1937 Cord 810 Phaeton

2014 Drive-My

1937 Cord 810 Phaeton –  the average mid 1930s American car looks a little dull. There is nothing ordinary about this one. Any Cord expert will tell you that 1937 model Cords are known as 812. Both this car and its 4 door donor were first registered new in the UK as model 810, in 1937. Maybe it took a while for them to cross the Atlantic?

By the mid 1930s, it would not be unfair to say that American car design on the whole had gone a little dull and “samey”. It really reached its peak in 1932 and after that, things seemed to become more mundane. Not only the everyman’s Chevrolet and Ford, the top makers too were losing the flair of their earlier designs – even the top of the line Duesenberg was a late 1920s car with very few upgrades. There were the odd exceptions, Chrysler Corporations Airflow models looked stunning but were way too futuristic for the conservative American car buying public and flopped – not good news as the makers were struggling to recover from the effects of the Depression.

1937 Cord 810 Phaeton

So imagine the response when at the 1935 New York Motorshow, Cord unveiled the 810. Where was the radiator grille? Where were the running boards? Retractable headlights? Pontoon mudguards (fenders if you want to get in character here); front wheel drive and a vacuum/electro-preselect gearbox were all pure fantasy. It wouldn’t have got a more stunned response if it had arrived from outer space.

Which of course it hadn’t, instead arriving from the drawing-board of Gordon Buehrig who had already penned Duesenbergs Model J and the Auburn 815 boattail, yet the middle of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg range Cord is the real stand out.

How much of a stand-out? Well, at the Dunedin Autospectacular last year was a New Zealand first with all three of E. L. Cord’s three marques on display in the same place.

The Duesenberg Model J from the Wanaka Warbirds and Wheels museum was the crowd puller and it really dragged in the public. Joined front and centre as you walked in the door by an Auburn roadster, neither got a look in – the crowd was surrounding the black Cord which had come down from Nelson for the show.

Rightfully so – it stood out as if it was from another age entirely. The New York City Museum of Modern Art is not known for dishing out praise unnecessarily, and they described the Cord as “…the outstanding American contribution to automobile design.”

This was the second coming of the Cord. The earlier L29 was the first front-wheel drive production car of any substance to be produced in the USA. The mechanical layout was the product of former Miller engineer Carl Van Ranst who adapted Miller’s successful FWD Indianapolis 500 front running design for road use, mounting the transmission in front of a 289ci straight-8 borrowed from the Auburn.

Unfortunately the Cord was the victim of both its performance not matching its looks (with the extra weight and complexity of the much larger and infinitely more expensive Cord, the Auburn was considerably faster) and the effects of the Depression.

A model life of only four years from 1929 to 1932 and a production of 4400 cars over this period was not enough to justify continuation of the model.

The 810 was originally intended to be a smaller, more modern “baby” Duesenberg, as sales of the flagship of the A-C-D empire were glacial at best – in 1936, when the first Cord finally made it to the market, no more than 10 Duesenbergs were produced and in truth, by now, production isn’t really an accurate description; Duesenbergs were being built from an existing stockpile of parts and engines, some dating back as far as five years. The new Cord sold 1629 cars in the same period but all really was not well.

The issue, as is so often the case, was money (or the lack thereof) being insufficient for development and, like the front-wheel drive innovator on the other side of the Atlantic, the unfortunate early customers became development engineers by default.

Some open cars don’t look so good with the hood up. With the Cord, the converse applies. Notice the small flap to the right of the boot-lid. The fuel filler hides under this, a first for an American car.

At least the new Cord owner was relatively well-heeled.

Pity the unfortunate Frenchman, used to Citroen producing startlingly simple yet well equipped cars for the masses, handing over every Franc of his life savings for the latest Traction Avant only for it to break the transmission.

If it weren’t for tyre maker Michelin, which had developed its “X” radial specifically for its biggest customer, taking over the company which was bankrupted by the problems their revolutionary new design was throwing up, that would have been the end of Europe’s second-largest maker.

