To some classic car aficionados, little else matters about the Cord 810 than its exultant beauty. But the Cord symbolizes much more. Its introduction was an event, and its development an occasion for exploring untested principles of industrial ingenuity.
Marketed by the acclaimed Auburn Automobile Company during its two final, turbulent years of operation (1936 brought the model 810; 1937, the 812), the front-wheel-drive Cord was the manufacturer’s last brave burst of inspiration before falling victim to the effects of the Great Depression. The creation of the Cord did more than allow Auburn Automobile Company to expire with a Flourish of nobility. It gave birth to new attitudes about automobile design in this country. Since the Thirties, admiration for the Cord has been magnified beyond the collective imagination of its talented originators.
Credit for the accomplished Cord has been cast to many, but to none more deserving than Gordon Miller Buehrig, one of the master stylists of the classic era, who brought his gift to all three marques: Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg. By avoiding conventional design techniques, he brought a freshness to American auto styling. While operating within the company structure, Buehrig never compromised his professional integrity or misplaced his devotion to creativity in realizing the entirely new Cord. Along with the styling challenges, Buehrig also was confronted with the crumbling economics of the auto firm.
The Auburn Automobile Company had endured the sunlight and storm of 35 years in the youthful, protean transportation industry. But, by 1935 (and the incubation period of the Cord), the menacing Depression, having confounded the nation, was plaguing Auburn’s once-hailed vitality. That the Cord project was completed at all was the basic triumph of Buehrig’s vision and perseverance.
While still in his twenties, Buehrig’s contribution to the evolution of the motorcar was already substantial. Between 1929 and 1933, as chief designer at Duesenberg, he had brought about a whole canon of celebrated concepts for coach work, and later had begun to revitalize the entire Auburn line. In leveling his talents at the Cord, it was clear Buehrig had a secure command of design elements and the evidence could be found in every detail: beauty of shape; gracefulness of proportion; economy of line; all dressed up in a lightning appearance that invited unrestrained smugness from even the most reserved motorist.
Everything about the car was different. Off came the visible running boards, away went the door hinges, in and out went the headlamps, eliminated was the hood ornament, up went the hood (hinged at the back, it opened from front center, a long-awaited convenience. Gears were pre-selected, fenders were extended, and the radiator was disguised by seemingly unending lateral louvers, resembling nothing so much as Venetian blinds. The Cord was low-slung, high-powered and front-driven. It simply didn’t correspond to any previous creature of the highway.
Buehrig’s masterpiece contained two rare ingredients: a recklessly dramatic modernism and a fundamental, knowing sense of form. The appearance of the Cord in November 1935 shook the automotive world at its foundation. Largely through simplicity and refinement, Buehrig’s work evoked the very synthesis of art deco style, the dreamlike glorification of the Machine Age.
Legendary are the often recounted tales of the breathless dash to prepare enough cars to participate in the obligatory New York, Chicago and Los Angeles auto shows of late 1935. Frantic crowds are said to have stood disrespectfully upon the other cars present to get a privileged first glimpse of the all-new Cord. Surely the spellbound onlookers knew immediately that this automobile was something truly special. Was it a spaceship, an experiment in progress, a threatening reaction to sacred convention? It was all of these and more. The Cord was America’s first completely successful distillation and definition of art deco style applied to the standards of an automobile. Buehrig somehow had grasped magically a combination of ideas that had eluded his designing contemporaries. The Cord wasn’t magisterial like the Duesenberg or jaunty like the Auburn. It possessed a semblance all its own.
Everyone at the auto shows knew this was true; the new Cord would influence every motorcar thereafter. The Cord not only seduced the buyer’s ego, it actually made driving an involving experience. “A champion never pushes people around,” chanted the ad campaign, reassuring Cord owners against an inferiority complex.
Aware of it or not, Buehrig was exacting an ideal, under corporate conditions that provided for neither a sizable research and development budget nor a reasonable term in which to experiment with test cars. The exotic character of the Cord contributed to much mechanical unreliability, most of which has been resolved by today’s owners. The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club estimates that a startling two-thirds of all Cords manufactured still survive in varying states of condition.
Automotive concepts as formidable as the Cord 810/812 have vanished from America’s industrial landscape, but fascination with the car has never retreated. Respect has deepened with the years, among the enthusiasts who define the Cord as their dream car, at last materialized.
Such was the public’s affection for the Cord that the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a famous exhibit in the autumn of 1951, devoted to the esthetics of motorcar design. Titled “Eight Automobiles,” with the 1937 Cord 812 among them, the exhibit catalog analyzed the car this way:
“…the Cord faces the road flanked by two voluminous fenders…with a vigorously box-like body. Each part is treated as an independent piece of sculpture, the whole collection being partially related by similar details for each unit. But at the rear of the car the passenger compartment, the tonneau, and the fenders merge in one broadly rounded form, summarized by a small window divided into two almost semi-circular parts.”
“A depression between the front fenders and the hood allows the fenders to be tied to each other by a platform on which the hood appears to rest. This detail contributes most of all to the forward pull the fenders seem to exert on the passenger compartment. Stability is given by repetition of a horizontal element: the grille, extending along the sides as well as the front of the motor compartment, acts like a hinge connecting various parts of the car.”
“One would expect vertical emphasis to match this insistent horizontality. It is found in the clearly articulated door post, isolated for maximum effectiveness by symmetrical windows on either side. Thus, the Cord consists of vertical and horizontal axes around which its parts are grouped. A suggestion of movement comes primarily from these shapes, but also from a slight distortion of the horizontal axis. The body is tilted upward toward the rear, while only the heavy louvers of the grille are on a true horizontal plane. [The axial distortion] is used to suggest power, as though all the weight of the body were pressing down on the front wheels while the grille and the fenders alone represent stability.”
“…many of the Cord’s lines are borrowed from aerodynamics. …the Cord suggests the driving power of a fast fighter plane. It is, in fact, a most solemn expression of streamlining.”
That the Cord’s introduction was phenomenally influential is now beyond question. The car’s lasting appeal, as an object of praise, and as a source of inspiration, has been proven implicitly time and again for more than half a century.
CHRONOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE CORD 810
Harold T. Ames, President of Duesenberg, Inc., asks Gordon Buehrig to design a “baby” version of the Duesenberg.
Gordon Buehrig presents designs for a car with exterior radiators.
The “baby” Duesenberg prototype is built.
Gordon Buehrig files patent designs on the “baby” Duesenberg.
The “baby” Duesenberg project is scrapped. A V-8 powered front-drive vehicle, using Buehrig’s body design, is ordered by Harold Ames, still director of the project, and now vice president at Auburn Automobile Company.
Various Cord 810 prototypes are completed, then modified. The Cord assembly line is ordered at the Connersville, Indiana, plant.
One hundred hand-built, non-operational Cords are taken to major auto shows. The response is tremendous and advance orders are taken. Customers receive small bronze models of the car while awaiting delivery. Automotive magazines run features about the new Cord.
The first finished Cords are issued from the Connersville, Indiana, factory.
Dealers receive initial deliveries of the Cord 810, at $1,995 for the Westchester Sedan, $2,095 for the Beverly Sedan, $2,145 for the Convertible Coupe, and $2,195 for the Convertible Sedan. Supercharged engines, while not available for 1936, were added to the model 812 line in 1937.
E.L. Cord sells his transportation corporation, spelling the end of Auburn Automobile Company and the Cord automobile.