This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Cord 810/812. It was a sensation when it went on sale in 1936, and I think it’s still one of the most beautiful sedans ever built. Originally intended as a “baby” Duesenberg, it was packed with advanced features such as front-wheel drive; independent front suspension; a unitised body; an “alligator” bonnet hinged at the rear (like most of today’s cars); a 93 kW, 4,7-litre V8 engine with aluminium heads built by the Cord-owned Lycoming aircraft engine company – and a four-speed Bendix preselector gearbox with vacuum/electric shifting.
It had three other features that were firsts in America: the hooter ring and, for improved streamlining, a covered fuel cap and hidden headlights that the driver unveiled with a hand crank. For the 1937 model year, there was an optional centrifugal supercharger, good for 145 kW.
Naturally, the car was a failure.
Cord didn’t have the time or the money to test and tweak all these innovative systems before it went into production. Back in the day, that wasn’t uncommon, as anyone who owns an English car from the ’40s or ’50s can tell you. The guy at the factory would say, “You’re the test driver. If you have any problems, let us know!”
That’s how the Cord quickly developed a reputation for being gorgeous but unreliable. It overheated. If you left it in gear and you lost the vacuum, the transmission wouldn’t shift. Most mechanics couldn’t work on the car – it was complicated and unlike any other they had ever seen. If the engineers had had time for quality control and getting the bugs out, I think the Cord would have been a bigger hit.
The price tag was also an issue. At around $3 000, the Cord cost as much as a Cadillac, but it was way smaller. People who spent that sort of money wanted a larger car. The concept of a small personal luxury car was still 20 years away. The Ford Thunderbird was the first of those “Ooohhh, this is kinda cool, lookit this,” kinds of cars.
One of the things I admire about the Cord is that the stylists and the engineers used a lot of ingenuity. They had to. The Cord was designed and built on a shoestring budget in the middle of the Depression. Here’s one example: everyone admires the Cord’s wheels and hubcaps as pinnacles of art deco styling. But the simple, elegant look was a pragmatic solution to a problem. During a crosscountry test drive, the brakes overheated. There was no money to develop better brakes, so the engineers later drilled holes in the full-size hubcaps to cool the brakes, and those hubcaps became one of the Cord’s most admired styling elements.
The Cord factory made just under 3 000 cars before production ended in August 1937; about two-thirds survive. When I was looking for a Cord, I contacted the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club. I always pay a little too much, but I wind up with a car that someone has put his heart and soul into. Mine was restored by a skilled New Jersey man named Arthur Pirre. He was an excellent mechanic and a machinist – a perfectionist. Sadly, we don’t have many men like him today. He worked on this car until everything was perfect, but hardly ever drove it. His joy was making it work.
I run my Cord with radial tyres, and it steers and corners beautifully. The Cord is one of the best-handling cars of the ’30s. In fact, it’s better than most cars of the ’40s and ’50s. The four-speed Bendix preselector gearbox is extremely easy to use. Introduced in the early 1930s, on the Hudson and Terraplane, it was called the Electric Hand. Fourth gear is an overdrive. In Europe, companies like Wilson and Cotal made preselector boxes for sport and luxury cars.
The transmission in my car shifts wonderfully. Using a little lever on the steering column, you select a gear, step on the clutch, and bingo! The next gear is automatically engaged. You don’t have to take your hands off the wheel in a fast turn. In most cars from the ’30s, you have a long stick shift that comes out from under the dash. With front-wheel drive, there’s a flat floor and all sorts of room in front. Interestingly, in 1947, Preston Tucker initially used salvaged Cord gearboxes before his engineers built a similar transmission of their own.
Under the bonnet, the Cord’s engine compartment is crowded compared with others of its era. Packing in the Schwitzer- Cummins supercharger made everything more complex. GM had stylists who designed engine compartments so that, when you opened the bonnet on a Cadillac, you saw that beautiful V16 and everything laid out for easy access, with no exposed wiring. Not this car.
It doesn’t take much to scare people away from a certain make. We’re on the cusp of Fiat returning to America. But if those first 1 000 cars aren’t perfect, you’ll start hearing all the old “Fix It Again, Tony” stories. Touted as a car of the future, the Cord was a styling tour de force. But its special features weren’t fully developed and tested, and rival salesmen were waiting to exploit any flaw.
It’s like steam cars; a steam car has never blown up. Yet internal-combustion boosters insisted: “Oh, forget steam cars; they’ll blow up.” So salesmen trying to move the Cord had that bad reputation to deal with. And some rumours of problems turned out to be true.
As a classic car, my Cord is flawless. But as a car you’d use every day, I can see where you’d have some problems. You’re not going to take a classic car out on a hot day; you can’t leave it in gear; you only drive it under ideal conditions. In the same way, the Lamborghini Miura isn’t a great driving car, especially over 100 miles per hour , when aerodynamic forces make the car light and affect the handling. With a classic car, all those flaws are exciting – just not on a day-today basis.
Video: Take a closer look at Jay’s 1937 Cord 812