Back to the Past
In 1938, Detroit-based Hupp Motor Car purchased the production dies of the iconic Cord 810/812 from the defunct Cord Automobile for $900,000. Lacking the necessary production resources, Hupp (known for its Hupmobile brand) partnered with Graham-Paige Motor to share the Cord dies, with Graham producing the Hupmobile Skylark and its own Hollywood sedans. Neither of the budget-based cars captured the flair or inventiveness of the original Cord models; production ended in 1941 and both companies went out of business shortly thereafter.
Cord sprang from less than auspicious beginnings. After buying Auburn and Duesenberg in the mid-1920s, E.L. Cord, an entrepreneur and former race car driver, launched his namesake brand just prior to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Although the company only produced cars for a few years (1929-1932 and 1936-37), it quickly gained popularity among celebrities—including Amelia Earhart—and made a lasting impression, thanks to a host of technical firsts and dynamic styling.
The 1929 Cord L-29 is credited with being one of the first front-wheel-drive production cars. Power came from a 4.7-liter V-8 engine—built by the then Cord-owned Lycoming aircraft engine company—with aluminum heads and the crankshaft pushed out through the front of the engine block near the flywheel. The car was praised for its styling and handling, though at 125-hp and a top speed of 80 mph it was considered underpowered (even for its time). Production ended in 1932 as The Great Depression took its toll.
Cord reemerged with a vengeance with the Model 810 in 1936 and the largely unchanged 812 of 1937. The 810/812 sedan was penned by legendary designer Gordon Buehrig, who also is credited with the Stutz Black Hawk, Duesenberg Model J, Auburn Boattail Speedster, and later Ford’s Victoria Coupe and Continental Mark II. The 810/812 is distinguished by its louvered wraparound grille—nicknamed the coffin nose—a rear-hinged hood, stylized wheels and hubcaps, and pontoon fenders with hidden headlights (a first in America) that the driver activated via a hand crank.
The Cord 810/812 also was front-drive and had an independent front suspension. The combination allowed the car to sit considerably lower than rear-drive competitors, eliminating the need for running boards. Other highlights included a horn ring, covered gas cap and variable speed windshield wipers.
The L-29’s Lycoming V-8 engine also was used in the 810/812. But the earlier model’s three-speed manual transmission was swapped for a four-speed, semi-automatic Bendix gearbox with vacuum/electric shifting. An optional supercharger was added in 1937 that bumped output to 195 hp.
The 810 was a sensation when it debuted at the New York auto show in late 1935. Flush with orders, Cord expected to produce 1,000 vehicles per month. But the semi-automatic transmission and other mechanical problems delayed production and eventually killed the car after two years with sales totaling about 3,000.
Time has been kind. The 810/812 has long been a favorite of collectors—about two-thirds of the originals still exist—and the Museum of Modern Art has recognized its originality. Cord was once championed as the car of the future. Now it and other historic models may have a future.
Thanks to the Low-Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act signed into law in late 2015, Cord and other long-extinct brands may soon get new life. Final provisions are still being worked out, but as it stands, the bill will allow small manufacturers to sell as many as 325 replicas per year of vehicles that have been out of production for at least 25 years without having to pass the latest safety tests. But they have to meet current fuel economy and emissions requirements.
The first two companies to announce plans to produce vehicles under the Act targeted relative newer models from the 1980s: the gullwinged DeLorean DMC-12 sports car (of Back to the Future fame) and Autokraft MkIV Cobra—itself a continuation model of the 1960s-era AC MkIII. They were joined in November by Texas oil consultant Craig Corbell, who purchased the rights to Cord two years ago and now plans to relaunch the brand.