Cord’s problem was there was no financial Fairy Godmother waiting in the wings when 1937 sales dropped to 1278. Errett Lobban Cord abandoned his sinking ship on the 4th of August and the doors shut on the 21st of August.

Top E.L. Cord also owned Lycoming so the choice of engine was easy – Lycoming’s 289 ci V8. Middle When Sir Len Southward bought the car, it had been fitted with a Ford V8. A replacement engine was found in Christchurch. Bottom The independent front suspension and the vacuum actuator for the gear-sifting mechanism can be seen clearly as the front sub-frame waits to be re-united with the rest of the car. A bit of a design flaw, this… rusty Cords have been known to break in two.

The gear lever sends an electrical signal to the large box of tricks at the front of the car.

 Is this the most spectacular dash of any 1930s car ever made?

 This wasn’t quite the end of the line, as Hupmobile, also ailing and on the verge of collapse, purchased the tooling for the 810/812 and used it to build the Hupmobile Skylark and the Graham Hollywood. Both models were conventional rear wheel drive and the front end lost the retractable headlights, gained chromed grilles, the features which made Buehrig’s original design so clean and cohesive, making an odd-looking car which predictably, hastened the demise of another once- proud manufacturer.

The Southward Museum has just completed the restoration of a real rarity, a 1937 810 Phaeton, a four seat convertible and it has been a major job – so much so that had it been a lesser car, it would have been considered beyond economic restoration – you know the one, they appear on TradeMe every week as “1936 Grey Porridge. Rare Perambulator model. Partly restored. Spent $70,000 on it so far. Buy-now SI 5,000.” Of course it Still needs another 25 grand to finish it and fully restored Grey Porridge Perambulators are selling for around $ 10,000. And the owner’s wife has just discovered the truth!

Being a museum and having its own fully equipped workshop does rather overcome the above issues and besides, a Cord is one of those cars where no matter how knackered it may be, it is still worth restoring… which is a good thing because the car in question certainly was knackered when it arrived in the country sometime in the 1960s after Sir Len Southward found it in the UK. 

Operated by a pair of handles on either side of the dash, there is a bit of winding to bring them out to play

Retractable headlights had never been seen before Gordon Buehrig designed the Cord 810

This was the second car – Sir Len had bought a sedan and when it got here it was in such a poor state that the vendor (not, I suspect, without some persuasion) sent the Phaeton by way of compensation. Not that it was a hell of a lot better and it was banished to the far reaches of the “cars we will get to later” department.

There it languished for some time (as in decades) before the decision was made to drag the poor thing out and initially it spent five years as a project for Wellington Polytech students before returning to the Paraparaumu museums workshop and the fulltime attention of John Bellamore and his small team to get the car finished, running ar.d ready to take its place inside the main building.

The good thing about restoring a Cord is there is in the USA, a small cottage industry which has sprung up to keep these fabulously flawed cars looking great and if not going well, at least drivable. The only problem, as John was to find out, is that nothing is cheap, no, not even affordable.

If you want to restore a Cord, it is essential to have very deep pockets. Even though the Phaeton was basically complete, and there was a donor sedan alongside, the parts bill alone came to $60,000. Add to this, due to the dire financial situation of Cord’s empire, the cars were to a large degree, hand built, so there was not the interchangeability one might expect when dealing with parts from a supposedly identical car. So don’t assume that an expensive brand new part is going to fit without several hours of fettling beforehand.

The external pipes were normally only fitted to supercharged cars but they serve a practical purpose in cooling the engine bay

Mechanically, things were not as they should be either. A Cord 810 should have a 289 ci Lycoming V8 engine producing a reasonable (for the period) 125hp. This car had the indignity of having the original powerplant replaced by a flathead Ford V8 fitted

back-to front – the front wheel drive transmission took its drive from the front of the motor.

