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Cord L-29

Cord L-29

By Jack Nerad

Cord L-29 The story of Errett Lobban Cord is an American saga of success and failure, of trying mightily and falling hard. It mirrors the age in which he lived, and it is chock full of soaring triumphs and dreadful failures, and, of course, his ultimate creations, the Cord L-29 and 810/812, ultimately represent both.

Cord was part promoter, part visionary, the man who, in real life, was very much like the Tucker Francis Ford Coppola portrayed on the silver screen. A fast-track salesman and business tycoon, Cord came of age in the Roaring Twenties. Drawn to the car business because of its rich money-making potential, Cord took over the day-to-day operation of the moribund Auburn brand of automobiles in 1924 when he was just 30 years old. In an era when conservative functionality ruled auto design -- there were no such thing as auto stylists in those days -- Cord placed most of his emphasis on cosmetics. Auburns quickly came to be known as some of the best-looking cars on the road, and the American buying public, always ready for a pretty face, responded by driving sales of Auburn cars ever upward.

Things moved apace through the Twenties, and as the Twenties roared to a close Cord had taken full control of Auburn. But as a promoter of the Babbit stripe, he had bigger things on his mind. Down the road, Fred and Augie Duesenberg were building some of the greatest racing cars of theirs or any other generation, but their street machine, the Model A, had a dreary sales record. Despite mechanical excellence, its styling was a snore and buyers stayed away in droves.

It was the perfect opening for Errett Cord, because if there one thing he knew how to do it was bring some sales excitement in the form of exciting styling. In rapid succession Cord set out to build a new Duesenberg model that would out-perform and out-style any motor car in the world and to introduce a completely new line of technically unique cars that would bear his name. The scheme was a rough approximation of the General Motors strategy, but it started much higher on the automotive foodchain. Auburn was at the low end (though compared to the overall American car market it was hardly low-priced; in today's marketing-speak one might call it a "near-luxury car.") Cord was aimed at the core of the American luxury market, but it hung its hat on technical innovation.

Finally, Duesenberg was the "ultra-luxury" marque, targeted at the burgeoning nouveau riche who might otherwise have bought Rolls-Royces, Bugattis or Isotta-Fraschinis.

As 1929 dawned E.L. Cord's marketing plan seemed quite sound indeed. And when he launched the avant garde Cord L-29 that summer the plan seemed ever-more wise. The L-29 was a technical and styling tour de force that immediately took its place as one of the most attractive cars on the road.

At the heart of the L-29 was its front-wheel-drive system, a layout Harry Miller had pioneered on the American champ car race circuit. Cord was so enamored of the system he bought the patent rights from Miller, and an early prototype of the L-29 actually took shape in Miller's Los Angeles race car emporium.

Modern-day proponents of front-wheel-drive cite its traction advantages -- the engine's weight resides over the drive wheels -- and its production advantages -- the engine and drivetrain can be dropped into a car on the assembly line as a unit. But one suspects that Cord cared little about traction and didn't care one whit about ease of assembly. He fell in love with the dramatic styling advantages front wheel drive offered.

John Oswald, the man who had penned many a memorable Auburn design, was tapped to draw the lines of the L-29 Cord, and he took every advantage of the front-wheel-drive layout. While all the rear-wheel-drive cars on the road had bodies that sat up high above their driveshafts (Stylists had yet to prevail upon engineers to let the shaft run through the passenger compartment.), the L-29 sat elegantly low. Its hoodline was a foot lower than its luxury car competition.

And what a hoodline!

It extended nearly half the length of the car. Not only was the long hood a styling statement that resonates to the present day, it was also a necessity. Under that hood was a Lycoming-built longitudinally mounted straight-eight powerplant that displaced 299 cubic inches (4.9 liters). Not only was the engine long, it was also preceded by the transmission that straddled the front axle. Housing that formidable drivetrain took a bunch of sheetmetal and even then the last cylinder of the engine intruded into the passenger compartment ala the AMC Pacer.

Interestingly, the massive engine wasn't particularly powerful, especially by today's standards. The low-compression, side-valve unit was built for maximum low-end torque, not peak horsepower so its 115 horsepower rating at 3300 revolution per minute is not too surprising. In the days before the widespread use of synchromesh transmissions on of the goals of engine design was to produce so much torque that shifting gears could be kept to an absolute minimum.

In any case, when the Cord L-29's 115-horsepower engine was faced off against the car's 4,600-pound curb weight, acceleration was leisurely and top speed (about 80 miles per hour) was not exactly pulse-quickening.

But there was no doubt the L-29 did posses pulse-quickening styling, the long hood was flanked with gracefully curving fenders topped off with twin side-mounted spares. From the cowl the ventilating windshield leapt up in a stark vertical, 90 degrees from the plane of the hood, and the passenger compartments of the coupes and convertible were selfishly small on the 137.5-inch wheelbase.

Sadly, because the stock market crashed within months of its introduction, sales of the Cord L-29 were small as well. Originally priced at over $3,000, a 25% price cut did nothing to increase its popularity in the Depression-ridden marketplace. In 1932, with fewer than 4,500 built, Cord ceased produced of the car that bore his name. But not before the car had shown the way to today's most popular configuration: front engine/front wheel drive.
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