1 August 2012

The Cord Capital

1,000 miles and five states in a 75-year-old Cord


When I was a kid, a collector in a neighboring town owned a Cord Westchester sedan in Cigarette Cream with a maroon mohair interior. The memory of that car still haunts me, and although I’ve been a member of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club for years, I’ve never owned a Cord.

So when I learned that dozens of Cords would be converging on Auburn, Indiana, in September 2011 to celebrate the 810’s 75th anniversary, I asked my friend Charlie Montano if he would consider driving his 812 convertible coupe from his place in Gloversville, New York, to Auburn. “I don’t have time,” he said, “but you can take the car. I’ll drive it a little first to be sure it’s OK.”

A capable restorer who does most of his own work, Charlie installed new pistons, rings and bearings, plus new cylinder heads. He changed the belts, fitted a PerTronix electronic ignition, checked the wheels for cracks (a chronic Cord problem), replaced two of them and fitted four new Diamondback radial whitewalls.

Reliable Carriers, Inc. picked up the Cord and brought it to me in Virginia. My friend, Al Mason, himself an accomplished restorer, agreed to co-drive. We planned a three-day, 716-mile drive with overnights in Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, where we’d join up with fellow Cord Convoy participants.

Setting off with high hopes, I was finally driving the car of my childhood dreams. With its Bendix vacuum electric pre-selector four-speed transmission, the Cord is a challenge until you learn the technique. Flip the gearlever into first, engage the clutch, release it, and you’re off. Pre-select second and when you’re ready to shift, depress the clutch pedal and slowly release it. You’ll hear a “clunk” as the next gear is engaged. Downshifting is the reverse from fourth to third. When stopping, apply the brakes, keep the clutch in, select first and slowly release the clutch when you’re ready to go. Don’t use neutral. It’s counterintuitive to the way you’ve always operated a manual transmission. But if you shift it like a conventional manual, you’ll get stuck in a false neutral.

Under way, the supercharged Cord felt peppy and responsive. Heavy at low speeds, the steering became nicely balanced on the highway. Our 812 cruised comfortably at 2,000 rpm in fourth at 70 mph, and it felt like a newer car. In period, Cords were genuine 100-plus-mph performers; in a supercharged 812 sedan, endurance racer Ab Jenkins averaged nearly 80 mph for 24 hours in 1937 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to win the Stevens Trophy.

Our route took us through Cumberland, Maryland, across part of West Virginia and up into Pennsylvania. People everywhere waved and gave us the thumbs-up. We were due to hit West Virginia again before crossing into Ohio, but after 250 miles of enjoyable driving, disaster struck on a steep downhill leg near Claysville, Pennsylvania. Al was in third to let engine compression slow the car, and the brakes began to fade, then stopped working completely. Skillfully applying the emergency brake, Al coasted to a stop at a service station off the highway. Both rear tires were streaked with grease. Whether it was wheel bearings, brake cylinders or worse, one thing was certain: We were hors de combat.

You can’t find much for a Cord at a NAPA store, so we decided to just get the car to Auburn, where spare parts and a Cord mechanic might be available. With two auctions scheduled and several cars headed west for the Labor Day events, I was certain Reliable Carriers might have a rig nearby. Sure enough, General Manager Bob Sellers turned one of his trucks around, and we loaded the Cord. With the wounded 812 en route to Auburn, we piled in the chase car and headed for Indianapolis, where the motel parking lot was filled with Cords in various states of disrepair. Many had hoods up and transmission covers removed while owners fiddled with re-calcitrant shifters. Several broken Cords were already on trailers, but people helped one another and no one seemed upset. Phil and Kathie Ragains of Manhattan, Michigan, were plagued with shifter trouble, and underdash wiring was spread out in the cabin like spaghetti. “I might put her in the back seat and let her do the shifting,” Phil joked.

The next morning some 22 Cords (plus a few on trailers) lined up with an Indianapolis State Police escort. Skillfully blocking traffic for 140 miles, with alternating teams of motorcycle-mounted officers, the “Staties” ensured our convoy had clear sailing north into Auburn. Once there, Al and I headed for Cord Specialist Jerry Muzzillo’s garage, where his son Tony had already replaced the 812’s rear wheel bearings on both sides. But when I stepped on the brake, the right rear wheel cylinder failed. Tony said he’d get a new one overnight. To be safe, we drove to Brake Materials & Parts in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and got a new master cylinder as well. By Friday morning, the Cord was ready, just in time for us to drive to the flea market and tour the ACD Museum.

