and a more rounded transmission cover. It, too,
was left stillborn when Auburn filed for bankruptcy in December 1937.
But the Cord had left its mark. Amazingly, Buehrig's basic design was
soon resurrected for the rear-drive Hupp Skylark and Graham Hollywood,
where it survived through 1940.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute ever paid the Cord 810/812 came from
New York City's Museum of Modern Art, which staged a special exhibit in
1951, simply titled "Eight Automobiles." Included were a 1941 Lincoln
Continental, a 1937 Talbot-Lago, the Pinin Farina-designed 1946
Cisitalia, a 1938 Bentley, a World War II military Jeep -- and a 1937
Cord 812. Declared MOMA curator Arthur Drexler: "We regard the Cord as
the outstanding American contribution to automobile design." A lot of
people still agree. Greatness may not always be good business, but it
almost always endures.
810 Westchester Sedan: 1.995 $
810 Beverly Sedan: 2.095 $
810 Cabriolet: 2.145 $
810 Phaeton: 2.195 $
Overall length, inches
Overall width, inches
Track, front/rear, inches
Overall height, inches
Ground clearance, inches 9.0
Turning circle, feet
Curb weight, pounds
Weight distribution, front/rear,
Fuel tank capacity, gallons 17.5
Fuel consumption, miles per
90-degree L-head; aluminum cylinder head & pistons; Stromberg dual
downdraft carburetor; Startix ignition
Bore × stroke, inches
3.50 × 3.75
Horsepower @ rpm 125
@ 3,500/170 @ 4,000 supercharged (1937 only)
centrifugal; 24,000 max rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual with
helical-cut gears and Bendix "Electric Hand" vacuum-servo pre-selector
remote control; synchromesh II-IV
9.08:1 (I), 5.85:1 (II), 3.88:1 (III), 2.75:1 (IV), 10.89 (Reverse)
semi-automatic dry plate
suspension independent; dual trailing box-section
swing arms, transverse leaf spring, Lovejoy double-action hydraulic
suspension tubular steel axle on semi-elliptic leaf
springs; Lovejoy double-action hydraulic shock absorbers
worm-and-roller with Gemmer gear and center-point geometry; 18.2:1
overall ratio; 3.25 turns lock-to-lock
Brakes steel 11 ×
2.25-inch Centrifuse drums with welded cast-iron linings and
Brake area, square inches
pressed-steel disc/6.50 × 16 six-ply
--/5.0 Average max for 1.2 mile, 98.9
0-50 mph, 13.7/10.5
Best timed 1/2 mile, 102.27
0-60 mph, 20.1/13.2
Maxima (I/II/III), 34/60/88
0-70 mph, 27.5/19.6
31936 810/1937 Supercharged 812
tested by Autocar
41937 812 Supercharged tested by
November 2, 1935; 1,174 registrations
September 2, 1936 (Supercharged November 18, 1936); 1,146