The Cords cooling system was marginal at best, Buehrigs “coffin-nose” front might have been the car’s crowning glory, but it didn’t let much air through to the radiator and we all know that Henry’s V8, as well as falling some 35hp short of the output of the Lycoming, also struggled to keep itself cool in its normal environment. In the cramped confines of the Cord’s engine-bay, we can surmise that this was not a successful transplant.


Putting the hood down is a complex process best done with two people

At least the transmission was complete, the four speed gearbox is a weak point, the vacuum-electro preselect shift mechanism is great in theory, synchromesh was new (Chevrolet had it on second and top only on their 1932 models) and this system was getting closer to a fully automatic unit.

Sprouting from the right of the steering column is a miniature chrome plated gate complete with tiny (as in 5cm tiny) gear lever. With the motor running it is a simple job to move the lever into the low gear position. Depress the clutch and a solenoid at the front of the car will (all going well) select the appropriate ratio and you can drive off. At any time the lever can be moved to whichever gear is needed next, but nothing will happen until the clutch pedal is depressed again and the gear changes all by itself. This is the theory.

The boot looks big from the outside. The reality is somewhat different. The black bag on the shelf holds the covers to hide some of the hood mechanism when it is folded down

In practice it generally works (apart from the odd time when it won’t!) but there are some idiosyncrasies, the main one being that it does not pay to sit for long with the clutch pedal depressed. ‘Ihis stops the oil pump which lubricates the transmission and the outcome can easily be a seized gearbox. Not a fun thing to discover at a red light.

Yet, when almost 80 year-old mechanical, vacuum and electrical gizmos all work in harmony, it is a surprisingly smooth and simple to operate system. Just don’t break it! Oh, and don’t be too hard on the CV-joints. With the best of treatment, they only last 5000 miles.

Quite why Preston Tucker initially chose the Cord transmission for his equally futuristic rear engined Tucker 48 (aka Tucker Torpedo) is unknown, but the extra torque from the 589ci flat six engine Tucker was using, initially destined for Bell helicopters was too much for the already over stressed and under engineered unit.

Externally, one of the features of this car is the external exhausts. Originally it was only the supercharged 812 which used them but there is a practical reason for adding them to an unblown car. As I mentioned, cooling is an issue with the Cord and one of the problems they suffered from in the 30s was fuel vapourisation. By taking the pipes outside, the temperature in the engine bay is reduced and the cooling and fuel systems are the better for it. It looks pretty good too, even if it isn’t quite part of Buehrig’s clean, chrome-free concept.

You may have noticed something else about the car. Not the colour, white is normal. Yes, it is a convertible – and putting the hood up takes two people and is a task best attempted at least five minutes before the onset of any precipitation if you wish to keep self and automobile upholstery dry but that isn’t it either.

No, it is the position of the steering wheel. This is a right-hand drive car, something which I have to admit I didn’t know existed. John is convinced this was a factory conversion as all the parts used are Cord, but the job does seem to have been done by someone using their teeth and a pair of very blunt tin snips. Possibly with help from a hammer and cold-chisel when it came to the smaller, detail jobs.

When we saw the car it had yet to go through the compliance process to make it road-legal so our experience of the Cord was restricted to driving around the museum grounds. Even from this rather limited outing, a few things were obvious. Firstly, the Lycoming V8 sounds wonderful.

The wide doors and low seats make this a very easy car to enter and leave and with the hood up, it is a very civilised place to sit. We didn’t try any rough surfaces but the fully independent front end using trailing arms and torsion bars gave a firm, more controlled ride than some of the soggy products from either side of the Atlantic which wobbled around the roads of the 1930s.

As a styling exercise, the Cord 810 is quite simply sublime. The engineering behind it is equally cutting edge for the era. It really was just the lack of funding to make sure the finished product had the bugs ironed out and was fit for sale to the public which let it down and spelt the end of the Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg triumvirate. Of course today, a restored Cord isn’t expected to provide daily transport for its owner and if treated with respect, is as drivable as it is spectacular. I am hoping that once this one is road legal, John has me back for a demonstration of it where it belongs, back on the highway and turning heads.

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