Built in 1930, the museum initially served as the administration building for the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Corporation. A remarkably preserved art deco structure, it is filled with historic cars like the majestic prototype 1932 E-1 Cord, a Duesenberg-like V-12 limousine that was designed to replace the short-lived Cord L-29, as well as one of the first hand-assembled Cord show cars, replete with copper trim. Up a magnificent center staircase, you’ll find E.L. Cord’s office and Gordon Buehrig’s design studio, preserved the way they were. Knowing you’re ascending the same stairs that Fred Duesenberg climbed is a thrill.

On Saturday, we joined more than 65 Cords on display in Eckhart Park, then tucked in behind noted Cord author and historian Josh Malks, who led a parade of ACD-ers into historic downtown Auburn. Townspeople smiled and waved; Norman Rockwell would have been right at home with his easel. Parked around the historic courthouse square, where we lined up for the “ice cream social,” these racy Auburn Speedsters, majestic Duesenbergs and Erté-inspired Cords were a poignant reminder that beginning a century ago, skilled craftsmen in this small Indiana town created automobiles of great stature that are still coveted and respected.

Company founder Errett Lobban Cord was a brilliant financier, a successful businessman, a visionary and perhaps something of a stock manipulator, but he’s fondly remembered in Auburn as a hero. William Cord Hummel, oldest grandson of E.L. Cord and president of the ACD Club, was on hand with his 812 convertible coupe. “I’m thrilled that so many people are still fascinated by these cars,” he said.

We drove into the lush crop-lined countryside so photographer Michael Alan Ross, who had been with us since Virginia, could get some running shots of the black Cord convertible coupe. Comfortable behind the wheel now, with the car running cool despite the 100-degree heat, I delighted in exploiting the 812’s still-considerable performance. Vision is a little limited by the snug top, but peering through the split windshield down that long hood, feeling the Lycoming V-8’s eager responses and relishing the soft whirr of the supercharger, I’d cheerfully trade my garage of old Fords for this car.

Malks, who helped organize the Cord Convoy, said the turnout exceeded his expectations. “Everyone who drove here has a tale to tell. Crossing the country, we drove through mountains as high as 12,000 feet, and the car never faltered,” he said.

While I couldn’t say the same, all too soon it was time to load the Cord into the transporter that would return it to New York. Later, I had to keep my hands in my pockets when I saw the Cords offered at the Worldwide Auction. I’m hooked.

The 810 Cord: A Remarkable Classic

The stunning 810 Cord was arguably the most advanced American production car of the 1930s. Sporting a unit-body, front wheel drive, independent front suspension, a V-8 with aluminum heads, a four-speed pre-selector Bendix gearbox, an optional centrifugal supercharger on 812s and timeless art deco styling by Duesenberg designer Gordon Buehrig, it was far ahead of its time. But the 810 bowed in the depths of the Great Depression, before its development was really completed. Early models suffered from gearbox problems, body shake, electrical glitches and chronic overheating.

The country was mired in such economic doldrums that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the auto industry to preview its 1936 models early, in November 1935, to jump-start sales and boost the stalled economy. Cord wasn’t quite ready. Conceived in a stunning Art Moderne building in Auburn, Indiana, Cord Corporation—the pride of industrialist and two-time Time magazine cover subject Errett Lobban Cord—was arguably doomed from the start.

The Automobile Manufacturing Association (AMA) required automakers to build 100 examples of a new model in order to qualify it for display. Luckily, it didn’t specify that they had to run. Cord quickly complied, but only just: 100 new 810s were hastily assembled, nearly all of them without transmissions, and 25 were shipped to the major auto shows. A canvas “diaper” covered the gaping hole where the gearbox should have been. An angular, coffin-shaped hood, set off by shapely fenders, a low roofline and a fastback trunk, made the 810 Cord’s sleek silhouette impossible to miss. Four-passenger convertibles, called phaetons, and two-seater convertible coupes rounded out the lineup. One show car had copper trim to dramatize its advanced styling. Instantly recognizable, the Cord was a visual and technical tour de force.

Crowds gaped and orders poured in, even with a base price of $1,995 for the Beverly sedan (the price of two Oldsmobiles). Cord sent out a small bronze sculpture of the car (they’re collector’s items now) to appease impatient buyers, most of whom wouldn’t take delivery until mid-1936. Early adopters were plagued with problems, which the factory corrected as quickly as it could. Despite the available supercharger and those stunning external exhaust pipes, it was all over by 1937. Revered by collectors, Cords today are CCCA Full Classics, and a cottage industry has evolved to correct all the inbred faults.

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