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Cord 810/812 -- Phaeton

Cord 810/812 -- Phaeton

By Jack Nerad

Cord 810/812 -- Phaeton If there were any doubts about Errett Lobban Cord, there is certainly no doubt that he was an optimist. He believed in building a better mousetrap, and he believed in the American Dream.

Of course, his American Dream of building a successful line of automobiles bearing his name had already come acropper once. He and his team at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg had designed the beautiful and technologically advanced Cord L-29 only to see the stock market crash soon after its introduction. With sales of less than 4,000 over the course of its three-year run, Cord was forced to cease production of the model and re-group.

But E.L. Cord was never one to sit still for long. He always had it in his mind to revive the Cord nameplate when the time was right. It was his tragedy to live in the 1930's when the time was never right.

Of course, Cord didn't know this. He had lived through recessions and "business panics" before, so, like most American businessmen, he was convinced that, even in the depth of the Depression, that the turnaround was on the way, and he wanted to be ready when it came.

So he continued to build the super-luxury Duesenberg for movie stars and the children of old money and kept his business afloat on the relative strength of the mid-market Auburn. All the while, he kept on the look-out for a chance to revitalize the Cord name. In July of 1935, with the Chicago Cubs battling for a National League pennant they would eventually win and the nation in a general upswing, he believed he had found his window of opportunity.

He decided that the November New York Auto Show was the right time, right place, so he embarked on a crash program to build, not just a show car but also 100 salable examples of the new Cord. In retrospect, it proved to be too ambitious a timetable.

Certainly, Cord wasn't starting from scratch. His brilliant chief designer, Gordon Buehrig always had some terrific stuff squirreled away in his desk drawer, and so it was with the genesis of what would become the Cord 810. Back in 1933, he had drawn sketches meant, perhaps, for a future Duesenberg that had forward-thinking features like "pontoon" fenders and a grille-less engine compartment. Cooling for the projected vehicle was to be taken care of by twin radiators placed between the engine bay and the fenders.

In the end this was judged too radical for Duesenberg, which relied on its grille to give it the presence its luxury buyers wanted, but Cord did like the sketches and encouraged Buehrig to build on the theme. While at the same time drawing up the lively Auburn 852 "Boattail" Speedster, Buehrig moved onward with the unnamed second project. He completed more detailed sketches in September 1934. What those sketches contained was a striking visage, radically different from any car on the road. While even the most modern early Thirties design relied on a stand-up grille to provide both cooling air and drama, the Cord 810 had no grille at all. Instead, louvered slits wrapped around the front of the engine compartment. The de rigeur radiator cap ornament was replaced by a V-motif crest high on the car's blunt nose.

The Cord 810 didn't simply eschew the grille; it also said good-bye to visible headlights, another key part of the traditional Thirties car visage. Instead of the wide-eyed headlamps of all other cars on the road, the 810's were hidden in the bulbous fenders and deployed by winding cranks on the dashboard.

For both styling and continuity's sake, Cord demanded that the new model be front-wheel-drive, as was the L-29. This necessitated a broad apron ahead of the engine compartment and between the two front fenders, but this was executed with artful aplomb, and, because front-wheel-drive allowed the car to be far lower than its contemporaries, Buehrig ditched running boards all together.

Inside the car, the engine-turned aluminum dash fascia has become legendary. The car's electric/vacuum shifter was activated by a lever on the steering column behind the huge Bakelite wheel, and because of the rushed development to make the New York Auto Show, early examples worked none too well.

The Cord 810 was offered in four body styles, all quite striking, but arguably the most attractive is the two-door Phaeton, an ancient name for such a Modern design. With hinged at the rear "suicide" doors, a steeply raked windshield and a close-fitting top over its four passenger seats, one is hard-pressed to imagine a better-looking automobile.

Under its "coffin nose" the Cord 810 offered a 289 cubic inch (4.7 liter) V-8 engine, instead of the L-29's 299 cubic inch straight eight. Designed by Forest Baster of Lycoming, another company in the Cord sphere, the engine produced 125 peak horsepower at 3500 rpm. Mounted longitudinally, it transferred its power to the front wheels via a four-speed transmission located ahead of the engine.

Though a decent performer, the Lycoming V-8 had a lot to contend with. The 810 had a wheelbase of 125 inches, and the car weighed about 3,700 pounds, so it wasn't a hot performer in the modern sense. Top speed was about 90 miles per hour and acceleration leisurely.

As one might guess, the Cord 810's reception at the New York Auto Show was stupendous, but in the end, that reaction might have hurt the car more than helped it. At a base price of just $1,995, the public quickly snapped up the hundred examples that E.L. Cord had forced his production staff to cobble together for the event, but the quality of these early units was not what it should have been, and the beautiful cars soon got a reputation as troublesome. Just as harmful, too, was the fact that Cord had eaten up a large part of his financial resources to build the hundred cars from scratch in just four months time.

In 1937 Cord announced the slightly revised 812 model. The most significant change was the addition of an optional supercharger that took horsepower up to 170 and top speed to 110 miles per hour. It was a car that would run all day at 70 mph, and get 15 miles per gallon doing so, but the American economy had weakened yet again, and there were painfully few buyers.

Finally, E.L. Cord faced the inevitable and sold out, and soon thereafter Auburn, Duesenberg and Cord, three of the proudest American marques of all time, ceased to exist. Even after its death, the Cord 810/812 was paid a final tribute. Another manufacturer, Graham, a successor to the old Paige-Detroit company, purchased the Cord body tooling and used it on a model that would be sold for several more years.
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